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A Part of our Past

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Located 35 kilometres north of Mafeking, east of Highway No. 10, on the northwestern shore of Lake Winnipegosis’ Dawson Bay, is the fishing community of the same name.
Dawson Bay was first settled by fishers who made a living commercially netting both the bay and greater Lake Winnipegosis. It continues to serve as a harbour today.
One of the vessels that regularly took to the area waters through the 1960s and 70s was Princess, a wooden fishing boat built in Winnipegosis which now sits at the entrance to the Swan Valley Historical Museum.
Built by Harry Brown in 1962, the 30 foot boat spent nearly two decades sailing the lake as part of the Dawson Bay Fishing Fleet before making its way to the museum in early January 1984 amid bitterly cold weather with the help of Mike Stadnick.
The boat was then repaired and painted for display during the summer that followed and has remained on display ever since.
This is the story of the boat’s builder and each of the proud owners who set sail each fishing season.

Harry Brown
Brown was a boat builder and carpenter in Winnipegosis. Of Icelandic descent, his parents first settled in nearby Red Deer Point in the early 1900s where his father commercial fished using a sleigh in the wintertime.
As a commercial fisherman himself – in addition to his carpentry – Brown fished for Armstrong Fisheries at Whisky Jack in the summer and in the winter he fished at Bob’s Island, using horses to cross the lake.
“My grandfather used to work for Baldy Stephenson,” said Brown’s grandson Ivan Fleming. “He was a carpenter and they repaired boats in the spring. That’s where he started learning the boat trade. They repaired a lot for Booth and Armstrong fisheries.
“As a carpenter on his own he repaired a lot of fishing boats but he also repaired a lot of the freight boats that came to Winnipegosis like the Myrtle M and the Manitou.
“Boatbuilding was a lot self-taught but he also had a lot of skills from being a life-long carpenter,” he continued. “My grandpa made five boats around the same time and they were all similar – about 25-30 feet long – and they were all built out of locally produced spruce lumber with some oak for the ribs and the keel.
“The earlier boats he used himself so Princess was one of the later ones. Each took a summer to build.”

Jim Parker
Jim Parker was the first owner of Princess, which he commissioned from Brown and used it as his primary fishing boat through to the late 1960s.
The oldest of the Parker children, Jim fished first with his father and then, after his father turned to farming, he continued the family business, also teaching and sometimes working with his brother Gerald, who was 16 years younger.
“Jim was a life-long fisherman,” said Gerald Parker. “Our parents came from the east coast and settled here, taking up fishing.
“Jim hadn’t had his licence long before he purchased this boat. He mainly fished the Dawson Bay area
because those old boats didn’t go far.
“I spent many years with Jim on that boat,” he continued. “It was mostly day trips because it wasn’t very good for overnight. There were sun boards in the cabin that had to be removed to put the fish down below. You would sleep on top of the boards with your mat but it was a real pain because you had to put everything away before you started fishing the next day.”
Running the boat required two people – one to operate the motor and one to steer the vessel.
“There was just a gear stick on the motor that controlled the throttle and then you steered from the back, sitting on the back with the tiller stick,” said Parker. “They used all types of motors – Model A’s and Model T’s before the flathead Fords.
“I can remember a lot of the guys took the motor out of their half-ton truck in the summer to put in their boat and then put it back in the truck in the fall. People had no money so they did what they could.”
Jim Parker used Princess every summer until the late 1960s when he got his first steel boat.
“That’s the way the industry went,” said Parker. “Now it’s all aluminum or steel boats – there are no wood ones left – and we have net and anchor pullers. There isn’t the physical labour anymore that there used to be.”
Gerald Parker’s son Jamie now carries on the family business, operating the fish packing plant in Dawson Bay as well as doing his own fishing in the summer and winter.

Nelson Bickel
“My dad purchased the boat from a cousin, Jim Parker,” said Alex Bickel, whose father was the second owner of Princess. “I think I was about 14 at the time.
“My dad and I fished it together for 2-3 years before I went out on my own. We cruised a good half of the lake – slept in it and basically lived in it for two months of the year, every year.
“When we went down the lake fishing we would take about 30 boxes of ice with us that went in the hut on the boat and a tarp,” he continued. “We slept in there with the fish and the ice. There was a little Crossmember on top, like a pocket, and we would put our sleeping bags up there.
“We had to come home to bring the fish back every two or three days, sometimes a week if we were fishing with a few others who took turns freighting fish. We were often fishing 30 to 60 miles out of Dawson Bay and the boat only travelled about eight miles an hour so it was a long trip home – five to six hours, depending on how far out you are.”
Bickel recalls that the boat held about 3-4,000 pounds of fish, if you caught that many. Pickeral was the primary catch but they took everything that went in the net.
“It was the way of life,” he said. “We lived along the lake and there was no hydro until I was 20-21. We lived in the bush. I was brought up that way and it was the only way I knew.
“My father was of indigenous descent. Dad’s dad and uncle were both commercial fishers prior. In fact, when they first came up north they lived on the point – they would come up every year from Winnipegosis and stay there – 130 miles by water.”
Owning a wooden boat takes a lot of maintenance and upkeep, especially one made from spruce lumber.
“Every spring we had to go through the bottom of it and take corking cotton – which came in balls – and, with a hammer and iron, replace the old corking with new,” said Bickel.
“There was a knack to that. You couldn’t pack it too tight. When the boards get wet they swell so if it was too tight the boards would bulge and leak. It took practice.”
To make sure all the boards got wet we would take the motor out and sink it – that way all the boards would swell,” he continued. “Then you bailed it out and it would float back up.
“We also had to paint it each year and take care of the inside. If there were any rotten boards those were taken off and replaced.”
“The longest owners of the boat, the Bickel’s used Princess as their primary fishing vessel for around 10 years.
“Sometimes he guided with it – mostly moose hunting,” Bickel said. “Dad had it until he died and then my mother sold the fishing licence and the boat to Nelson Leask”

Nelson Leask
By far the shortest ownership term, Nelson Leask fished Princess for just one summer season in 1975.
“My husband was a commercial fisherman from the time he was 14 until he passed away at 54,” said
Shirley Leask.
“We only owned the boat and used it for one year. Everybody was switching over to steel boats and Jim Parker had bought a new steel boat the next year so we purchased his old one.”
That was the last year that Princess would be used as a commercial fishing vessel as the boat was sold to Fred and Doreen Simmons, the final owners.

Fred and Doreen Simmons
“My mom and dad just used it for recreation,” said Greg Simmons. “They had a cabin in the Dawson Bay area that they moved to – they owned a general store in Mafeking prior.
“We used it for moose hunting in the fall or a nice day on the lake in the summer.”
Simmons recalled his family having many happy memories out on the water with the boat.
“When Dad passed away it just sat up there in Dawson Bay. So Parker Burrell, the manager up there at the time, donated it to the museum.”