Nestled deep in the northeastern Interlake is a small island fishing community accessible by the only cable ferry below the 53rd parallel in Manitoba. With more bald eagles than residents and more boats than cars, Matheson Island seems a world unto itself.
There are 638 islands on Lake Winnipeg, though only two are inhabited year-round. And with the causeway to Hecla Island, one could argue that tiny Matheson Island on the northwest side of the Narrows of Lake Winnipeg is the only true island left.
Once called Snake Island Early settlers called this Snake Island because of its massive numbers of garter snakes. It was re-christened Matheson Island to honour one of its most respected and earliest settlers, Daniel Matheson. History now remembers Daniel as a man of significant economic clout. An owner of land and sailboats, he was a farmer and fisherman, and a visionary. He lived during the summer months on Black Bear Island just north of Matheson, where he erected a lighthouse and became its first keeper. Because of him, the passage between Matheson Island and Black Bear Island became a preferred route for lake-goers, a safer way to travel due to the unpredictability and treachery of the lake.
Permanent settlement came slowly to Matheson Island. Again, this was largely because of the thousands of snakes that were once found in the shale and caves at the island’s north end. Eventually people did stay, but not before discovering the inadequacy of their log homes. The snakes would often enter through the cracks in the walls as the moss chinking deteriorated and fell out.
The “fish rush”
Still, those first inhabitants provided a valuable stopping place for voyageurs at the height of the fur trade. Surviving by cutting cordwood for the steamers that plied the lake, the denizens of Matheson Island quickly became self-sufficient and adept at fishing and hunting. With the passing of the “fur rush” to the “fish rush”, the people of Matheson Island had transformed themselves into commercial fishermen by the late 1800s.
The opening of the railroad in Riverton, in 1915, allowed their catches to be shipped south quickly, with thousands of pounds of fish now going to markets in the United States. Soon the need for a freight route for the heavy loads of fish became evident. The fisheries subsequently pooled their money and with support of the provincial government in 1948, built the first road that ran from Riverton to the dock at Islandview, on the mainland shore near where the present day ferry runs to Matheson Island.
Not only did this provide a shipping route, it also provided the first land access for residents of the island. In the 1940s and 1950s, communication with the outside world was only possible by radio, with most people tuning in to CBC Winnipeg at noon for a program called “Messages to the North” for news of a hospital stay, or a birth. Two-way radios followed in 1957, with crank phones in May 1966. At one time, up to 28 homes were on one phone line, always a good way to hear the gossip or to get out an emergency alert. Hydro electricity finally came to every home on November 22, 1964.
Since the settlement of this island, movement on and off has been by boat in season, and by a winter road after freeze up. In1977, a method of vehicle transportation was instituted when the provincial government provided a cable ferry. Residents of Matheson Island were asked to pay a $10 fee per month for their passes. Today, the cable ferry, C. F. Ingemar Carlson II, operates between Islandview and Matheson Island. Another lake ferry service, MV Edgar Wood, operated by the Government of Manitoba, also plies a circuit between Matheson Island, Prince Harbour and the Bloodvein Reserve.
Getting there is half the fun
Traveling to this small three-anda- half mile long by one-and-a-half mile-wide island is an adventure in itself. First, take Highway 8 to Riverton (about 120 km). Make sure to fuel up the car, as Riverton is the last gas station for some way. Then, continue north on the gravel Provincial Road 234. Along the way, you will spy bald eagles’ nests and glimpses of Lake Winnipeg as you near the tip of the mainland. You may even get lucky and see a lynx at dusk or dawn. Along the roadside, too, grow fringed prairie gentians of the most startling blue. Carrying along, you will pass the pretty little Beaver Creek campground about 30 km up the road, then the Mill Creek government subdivision another eight km further, where cottages are springing up along the sandy shore.
Biscuit Harbour, a fly-in fishing lodge, has a good restaurant with a view of the lake and its seaplanes. Further north, the tiny hamlet of Pine Dock, population 105, is worth a quick tour. Another 16 km and you’ll finally reach the end of the road at Islandview. Here is the ferry at last and, separated from you by a narrow strip of lake, Matheson Island.
Provided you arrive there at a reasonable hour, you should make the ferry. Hours of operation are from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. on Sundays. The trip across shouldn’t take more than a few minutes, but Matheson Island seems years removed from your everyday humdrum and typical tourist stop-offs. Rather, it is a community whose residents love to talk and make you feel at home.
Just ask Bernice about bird watching while at her restaurant, Burn’s Bakery and Coffee Shop. She’ll have her husband Wayne take you out on the boat to see the gathering places of the island’s bald eagle population – just as soon as he’s back from his daily fishing trip.After a good lunch and a slice of cheesecake, follow the main road to a small campground on the north side of the island, with its excellent and sandy beach. Or head to the Matheson Island Lodge for a room with a hot tub. Stay on that same road and wind your way past the gravel strip airport, the Fish Cooperative, and eventually, around to the cove where substantial homes dot the landscape along the shoreline.
Matheson Island is a quiet place, dozy in the afternoon sun, save for the distant whir of lake-going boats. But stop awhile and talk to folks. Let them tell you to keep an eye out for moose and deer at the campground, or even the odd snake. In the end, it doesn’t matter much to the residents of Matheson Island.
As long as you enjoy yourself, enjoy the island, they’ll oblige your every request. What they won’t do is make you feel unwelcome.