Cross-country ice-fishing – Flin Flon, Canada

An extract from the book – Sports the Olympics Forgot.


This energy-sapping event from Flin Flon was the inspiration for a section of the closing ceremony of the Turin Olympics. In this marathon event competitors ski 30km across open terrain to a frozen lake where they cut a hole in the ice with a saw that they have carried with them and try and catch a fish, using a rod that they have also brought with them. Once the fish has been caught and verified as a real fish by the Fish Judge, who returns the fish to the lake of course, the athlete can ski back to the finishing line. No time bonuses are allocated based on the type or size of the fish caught.

The first annual Flin Flon Frozen Fishing contest took place on January, 7th 1943 when eight competitors started out at 6am for the Big Island Lake armed with no more than a backpack containing their saw and fishing rod. The favourites were Marty ‘Blue’ Tonks, a very swift cross-country skier from nearby Creighton, and Al Zigeuner an expert ice fisherman from Channing. This first contest was the most eventful ever and it’s worth describing what happened as all the basic rules of the contest were broken.

The sleet was falling as the competitors heading into the murky morning mists. Immediately there was an incident as Eric Schnabel from Baffin Island skied into a tree and was knocked out for a few seconds – he explained that his head down style was more suited to the wide open spaces of Baffin Island than the Prairies, but he carried on and eventually finished third.

As expected Tonks flew along at a great speed but he didn’t follow the markers and eventually finished up at the wrong lake and so removed himself from contention because he spent the rest of the day looking for the Fish Judge. He was eventually disqualified for fishing on the wrong lake. Luckily the other skiers were far behind and weren’t tempted to follow him; instead they followed the trail to the Big Island Lake.

Edgar Parent was the first to arrive at the correct lake and acknowledged the presence of the Fish Judge before unloading his saw and rod. He kneeled on the ice and began to saw; now Edgar wasn’t the brightest of individuals and hadn’t finished grade school because of his lack of common sense – as he kneeled on the ice he inserted the saw into the ice with great difficulty and then sawed an almost perfect circle around himself.

Parent spent a minute under the water before the Fish Judge pulled him out – Parent was half-frozen and the medical team had to wrap him in warm blankets and thaw him out in front of the fire at the lake’s log cabin. He took no further part in the race although he did return in future contests.

Schnabel arrived next still using the head down style and skied into Parent’s hole losing one ski and some teeth as his mouth kissed the ice with a passion. The overworked medical team inserted some stitches into Schnabel’s face while he contemplated skiing back on one ski.

When Josiah Floantin arrived soon afterwards he saw Edgar Parent’s hole and forgot the rules because he unpacked his rod and started to fish. The Fish Judge immediately disqualified him because contestants must cut their own ice-hole and so Floantin trudged back to the start swearing at his own stupidity.

An exhausted Wally Mercer was the next person at the lake; he took off his backpack and sawed a hole over the deepest part of the lake. He dangled his rod in the water and within a minute he had caught a fish – he showed it to the Fish Judge who was immediately suspicious. The fish was a deep-frozen mackerel and had already been gutted and skinned. The Fish Judge looked in Mercer’s pack and found the wrapping from the local store – Mercer was disqualified on the spot and banned from the contest for 15 years. Mercer claimed that the lake was so cold that the fish had been frozen on its journey to the surface after he’d caught it but couldn’t explain how a mackerel had swum to Manitoba from the Atlantic Ocean.  Mercer had to ski back to the start.

Al Zigeuner came next with Edward Braepond draped over his shoulder. Braepond had skied over a bare rock and fallen cracking his elbow so that he couldn’t fish or ski. Braepond was placed in front of the fire alongside Parent and they both waited for the dogsled to take them back to Flin Flon.

Zigeuner unpacked his saw and rod and started to cut a hole in the ice. As he did so the final skier, Elmer Hayes, stumbled on to the ice. At the start of the race Hayes had realized that he’d forgotten his secret ingredient for fishing and went to the corner store to buy some Tartare Sauce. Unfortunately, his skis wouldn’t fit through the door and as he didn’t want to take them off he had to mime his intended purchase through the window. After twenty minutes the shop assistant picked up the right item and brought it outside; Hayes paid her a dollar for her troubles and set off for the lake.

Hayes lay down on the ice to rest as Zigeuner fished. Soon Schnabel’s lip stopped throbbing and he cut a hole in the ice and fished from a prone position. After 10 more minutes Hayes opened his pack, found his saw, and cut a hole in the ice. He opened the sauce and spread it over the cold water before starting to fish. Twenty minutes later Hayes felt a tug on his line and pulled out a small fish; he woke up the Fish Judge and had it verified. He then put on his skis and headed back to the start; unfortunately he skied over Parent’s hole and tripped over hurting his leg. At this moment Zigeuner and Schnabel both pulled out fishes and having had them certified as real by the Fish Judge they too headed back to the start.

Zigeuner soon passed the limping Hayes with the one-skied Schnabel bringing up the rear and this is how they finished three hours later at Flin Flon. Both Hayes and Schnabel went to hospital afterwards where they shared a ward with Parent and Braepond. Al Zigeuner’s humanitarian assistance to Braepond is remembered in the Zigeuner award given to acts of charity during the contest.

The rules for the contest have not changed since 1943 and it’s still an arduous challenge even for the fittest and healthiest contestants. Al Zigeuner won the contest again in 1944 by a greater margin than in 1943 because he didn’t have to carry any of his fellow competitors. Ziguener’s record of winning twice was only bettered between 1996 and 1998 by Benny ‘The Heron’ Novoselic, whose time of 4:21:32 in 1998 is still a record.

Published by Julian Worker

Julian was born in Leicester, attended school in Yorkshire, and university in Liverpool. He has been to 94 countries and territories and intends to make the 100 when travel is easier. He writes travel books, murder / mysteries and absurd fiction. His sense of humour is distilled from The Marx Brothers, Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and Midsomer Murders. His latest book is about a Buddhist cat who tries to help his squirrel friend fly further from a children's slide.

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