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Hecla parade fun... and bizarre

HECLA -- Once a year, the Village of Hecla experiences a traffic jam. Unlike rush hour in the city, it's a joy to be stuck here.

On the same weekend nearby Gimli rolls out its big Icelandic festival, this island village presents the annual Hecla parade.

"It surpasses the Gimli parade," boasted parade marshal Marvin Benson.

Festivals a tradition

GIMLI'S Icelandic Festival of Manitoba, Islendingadagurinn, is the second-oldest continuous ethnic festival in North America. Montreal's Irish community has been celebrating St. Patrick's Day with a parade since 1824.

The first Icelandic festival in North America was held in Milwaukee in 1874. The first Icelandic festival in Manitoba was held in Winnipeg in 1890; it was held there annually until 1931 and since 1932 has been held in Gimli.

The first Hecla Village parade festival was held 16 years ago.

The senior on roller blades Sunday led the floats from the top of the hill in the community past hundreds of cheering spectators lining the road along the shore of Lake Winnipeg.

"There's so much creativity," said Benson. "There's not one corporate sponsor." The parade isn't slick, but it is sublime and at times bizarre.

"We like to be laughed at," said Benson.

One float bearing the sign "Polish Police" had a man dressed up as a policeman pulling a small trailer with a toilet and a small, growling boy wearing a Viking helmet and fake fur loincloth inside a cage.

A large trailer blasting disco music with women in spandex leopard-print dresses dancing on it followed young men carrying signs warning of cougar sightings.

The parade started 16 years ago when the descendants of the original Icelandic community founded in 1875 started moving back to Hecla Island, he said.

"Everyone needed to cut their grass and had a lawn tractor," he said. "It started as a tractor parade."

From a handful of gussied-up riding mowers, it has grown into an event island families plan their reunions around, he said. The Jones family reunion entered its own float.

The floats are mostly family efforts, or spur-of-the-moment flashes of genius, such as the woman marching in the parade and wearing a sandwich sign of newspaper clippings carrying an anchor. She thought of the "news anchor" the night before the parade, said Benson.

"Look at the originality," he said pointing to Odin's Raven -- a massive black-winged recreation of a Viking's vision in the popular TV series Vikings.

Next there was a walking Viking vending machine -- with Viking beer, dried fish, vinarterta and an axe.

For Gae Lynn Labossiere, designing the costume for the parade was a labour of love and part of an annual tradition. "I haven't missed one," she said, wearing the heavy cardboard costume on a hot sunny day.

"Every year, we wonder if there is going to be enough floats," said the Icelandic descendant, who was born Kjartanson.

But every year they have enough, she said.

There are first-timers such as Dave Thorlakson, president of the North Shore Cottage Owners' Association, whose family created the "things-to-do-at-Hecla" float featuring golf, fishing, fortune-telling and a Viking ship made of cardboard and duct tape.

After the parade, younger members of the family took the Viking ship to the beach. Two of the kids climbed inside and it stayed afloat for several minutes before tipping, taking on water and being dragged to the beach as a soggy shipwreck.

For a real Icelander visiting Hecla for the first time, seeing so many celebrate their Icelandic heritage was a revelation.

"It's surreal to drive here and see all the signs in Icelandic," said Iris Kristjansdottir. The back of the Welcome to Hecla sign says "komid aftur" -- come again, she said.

The Lutheran minister working at a church in Prince Albert, Sask., arrived two years ago from Iceland. She rode her motorbike 800 kilometres from Prince Albert to take part in the "western Icelanders'" weekend festivities on Lake Winnipeg.

She said a national holiday in Iceland is celebrated on June 17 every year and is a much more sombre event with marching bands. The parade through Hecla village is imaginative and fun, said the delighted visitor, wearing an Icelandic Canadian T-shirt she bought at the general store.

"It's awesome," said Kristjansdottir.

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