A Life's Story
June 17, 2023
A life on the water
Biologist Al Kristofferson was a second captain of Lake Winnipeg research vessel
By: Janine LeGal
IN 1967, the year of the first Pan American Games in Winnipeg, 16-year-old Arleen — whose parents had a cottage in Gimli — went off to a midnight dance at the nearby yacht club, a setting that foreshadowed the kind of life that was to come for her.
It was there she met 17-year-old Allan (Al) Kristofferson, a security guard at the popular venue. The pair quickly became soulmates. They were inseparable for over 55 years, sharing their love of being out on the water.
“We loved to sail,” Arleen remembered fondly. “There’s no noise, no engines. All it is is the wind and you and the crew. You gotta know what you’re doing, Lake Winnipeg can be cruel. We basically taught ourselves. We loved getting out on the boat.”
Fittingly, the couple was married at the Marine Museum. They owned a Lightning Class sailboat and were members of the Gimli Yacht Club, winning several regattas and spending countless hours together on the water.
Born and raised in Gimli, Kristofferson grew up near Lake Winnipeg and took easily to the water. His childhood summers were spent swimming and angling. His grandfather and great-grandfather were both fishermen on the lake. Allan loved the harbour and fishing off the dock; all of it was second nature to him. He was drawn to fisheries and that fascination led to the study of biology in his university years.
A 30-year career with Fisheries and Oceans Canada took him to the Arctic, from Baffin Island to the Alaska border. While working as a full-time fisheries biologist, Kristofferson completed both his MSc and PhD.
He died in February at age 72 after a year-long battle with cancer.
It was in 1998, when along with colleagues Alex Salki and Michael Stainton, Kristofferson secured the Canadian Coast Guard ship Namao and the Lake Winnipeg Research Consortium (LWRC) was formed.
Kristofferson was both the face and voice of the LWRC, fighting passionately first to form the organization and then to keep it running. Being able to do scientific research on Lake Winnipeg was of utmost importance to Allan.
“He loved this lake and was so concerned about it,” said Arleen. “He spent so much time talking to politicians, both provincial and federal, trying to secure proper funding. He did this advocacy tirelessly for over 25 years.”
The LWRC collaborates with numerous groups to perform scientific research to improve the health of the lake. The three founding members were awarded the Meritorious Service Medal by then-Governor General David Johnstone in 2016. It was their combined efforts that enabled the LWRC to acquire the retired Canadian Coast Guard ship for use as a research vessel to monitor water quality and collect data to reduce toxic algae in the lake. LWRC also provides scholarships for students and knowledge-sharing for those wishing to invest in their own conservation projects.
Alex Salki got to know Kristofferson when they were both research biologists at the Freshwater Institute. Their association spanned 35 years.
“Our shared concern about the deterioration of Lake Winnipeg was the spark that ignited our joint efforts to do something on its behalf. It was Al’s vision, persistence and dedication that drove the creation of an agency capable of acquiring a vessel to support research, monitoring and educational activities.
“Whenever Al was onboard, with his large presence and his cheery disposition, it was like having a second captain guiding the ship. His serious attachment to Lake Winnipeg was made obvious by the fact that he chose to live in Gimli yet commuted daily to the Freshwater Institute, a commitment that few would make. Al was a genuine, trustworthy, friendly and exemplary individual who is already sorely missed by his friends, family and colleagues.”
“The memories just keep flooding back,” wrote his niece Melissa Green, thankful for the close relationship they shared.
“Ice fishing, beers in the pool, late nights on the deck watching the stars and talking, all the homemade breakfasts, all of our one-on-one conversations about every single subject including life, death, and the universe, the bonfires with his harmonica serenades, cigars, Cuban music and rum, brandy and dark chocolate and so much more. He was truly one of the best and most caring and compassionate people I’ve ever known.”
Kristofferson’s mother was a schoolteacher and encouraged all of her children to pursue higher education and instilled in them a love of knowledge. That teaching fuelled his interest in many things. So when Kristofferson wasn’t immersed in his concerns for the lake, he was exploring one of his many other interests, one of which was to fly: so he got his private pilot’s license.
Arleen and her husband loved their travels, which included a flying adventure to Calgary and Banff in his Cessna airplane. Cuba was their favourite winter getaway spot, to which they returned many times.
In 1992, the couple bought 147 acres of land in Camp Morton Provincial Park, where they built their dream home. “He built the roads — he built everything,” said Arleen.
The couple enjoyed Camp Morton’s peace and tranquility, the wildlife and as many dogs as Arleen could bring home.
“He loved every single crazy dog we ever had,” she said, laughing.
Kristofferson would never say no to a new dog being brought into the family.
“He was a lovely man. He had a great sense of humour. He was so kind,” said Arleen. “He was interested in so many things. He was fascinated with World War II and old sailboats. His dad was quite a mechanic. Allan was the same. You fix things; you didn’t throw them away. He would sit down for hours, determined to fix it. He never stopped learning; he was always reading something. He was probably the smartest person I ever knew.”
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