Craig Kraft, 61, has fond memories of hopping on his bike at age 9 or 10, and making his way from his family’s home on Manitoba Avenue near McPhillips Street to St. John’s Park, east of Main Street. This was back when non-helicopter parents saw their young children out the door with, "Try to be home before dark," he says with a chuckle, if they bothered to say bye at all.
Upon reaching his destination, he would pedal to a section of the park that offered an unobstructed view of the meandering Red River. He would then patiently wait on the grassy bank for one of three riverboats, the Paddlewheel Queen, the Paddlewheel Princess or the River Rouge, each of which began traversing the city’s murky waterways in the mid to late 1960s, to come (feel free to sing along) rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.
"The second I saw one approaching, I’d start hooting and hollering and waving my arms in the air," Kraft says, seated on a couch in the neat-as-a-pin bungalow he shares with his partner Lisa and their cat Mercury. "Everybody on board would wave back, not just the passengers, but the captain and crew, too. I still remember how excited I was when I got the opportunity to go for a ride on the Paddlewheel myself for the first time for a field trip for my school, Florence Nightingale."
Chug ahead some 50 years. In the spring of 2020, Kraft, who is semi-retired, was poking through a junk drawer in the kitchen when he came across an old boarding pass from the Paddlewheel, one he must have tossed there years earlier following a dinner-and-dance cruise he took his two grown children on to celebrate a special event.
His mind immediately drifted back to lazy, summer afternoons at St. John’s Park, and how thrilling it was to eye the sternwheelers, the last of which, the River Rouge, ceased operations in 2014 owing to a combination of dwindling ticket sales and ever-fluctuating river levels.
Referring to himself as "a picker before anybody called it that" (he’s not kidding; one wing in his living room is devoted to vintage fishing reels while a wall near the front door boasts a handsome display of motorcycle fuel tanks), he went online to see if there was anything else available in the way of memorabilia associated with the boats, once as synonymous with the city as the Golden Boy, Assiniboine Park and Jeanne’s cake.
Let’s just say he wasn’t disappointed.
In the last 18 months, he has lucked into all manner of treasures, including a floating action pen boasting a two-dimensional image of the Paddlewheel Queen that glides back and forth when the barrel is angled, an assortment of matchbook covers with the name of this or that vessel embossed above the striking strip and lapel pins cleverly shaped like a nautical steering wheel.
Ornamental spoons? Check. Pin-back buttons reading, "I sailed on the Paddlewheel riverboats?" Check. Playing cards emblazoned with colour pics of the MS Lady Winnipeg? A brass business card holder stamped ‘River Rouge’? Check and check. (Kraft is still on the lookout for a plastic River Rouge swizzle stick stirrer — there’s one currently available on eBay for $12, plus shipping — as well as a purposely dented ceramic coffee mug carrying the slogan, "I got smashed on the Paddlewheel Queen." Yeah, well, who didn’t?)
"Here, get a load of this," he says, passing over a postcard dated Sept. 7, 1972, addressed to a residence in Victoria, B.C., that reads, in part, "Dear Leslie and Michael, We are out on the Paddlewheel Queen with Roxie and Ray. We just saw Brian and Heather from your work. I miss you. With love, from Darrell."
"What’s interesting is the number of things I’ve bought off people from as far away as Europe, who, I presume, came to Winnipeg as tourists however many moons ago, and went on a cruise while they were here," he says, holding up a photograph of the River Rouge’s long-time captain Commodore Dan Ritchie next to his trusty canine sidekick, a boxer named Traygus.
"My guess is they’d visit the souvenir gift shop on whatever boat they were on, pick up a memento or two and now, all these years later, have zero use for them. That’s where I’m happy to enter the picture."
Kraft freely admits some of what he’s acquired isn’t worth much more than the paper it’s printed on, Exhibit A being an unused beer ticket from the Paddlewheel Queen that, judging by the price, $1.10, must be several decades old.
Advertising pamphlets, for example, would have been free for the taking back in the day, except he cherishes those as much as he does prized possessions like a mint-condition River Rouge jean jacket patch and a never-used Zippo lighter commemorating the MS Lord Selkirk II, the largest cruise ship in Western Canada when it was launched in 1969.
"It’s not like stamps and coins, where you can go through a catalogue or whatever to see what’s available and take it from there. This really is the thrill of the hunt," he says. "But those sorts of things have never really appealed to me, anyways. When it comes to collecting, I’ve always been more interested in what some people might consider throwaways, like ticket stubs from movies and concerts. Plus there’s the Winnipeg-thing. I’m a bit of a history buff where the city is involved so for sure, this is right up my alley."
About the historical angle; when Kraft isn’t busily combing through secondhand stores, flea markets and the internet for items related to the River Rouge, Paddlewheel Queen and Paddlewheel Princess, he’s spending his spare time boning up on lesser-known ships.
A while back he landed a book on the S.S. Keenora, spelled with two Es to distinguish it from an Ontario counterpart, which transported landlubbers to points along Lake Winnipeg beginning in 1917.
Also, a buddy of his gave him a series of newspaper articles about the M.S. Yolanda, more a pontoon than a boat, really, that operated out of Kildonan Park in the late 1940s and early ‘50s. A Winnipeg Free Press headline once labelled that particular craft "The Queer Boat Everybody Loved." (If you have the time, Kraft will happily fill you in on the Anson Northup, which moved between Winnipeg and St. Paul, Minn., in the 1860s.)
"One of my great regrets is that I never took the time to board the Lord Selkirk II (decommissioned in 1990) so a number of years ago I jumped on my bike and drove to where it was moored in this little slough just outside Selkirk, a shell of what it used to be," he says. "I took a picture of it with my motorcycle parked in front. It was a bit sad to see it in that condition, all burnt and such, but I was glad to have made the trip, nonetheless."
At this point in a collectibles-type interview, we usually ask a subject about holy grails; that is, is there one particular keepsake that has eluded them thus far, something they can’t wait to get their mitts on?
Kraft smiles from ear-to-ear when the question is posed to him.
"One time my buddy Jerry Olenko and I were out in the country, hunting for oil cans and tin signs, when we spotted one of those old, foam paddlewheel hats with pom-poms on it that everybody would buy then turn into a Frisbee at the end of the night by firing it into the water," he says, scrolling through his phone to see if he has a shot of the chapeau-in-question. "This was well before I started my collection and I remember looking at it thinking, ‘Should I buy it?’ before deciding, ‘Nah, where am I going to put it?’
"So yeah, I’d love to run into that again. Though it might be better I don’t have it already because you guys probably would have wanted to take a picture of me wearing it, looking super goofy, am I right?"
(Err, what did you say the name of that antique shop was, again?)
Dave Sanderson was born in Regina but please, don’t hold that against him.