Few business owners can survive a year with no income, but 60 or so Canadian resort and outfitter operators who suffered that fate and lived to tell the tale are exhibiting this weekend at the Discover Boating Northwest Sportshow, which ends its four-day run Sunday at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
“We did have a few Canadian tourists stay with us in 2020, in a couple of our cabins,” said Gail Hockett, who with her husband, Steve, owns Witch Bay Camp on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods. “But except for those, we had no guests and no business.”
Hockett is among Canadian resort and outfitter owners at the Northwest Sportshow who are attempting to regain the American sporting clientele they served before the pandemic’s onset in 2020.
Understandably cautious about traveling during COVID-19, Americans who in some cases had journeyed for decades to Ontario and Manitoba to fish for walleyes, lake trout, bass and muskies stayed home in droves during the pandemic.
The Canadian government didn’t give them much choice. It shuttered that nation’s U.S. border in 2020, before opening it piecemeal with vaccination and other requirements that were finally lifted last fall.
Now, for the first summer since 2019, Americans can cross into Canada without being vaccinated for COVID-19, without registering their travel intentions beforehand on a Canadian government website, and without proving they are virus-free.
So, back to “normal”?
Not for everyone.
Some Canadian outfitters and resort owners didn’t survive the pandemic and resulting border mayhem.
“We had over 200 members before the pandemic, and now we have 165,” said Gerry Cariou, executive director of the Ontario Sunset Country Travel Association, a northwest Ontario tourism marketing organization. “Cash flow going from 100 percent to zero will impact any business.”
Canadian outfits in the same long-term ownership had the best chance to withstand the downturn, Cariou said.
The Hocketts are one example. They’ve owned Witch Bay Camp 31 years and enjoy a loyal clientele from Minnesota and other states as far away as Texas. The camp requires only small deposits to hold reservations, and most of its clientele didn’t ask for their deposits to be returned when Canada shut down.
“Ninety percent of our guests didn’t ask for their deposits back,” Hockett said. “Most said just leave it there because they wanted a spot reserved for when they could come back.”
The deposits benefited the camp two ways, Hockett said. They provided some cash flow during the shutdown, and their small size won’t encumber the business disproportionately this year, as the Hocketts again welcome American guests, some of whom will be credited deposits dating to 2019.
Unlike Witch Bay Camp, which can be reached by vehicle, KaBeeLo Lodge and hundreds of other Ontario and Manitoba resorts and outfitters serve a fly-in clientele, either exclusively or primarily.
KaBeeLo was purchased by Ann and Harald Lohn of Prior Lake in 1983. Still active in the business, in 2015 they sold the lodge’s base-camp operation on Ontario’s Confederation Lake (about a five-hour drive from International Falls), together with its 13 fly-in outpost cabins, to their son and daughter-in-law, Erik and Allysson Lohn.
Costs associated with the lodge’s turbo Beaver floatplanes provided unique financial challenges during the shutdown.
“Whether you fly airplanes or not, they have to be stored safely and inspected regularly,” Harald Lohn said. “You also have to insure them whether you’re flying them or not.”
Last summer, Canada dropped its COVID testing requirements for Americans traveling north, but still required visitors to be vaccinated. As a result, some Americans who otherwise would have traveled north, but who were unvaccinated, canceled or postponed their trips.
Additionally, many American groups that had individual members who were unvaccinated canceled the entire group’s outings.
Added to this for many Canadian operators in 2022 were the usual — and unusual — hassles that accompany running businesses whose prime attribute is their remote location.
“Last spring, we had extremely high water everywhere, and a lot of outfitters lost their docks,” Lohn said. “We lost docks at every one of our outpost cabins. By the time we got supplies and staff in place to fix everything, it was mid-June. That, together with the loss of customers who couldn’t come across the border because they weren’t vaccinated — it all impacted business.”
Fortunately, Hockett, Lohn and other Manitoba and Ontario outfitters, including Eddie Showalter of Showalter’s Fly-In Outposts of Ear Falls, Ontario, and Eric Brown of Totem Lodges on the Canadian side of Lake of the Woods, said interest has been strong among Americans this spring in returning to Canada.
“We lost about 300 clients last year when the vaccination requirement was in effect, but we were able to replace most of them with other fishermen and moose hunters,” Showalter said. “This year, response has been great at all of the shows we’ve done. Americans want to come back to Canada.”
Brown’s Totem Lodges operates three resorts on Lake of the Woods and six cabins on islands on the Canadian side of that giant lake.
“Our bookings for this summer are way up,” Brown said. “The border is open again, and response we’ve had at the five sport shows we’ve been to has been very positive.”
Cariou, of the Ontario Sunset Country Travel Association, agreed, saying his group showcased at five sport shows in Duluth, Madison, Wis., and Chicago this spring, before appearing this weekend at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
“Last year at the same shows we had some less-than-pleasant interactions with some Americans because Canada still had some of its border restrictions in place,” Cariou said. “This year by contrast has been very positive. People love to fish, and they love the wilderness settings we have in Canada. They’ve missed it, and they’re eager to return.”