In the winter of 2009, I left my sheet metal fabrication and welding shop behind, and I bought the Chaudière Lodge. For me, owning a fishing lodge was a journey that filled the last decade of my life with joy and a sense of accomplishment. But also a ton of stress.
There was nothing more fulfilling than creating an experience on the historic Upper French River and watching my guests love it the way I do; but the stress leading up to that moment was substantial. The bottom line is I love people—I love entertaining them. And I took every single person’s experience personally.
Now I want to talk about the business of being a fishing lodge owner—the joy, trials and tribulations.
One of the best things about being a fishing lodge owner is meeting new people—and knowing when and how to play party cupid! Bringing strangers together for after-dinner good times: watching sporting events, playing cards or jamming (and, a lot of the time, all three).
I learned very early that music was the glue that held the good times together! One of my fondest moments at the lodge was playing the guitar and singing John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind” and having the great Roland Martin come up to me. Roland has an enthusiastic and engaging way of making you feel like you are the only one in the room. He said, “Son! My fishing buddy back home, why, he would have loved you singing that song!” And if that complement from Roland wasn’t enough, when I asked him who his fishing buddy was, he replied, “John Anderson! You did him proud, son!” I must say Roland is salt of the earth, and I’m lucky to have met him and proud to call him a friend.
Family and Friends | My Support System
I didn’t realize how much they all meant, how much I needed their help and how close the experience would bring us. Believe me when I say my first years were dicey. I had no experience in the tourism industry at all. I knew I loved people and carried an intense belief that I could make this work. Going in, I knew I had two options: become independently wealthy or go bankrupt—and one of the two was bound to happen. For a long time, I didn’t know which. But I can assure you, without the help of my family and friends, the latter would’ve undoubtedly been my fate.
The lodge brought me closer than ever to my parents, my Gram, aunts, uncles, friends and siblings, but further away—especially in those early years—from my wife Melissa, who held down the fort at home with three kids under the age of four. But she held on. I am indebted to them all.
The stress of keeping 40 people happy is a tall order, to say the least. But my occupancy in the first years was as low as 30%, which gave me time to learn. I was severely understaffed, and I couldn’t even afford the staff I had, so I tried to do it all. I’d be up at 5 am and to bed at 2 am, seven days a week for six months.
One night at about 11 o’clock, a regular guest named Damon was standing on the front porch, smoking a big fat cigar. I went ripping past him with a pillow under my arm—the one I had forgotten to take to another guest who requested an extra one during dinner. As I tried to save face by dropping the pillow off in the guest’s screened porch, Damon looked at me and said, “Steve, do you ever stop? How do you do it?” Without thinking, I replied, “Damon, you’d be surprised what you can do when you are scared for your life!” That was the truth.
Managing the Face of My Business
As for my staff, I was blessed with a strong core; without them, I would not have made it. But the rest were a revolving door. For some, it wasn’t the right fit; for others, not the right fit for me. But until they arrived at the island, you really couldn’t tell— and that’s if they came at all. The hiring process was typically done online and over the phone months before the season began.
The bottom line: You were just going to lose people. And nine times out of ten, it would happen at the worst time and in the worst way. The key was that the front of the house needed to be oblivious to the goings-on in the back of the house. Believe me when I tell you more than half of the time the back of the house was short-staffed and in shambles. But somehow, for the most part, we always delivered sunshine and rainbows in the front.
Operating in remote locations, especially on an island on the Upper French River, makes everything hard to get—nevermind getting everything on time! Things that we all take for granted, like gasoline, food, fixing, and repairing, were all very time-consuming. Getting to town and back was a three-hour round trip. It was a nightmare to operate, but I learned to roll with the punches!
Flood and Drought
I experienced a flood or a drought on average every three years. Flood brings high water over the docks, which is massively inconvenient for everyone using them. It also damages the docks and cribs they sit on. The solution: Hold down the deck of the dock on the cribs below (usually with 45-gallon drums full of water) and build a temporary platform above the high water for everyone to walk on. This is not a fun task.
Drought brings low water, making some docks unusable. Also, once safely-submerged rocks in familiar routes are now dangerously shallow, and outboard engines get smashed. A bad thing for the business and everyone involved.
Tough Fishing and Poor Weather
What a reoccurring tribulation! But I learned to deal with the stress it created quite well by employing a couple of strategies—none of which included the old, “Ahh, ya shoulda been here last week! I tell ya, it was on fire! I don’t know what happened!” (We’ve all heard that one!)
When poor weather arrived, so did I—with entertainment! Jam sessions, games, etc. And as far as the tough fishing goes, the key to battling that? Great guides. Even on the worst day, they produced fish for their guests. And at dinner, when my guided guests told my guideless guests about the amazing shore lunch and how great their day was, it helped to keep everyone’s morale up. Great for the guide business, too!
The Greatest Tribulation in the History of this Industry: COVID-19
Although I no longer own The Chaudière Lodge, I know the catastrophic repercussions this pandemic has caused. 65-70% of my clientele was from the United States, and with the borders closed to travel, they can’t come. Fishing Lodges were given the green light to open on June 20, 2020, but to Canadian guests only and with the following protocol.
NORTHERN ONTARIO BASED TOURISM BASED RESORTS COVID-19 PROTOCOLS:
- Water taxi for water access only resorts: Individual groups/families will be ferried separately; the driver and all passengers must wear a mask during the trip. All touch surfaces will be regularly wiped down with disinfectant between group pick-ups and drop-offs.
- Guides: If social distancing cannot be maintained in the boat, then guests and guides must wear masks. It is recommended that all wear masks while the boat is in transit.
- Cabins: All cabins receive extensive cleaning and disinfecting between guest changeovers, but the daily housekeeping visits have been suspended so that the staff are not in daily contact with guests’ personal items. Fresh towels and toiletries will be supplied upon request. Staff will wear masks and gloves while servicing cabins.
- Boats/docks: Guests will be allotted specific boats and docks, and those boats will be cleaned and wiped down with disinfectant daily and cleaned and disinfected thoroughly between guest changeovers.
- Meals: Currently, meals may not be served in the dining room, but guests may have their meals served at our outdoor picnic tables or delivered to their cabins. Our servers will wear masks and gloves while serving.
- Lounge: Gatherings of up to a maximum of 10 people are permitted. However, individual families or groups must maintain social distancing from others not in their family or group.
- General: Hand sanitizer is available in all locations where it’s likely to be required. All guests will be requested to use it regularly and to maintain safe social distancing at all times. Guests are not required to wear a mask while at the lodge, but those who choose to do so are requested to bring their own. Guests are also advised to wash their hands regularly.
The Tough Question
Now after digesting that mouthful, let’s ponder the above protocol and the tribulation each resort owner now faces. With the U.S./Canadian border closed and the elimination of U.S. guests, revenue has been significantly reduced for sure. The overhead for these businesses most likely has gone up due to the above protocol barring some projected government relief, which is confusing at best. Maybe deferring mortgage payments will provide some false relief (I say false because we all know the banks will get their money). And most operators are unsure about liability. For instance, what happens if COVID-19 breaks out at my resort? How much will the fallout cost me? What do I do about inbound guests after an outbreak?
Now I ask you: If you were an owner, would you open? Tough question, eh? Some will open, some will not. Some have the financial stability to weather this storm; many do not. Some without the monetary reserves will find a way to survive, but sadly most will not. I, myself, survived and thrived through many tough tribulations, but this one? I miss the lodge tremendously, but I am thankful not to have to navigate these waters.
I am so grateful for the joy, trials and tribulations that The Chaudière Lodge brought me—both good and bad. These experiences made me a better and stronger man. Experiences that I look forward to sharing with you through my “Diaries of a Fishing Lodge Owner” blog.
I must admit that my heart is heavy for those business owners who have endured and still face the fallout from COVID-19. It is (and will continue to be) devastating for everyone involved for some time, but you can help! Hug a fishing lodge owner (When we are allowed, of course)! But most importantly, support them by putting your bums in their beds.
The experience has and will continue to change and evolve, but one thing will remain steadfast—the pristine beauty of Ontario’s north and the things that we all love: fishing, canoeing, kayaking, hiking, sunsets and, most of all, unplugging from our crazy lives.
Hope to see you on the water.