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Business of the Month: Canoe Canada Outfitters an outlier at 50

Northwestern Ontario wilderness vacation company turns isolation into a tourism plus

We in Northern Ontario understand what it means to paddle out onto an empty lake, catch our limit of bass and trout, and listen to nothing but the breeze through the reeds and the loons calling at sunset. In the summer, it’s called Saturday.

For most of the world, though, the idea is as romantic and exotic as an African safari. It’s no surprise then that a company like Canoe Canada Outfitters has thrived for over 50 years now, delivering outdoor adventures to intrepid travellers from around the world.

Jeremy Dickson, now full owner, joined the company about 25 years ago. It wasn’t planned — Jeremy was at law school at Western University in London, Ont. when his father needed to step away from the hands-on part of the physically engaging job.

“I came back to help out for the summer,” Dickson said. “Then, my Uncle Jim offered to sell me his share of the business.”

By that time, the business was already successful, Dickson said. When Bud opened that first summer in 1973, the company earned $15,000. By 1975, the business generated $250,000 and kept growing from there.

A group readies for adventure circa 1998. | Canoe Canada Outfitters photo

Dickson said that the types of adventures people look for change with the times, but it’s always some mix of canoeing, fishing, and hunting. Canoe Canada offers a wide variety of experiences including fly-in cabins, drive-in cabins, paddle-in cabins, and drop-off canoe trips into Quetico Provincial Park and other spots in the area. The length of the adventure is flexible, too. Guests can plan adventures from three to 28 days.

Most of the clients — about 89 per cent — are from the United States. Europeans account for about seven per cent and Canadians only four per cent. Most of those are from Norm Jewison’s neighbourhood in Toronto — the late Canadian film director was one of Canoe Canada’s first clients, Dickson said.

Part of their key to success is that they made Northern Ontario’s isolation a plus — particularly for fishing.

“The border has always been a struggle, especially when you’re competing against outfitters in Minnesota,” Dickson said. “We sold Canada as being more remote, better fishing, and a better outdoor experience because you get a lot fewer people crossing that border.”

Canoe Canada also relies on client loyalty — and it has that in spades. Dickson said that about 87 per cent of their clientele comes from repeat business. Some families have come up to Atikokan for decades and now bring their grandkids. Even though Bud hasn’t officially been part of the company for several years, he was still recognized on the floor during a recent tradeshow.

“All the outfitters there call him ‘The Godfather.’ Everybody was pretty happy Bud was back,” Dickson said. “I’m proud of what my father built. I’m proud of his vision.”

Clients come back because of the quality of the experiences — Dickson jokes that his father built the business on clean bathrooms. Truth is, that’s part of their emphasis on customer service.

“We call it the three Rs: repeat, referral, and reputation.”

Fly-in trips are popular amongst adventurers looking to explore the pristine beauty of Ontario's northwest. | Canoe Canada Outfitters photo

The variety of packages also keeps clients coming back. There are at least 15 outpost cabins available plus several paddling, fishing, and hunting adventures you can launch from Atikokan. You could visit Canoe Canada every year for 20 years and never have the same experience. And in fact, many have done just that. The Walters family from Ohio started coming up that first summer in 1973. The Hollanders only missed two years from 1974 to 2023, and that was due to COVID.

Dickson attributes Canoe Canada’s success to one other important difference: guided tours. Families from “the big city” aren’t used to building outdoor fires, never mind keeping a lookout for bears. Guides provide that extra peace of mind and help families and other tour groups get the most from their adventure.

Even the self-guided tours are fully supported. Canoe Canada provides all the equipment, food, and maps for a successful venture. Again, it’s about ensuring guests have what they need to make the most of their trip.

COVID was tough on the company, Dickson said. Closed borders meant 96 per cent of his clients couldn’t come. However, he is proud of the fact that the company didn’t have to lay off any staff during lockdown.

“It cost me $978,000 to keep in business,” Dickson said. “But thankfully I was able to keep my staff on. We took the time to... update our facilities.”

When the borders opened up again, the clients came back “in droves” Dickson said.

“Last year was our best year ever, and this year... we’re ahead of where we were last year.”

Canoe Canada’s COVID strategy reflects the company’s community-minded approach. Bud chose to locate in the town of Atikokan rather than base operations at a lake as is common in the area. Many of the town’s youth worked for the company over the years — Jeremy talks about the work ethic that stuck with them as they went on to careers.

He’s also proud that it’s stayed a family business all this time. His daughter, who is in university, travelled with him to a different show in Chicago, and his son, still in high school, shows a strong interest, he said. Other family members as well as children of long-time employees are also in the wings.

“Fifty years of the same family, same business — that’s a flex,” Dickson said. “The vision is to still be here in 50 years.”