Two Thunder Bay tourism adventure companies have made the bucket list of things to see and do in Ontario.
In November, Wilderness North and Sail Superior Yacht Adventures were picked by the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership Corporation as the latest additions to Ontario Signature Experiences, a program that’s showcases some of the province’s must-see travel destinations and activities to the global market.
For Krista Cheeseman, co-owner of Wilderness North, the provincial designation coincides with their entry into a new market of adventure travel.
For years, the company co-owned by Cheeseman and her husband, Alan, has catered primarily to American anglers and hunters, but they hope to supplement their 1,000 annual guest stays with a potential new wave of bookings from paddlers and hikers, and the launch of a more picture-rich website this winter.
“Our unique selling proposition is that we’re the only lodge-to-lodge experience provider in Canada.”
With fly-in lodges and outpost camps on Whitewater Lake and the Albany River system north of Thunder Bay, the couple is promoting canoeing and kayaking experiences where guests can reach a lodge or camp within a day’s paddle.
Outdoor tourism is evolving beyond the traditional hook-and-bullet lodge to include other pursuits with more upscale accommodations and more value-added amenities for family-oriented vacations.
“People are changing, they want more creature comforts,” said Krista. “I went to culinary school, so I have a passion for cooking. We’re trying to utilize as many local ingredients as possible and make our lodges like resorts where (guests) don’t have to spend 12 hours in a boat.”
Their new array of packages are designed to show off the area’s remote wilderness, wildlife and Aboriginal culture while filling beds during periods when hunting and fishing bookings are few.
“You have to be able to adapt with the times, right?” said Krista, in remembering the 9/11 tourism meltdown, border entry issues, and the recession of the late 2000s.
They operate five full-service and housekeeping lodges with ten outpost camps, with hopes of establishing a new lodge next year and future plans of another on the north end of Lake Nipigon.
The main base was relocated from Armstrong to the Thunder Bay waterfront in 2006 when they built a hangar at a former Ministry of Natural Resources seaplane base for their turbine Otter, de Havilland Beaver and three AT-802 Air Tractors that haul fuel into remote communities.
Through a partnership with Gregory Heroux of Sail Superior, they offer “Fly n Sail” sightseeing tours of Thunder Bay harbour during the summer that they hope to expand upon.
The day-long “taste of the lake” sailing excursions delivers visitors to the base of the Sleeping Giant peninsula for a shore lunch and hiking adventure before capping the experience with a floatplane return trip back to Thunder Bay.
“The de Havilland is a nice add-on to the sailing portion,” said Heroux. “It offers a neat perspective on what you’ve just sailed through.”
Wilderness North’s new focus on adventure packages plays into the hands of Heroux and his charter company.
With his fleet of three sailboats – a 20-footer and two 40-footers – Heroux specializes in daytime and twilight harbour cruises, and big lake excursions that take visitors out to the Welcome Islands, the Sleeping Giant and along the rugged coastline of the Lake Superior National Marine Conservation Area.
“We think we’ve got a really nice product between the Cheesemans and myself; sailing on Lake Superior and going for a 40-inch fish, that’s an experience.”
His charter company’s twice-a-week wine and cheese sunset harbour cruises during the summer are proving to be quite popular with the corporate crowd.
Through collaborations with outfitters like Wilderness North, Heroux has been constantly searching for new ways to promote the unique natural features of sailing the world’s largest freshwater lake: the clarity of its water, its wilderness and secluded bays, and the towering sheer cliffs that extend hundreds of feet above its rocky and cobblestone shoreline.
“That’s what we’re bringing to the people.”
Over the course of a 100-day sailing season, Heroux estimates he entertains between 1,500 and 2,500 guests annually, a number he expects to significantly grow, especially on the big lake outings.
Through a local contact with connections to China, he is putting out feelers to that market to attract more affluent international traveller looking for spectacular places to go.
“Our next employee will probably be a Chinese-speaking chef.”
Obtaining the Ontario Signature designation, to Heroux, is akin to achieving a five-star hotel designation and places him on a prominent stage in competing for the international travel dollar.
“It puts you in a special class. You’re recognized as a top-notch experience.”
Too often in the past, government tourism marketing visuals have keyed on internationally recognizable southern Ontario attractions like the CN Tower and Niagara Falls.
“If you’re not from the North, you’re not thinking of the North.”
Being placed on the Signature list promotes a greater awareness of what the entire province has to offer, which Heroux can in turn promote to wholesale distributors for tour packages.