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Pandemic uncertainty gives way to smooth kayaking on Lake Superior

Wawa-area lodge and outdoor tour operator salvaging 2020 tourism seasonĀ 

Just a few short weeks ago, David Wells’ outlook on the tourism biz was pretty bleak.

As May arrived, the outdoor tour operator should have been organizing guided sea kayak trips on magnificent Lake Superior and welcoming visitors to his Wawa-area lodge. But COVID-19 had other plans.

Instead of wielding an oar, Wells found himself wielding a hammer, as he took up various on-site reno projects while waiting on word that he’d be allowed to open to guests again.

“Up until about two weeks ago, things were not looking good,” he said. “Accommodations were mixed; certainly our trips were not doing particularly well.

“Essentially, we decided that we would spend all of June on staff training and personal trips, and no matter what happened, we would not open the lodge until July.”

Since 1994, Wells and his partner, Renée Fedun, have hosted visitors at Rock Island Lodge, situated just south of Wawa, where Lake Superior meets the mouth of the Michipicoten River.

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The retreat offers bed-and-breakfast-style accommodations, where visitors can take part in photography workshops, attend a corporate retreat, or even plan the wedding of their dreams.

Through their sister company, Naturally Superior Adventures, they bring paddling enthusiasts on sea kayak adventures, host guided canoe trips along area rivers, and offer devotees an array of sea kayak instruction seminars.

But the arrival of the novel coronavirus this past winter – and the subsequent shutdown by the provincial government – put all that in jeopardy.

Wells estimates roughly half of his clientele hails from the U.S., but with Canada-U.S. border restrictions remaining firmly in place until at least July 21, several bookings have had to be cancelled.

“Certainly, anyone that’s in for July, they’ve cancelled, because, in case the border were to open June 22, chances are people would have to self-isolate,” Wells said.

“So for people who are doing a trip, it wouldn’t make sense, really.”

International travel restrictions also ruled out his European guests, which account for about three to four per cent of Wells’ customers.

But things changed in late May when the province announced that tourist operators were among the businesses allowed to reopen – with precautions in place.

“Two weeks ago, the phone started ringing,” Wells said. “I think people are just getting really antsy; they want to get out.

“Possibly they’ve heard that being outside on Lake Superior is a pretty safe place to be, so bookings are all going up now.”

Staff are putting in place safety checks and balances, with Wells even appointing one to be the resident COVID-19 expert, developing best practices and adapting accordingly to the changing situation.

That means the season looks a little different from past years, Wells said.

Multi-day trips in a voyageur-style canoe – a 36-foot behemoth that carries 12 to 14 passengers at a time – have been cancelled.

Some of the kayak excursions have been rescheduled to start later in the season.

And instead of communal meals in the lodge dining room, clients will dine in their rooms or at staggered times en plein air.

It will take some effort on the part of staff to adjust to new routines, Wells said, but he’s adamant about offering a safe experience.

“I don’t think our customers are going to complain too much when we knock on their door in the morning and present them with breakfast,” Wells said.

“It’s just different for us, and it’s really critical that we do it right, and that people see that we’re doing it right.”

Part of what’s enabled the season to go ahead at all is assistance from the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS), which provides businesses with 75 per cent of employee wages for up to 24 weeks.

Without it, Wells said, there’s “no way” he would have been able to assure 100 per cent of his payroll this year.

He’s also grateful for the Canada Emergency Business Account, which provides qualifying businesses with interest-free loans of up to $40,000 to help cover operating costs. In Wells’ case, it’s allowed him to cover base operational expenses, like insurance.

“Those programs have made a big difference for us,” Wells said, as has the support of local tourism advocacy groups like Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario and the Algoma Kinniwabi Travel Association, which have been regularly updating members and organizing informational webinars.

“They’re doing a great job, and that really needs to be acknowledged.”

Now that the phone is ringing, slots are filling up, and Wells’ mood has improved considerably since late May when the future of his livelihood hung in the balance.

He’s confident in the return of American and international visitors after COVID-19 passes, whenever that may be. And for this year, at least, he’s predicting a hopeful return to regular operations in 2021.

“I was not very happy at all three weeks ago, not optimistic at all, and I feel much better now,” he said. “If nothing else, we're moving in the right direction.”