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Paddlers' lodge placing a premium on adventure tourism

Upscale accommodations for Europeans, corporate travel is the new direction for Wawa lodge

Lake Superior lodge owner David Wells had to convince himself that going upscale was the way to go.

Ever since he acquired the rustic Rock Island Lodge in 1994, the Wawa-area entrepreneur always cultivated a family-oriented and communal atmosphere for paddlers, hikers and whitewater thrill seekers drawn to the rugged shore of the big lake.

But as with the evolution of any business, Wells wants to diversify his customer base by attempting to lure affluent Europeans to the unspoiled shores of Lake Superior while undertaking some renovations to entice the corporate crowd to come for training seminars and staff retreats.

“It’s hard for me personally because I’m developing it into the kind of place I could never afford to go to,” laughed Wells. 

“We love our American visitors, but I think it’s important to diversify.”

The four guest-room B&B lodge is located a three-hour drive north of Sault Ste. Marie and eight kilometres east of Wawa on a small peninsula where the Michipicoten River empties into Michipicoten Bay on the scenic eastern shore of the lake.

Over the years, the lodge and Wells’ side company, Naturally Superior Adventures, has garnered numbered accolades from Lake Superior Magazine for best resort, and in 2007 National Geographic bestowed them as being among the top 100 Best Travel Adventures Companies on Earth.

Naturally Superior Adventures' niche has been a laid-back, interactive experience between paddling instructors and their guests. And Wells has always managed to retain its folksy charm. The lodge is renowned for its house concerts from travelling musicians who drop in every 10 days to two weeks during the summer, some of the cover charge proceeds going to a local food bank.

Despite offering a one-of-a-kind outdoor experience, Wells has been working with tourism marketing groups to appeal to a broader customer base with plans to upscale his lodge into becoming a “boutique” travel destination.

During his peak May-to-September period, his place is usually booked solid with paddlers. 

Wells and his staff specialize in providing instruction in sea kayaking, stand-up paddle boards, and whitewater canoeing, and will take their guests out on extended paddling and hiking excursions of the headlands and shorelines between Lake Superior Provincial Park and Pukaskwa National Park.

For the slower spring and fall shoulder seasons, amateur shutterbugs come to the wind-whipped bay or hike through solemn Canadian Shield landscape, made famous by the Group of Seven, for photography workshops.

On occasion, they’ll host small corporate gigs for Wawa-area mining and power companies, government ministries, local public health organizations, school boards, and travel-trade industry delegates on a familiarization tour.

A common room of roughly of 1,000 square feet can seat 50 dining and slightly more when configured for meetings and training sessions.

Chef Judy Moore, known for her signature Jack Daniels pecan pie, provides catering and customized meals for groups from her menu of home-style culinary fare.

But with two beds to each room, Wells said they were too small to host more frequent overnight corporate gatherings on a regular basis. The overflow would have to stay at area motels, and executives usually want their own room.

He plans to change all that by adding another four to five rooms on site with more expensive lighting and bathroom fixtures, queen-sized beds, and windows that crank open, all designed to deliver a more exclusive experience.

Guests will have an array of paddle boards, kayaks, canoes and certified instructors at their disposal, including a large voyageur canoe for teambuilding activities.

Wells is also mulling over the idea of adding tiny homes facing the lake on his seven-acre property, inspired by the stylings of the studio buildings from the thriving arts scene at Fogo Island, Newfoundland.

“We’re looking at trying to find a design that’s quite unique to our site and they would be real attractive.”

He’s hoping that more upscale accommodations will prove appealing to European visitors.

With British Columbia and Canada’s East Coast drawing international attention, Wells believes Northern Ontario’s outdoor adventure tourism sector is “ripe” to host visitors looking for new experiences.

A few years back, a couple from Switzerland booked a weekend at his lodge just to take a hike, a memory that still makes Wells laugh.

Motivated by Tourism Northern Ontario and the Ontario Tourism Marketing Partnership, Wells has appeared at travel-trade shows in the United Kingdom with other Northern operators to try and drum off some offshore business.

That hasn’t translated into an avalanche of bookings overnight, however. It will require maintaining a steady three- or four-year appearance at these shows to travel companies to list them in their catalogues.