January normally marks the kickoff to the upcoming summer fishing season for resorts and fishing camps north of the Minnesota-Ontario border, the time to staff boat show booths and book reservations that would fill their cabins for the coming year.
But not this year, not under the cloud of a roiling pandemic.
“It’s kind of eerie to be at my desk at all in January,’’ said Paul Pepe, manager of Tourism Thunder Bay, the city’s tourism promotion bureau. “I’d normally be at trade shows in Chicago and Minneapolis… But all of them are canceled. And the border is still closed.”
The unprecedented closure of the border between the U.S. and Canada, underway for general travel since March as both nations tried to reduce the spread of COVID-19, shows no signs of ending soon. That means not only can’t U.S. anglers and others go into Canada to ice fish or travel now, but they have no idea when they might be able to go in the future.
Public opinion poll shows more than 80% of Canadians want to keep their border closed to the nation with the highest per-capita COVID-19 cases and deaths.
“Given the spike in cases on both sides of the border (in recent months) we are advising the industry to brace for another spring and possibly summer of border closures,’’ Pepe said. “Better to plan for the worst case scenario and if things open up safely, that’s a bonus."
So far neither government has offered any criteria that would hint at when the border might reopen. Pepe said there’s some hope that a fast-response COVID-19 testing system could be developed to allow U.S. travelers into Canada at a large scale (and vice versa) by summer. Short of that, it’s believed that widespread vaccinations would need to be rolled out in both nations, or at least drastically lower COVID case rates, before the border reopens to general traffic.
Yanks make up most lodge business
Some Ontario resorts were able to redirect their marketing to attract Canadian citizens to their lakes and rivers, with advertising directed at population centers like Winnipeg and Toronto.
“The good thing about this (pandemic) is that a lot of Canadians have rediscovered the outdoors in their own country,’’ Pepe said, noting parks and lodges were busy in parts of southern Ontario. “But we’re a 21-, 22-hour drive from Toronto, so that’s not really a viable market for many of our operators.”
A fall survey of tourism-related businesses by the Ontario Tourism Industry Association found province-wide tourism down nearly 70% in 2020 compared to 2019. But in northwestern Ontario that number topped 75%. And for some resorts far from Toronto and Winnipeg, tourist camps where U.S. customers comprise nearly all their business, 2020 was a total loss. Many resorts never opened at all.
Gerry Cariou, executive director of Sunset Country, the Northwestern Ontario tourism association, said most of the 450 lodges in his area are dependent on U.S. customers. He said fly-in fishing camps were among the hardest hit, many of which closed entirely in 2020.
“The American tourist makes up 95% of the visitors to lodges in Sunset Country. So we have experienced the worst of the impacts on tourism because of... the border being closed,’’ Cariou said. “There is no real domestic population large enough and in close enough distance to make up for US customer losses…”
The “closed’’ sign on Canada led to many Northlanders, and travelers from across the Upper Midwest, to vacation closer to home but as far north as they could go. That led to a near-record busy year for many outdoor businesses in northern Minnesota. Now, instead of booking their 2021 trip to Canada, many U.S. anglers, campers, canoers and travelers may be booking in northern Minnesota, just as they did in 2020.
“It’s a waiting game, month-to-month… It’s been very frustrating not being able to take reservations. But we just don’t know. Nobody knows what’s going to happen or when,’’ said Robin Soderlund.
Soderlund and her husband, Wayne, own and operate Barker Bay Resort on Lower Manitou Lake about 70 miles north of International Falls. The resort, which the Soderlunds have owned for 14 years, has been entirely shut down since March. While some Ontario resorts have been able to attract a few Canadian customers, “we get 99% of our business from the U.S., so it didn’t make any sense to try to open and market to Canadians. It wouldn’t happen,’’ Robin noted.
The Soderlunds have a long list of repeat customers from Minnesota, Wisconsin and across the Midwest who keep asking “when?”
“We’re getting calls and emails now from people wondering when they can come. We can’t give them an answer,’’ said Robin.
Duluth natives, the couple have lived in the Cotton/Canyon area since 1975. Robin, now 67, was a nurse. Wayne, 66, was in the logging business before they made the jump to resort life. Because the resort’s mortgage has been paid off, and with expenses low with the small resort shut down, the Soderlund’s say they can withstand losing an entire year, and maybe two, of business.
“But for some of the younger resort people, the people who still have a mortgage and are trying to get started… I don’t know how they can do it,’’ Robin said.
The Soderlunds would normally spend January and February splitting their resort duties. Wayne would be at the lodge taking care of ice anglers fishing for lake trout. Robin would be attending boat shows in Duluth, La Crosse, Minneapolis and Chicago looking to fill in the last vacant cabins for summer and fall weeks.
Instead, they are both at home in Cotton, unable to be at their favorite place.
“It’s given us some time to do some projects at home that needed doing,’’ she said. “And we’ve spent a lot more time with our children and grandchildren. It hasn’t been a total loss.”
Aid options and optimism
Pepe and others note that the year without customers, while disastrous from a financial standpoint, might have a couple silver linings. Many resort owners spent the year remodeling, rebuilding or expanding their facilities.
“And there’s a year’s worth of fish still in the lakes that didn’t get caught,’’ Pepe noted.
Both the Canadian federal government and Ontario provincial governments offered business assistance programs to help resorts weather the COVID storm. Those include payroll assistance, low-interest loans, grants, energy rebates and property tax rebates.
Todd and Kim Hacult, who own Tamarack Island Wilderness Lodge on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods, said they took advantage of some of those programs, including one that paid 75% of their employee’s paychecks.
“We did open last summer…. We were lucky to have a few Canadian guests. But not many. Most of our guests are from the U.S.,’’ said Todd Hacult. “We had maybe enough business to pay for the fuel to keep the generators going ... But with payroll assistance we were able to keep staff on and get a lot of small projects completed; painting and fixing things.”
The Hacults, Canadian citizens, live in Vassar, Manitoba — just across the border from Roseau, Minn., — when they aren’t at their lodge. Tamarack Island Wilderness Lodge is located on one of the 14,000 islands on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods. It’s about 10 miles from the nearest road, and you have to get there by boat or float plane. Ironically the lodge is only about 30 miles north of Minnesota-based Lake of the Woods resorts which had one of their busiest years ever.
Tamarack’s cash flow was down about 90% in 2020, Todd noted. But the Hacults had an edge other Canadian resorters don’t have. Entering their 10th year of resort ownership, their loan to buy the lodge was provided by a friend who told them they don’t have to make payments until the border re-opens.
“People who have (loans) from banks, I don’t know how they can do it. But I also can’t imagine the banks forcing the issue when everyone is in the same boat,’’ Todd noted.
Hacult said his loyal customers have been amazingly understanding, and champing at the bit to return to Canada as soon as the border opens.
“All of them we had to cancel last summer have re-booked for 2021. We rolled over their deposits from last summer and I don’t think anyone asked for their money back,’’ he said.
Hacult, like most veterans of the tourism industry, remains optimistic.
“Things can change so fast. In five months we could be over the hump with COVID… I’m optimistic that with more vaccines being approved and more people getting them, we’ll have a season in 2021,’’ he said. “Then again, it could be worse by then. Nobody knows.”
Robin Soderlund said she’s also hearing from longtime guests who are more than eager to head north once the border reopens.
“I think people will come back in droves,’’ she said. “People are anxious to get back to Canada.”