KENORA -- It has 14,500 islands. There are 105,000 kilometres of shoreline.
It is surrounded by 2.5 billion-year-old rock. The first white man to see Lake of the Woods was French explorer Jacques De Noyon in 1688.
What better way to learn about magnificent Lake of the Woods than skimming across its waters on the MS Kenora?
But those waters are troubled now. Owners of the MS Kenora say this will be their final year unless tourism increases. They have already explored relocating the ship to another lake.
The MS Kenora, like Kenora itself, has suffered since the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States. MS Kenora's business has fallen 50 per cent, said Allan Luby, captain and co-owner with four investors of the MS Kenora.
Out of the war on terror came the provision that American visitors need a passport to return home. That's taken a bite out of tourism, as has a stronger Canadian dollar and the recession that's a lot more severe in the U.S. than in Canada.
"The drop in tourism has raised questions as to whether the MS Kenora can be viable," said Luby.
The MS Kenora was built in 1969 by former Riverton Boat Works in Riverton, Man., and originally served as a freighter supplying northern communities on Lake Winnipeg.
It was given a second life as a cruise ship on Lake of the Woods in 1985, and Luby and his group purchased it in 1988. Luby is the executive director of the Bimose Tribal Council and a former two-term chief of Dalles First Nation.
The MS Kenora travels the same route plied by fur traders in the 1700s and 1800s. On a recent 90-minute afternoon trip, there was a good breeze tousling the water's surface giving that glitter effect.
Cottages lend colour to the landscape, their red or green rooftops partially hidden behind treetops. Yes, there are luxurious cottages -- one cottage has more than $1 million in windows alone -- but what's also interesting is just seeing how each cottage, large or small, has figured out how to balance itself on the wobbly Canadian Shield. No two cottages are the same.
Trip captain Tom Paglaro said celebrities such as Tim McGraw and wife Faith Hill, Kelsey Grammer and Randy Bachman own island cottages, as does former United States vice-president Walter Mondale. Bankers own many island cottages, said Paglaro, as do hockey players such as Mike Richards and Ian White. In fact, Richards learned he'd been traded recently to the Los Angeles Kings from the Philadelphia Flyers while boating on Lake of the Woods. His cellphone kept going off until a friend suggested maybe he answer it.
In his commentary, Paglaro said Kenora's name is formed by taking the first two letters of amalgamating villages Keewatin, Norman, and Rat Portage. 'Kenora' was probably the best rearrangement of letters. The best an online anagram decoder could come up with was Ark One, which would sort of fit with a staying-afloat motif. A flour mill in Rat Portage lobbied for a name change because it deemed the word "Rat" on its flour bags bad for business.
Talks have taken place between MS Kenora owners and local business and economic development officials.
"Other cities use (cruise boats) as a flagship for marketing," said Luby.
Luby has indicated he will keep operating if there is at least some prospect of tourism bouncing back. He doesn't see the city subsidizing the ship, but could see operating a shuttle service to Coney Island and back for the city.
MS Kenora owners could also help their cause by improving tour commentary, however. It was too sparse for such a storied lake, as well as dated, and the captain read the script too fast. I wasn't the only one who complained. Ship owners should have the excellent Lake of the Woods Museum draft a new script and then ad lib more.
The afternoon cruise is more an apéritif to Lake of the Woods. A more complete and informative trip is its 6:30 to 9 p.m. dinner cruise. Both cruises are $28 per person, with lower rates for seniors and children. It has also started running 12-hour return trips to Sioux Narrows.
Learn more at mskenora.com.