Manitoba’s fishing lodges have the lure and bait, but the U.S. border closure is making it impossible for them to reel in guests.
In a pre-pandemic year, American guests make up about 80 per cent of Kenanow Lodge clientele, said co-owner Sheryl Matheson. That number dropped to zero after the border shutdown amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We’re running negative," she said. The loss of American customers has taken approximately $200,000 off the books for the small lodge on Cold Lake, northeast of Flin Flon, compared to revenues before COVID-19 struck.
"We still have to carry the expenses of the insurance and the building and the utilities and everything else."
To try to keep their heads above water, Matheson’s husband Chris has gone to work in Alberta’s oil fields. Losing the family lodge would be devastating.
"We would be losing our life. We would be losing everything. This is my husband’s family’s legacy," she said. "We’ve invested everything we had into the lodge."
Matheson isn’t short of reservations, however. The business is backlogged with U.S.-based bookings, many of which have been rolled over from 2020.
"Now we’re saying: hey, do you want to go to 2022?" said Matheson. "Because even if the Americans find they can come in August, it’s too late for them to plan. They can’t make travel arrangements."
On July 19, the federal government announced fully vaccinated Americans would be able to cross the border, beginning Aug. 9.
While some may have the flexibility in their schedules to book a fishing trip on short notice, getting to Winnipeg will likely prove difficult for some time after the border opening. Generally, international fishing guests will fly into Winnipeg, then transfer to chartered flights or regional airlines to take them to final destinations.
International flights aren’t expected into the Manitoba capital until September, at the earliest, said Tyler MacAfee, vice-president communications and government relations for the Winnipeg Airports Authority.
"The (federal) government came out and said that service can resume on Aug. 9, but it’s not as simple as just flipping a switch like that," he said. "The airlines take time. They plan out how they’re going to use their aircraft and their flight crews months and months in advance.
"We won’t see a resumption of service on Aug. 9 because it just wasn’t enough time to get that service back."
Many lodges around the province said anywhere from 70 to 95 per cent of their guests are American travellers.
Pit Turenne, co-owner of Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge, said his clientele is more diversified than most, relying on about 60 per cent American guests and 40 per cent Canadians. However, the business has recently had another stroke of bad luck.
The lodge is in Atikaki Provincial Park, all of which is under a strict travel ban as multiple massive fires burn in eastern Manitoba. Only permanent residents of the area are allowed in. As a result, Turenne has had to cancel even his Canadian-based bookings, including a week-long trip for 26 Manitobans slated to begin Wednesday.
"In the last week-and-a-half, it’s over $100,000 of lost revenue," he said. "It’s a real kick in the teeth."
Turenne, Matheson and multiple other fishing lodge owners decried the lack of communication from both the provincial and federal governments. Short notice for changing restrictions has made planning their business seasons difficult, they said.
It’s frustrating to be losing so much money when the demand is obviously there, added Rod Baynton of Bakers Narrows Lodge in Flin Flon.
"Our phone’s been ringing off the hook for four months with Americans wondering when they can come," he said, also estimating his loss in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Baynton often isn’t sure what to tell callers, because he’s not sure what the next month will bring.
"Communications have been poor," he said. "I realize they have a big job to do, but maybe they should have treated things a little more regionally."
Lodges face yet another uncertainty this week: the union representing Canadian Border Service Agency employees voted to strike Wednesday. Workers may walk off the job as early as Aug. 6, three days before the U.S. border is to reopen.
Cody Sellar is the reporter/photographer for The Times. He is a lifelong Winnipegger. He is a journalist, writer, sleuth, sloth, reader of books and lover of terse biographies.