Camp owners struggle to find new market

Merna Emara
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Northwestern Ontario and the Rainy River District are homes to many camps and lodges. In a pre-COVID-19 era, Americans would cross the border for a visit to fish, hunt, and enjoy the lake from their rented cabins or RVs.

However, the lack of American clientele has left some camp operators in limbo, scrambling to find ways to make ends meet until they can safely welcome their guests back.

After the extended closure of the Canada-U.S. border until at least August 21, some camp and lodge owners have to find ways to remain afloat until the next season comes around.

Karen McNanney, co-owner of Indianhead Lodge in Sioux Narrows, said that from the beginning of the pandemic, only one Canadian family checked into one of their lodges. Apart from that, she said they have been very empty.

“We pretty much have been empty,” McNanney said. “About 95 per cent of our guests are American. I had one booking during this summer that is a Canadian. Everything else is American, so as they keep extending the border closure, we don’t have any reservations so we just have been empty.”

McNanney and her husband have owned the lodge since 1990. They have eight cabins that they rent out with an average of $300 per night with either a housekeeping or an American plan. American plan means all meals are included. There are also boats to rent, guided fishing packages, guided deer hunting packages and self-guiding deer hunting packages.

McNanney said she was only allowed to make two $40,000 loans, adding to a total of $80,000 that she owes the federal government. If those payments are made within two year, McNanney said $10,000 will be forgiven.

With all the bills that should be taken care of, McNanney said she will try to pay out what she can and work out the details of other bills such as their property taxes and insurance.

“I am going to have to work some kind of deal out with all those different places because I do not have enough money to pay them all,” McNanney said. “I can’t pay everybody because I only have the $80,000 I borrowed. Once that money runs out, there is nothing else and if I can get a few Canadians that come here every other weekend, it is a little bit more money to pay a telephone bill or a hydro bill.”

McNanney and her husband have their son and daughter-in-law work for them full-time. McNanney said the four of them usually draw salary from this business during the summer from May to the end of October. However, none of them are getting paid this summer.

However, McNanney said the lodge’s restaurant has been doing curb side and they have brought in about maybe $1,700 worth of food that they have sold. So far this is the only money they have made from the restaurant that usually brings in about $60,000 per season.
Indianhead Lodge brings in about $560,000 a season and McNanney said they have only had one person there for two days.

“We finally got a couple of reservations in August, but again they are all just three night stays,” McNanney said. “We usually have 20 to 30 people every night from the end of May until September long weekend. We are usually quite busy, but we are grateful that we are going to finally open back. It’ll help a little. There are four of us and none of us have taken a salary yet this year. That’s going to be a challenge in itself.”

Indianhead Lodge is one of many others that have also experienced vacancy rates like no previous years.

Dave Werenko, owner of Marr’s Perch Lake Lodge, said because Rainy River District is not very populated, it makes it hard for southern Ontario residents to consider northwestern Ontario as a vacation destination.

Marr’s Perch Lake Lodge has been in business for about 45 years, but Werenko has been the owner the past couple of years.

“It is going terrible. With all the shutdowns. Could not open the restaurants. People could not travel. They closed the borders and for a while they were not even allowed to travel in Ontario so you could not even try to make up any bookings but for local people.”

Werenko said he had about 15 Canadian guests locally, from Atikokan and Thunder Bay. So few people checking in resulted in a couple of lay off, cutting Marr’s Perch Lake Lodge workers in half. Right now, only Werenko and one other person work at the lodge. He said his revenue is cut down by more than 90 per cent.

“Plan is to hunker down as best we can and try to get through this. At this point, we would hope we don’t have to get any of this bail out money, but we might hit the right program if it comes around. We might have to utilize it. But at this point, we are just trying to get by as best as we can,” Werenko said.

“Our bills do not stop. We have expenses and we are not getting any breaks on insurance. We have no business, but we are paying full price for everything. We are finding that it is definitely an interesting summer.”

Troy Kadikoff, constituency assistant to Greg Rickford, said in an email that the government is committed to supporting the resource-based tourism sector, which has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

“This is a sector that contributes billions of dollars to Ontario’s economy, especially in rural communities in central and northern Ontario,” Kadikoff said in the email. “That is why we are providing immediate relief to resource-based tourism businesses by not charging them for certain licences and land use fees, as well as refunding revenue received for 2020 for.

This immediate relief resources include licence to provide bear hunting services fees, bear management area fees (for land use associated with the licence to provide bear hunting services), baitfish harvester and dealer licence fees and baitfish harvest area fees (for use of harvesting area associated with the harvesting licence).
Both McNanney and Werenko said an optimal solution would be to decrease property taxes and insurance on their businesses until things get back to normal.

“I need them to do something about all the taxes. We have property tax, school tax. Kids have not been in school since March 16. I do not understand why we are paying so much in school tax right now. I think that would be a place that they maybe could reduce some of our property tax,” McNanney said.

“Our insurance is the same. Our mortgages. All our loans. We have to pay these things and we do not have any difference. We are empty because of the border and I realize they are not going to open the border, but we are just suffering because we do not have any way to make an income.”

Kadikoff said providing immediate support to the resource-based tourism industry will help local businesses through the economic recovery ahead and encourage Ontarians to get outside and take part in lower-risk recreational activities.

However, Werenko said that even though Ontario is in its stage 3 of reopening, there has been no impact on this business in terms of check-in and reservation.

“The rules around all these things are so ambiguous and unclear and people are not rushing out,” Werenko said. “We don’t have the population if we are located a short drive from the nearest town and people are not just driving for hours to come here to utilize a restaurant. It is not easy and they make it sound like everything will be back to normal, but it is far from it.”

Kadikoff said Hunters and anglers spend more than $560 million and $1.6 billion respectively each year in Ontario and support jobs in many rural and northern communities.

Most American guests who had reservations in Indianhead Lodge and Marr’s Perch Lake Lodge moved them to next year.

“Most people have rebooked to next year, some couldn’t,” Werenko said. “We expected the border to open around July and a lot of guests were willing to coming in July or August or September, but then again that did not happen and I think everyone is losing faith that it is going to be opened up.”

McNanney said her business will be short $150,000 next year because of all the moved reservations. If the borders open before next season, and Indianhead Lodge is back in full swing, the lodge will bring in $410,000, a 26.8 per cent decrease from the average profit.

Werenko said the economic repercussions of COVID-19 will be province-wide because the provincial tourism sector is suffering.

“Tourism added more to the Ontario economy,” Werenko said. “It brings in $34 billion. It is 3.4 per cent of the GDP. The total economic contribution of tourism in Ontario is more than forestry, mining and agriculture combined. Down the road, the economic repercussions for the province and for the country are going to be greater than anything that COVID has done.”