Canoe North a ‘really different’ kind of touring company

March 15, 2019   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

“Between staff and clients, we feed 20 people a day from June 1 to September 5,” said Al Pace. “There are loads of frozen meats and prepared meals, like lasagne, dry food goods from the Bulk Store, lumber, leaving Edmonton today to catch the winter roads, the ice roads..” up to Norman Wells, sitting on the banks of the MacKenzie River, north of Yellowknife, from where small jets ferry their tourists to the Canoe North Lodge.

“We do nine months of planning for three months of canoe tours,” said Lin Ward. “All told, we have 18 staff working for us. The logistics are all important.”

“We have to run everything with military precision to get it right,” they said.

Strange as it may seem, all the food consumed at the lodge in Norman Wells is pre-made and frozen by caterers in the south; yet, all the meals served during the wilderness canoe trips, while camping, are “cooked from scratch.”

“We tried it in the lodge with a commercial kitchen and a chef but it just didn’t work out,” Ms. Ward explained. 

Completing the explanation, her husband, Al Pace, told us,”On the trips, everybody works – the cooking, dishes, whatever, we all contribute. Everyone loves it. And the food is great.”

The first thing about these canoe trips that gives a break is there are no portages. So, there is plenty of licence to carry heavy things, like special coolers to transport the frozen foods that have to last several days.

“One thing is certain, you cannot run out of food,” Mr. Pace was definite about that. “You don’t want to take too much but you cannot take too little.”

“It can be hot during the Arctic summers. I wear shorts and short-sleeved shirts all the time,” Mr. Pace declared. “The first trip takes off at the end of June and they finish September 2.”

It all began 19 years ago and no one is more surprised at the huge success this business has become over the years than its founders and owners.

“We moved in here in 1987,” Mr. Pace began. “I used to write a newsletter twice a year about life in the country, in Hockley Valley, about the pottery shop. I sent out 1,000 by mail and that was my whole approach to advertising. 

“After we came back from a family canoeing trip up north, I couldn’t think of anything to write about the shop, so, I wrote about the trip. People were charmed by the stories and said how nice they thought it was. But the next year, after I sent out more letters about the trips, the tone was changed and they were saying, ‘We want to join you.” 

“That year,” his lady told us, “we hosted a presentation at the Millcroft Inn, in Alton and 135 people came, in a snow storm. By the end of the evening six people were writing cheques to come.

“That first year, when we took three people, we worried about taking strangers with us and, then, we realized they had been coming to the shop, buying pottery for three years – they weren’t strangers at all.”

In fact, the Farmhouse Pottery shop with its bright, very visible sign on the Hockley Road, shouting there are fresh pies for sale, “brings in all sorts of interesting people. This weekend, people came in looking for pottery and are buying a Canoe North trip.”

Minutes after this comment, a lady with dark hair and a bright laugh came, having parked her Smart car, looking for pie. She loves to canoe and she loves adventure. She left with one of their fabulous Canoe North Adventures booklets, a shine in her eyes. 

“I realized the best way for us to advertise is to keep the store open seven days a week, all year long.”

In many ways, due to the nature of the trips, of the closeness in which they travel and live for the duration of them, there is a degree of audition to signing up for them.

Ms. Ward was clear: “We do not take online bookings. We take a lot of pride in assembling compatible groups.” 

Mr. Pace had been taking people north as a single guide in 1987. He remarked, “Universities nowadays are educating young people to be adventure tour guides. They’re turning out bright young people to do this work and it’s up to us to set the example. Our son, Taylor, does trips now.”

Once it was time for horse woman Lin Ward to go north, she admitted, “I got dragged, kicking and screaming, but when I got there, I thought, I want to do this.”

“People often book trips for a milestone year in their lives. We’ve made a lot of birthday cakes out on the trail in our Dutch oven. And once they’ve travelled, they understand better what’s going on behind my pottery.”

Back to the logistics: the lumber going up north is to build another construction, 24 by 32 feet, for storing canoes, which will be closed up at the end of the season. The trips involve flying to Yellowknife, from which jets used by oil people also carry clients for canoe trips to Norman Wells. 

They spend overnight in the lodge, and prepare to depart in float planes to their drop-off point, with everything; food, personal goods, canoes, tents – that Dutch oven – everything. Five to eight unforgettable, even life-changing days, then back as before by float planes to Norman Wells and a wonderful last evening, dining together in the lodge.

With the unimaginable – 19 years ago – growth of their business, they have 50 canoes and “this year, our first-ever raft – a little bit of a more passive trip. On the canoes, everyone has to paddle but with 18 foot raft which can handle five people, it can be paddled from the back and no one else has to work.”

This is for young people. “Our son is into it – he says young people don’t want to paddle…”

Always, they meet their clients before a trip is booked; they offer training days at Waldemar, on the Grand River, which gives a chance to assess ability and security – that a person is not afraid of the water. 

The maps are all the rivers less travelled, never the National Parks, the more remote areas. They have figured it all out – rivers for beginners, medium paddlers and those advanced people ready for white water and high times.

“We always carry wine. It comes in plastic wine bags.” 

Thoroughly thought out lists of what to pack and what not. 

“Don’t brother to bring a flashlight,” Mr. Pace insists. “It’s never dark.”

For everything else you need to know: Call them on 519-941-6654 or pop in for coffee and a piece of pie, 307114 Hockley Road.


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