Hanging on by a thin fishing line

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Jake Trinkner was just 13 years old when his father bought a small fishing lodge on Crow Lake, just south of Kenora, Ont., moved the family from Minnesota, and set out to pursue a dream of hosting anglers.

Jake Tinkner just finished cleaning fish for guests.

As his mom and dad, Paul and Christine Tinkner, began to step back from the business, Jake and his wife Ashley have taken over day-to-day operations at the Muskie Bay Resort. That includes everything from cleaning the rooms to taking guests out for day-long fishing excursions and delivering their cleaned catches to them.

The parents, meanwhile, oversee the other family resort, Whitefish Bay, located nearby on Lake of the Woods. Jake says there is a “20-year plan” for he and Ashley to assume total operations when his parents fully retire.

Now 35, Jake has been part of the fishing lodge business for his entire adult life. But it’s a life that is under severe threat because of business lost to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Located just 120 kilometres north of the border with the United States, Muskie Bay has thrived – like most of the other area lodges – by catering to American sport fishermen. But when the border was closed last year, the Tinkners saw the majority of their customers disappear overnight.

“Ninety per cent of my business is American fisherman,” says Jake, who has just finished cleaning a day’s catch for guests from Calgary. Even with aggressive marketing in Canada to offset the loss, he estimates his total revenue is down 70 per cent.

Ontario tourism business owners are urging governments to step up the timeline for reopening the border. Vaccinated Americans can now come into Canada, but Canadians cannot travel south until at least Aug. 22, and perhaps longer. That’s not good enough for the struggling tourism operators.

“We need the border open as soon as possible or we won’t be here,” said Ryan Runge, owner of Slate Falls Outposts near Sioux Lookout, Ont., in a recent news event. “We need a plan to fully reopen the border so our businesses can survive.”

More than one million U.S. residents visit northwestern Ontario each year, spending more than a half-billion dollars. Laurie Marcil, executive director of Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario, said members of the group on average have taken on an added $100,000 in debt.

Tinkner said his family has cut expenses to the bone, and are scraping by with government financial assistance.

“Every single day we were looking see whatever loans and grants we could apply for,” he said. “It’s been tough.

“We’ve been living on pennies,” says Jake Tinkner.

“We’ve been working, but we’re not getting an income. We’ve been living on pennies.”

And yet Tinkner is determined to hang on to a dream that started with his father, and which he hopes to one day pass along to his two sons.

“You make sacrifices to live the life you want,” he says with a shrug.

The setting of their resort is both beautiful and ideal for sport fishing. Crow Lake has approximately 30,000 acres of deep water and Lake of the Woods has more than 100,000 kilometres of shoreline. Both lakes are rich in trout, pike, muskie, perch and crappie.

Just west of Atikokan, Quentin and Lori Branch have taken a different tack to weather the storm for the lodge that has been in the family since Quentin’s parents bought it in 1967.

Quentin says when the lodge lost 98 per cent of its business — American fishermen — during COVID, the couple doubled down on their short-order meal service and even started brewing their own beer. On a July summer evening, the restaurant and patio are alive with area visitors who have come just for a meal.

Quentin and Lori Branch have adapted to COVID by offering new amenities.

The restaurant business is doing so well, says Quentin, when the U.S. travellers finally do come back,
“We’ll have to see how it will all fit in.”

The couple has also upgraded their lodge from the traditional rough style that appealed to sport fishermen in the past. Now, rooms have hotel-grade mattresses, more privacy, wifi and even colour TVs. Lori says that’s what contemporary guests expect.

The Tinkners have also added new amenities, such as a new sauna, with the goal of turning the resort into a year-round destination. If willpower counts for anything, it will be there and thriving once again when the next generation is ready to take it over.

The ConnecTour crew is on its way to Thunder Bay. Watch for more adventures from the road.

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