Anderson: Plans in Canada are murky as resorts continue to suffer

·5 min read

Like everyone who has ever held a rod and reel in Canada, I have memories that just won't quit. Some feature walleyes, others lake trout, northern pike, Arctic grayling and more.

Which is why, in Minnesota, which likely sends more anglers to Canada every year than any other state, the border closing that prevents travel to Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and other provinces hurts so much.

Media rumors peddled in recent days suggest some good news might be coming from the Canadian government June 21, end date of the latest border closure notice.

It's hoped Canada will at least announce a plan and propose a schedule to reopen the border. Such a blueprint likely will come with COVID-19 infection benchmarks, as well as hospitalization and vaccination targets.

Less likely is that any province will fully open its border to Americans this month.

Consider, for example, that in Manitoba, restrictions in place this week still prohibit outdoor gatherings except of people in single households. Also, no indoor public or private gatherings are permitted, and no visitors are allowed on private property.

Additionally, no travel north of the 53rd parallel is permitted except by health or other officials, and "outdoor sports and recreation are allowed with household members only."

Meanwhile, the border between Manitoba and Ontario remains closed, and in Ontario no camping is allowed on public lands.

Add to this that June Caul — mayor of Fort Frances, Ontario, sister city to International Falls, Minn. — this week said that 75% of Canadians would have to have a first dose of COVID-19 vaccine and 25% would need to be fully vaccinated before the Canadian government "would even think about opening" the border.

Most recent figures show 51% of Canadians have had a single dose of vaccine (62% of those age 18 and older), while only about 5% have been fully vaccinated. (By comparison, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 41% of the U.S. population has been fully vaccinated as of Wednesday.)

Meanwhile, resorts in Ontario, which, like their counterparts elsewhere in Canada, are almost entirely dependent on American clients, continue to suffer.

"We haven't been to our lodge since October of 2019," said Kathy Zup of Ely, who with her husband, Mark, owns Zup's Fishing Resort and Canoe Outfitters (zupsresort.com) on the Canadian side of Lac La Croix, a huge border lake.

Zup said she hopes that perhaps in July, Americans who are fully vaccinated and who own resorts and perhaps private cabins in Canada will be allowed to travel north. If Zup's camp can resume operations next month, it could open fairly quickly, she said, but staffing and maintenance are question marks.

"A lot of resorts in northwest Ontario get staff from Winnipeg, and with no travel allowed between the two provinces, that could be an issue," she said. "Also, we have fuel at the resort that is 2 years old and a septic system that hasn't been operated during that time. We'll figure it out. But it's tough."

Meantime, Zup's is running canoe trips from Crane Lake onto the American side of Lac la Croix and connected American lakes.

Farther west on the border, on the Canadian side of Lake of the Woods, Eric Brown, owner of Totem Resorts (totemresorts.com), North America's largest fishing lodge operation, with 350 beds spread among multiple locations, said he lost $2.5 million in 2020 due to the border closing and is looking at a similar hit this year if the border doesn't open sometime this summer or early fall.

"Ontario just lifted its stay-at-home order today," Brown said Wednesday. "You could have a boat at a dock on Lake of the Woods, but you couldn't put it in the water. Our resorts are ready right now to operate, if the government opened the border today. We have hundreds of customers ready to come. We just have to get the border open."

Brown is among Ontario tourist operators pressing the Canadian government to open the border to fully vaccinated Americans. The resort owners note that less than 3% of Ontario COVID-19 tests were positive Wednesday, down from 9.1% May 10.

"I was talking to our banker last week. He said he had 40 resorts on his books, and 30 could go under if they can't open sometime this summer. I went onto the lake in a boat yesterday to check on Wiley Point, one of our resorts, which I'm allowed to do, and there wasn't another boat on Lake of the Woods," Brown said. "Can you believe that? In June? Not another boat?"

Back in Fort Frances, Vic Davis, owner of Northern Wilderness Outfitters (northernwilderness.net), wonders when he'll put his two mothballed turbine Otter floatplanes back in the water and again fly anglers to his 21 outpost cabins.

"In our area, Northwest Ontario, we hardly have any COVID at all," Davis said. "But Doug Ford, the Ontario premier, is being very cautious. He announced this week that schools will remain closed to in-person learning until fall."

Best, Davis said, would be if the United States would open its border to Canadians unilaterally. Vaccinations would probably be required to enter the United States, but Canada, Davis said, would be pressured to reciprocate.

Davis said politicians on both sides of the border would act more quickly if they had to pay resorts' overhead costs.

Zup's annual resort insurance runs $45,000, and Brown's fixed costs on Lake of the Woods are about $2 million.

"I can't believe I can work 24-7 for all these years to build the business," Brown said, "and the government offers you no support."