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Outfitters hope to pull through pandemic

But extended restrictions could spell the end of Alberta Adventures

SUNDRE — The owners of an outdoor outfitter company are optimistic about eventually reaching greener pastures, but are also concerned that extended pandemic restrictions or another lockdown from a second wave could spell the end of their business.

“How we’re going to get through it is, hopefully…I don’t know. We’ll see,” said Steve Overguard, who with wife Debbie has run the operation for some 40 years.

“If it doesn’t open up this fall, I really think we’ll be done,” said Overguard earlier this month when reached by phone while at their fishing lodge, called Tapawingo, located in Alberta’s far north at Bistcho Lake.  

The future of their family-based business — which offers a variety of hunting, fishing, photo and hiking excursions — will hinge largely on how long the pandemic endures, he said.

“We’re really in a bind now because the funding for us, from the government, doesn’t apply,” he said.

They had already hauled up fuel and supplies during the winter in anticipation of preparing the fishing lodge for the usually busier summer season, he said.

“And because of the border being closed, we lost over $100,000 in the springtime,” as a result of cancelled hunting expeditions, he said.  

“Debbie and I are really, really hurting,” he said.

“The worst part of it, we still have to pay the government dues, (or) allocations,” he said, explaining they spend about $13,000 every year on a fee collected by the province in exchange for the right to take non-residents out on hunting tours.

“We pay the government that, and we can’t take anyone out. So it seems kind of unfair.”

But despite the hit to their bottom line with the number of international clients from the U.S. and Europe essentially dropping to zero, they have nevertheless been accommodating some guests, including a group that had arrived from Didsbury, he said.

“We can fly people right from Didsbury to our fishing lodge,” he said, adding the property’s cabins are spaced about 30 metres apart and that there’s plenty of room to stretch out while adhering to health recommendations.

“People can come here and social distance and have fun and enjoy the outdoors,” he said, adding many seem to remain cautious because of COVID-19.

“We had a tremendous amount of cancellations.”

Generally dependent in large part on international visitors, he said even home-based travellers reconsidered plans due to the pandemic.

“A small portion of our business really got knocked down with our Alberta residents, because everybody was scared because of COVID.”

Among the largest lakes in Alberta, Bistcho is mere miles from the North West Territories.

“We’re way up here,” he said. “A lot of people from Central Alberta can come up with their kids and catch a tremendous amount of fish, it’s a great spot.”  

The main catches are massive Northern pike and plenty of walleye, he said.

“There are more walleye here than anywhere in Alberta by far.”

Some fishermen reel in upwards of 100 fish a day. But they’re only allowed to keep three walleye and three pike, with any others being released, he said.

“It’s a lot of fun here.”

Additionally, despite the extremely remote location of Tapawingo Lodge, he said satellite Wi-Fi is available so children can stay connected with their teachers back home and keep up to speed with their courses.

“They can do their homework,” he said.

“That’s a silver lining to it, for us,” he said, referring to the opportunity for families to come up together, which would not have been an option for them if schools had not been closed.  

While he agreed with the federal government’s decision to close the borders, Overguard hopes to see restrictions slowly but surely relaxed as the way is paved to cautiously reopen the economy.

“I don’t want anybody to get sick just for money…in the States, it’s crazy,” he said.

“But us personally — and most of the outfitters in Alberta — we can keep people apart,” he added.

“By being cautious, I think we could really, really restrict the border being open and I think we could go on with our life…we should be able to somehow really watch if somebody’s sick or fevering — even if it takes two hours to get across the border with a vehicle.”

With the crash in the price of oil, tourism -- already a major industry in Alberta -- has become arguably more important than ever to help encourage and restore crucial economic activity alongside other important sectors such as agriculture, he said.

“We really need this. Our province needs this.”

Of course no one knows for certain what will happen or how long the pandemic will last, but “the world needs to go on,” he said.

“What are we going to do, live in a shell for years?”

And although the U.S. is a major trading partner, Overguard said more international bridges would make the Canadian economy more resilient.

“I’ve always said that we rely on the U.S. too much. But it’s an important part of the world, so that’s the way things are.”

Originally born in Olds, Steve said Debbie was born in Calgary, but that all of their children were born in Sundre, where they rest their heads for about four or five months a year.

“Sundre to me is — you know, I travel all over — the best place to live. No doubt. That’s our home,” he said, adding they have a property almost nine kilometres north of McDougal Flats.  

“We’re almost like a Hutterite colony around there! There’s a bunch of Overguards and Jacksons,” he said, chuckling.

So while they’re optimistic about the future, the couple finds some solace in the knowledge that is worse comes to worst, they’re at least not about to go hungry.

“Our family farms around Sundre, too. So we can always eat, you know. We’re lucky enough to have good relatives!”

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