50-Year-Old Photos Uncovered, Never-Before-Told Aikens Lake Stories
Aug. 27, 2016
John Rigley wanted adventure, so he grabbed a pen and closed his eyes while his wife spun him around and guided him toward the Canada map. Wherever the pen landed would be home to John, his wife, Anne, and their sons, age 3 and 1, all of whom had just completed a seven-day boat ride from their home in England to start anew in Canada.
The year was 1968, and that pen landing in southern Manitoba sparked not only the next section in Rigley’s life, but also a chapter in Aikens history as the family moved to Winnipeg and soon thereafter responded to an advertisement for a “camp manager needed” at a remote fly-in fishing lodge.
“One of the owners came to our house and interviewed us,” said Anne, 23 at the time. “He asked us a few questions and seemed to think we’d be alright. So he said, ‘How’d you like to see the lodge?’”
The next morning the couple headed to Silver Falls and flew out in a Norsman floatplane built around the end of WWII.
“He flew us over the camp and we looked down into the wilderness of Canada and saw great adventure,” John said. “When we landed on that lake, the first thing we noticed was a complete lack of noise. It was love at first sight.”
For a hefty salary of $500 a month, John quit his job at the Winnipeg airport and brought his family to live at Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge. There were six cabins, the main lodge, a few boats and two generators that were turned off each night at 11pm when power went out until the next day.
“It was completely primitive,” John said. “I see photos of how the lodge is now and it’s five stars. Back then, it was minus one star compared to today. But it was still a special place.”
The scenery has changed very little over the decades, so the views are much the same. Meals were prepared by Anne, with pork chops, steak and beef roast and potatoes popular dinner items.
“There wasn’t a huge a variety,” Anne said. “I cooked, and John served the food. A lot of the guests were fascinated by this English mustard, which was very spicy. We put it on ham sandwiches for lunch, and some of the guests got addicted to it.”
Of course, fishing was the primary attraction, especially back then as the camp was more rustic; the full Aikens Experience guests enjoy today was not available in the old days. For example, all the water supply came from a 50-gallon drum and the planes, while respectable for the time, were not the first-rate fleet of aircraft employed today.
John recalls one guest who was taking a shower when the water ran out. The guest had already spent an extra night at Aikens because a storm the day before made it impossible to fly. As he stood in the bathroom full of soap but short of water, the guest heard a plane landing at Aikens. Not about to miss his chance to get back to his family and job at home expecting him–– communication was more limited in those days––he ran outside and jumped into the lake to complete his shower.
Much like today, however, the Aikens crew back then did have a sense of humor and tried to keep things entertaining for guests. The crew did pull one prank that they likely found more amusing than the guests. A group arrived at the base camp especially eager to take off and fly to Aikens. The pilot was in fact already in the plane loading up cargo, but the guests mistook him for a dockhand and asked him if he knew where the pilot was and when he would arrive.
“Well, why don’t you go ahead and get seated so you’re ready as soon as he gets here,” the pilot said, without revealing his identity. A moment later he continued. “Tell you what, I’ll turn on the plane here and let the engine run, so it’s warmed up by the time the pilot gets here.”
A minute later, he really had some fun. “You know what? I’ve seen him fly it a bunch of times, I’m pretty sure I can fly the plane,” he said. With that, he set the plane in motion and bounced it off a few waves with an intentionally rocky lift off.
Camp itself was also a lively place, with up to 35 guests per night paying about $60 a day. Nearly all the guests back then were American, according to John, with quite a few doctors and lawyers making the trip.
Three First Nations families from Little Grand Rapids helped the Rigleys at camp, with the men serving as fishing guides while the women, without speaking English, helped Anne with housekeeping.
“I was excited to meet a real Indian, so I asked one of the guides to show me how to make a bow,” John said. “He looked at me like I was from Mars and said, ‘We use rifle.’”
Back then, Aikens hosted fishing and hunting, so the men guided for both.
“I wanted to see a moose, so I asked one of the guides if he could take me out. He took me down to the Gammon, did some moose calls, and sure enough a big moose came right out of the woods,” John said. “The fishing was fantastic. When I got to Aikens I put some tree bark on a hook and cast out from shore, and on my first cast I caught a pike. Walleye were the most abundant species, but there were pike, and huge lake trout up to 30 or 40 pounds.”
“It was a fantastic place for our boys, apart from the mosquitos and black flies,” John said. “It was like a dreamland for them, and we got to feel what it’s like to live in the Canadian wilderness.”
Aikens Lake is thankful the Rigleys were good stewards of the property. “We love hearing about our history,” said Patrick Trudel, who was featured earlier this year in a travel article honoring Aikens’ historical and cultural significance. “John is a fun guy to talk with, he has so many great stories.”
The owners of Aikens at the time, Eric and Elsie Carlson, offered to put the Rigleys up in a bungalow they were building in Silver Falls after the season was over. But wanderlust struck John and Anne once again. The couple had already lived in England and South Africa before adventuring out to Canada, and they decided to try big city life and move to New York.
Today, John and Anne live near Toronto and both sons reside in Canada. They still think back fondly of their year at Aikens. When John hears the far-off traffic noise from Highway 401 at night, he pretends it’s the sound of water rushing through the Gammon River rapids.
“If my boys, today, told me they were going to go off into the wilderness somewhere and manage a camp, I’d probably tell them they were crazy,” John said. “But maybe we were a little crazy ourselves. Besides, you only get one life.”