The Aikens Experience hits new highs at the Great Gray Owl Wilderness Adventure Camp
Jul. 27, 2013
In the early 1990’s, Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge was still operating three remote “outpost camps” located approximately 10 air miles from the main Lodge. These outposts offered a minimalistic cabin for six people on a remote lake. They featured bunk beds, a table and chairs, a propane fridge and hotplate, a wood stove, three boats/motors. Packages included air transportation and gas. The fishing and outpost living was great for people who knew how to fish and were experienced at this sort of thing. For the most part, things went well, but when some things went wrong, the whole isolation theory went out the door. When water got into the gas as it often would at a do-it-yourself camp or when the motors would not start or the propane ran out, it often translated into a frustrating and less than memorable adventure. The customers would complain, as they should, and Aikens would make every attempt to right the wrongs, but the reputation for first class service that Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge provided took a hit every time.
One of the life lessons a young person playing team sports is to “control what you can control and not worry about the other players’ responsibility”. The Lodge has always chartered out to a professional flying service and outpost camps require extensive flying. Not only could it not compete with the outpost professionals and lost money trying, the Lodge’s reputation was often compromised in the marketplace.
In order to get that aspect of the business back on a profitable course, Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge decided to do something totally different. It decided to sell its outpost camps to another operator (float plane service) that specialised in that field. Then it built a state-of- the-art facility in a remote bay of Aikens Lake. The concept of a large (8 to12 beds) mini-lodge outpost on the same lake was so foreign that our application was rejected at first because the regulations did not allow for more than one lodge per lake. The Lodge argued that it would remain the only operator on Aikens Lake and that the serviceability of the new camp would guarantee its guests a safe and enjoyable vacation. Aikens Lake’s arguments prevailed and in the Fall of 1993, construction began on the first full service wilderness outpost camp (mini-lodge) in Manitoba.
Since it opened in 1995, The Great Gray Owl Wilderness Adventure Camp has raised the bar for safety, service and comfort in that sector. It became “home” for many multi-generation families, a wilderness Condo for groups of fishing friends and groups of couples. It also became a rewarding get-away place for small corporate and incentive groups. It has hosted well over a thousand happy customers, some of whom return every year
In this exposé, we talk to a corporate group leader who shares his secret for success with his “Aikens Experience”. We also interview the new hosts at the Great Gray Owl Wilderness Adventure Camp who always strive to insure a superior “Aikens Experience to all who come to visit.
The Guests of Great Gray Owl (GGO)
Over the years, many types of groups have come enjoy the splendid amenities of GGO. Some of the groups are multi-generation families seeking a safe, accommodating and secluded home away from home. Other groups were made up of fishing friends who wanted their Aikens Experience based on their own schedule and pace and other groups yet were corporate guests looking to reward customers, suppliers and staff with a high end fishing package in a luxurious wilderness setting. GGO delivered, and re-invented itself on every occasion to meet the needs and wishes of its occupants.
One of the corporate clients that has returned year after years to the Great Grey Owl is Rothsay Winnipeg. The General Manager, Scott Masterton, sat down with Gerry and chatted about their annual trip to GGO.
Gerry: Scott, please tell our readers about your company’s annual adventure to GGO.
Scott: we have been coming to Aikens Lake and specifically GGO for 15 plus years. We bring a mix of various raw material and finished product customers up here to spend time together under one roof in an atmosphere of relaxation and regeneration.
Gerry: Where are these customers from?
Scott: We have guests this year from Québec, Ontario, Minnesota and Manitoba.
Gerry: How does your corporate incentive Grey Owl Experience help you achieve your goals with these special customers?
Scott: Because we have a very diverse group with it being Raw Material and Finished Product customers, it’s a great way to get everyone under the same roof and on the same page in terms of business discussions. Because of the diversity in the group, it is very seldom if ever that you have them all together. We have expanded the program over the years to include all of our production centres. Winnipeg is the farthest West, but we have facilities in Québec, Ontario and the Maritimes.
Gerry: How does that translate into success for the company?
Scott: Obviously GGO like the Lodge across the lake is a totally “first class” facility! The people and the services are also “first class”. The fishery is “world class”! I can tell you that we have brought over 100 different guests on different trips over the years and have never had a negative comment from any of them. At the end of the day, these are the people we wish to reward and you need for all of them to have the same positive experience. That is what has made the trip work for us.
Gerry: What does it mean for you as General Manager to be in a place like GGO interacting with your guests?
Scott: It is about building relationships. It gives me the opportunity to see these people outside the “workspace”. You’re up here for three or four days and you can talk and interact with people in a different and direct way, as opposed to, you know conference calls and emails where you never get to really know who you are dealing with. This gives you real face time. You get to know the person you are dealing with, his family, his situation and what makes him “tick”. On the other hand, he also gets to know and understand you. It then makes it easier when you do business with these people to have that personal connection. And that is very important in business today!
Gerry: As we conclude this interview, I would like you to describe in one word, your personal Aikens Experience and then also in one word your corporate Aikens Experience.
Scott: That is really hard to do in one word…
Gerry: I know…
Scott: this is two words but I’ve said it before, First Class. Everything about Aikens is first class. From the facilities and equipment to the fishing, everything is first class! But most of all, all of your people that our groups have ever interacted with, from the hosts to the guides to the management, have always treated us first class and have always represented Aikens Lake very well and that is something the organisation should be very proud of.
Gerry: Now for your corporate experience in one word…
Scott: Relationships! It’s great for me to come away from here with a better understanding and appreciation of the people I work with. The interaction with people who are having a good time and especially the face time are key.. With emails and conference calls, communication is fast and impersonal. We know that behind a desk, everyone is very busy, but here, no one has a cell phone, Iphone or Blackberry or any other distraction. So we know that for this diverse group to have great fishing and outstanding hospitality will go a long way in helping us foster and build these key relationships.
The “hosts” of GGO.
Being a host at GGO is a job usually reserved for the most senior and best trained staff. The job description was originally developed by Maurice Ruest. MoMo, for short, was the first host and he based his entire approach on service. “Full service outpost camp” was a bit of an oxymoron in the beginning, but people got used to it and the term itself became a motto or mission statement for those who would follow in his well defined footsteps. From Rolly Ayotte to Denis Lavergne to Pat and Janelle Trudel, the service quotient kept getting higher and higher. GGO has new hosts this year, and you can rest assured that the bar of excellence will continue to rise. Christian (KIK) Dupont has had a “thing” for Aikens Lake for a long time. As one of Pit and Julie’s original hires as GMs, KIK has experience and observed pretty well every facet of nearly every job the business has to offer. He started as a logger/labourer for a couple of years. He then became a dedicated and successful guide ending that career with a two year stint as Head Guide of Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge. A highly motivated and well respected staff leader, he has trained many newbies, not only in the skills of the job but has lead by example in helping them develop caring social and interpersonal skills. In his new gig, he will work with Josée Deezar, a third year employee, who is looking forward to a new challenge. KIK and Josée are settling into their new position quite nicely and are pleased with the results of a very busy early season run.
In order to shed light on the new hosts, Gerry sat down with them and carried out the following interview. Now you should all know that the young man in question is usually a man of few words but on this day he became a loquacious and verbose subject whose every word was fuelled by passion for the Aikens Lake environment and his co-workers. It was not the type of transcript where one could chose what was pertinent and then ignore the rest. So here we go with an uncut and unedited version of what KIK an occasionally Josée had to say.
Re-introducing KIK and introducing his side-kick Josée.
Gerry: KIK, you have been part of this organization for a long time. Share with our readers if you will some of you work history here at Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge.
Christian: My first two years 2006, 2007, were when the big construction projects started. I worked on finishing Canot and the new Caillebo, then the Sunset Chalets followed by Ursa Major and finally the new Workshop. I also had the pleasure to work on all of Léo’s steel frame docks. Anyways…I knew some of the people who were working at Aikens, mainly friends of my brother and sister. People like Pat, Turbo, Diesel and Andrina. In fact it was Turbo who told me there was a lot of work available there. Both my friend DG, Daniel Garand, applied and both were offered a five week logger/labourer contract. That turned unto five months and then five years…and the rest is still being written, as they say! This is my ninth summer and I’m very happy with how things have worked out for me…and for Aikens too I hope. I developed some great relationships that have turned into enduring friendships. DG and I along with André Fontaine (Fonz) were working in a sort of new hybrid job of dockhand/ logger. We also provided labour to the carpenters, plumbers and electricians and we helped in different projects in all kinds of ways. All through those first years I hung out with the guides and went fishing with them as often as I could. I started guiding in my fourth year and did it full time for four years. That was a very interesting time and a life-changing experience for me. People who knew me knew that I was a very introverted guy and spending three or four days in a boat with people I did not know was difficult at first. But I’m always up for a challenge and that was the only thing between me and a job that I wanted so I had to change…I had to master things I wasn’t very good at…I met a lot of guests from every walk of life. I got better with my social and conversational skills with my guests and got better and better with the fishing part of it. And all of a sudden, I became much more confident and that’s when I fell in love with guiding!
Gerry: You have been working here for a few years now. Tell us about your work history here.
Josée: My work history is a lot shorter than his. (KIK’s). It’s a little funny how I followed Janelle’s path step by step. My Mom worked at school with Janelle’s Mom. We both applied at the same time. When she got in and I didn’t, I took over her job at Jardins St-Léon. I re-applied the following year and got the job. My trainer the first year was Janelle and she has trained me at just about every job in housekeeping and bartending and serving in the dining room so it’s kind of neat that she was the one teaching me the hosting duties for GGO. I knew Réanne and we got the only 2 jobs available that year. I love the work and the people but since I realized how much money you can earn and save by working up here I’ve decided that I want to work here until I’m done school. I can save enough in the summer that I don’t have to work while I’m in school. That really helps, especially if you are in a challenging academic program. When I started, it would take Réanne and me nearly a whole day to clean one cabin and now we can probably do the whole peninsula in one day. Housekeeping, serving in the dining room and bartending at Big Molly’s bar are the tasks we do every day and it’s all a lot of fun. I love the split shifts as it gives you time here and there to read, swim, jog…and sometimes to catch up on your sleep! This year, I’m doing a mix between hosting at GGO and housekeeping. I still get to work with the girls on the peninsula from time to time but I also get to work at GGO with KIK and that is such a great experience. I really like it.
Gerry: KIK, you have studying most years that you have worked here and both you and Josée have been focussed on achieving your academic goals, tell us about that.
Christian: I attended the University of Manitoba with the objective of getting a Bachelor of Sciences. I studied French in order to become a language teacher some day. I don’t know exactly what set it off but I knew I was going down a path that would not allow me to enjoy my life at its fullest. I knew that what I really wanted was to build guitars. That had been my dream since I was very young. The following year, I enrolled on a three year program in Québec City where I would learn the craft. I would work here in the summer and then return to Québec. The program was very intensive but amazing at the same time. I learned how to design and build custom guitars. That will be my full time profession when I am done here. That’s about it for me…Josée?
Josée: I started off at UofM for a Bach in Sciences but them I took a few courses at Université de St-Boniface. I really liked it there because of the smaller class size so I transferred to USB and finished my degree there this Spring. I have all my prerequisites for medicine and physiotherapy. This winter I will have to decide where I wish to branch out and start applying to different programs.
Gerry: Why do you choose to work at Aikens year after year?
Josée: Personally, it’s because I can shut the world out. It is literally a place where you don’t have to constantly worry about things like your cell phone, your purse, your keys. You don’t have to answer your phone or emails or reply to text messages because everybody knows you are in a remote area and incommunicado. It’s nice to be disconnected and live in your own little bubble. It’s pretty surreal to be stress free for four month in a row. I know that when I leave here I will never be in a stress-free environment for that long, ever again! So I’m going to take advantage of it for as long as I can.
Gerry: That’s really a novel response to that question Josée. I would have expected that type of answer “Mr. Inner Peace” here! KIK?
Christian: Well Gerry…maybe that’s why Josée and I are such a good fit for each other! For me it’s just working in the wilderness in an isolated location. I love the challenges of working in that environment because you have to make due and you have to be creative. There is also a “huge” sense of community here. The first year that I was here, we were welcomed and taken in by a tight knit group of people who were willing to teach us and share their knowledge and experience with us. After the first summer, I had another family here. There are a lot of things that draw me to this place. Skilled fishermen like Pat and Griffin, unbelievable finishing carpenters like Grant and MoMo, outstanding framing carpenters like Charlie and George, guys like Léo and his knowledge of just about everything, but you know what, if you were willing to learn they would do anything necessary to teach you. That is why I enjoyed being a head guide so much. It allowed me to give back and mentor some of the novices into becoming better guides and hopefully better members of this family. It is true that you’re never alone at Aikens. Josée also working here is a big draw for me?!?
Gerry: OK so we’ve come to the end and now you have to describe your personal Aikens Experience in one word.
Christian: Home…this is where I belong..a little bit…
Josée: For me it’s regroup. Here, everything in the outside world, stays in the outside. The work is hard but not complicated and you can stop thinking and regroup, refocus and refresh mentally for the next school year.
Gerry: Thanks Guys for taking the time to do this for our readers. Aikens Lake is often complimented by customers on all things staff related and this little chat will give everybody a lot of insight on how skills and values are handed down through the years.