The river of pain, hardship and frustration resulting from the coronavirus pandemic runs wide and deep, but few things on an outdoors level have touched me more deeply than a video I watched the other day on YouTube.

The 8½-minute video, titled “Save Sunset Country Tourism,” sheds light on the plight of fishing camps and other tourist operations in northwestern Ontario, the part of the province that borders northern Minnesota.

Sunset Country is the marketing moniker for northwestern Ontario, a favorite destination among U.S. adventure seekers for its tree-studded granite islands and cliffs and thousands of lakes, many accessible only by floatplane and teeming with species such as walleyes, northern pike and lake trout.

This year, unfortunately, many of those Canadian lodges and outfitters – all of whom rely heavily on American tourism and many almost exclusively – are shuttered because of the ongoing border closure to nonessential travel resulting from the pandemic.

“Save Sunset Country Tourism” puts the scenario in stark perspective.

The video begins with clips of water lapping against the shoreline of a lake that’s devoid of activity, aluminum fishing boats still in storage and the iconic image of a floatplane dropping in for a landing on a remote Ontario lake.

A narrator then picks up the story:

“Sunset Country is the heart of northwestern Ontario, and tourism is the backbone of this economy,” she says. “It has also been one of the hardest-hit industries during this COVID-19 pandemic. Since 99% of our customers come from the United States, our camps still sit here empty.”

Under normal circumstances, the narrator says, tourism generates half a billion dollars in tax revenue each year for Ontario’s economy and contributes $450 million to the province’s GDP.

“All of this has come to a screeching halt with the pandemic and border closure, and we have yet to see any meaningful support from our government,” the narrator says.

The video continues with voice-overs from several camp owners, who remain unseen and unidentified but share similar stories of heartbreak and hardship.

As the video explains, the Canadian federal government has suggested marketing to Canadian tourists to make up for the loss of U.S. traffic, but most operators in Ontario and elsewhere in Canada had nearly wrapped up their marketing season when the pandemic descended in mid-March.

And for whatever reason, Canadians don’t book fishing vacations nearly as often as Americans.

“Canadians make up 0% of my lodge’s guests,” one camp owner laments. “How am I going to make it when I need 400 Canadians just to break even this season?”

Says another: “It doesn’t mean anything to be open to Canadians, we don’t have any Canadian customers.”

I’ve written about the border closure’s impact on Canadian tourism on previous occasions, but it’s weighed especially heavy on my mind the past few days. Some friends and I were supposed to be at an outpost fishing camp about 120 air miles north of Red Lake, Ont., this week.

We’d been planning the trip for more than a year, and watching the video only added to the sense of loss I’ve felt at having to cancel. More than the opportunity to spend several days catching walleyes in wilderness solitude, I miss the camaraderie of the friends who would have joined me in a spectacular setting.

Canceling a fishing trip is minor in the grand scheme of the pandemic, to be sure, but it’s a big deal on a personal level just the same.

A petition has been launched on the change.org website asking Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other federal officials to help northwestern Ontario tourist operators weather the storm and the loss of income resulting from the pandemic and the ongoing border closure.

With mid-July at hand, any hope of salvaging the season is soon running out, not only for tourist operations in Ontario, but in every province that relies on American tourism.

For those of us who enjoy our excursions north of the border, all we can do is watch and hope and pray that the situation improves – sooner rather than later.

“The border closure has literally brought us to our knees, and if we don’t get help, we don’t know who will be around next year,” a voice on the video says.

The border is scheduled to remain closed to nonessential travel until at least Tuesday, July 21, but given the recent resurgence in U.S. coronavirus cases while Canada has “flattened the curve,” I can’t see the border reopening anytime soon.

We’ve rebooked our trip for similar dates in 2021, and hopefully life will be back to some semblance of normal by then.

Some days, though, I wonder.

To check out the video, go to YouTube.com and search for “Save Sunset Country Tourism.” A link to the petition also is available on the video.

Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148, (800) 477-6572 ext. 1148 or send email to bdokken@gfherald.com.

Brad Dokken
Brad Dokken