Camp owners rebuild following wildfires

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 27, 2012 - 7:49 PM

Harald and Ann Lohn of Prior Lake cherish their remote Ontario lodge.

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You'd think owning a remote Canadian outpost fishing and hunting camp would be buckets of fun -- and maybe even profitable. And it is, says Harald Lohn of Prior Lake, who owns KaBeeLo Lodge near Ear Falls, Ontario.

When the woods aren't ablaze.

Last summer, two of Lohn's 13 fly-in outpost cabins burned to the ground and he had to evacuate guests from several others and cancel numerous fishing trips as 100,000 acres burned in northwestern Ontario.

"We evacuated six parties because of fire and smoke -- the smoke was pretty thick," said Lohn. "It was absolutely the worst thing to happen to us in the 30 years we've owned the business. I had to call guests and tell them not to bother coming. I had no place to put them."

Added Lohn: "It puts your life in perspective."

Six of his cabins -- often the only structures on remote wilderness lakes -- were saved by Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources firefighters, who set up sprinkler systems using lake water and pumps. In all, around 15,000 people fought the fires, Lohn said.

The nightmare began in mid- July when lightning ignited the tinder-dry woods, and the fires lasted all summer.

"The last firefighter left in September," he said.

Lohn already has rebuilt one cabin on a partially burned lakeside, but he won't bother to rebuild on Carillion Lake.

"The whole lake was fried," he said. "Every tree around the lake burned."

Fortunately, Lohn had insurance to cover the fire damage and loss of business. "We should be OK," he said. "It was the longest lasting and clearly the most devastating thing to happen to us, but as I tell people, we're open for business, and we're stronger than ever."

Lohn and his wife, Ann, will be trying to drum up business at the Northwest Sportshow this week, their 30th consecutive show.

Not all roses

While last summer's fire was a disaster, Canadian resorts and outposts have faced other woes in recent years: The recession, the declining value of the dollar, high gas prices and border-crossing issues for those with minor crimes.

"Since 2001, the number of people crossing the border has dropped 40 percent," Lohn said. "We probably hit rock bottom in 2009 -- they just weren't coming."

His business was down 25 to 30 percent over the past few years.

But things improved slightly in 2010, and 2011 was looking better -- until the fires. Lohn is confident business will continue to rebound in 2012.

For starters, there's the continued allure of a remote wilderness fishing camp -- which has attracted anglers for generations.

"You're remote and isolated, there's fresh air, clean water, no computers or telephones -- and all that wilderness," Lohn said. "And there's fishing people can only dream about."

But times have changed.

"It used to be these fly-in fishing trips were probably 100 percent male," he said. "Now we're seeing more women and families with children. I'd say one-third or maybe one-half of our groups entail a woman or family. We even have all- women groups."

Still a dream job

For Lohn, 68, the business has been a family affair. "My son and daughter were raised at the lodge," he said.

And despite last summer's setback, Lohn said he still enjoys the business and has no plans to retire.

"I wouldn't know what else to do," he said. "It's a lot of work, but it's a fun business. And you meet the best people in the world."

He'll head from Prior Lake to Ontario in May and return in October, after the moose, bear and grouse hunting seasons. Sound fun? It is, Lohn says. But just because he spends five months in the wilderness doesn't mean he gets to hunt and fish a lot.

"In 30 years, I've been moose hunting twice, and I don't think I got out fishing at all last summer," he said.

This summer, he's hoping the only orange glow he sees on the horizon is a sunset -- not a forest fire.

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com

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