Along the fjord known as the Douglas Channel in northwestern B.C., the winds are at gale force as Rick Thompson, the owner-operator of a floating fish lodge called the Tookus Inn, sets off from Kitimat harbour to close up for the season. Like many in his industry, he has poured much time and energy into building his outfitting business and he's frustrated by staffing problems and the fact that guides seem to have fallen off the map when it comes to government support.

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Thompson, whose day job is working as a paramedic firefighter with the Kitimat fire department, is typical of the guides, outfitters and lodge owners who operate in northern British Columbia and in wilderness and coastal areas across Canada.  

The B.C. government uses the collective term "guide outfitter" to describe them, but in practice, "guide" usually refers to fishing guides, and "outfitter" to those whose clients are hunters. Some guide outfitters may also conduct adventure or ecotourism tours. 

In British Columbia, guides and outfitters are categorized as either self-employed or "microbusinesses," with fewer than five employees. 

Where is the data?

British Columbia estimates that tourism contributed $7.382 billion to the provincial gross domestic product in 2008, employed 131,000 people and contributed $4.740 billion in wages and salaries. The figures are based largely on hotel occupancy rates, transportation charges, estimates of retail sales and the number of visitors to B.C. logged at border crossings. 

The individual entrepreneur or microbusiness — i.e., the guide outfitter whom one encounters outside the major Lower Mainland tourist areas —seems to fall through the statistical cracks.

Figures only make it into the Statistics Canada business register if a business submits payroll numbers to the Canada Revenue Agency, has a minimum income of $30,000 or is incorporated. That excludes most small guide outfitters, who are usually self-employed, unincorporated and have only occasional, part-time employees.

The B.C. small business survey, which showed minimal growth in small tourist businesses in the province between 2007 and 2009, excludes the category "self-employed without paid help."

Even if guide outfitters are not on government radar, hints of the importance of their role can be found in a social impact survey carried out by Enbridge as part of its Northern Gateway Pipeline project. It showed that in areas where almost all of the tourist business is with guide outfitters, tourism provides nine per cent of employment in Kitimat,  24 per cent in Prince Rupert,  31 per cent on Haida Gwaii and  32 per cent along the rest of the northern B.C. coast.

So, what does this mean in terms of business?

A licensed angling guide in northern BC with "rod days" in prime river spots usually charges $500 per person a day or more for guiding services, which often include local transportation but not individual licences and extras such as meals.

An ocean fishing charter can range from $700 to $1,000 a day per person for a guide in a small boat with a couple of clients to several thousand dollars a day for fishing from a larger, more luxurious charter boat or yacht.

A week at Rick Thompson's Tookus Inn usually costs up to $5,000 a person, but the price depends on the number of clients and what they want to do with their time in the wilderness.

The ocean-going charters are being squeezed by rising fuel costs (two-stroke, small boat engines are inefficient) and declining fish stocks, which can limit the season. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that the recession and a decline in overall visitors to Canada in recent years have not really affected guide outfitters since many clients are well-off baby boomers from all over the world who are regular and repeat visitors to northern B.C.

Adventure tourism that doesn't include fishing or hunting is also most often classified as a microbusiness.

Lodges can range from one-man operations like Thompson's to family businesses (which fall in the self-employed "without paid help" category) to large international chains such as Rosewood Resorts, which owns the luxury King Pacific Lodge off Princess Royal Island near the southern end of Douglas Channel.

Left out of data

Noel Gyger, who was a fishing guide in northwest B.C. for 30 years, the chairman of the Skeena Angling Guides Association from 1996 to 2006 and now runs his own fishing news website, says a successful guide is someone for whom fishing and the wilderness is a calling.

Although the small-tourism industry is considered essential to the B.C. economy, especially in the north, there are few figures available that can be used to accurately characterize the sector. Often, this business of rugged individuals isn't properly counted in provincial and federal statistics. 

The Statistics Canada business survey listed just 351 tour operators in the whole province in June 2011, a number that is far too low. The last available figures for what B.C. calls "nature-based tourism businesses" are from 2001. Of the 2,193 such businesses documented that year, 47 per cent of all guide outfitters were found in the northern part of the province.

With few solid statistics to back up their industry, guide outfitters have little political clout in negotiations with provincial and federal officials on issues such as allocation of fish quotas, preservation of forests or the recent plan to build a massive oil pipeline across northern B.C.

Gyger points out it is also often difficult for leaders of industry associations to get members to agree on political strategy.

"It's hard to keep the guys in line," he said. "It's like herding chickens. They all got their own ideas. They're all very passionate. The ministry [of tourism] considers them a high-strung bunch."

Training opportunities lacking

Thompson began guiding part time in 1990. In 2000, he had the idea to start a small floating lodge. He bought a used pile-driving barge and two unbuilt prefabricated log houses and spent the next four years turning them into a two-storey floating structure. He did the bulk of the work himself, hiring skilled tradespeople as needed.  

In 2011, the lodge had a six-week provincial park permit to be anchored in the calm, sheltered waters of the pristine, remote Dala-Kildala estuary, which attracts visitors from all over the world.

On that Sunday in September, Thompson was going to pick up his cousin Cindy Johnson, who works as the lodge's cook, housekeeper and bookkeeper and had taken a six-week leave of absence from her regular job to cook for Thompson for the season. Working as a cook in a lodge anchored and isolated in the middle of the wilderness doesn't appeal to everyone, so Thompson has to deal with a high turnover of employees. One year, a culinary arts student quit after just one week.

Although the community colleges do offer guiding and tourism programs, often, they do not attract enough students, and sessions have to be cancelled. Gyger says traditional apprenticeships are more common. 

A British Columbia licensed fishing guide will often take on one or more assistant angling guides, people who already have a lot of fishing and back country experience who learn how to operate the business before either setting out on their own or finding something different to do.


Rick Thompson, owner of the Tookus Inn. Thompson, whose day job is as a paramedic firefighter, is one of hundreds of small charter lodge operators and outfitters on the B.C. coast. (Robin Rowland)

"It's very demanding," Gyger says. "The ones who aren't really passionate burn out after a few years."

Another problem for guide outfitters is selling the business. If the guide doesn't have a lodge or a boat, the only capital asset could be a licence. Some rivers in British Columbia are "classified," which means guides are allocated what are called "rod days," permission to fish in some of the most valuable areas for a given period of time with a specific number of rods (clients). 

Other rivers are "unclassified" and open to everyone. So, a guide who works an unclassified river with no rod days has nothing to sell when leaving the business. 

Guides often co-operate and hire each other. Thus, a guide with a large group of clients might  partner temporarily with another guide who also has a "rod day" allocation for a certain river. Thompson will also bring in other guides with more boats if needed when his lodge is at capacity.

Fishing and hunting and guiding have existed for thousands of years. Now, a 21st-century factor is changing the business: social media. Where once, a guide outfitter's reputation depended on word of mouth, today, online forums and even tweets play a major role, with clients recommending some guides and warning of problems with others. 

"Guides get into this for the love of it," said Gyger. "They get a reputation that goes around the world with the internet, and it's the honest and straight-up people who are really successful."