Métis entrepreneur opens tour company in heart of oilsands country

The economic downturn hasn't slowed down a Fort McMurray-area Métis entrepreneur who is making the most of what’s in the sky, rather than in the ground.

Adventure Borealis will offer snowshoeing, ice fishing, trapping and arts and crafts

The northern lights on Willow Lake, the base for Northern Lights Tours. (Stan Novotny Photography )

The economic downturn hasn't slowed down a Fort McMurray-area Métis entrepreneur who is making the most of what's in the sky, rather than in the ground.

On Friday, Ron Sturgess Sr. and his partner Jordan Huppie officially launched Adventure Borealis, a new adventure company in the heart of oilsands country.

By night, visitors take in the wonders of the northern lights. By day, they're introduced to traditional indigenous activities around Willow Lake, such as snowshoeing, ice fishing, trapping and arts and crafts.

Former oil and gas worker Ron Sturgess Sr. and his partner have just launched Adventure Borealis. (Adventure Borealis)
"We have some spectacular views of the northern lights," said Sturgess, an outdoor specialist from Anzac, a small town largely made up of Métis and First Nations people, 46 km southeast of Fort McMurray.

He said the aim is to provide "a memory and experience that leaves them and Fort McMurray in a positive light - they've seen the oilsands but, hey, there's more to do."

Sturgess, who describes himself as "an oil and gas guy," knows all about that. In 2013, after 25 years, he left the industry, which he praised for doing "me and my family very well" over that time.

"I joke once in awhile because I say that our families have oil in our veins, as opposed to blood," he said.

While he emphasized the importance of the oilsands, he said there is much more to Fort McMurray, not least the stunning beauty of the region.

"People just think it's just devastated by oilsands," said Sturgess. "And when I take you out 15 minutes east up the river, you lose cellphone coverage and you wouldn't know you're anywhere near the oilsands developments and you're out in the bush."

Indoors, guests can look forward to a warm bowl of stew and freshly baked bannock. They learn to make traditional indigenous bread under the tutelage of "five-time Anzac bannock-making champion" Kevin Tremblay.

Tremblay is employed by the 100-per-cent Métis-owned and operated company on team that also includes an astronomer, a photographer and a craft and jewelry maker, all there to enhance the experience.

Over the past year, while the markets tumbled, Adventure Borealis began testing the waters, soon attracting visitors from across Canada and as far away as China and Japan.

Sturgess chuckled when asked about claims that the northern lights are popular among Japanese tourists because people think they bring good fortune to a child conceived under them.

"I've heard the rumours," he said. "Because northern lights do mean a lot to a bunch of different groups in different ways. We are going to be prepared for that."

Sturgess, who operates two other local businesses, said he thinks the tourism venture will also have a ripple effect, giving a boost to struggling hotels and restaurants.

As for the wisdom of launching a new business as the economy stalls, Sturgess is not daunted.

"I've been here a long time and I've seen it all up, down, left and right," he said. " And times like this, where we slow down a little bit - it forces us small business owners to think a little bit smarter, work a little bit harder and do things better. And then hopefully when things do pick up, you're on the right track and you stay on that track."