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Outfitters’ struggles impact region

Arthur and Debbie Ryan of Mountain Top Outfitters are among the tourism businesses hit hard by COVID-19. – © Rosalyn Roy

CODROY VALLEY – There is an enticing smell of freshly baked homemade bread wafting through the Silver Sands restaurant. Rows of golden loaves, still warm to the touch, line the kitchen island countertop, but while some will get shipped into a hunting camp belonging to Mountain Top Outfitters, others will be frozen and likely served for personal consumption.

Like so many other companies dependent on tourism, Mountain Top Outfitters is struggling this year. So is the Silver Sands Restaurant, which benefits greatly by providing food to the outfitters and serving tourists who roll through area every year from August through December.

The two businesses, which have been operating for decades, are owned and operated by Arthur and Debbie Ryan. Arthur started working as a guide in his father’s outfitting business before he was even a teenager. Debbie usually serves as a guide and a cook, often preparing food for the camps in the Silver Sands kitchen.

About 20 years ago after taking over the company, Arthur began expanding Mountain Top Outfitting, eventually establishing nine camps in various areas around the Southwest Coast.

“It’s destroyed this year,” says Arthur about his tourism. “I think it’s about 200 hunters I lost.”

Most of Arthur’s hunters are Americans, and there are Canadians from Ontario and Quebec who come each year. He has managed to accommodate a few from within the Atlantic bubble after some targeted advertising, but not many. He’s been offering a significant reduction in his pricing because at this point he’s just looking to reduce his losses and stay afloat until things get back to normal.

Thankfully his hunters seem to be on board.

“I give them a choice. Do they want a deposit returned or do they want to carry over to next year?,” offers Arthur. Some choose to get reimbursed but for now most would rather defer to next year. “They want to carry over because they’re scared that if they don’t carry over they won’t get a spot next year. They might have to wait two or three years.”

The couple have been hoping that hunters from Ontario and Quebec will be able to come in for what remains of the season, but there has been a recent uptick of COVID-19 cases reported in both of those provinces. Fearing a resurgence or a second wave, officials there are already debating more lockdowns.

“We’re desperate to try to salvage something,” admits Arthur. “With Ontario, Quebec and Alberta we’ve probably got a third, maybe a quarter, of our hunters – probably 50 or 60. But if they don’t open that up I’ve got to start sending deposits back again.”

Over and above the concern for their own operation, the Ryans are worried for their staff and businesses that benefit from their hunters. Butchers that handle the game meats, gas stations and stores that supply the outfitters are also being hit because the hunters just can’t come.

“You’ve probably got, just in this general area, this valley, there’s probably 600 hunters come in here through outfitters,” estimates Arthur. “This is where the money comes. It stays in this valley. We spend it here.”

Mountain Top spends anywhere from $50 to $60 thousand every year for its camp, and because he had planned on building, Arthur figures that would have likely increased to $100 thousand to gear up had this season gone as planned.

“There was going to be a lot of extra stuff and (we) just dropped it to nil,” he says. “A lot of outfitters going bankrupt.”

Arthur says that’s not his personal opinion, but that he’s been reaching out via the Outfitters Association and learned that there are operators that cannot continue because of this lost season.

“That’s ones that invested in the last two or three years,” shares Arthur. “They put everything on the line and they’re finished. They’re gone.”

That represents a significant blow for what was, prior to COVID-19, a healthy tourism business for not only the region but for the province. American tourism means an influx of American dollars into the Canadian economy from the moment hunters cross the border until they leave.

Arthur says the government has offered some help by offering a loan with deferred payments, but he’s not interested in taking on another payment, even if it only starts two years from now. Also, he’s never had government help for his business before and he’s not looking for it now.

“They’re talking about some kind of a wage subsidy, but you know a wage subsidy when you can’t hire anybody on, what’s the good of a wage subsidy?” he asks rhetorically. “There’s no work for them. There’s very little.”

During the season’s peak, Mountain Top will employ about 30 people. This year the outfitter has managed to retain only four.

Arthur admits that if the pandemic had struck in January instead he’d have not bothered with the season at all. By laying in supplies to repair the camps he took on payments that he still has to make with or without the hunters.

“If I go under I go under,” says Arthur, who won’t speculate on the future. “I don’t know. I just take it a day at a time.”

Also worrying the Ryans is the Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council’s (WERAC) plan to expand protected areas in the region, including those where he has some of his camps. He fears that once the areas are designated as environmentally protected, he won’t be able to repair his camps anymore or drive his ATVs in and out with tourists and supplies.

“I phoned that group, WERAC, and said, ‘Am I going to be allowed to hunt in Cape St. John?’,” recalls Arthur. “And they wouldn’t answer me.”

WERAC has come under fire recently in the media for its plan to classify 32 areas of the province as protected, prompting more than one group to dedicate a Facebook page to stopping them. The plan is not yet implemented, however, and will require numerous public meetings before the provincial government will make a final decision about those areas.

Until Oct. 1st, the public is invited to provide feedback via the WERAC website at: https://www.engagenl.ca/engagement-initiatives/home-nature-protected-areas-plan-island-newfoundland.

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