The King Fisher
Close to 80 years ago, Chummy Plummer’s pilot father and hotel-owning grandfather canoed out to the East Arm of Great Slave Lake, at Taltheilei Narrows, made camp at the edge of the water and fished. The fishing was good. So good that 10 years later, they’d built a permanent lodge on the site and started flying in guests by bushplane. They’re still going strong today.
In 1956, when the lodge was about eight years old, Chummy, then 13, started working there as a fishing guide. He’s 72 now and the owner of the longest-running lodge in the North, on Great Slave Lake, as well as four on Great Bear Lake—Great Bear Lake Lodge, Trophy Lodge, Branson’s Outpost, Neiland Bay Lodge—and one on Tree River, near Kugluktuk, Nunavut. He stands tall and fit, and speaks in a deep, resounding timbre—the benefits of a life of good, honest work. Over the years, he’s hosted former American presidents and Canadian hockey royalty, treating them the same way he would the families that come back year after year. We sat down with Chummy to ask him what it takes to keep a tourism business thriving in the country’s highest-cost region.
» I don’t mean any offence, but is Chummy your real name? Chalmer’s my real name but if somebody said Chalmer I wouldn’t even know someone was talking to me. My grandfather’s name was Chummy and I’ve been called Chummy since I was born.
» What’s been the secret to your success? We’d been in the flying business. Dad saw that vision and when I started taking over, I said, “We’re gonna build our own airstrips,” so we built our own airstrips on Great Slave, on Great Bear, and on Tree River. We put 737s down on those strips. We used to bring them up full [directly from Winnipeg], because we’d have the Slave Lake people on it and the Bear people on it.
Geez, we’ve been putting Boeings in since the ‘70s or ‘80s. We did it all. But then when the times got tough, we just couldn’t afford to do that anymore. That was four or five years ago, during the recession.
» How did that affect business? It makes it a little easier for us. It’s harder for the guests to get here, which has cost us a little bit of business. But now with WestJet, Air Canada, First Air and Canadian North all putting airplanes in here every day, it’s pretty easy for people to get here—other than the cost, of course. So now we use Yellowknife as a jump-off point [for all our lodges].
» What first brought your grandfather up here? He owned hotels and a pool hall. Pool halls were basically gambling—so my grandfather was a gambler. You know where Pilot’s Monument is? [It’s atop a hill in Yellowknife’s Old Town.] Just to the left of that, right up from where Ward Air is, that’s where he had the pool hall. It burnt down in the late ‘30s or early ‘40s. Anyways, that’s what he was here for. Chasing the gold, just like everyone else was. He was really a great fisher—and a professional shooter at the same time.
» You began guiding at age 13 and bought the company when you were 30. Are there any seasons that really stand out in particular? Years ago, I was running Slave Lake and dad was running Great Bear and he decided that he was going to move Great Bear from the south side of the lake to the north side (because other lodges were cropping up around us). I was young and stupid and I said, ‘Well I guess I’ll go do that.’ It was 40-below and Ward Air dropped four of us off at the camp up there in an old single engine Otter, and it took us three days just to get warm. I lived on the lake that whole winter. We built [our own ice road and] airstrips on the ice and got bigger airplanes in, but we slept in a caboose on an old sleigh out on the lake.
That was the year the first (one-piece) Ski-Doo suits came out. You know, with the nylon and everything. It was pretty nice, but even then it didn’t block the wind very good, so the gal we had cooking up there at the time—we had some old fox and wolf skins up on the wall, so she took them off and put fur around our parkas and it made all the difference in the world, blocking the wind.
» How long did the operation take? We went in about early March and we had guests fishing the first week of July at the new camp. We moved every building except the main lodge and the new main lodge was built in 10 days.
» That must have felt pretty incredible, to have all that done. Absolutely.
» How did you celebrate? [Laughs] Left there and got Slave Lake going. It was that time of year.
» Your lodge on Great Slave almost burnt down last year in the NWT’s wildfires. This year’s conditions might be just as bad. Are you taking any special precautions? There’s nothing left up there to burn. Well, if you were really unlucky and lightning landed right on the camp—as likely as it hitting us sitting here. But other than that, there ain’t no way a fire’s going to bother us coming overland anymore. Behind the camp, it’s beautiful. The scenery, looking out over the lodge and all that, is intact. It’s just like nothing ever happened. But you walk 200 yards toward the airstrip and it’s devastated.
» What type of clientele do you typically attract? Well, they’re basically hardcore fishermen and women. But then you’ve also got families where the grandpa was bringing the dad and now the dad’s bringing his kids and they come as a family. We’ve got the same people who’ve been coming for 35 years. We’ve got one customer, he’s my age, and he brings his son and now they bring his grandsons. He started coming up here in 1959 and has not missed a year since. He’s from Houston.
And we still get business-business—the corporate guys who are coming up to have a meeting or to get to know their good customers. I think that’s the same as any lodge.
» Do you see much interest from the younger generations in angling? For a while I’ve been thinking that the younger generation doesn’t seem to be as interested because they’ve got their heads into their iPhones, but we do have families with kids all the time. I would say it’s down a little bit but every once in a while we see there’s a lot of interest from the young guys—but though the young guys want to come, it’s grandpa paying the money.
» When did the company get the prestige it now has, where it attracts clients such as Wayne Gretzky and George H. W. Bush? Boy, it’s always had that. Right from when it started it was the place to go.
» Do you still attract that sort of clientele? I won’t say names, but we’ve had owners of hockey teams up there, we’ve had them for years. We treat everybody the same. It doesn’t matter if it’s the President of the United States in there and you’re sitting here—I introduce you and you’re having dinner together. That’s just the way it is up at the camps. Everybody’s the same—when a guy like that is there, there’s more security, but they stay in the background.
» What kind of future do you see for sport fishing in the North? Well, it’s a renewable resource. And we really look after the resource. Even if the Department of Fisheries says, “You can go out and catch two trout and kill ‘em and do whatever you want with them,” we don’t let anybody take anything out of the lake. We’ll keep a small one to eat. As long as it’s looked after, it’ll be here—like the lodges at Great Slave and Bear Lake, those lodges will be running long after the diamond mines have shut down.
Those things will still be here, and hopefully the industry will. The industry’s had a few bad years, after 9/11 and then of course the financial meltdown of 2008 and 2009. That stopped a lot of people from spending their money. It’s a very expensive trip up here. They can go down to Ontario or Saskatchewan or Manitoba just for what it costs to get to Yellowknife. That’s a big nut to crack.
» What does the NWT have over those southern destinations? The remoteness. The pristine environment. Once you get outside of Yellowknife, you’re back into the wilderness and the water is clear. You can drink the water out of the lake. You’re back with nature and the solitude. Up at Bear Lake in the summer, you’re at the edge of the Barrenlands. Each lodge has its own scenery. But they’re all pristine, and you’re back to nature, in unspoiled country.
» Are any of the lodges particularly special to you? Well, when I’m at Great Slave, I think that’s my favourite place. When I’m at Great Bear, that’s my favourite place. When I’m at Tree River, that’s my favourite place. They’re all unique. I don’t have a spot where I’d say that’s my favourite spot.
» Is the NWT living up to its tourism potential? Aurora tourism is doing exceptionally well, which is great. The fishing lodge industry, as I said before, it’s taken a hit with the financial market and 9/11 for the travel. With the security and crossing the border, a lot of people are saying, “Well, we don’t have to do that. We can go to Alaska and we don’t even have to cross the border.” So it’s made it harder for people to do that, but I think they get over that. It’s just the way of travel now.
» What could boost the industry? Just if the economy keeps chugging along and we don’t have any major setbacks, I think we’re on an uptick.
» What’s the biggest hurdle a tourism startup would need to overcome in the NWT? Well, first off you’d have to meet all the new rules of owning a tourist establishment—I’m talking the land use permits, the leases, the environment, all the new regs. People have to really know what they’re getting into. And it’s costly. Especially if you’re talking lodges and you’re outside of Yellowknife where there’s no road. You’re into big-time transportation costs.
» It sounds like you have a dream job. Would you say that’s true? I would say if you own a fishing lodge, that’s about the last time you go fishing. It’s a lot of work. A lot of it is the organization in the background. In the off-season you’re running the office and doing the bookings and closing last year’s books and trying to get everything organized for the next year. There’s really no off-season.
» Great Slave Lake commercial fishers have been having trouble competing with the mines for staff. How easy is it to find staff for your lodges? We’re always looking for new staff. Because we start off with college kids and you teach them how to be a guide. There are no local people to hire in a lot of our locations. So you have to bring people in. We bring people from all over Canada, if they’ve got the qualifications. And we have Yellowknife people, Lutsel K’e people, Délı¸ne people. But it is definitely harder because of the high wages a mine can afford to pay, and the government can afford to pay. You’re competing with the government and the mines for these people.
» Have you had many close calls with wildlife? Oh, we’ve had bears in cabins and in the attics of buildings—a bear goes in a cabin and closes the door on himself, and now he’s trying to figure out how to get out, so he goes up into the roof and now he’s into the next cabin, up above. We’ve had grizzly bears break in while we’re not there and just vandalize the places—just terrible. We’ve had to put down a few bears over the years but usually you can chase ‘em away. I can’t say I’ve ever had a close call. One bear chased me up on a CAT one time. He chased me, I don’t know why. I got up on the CAT and he buggered off.
» How about sketchy situations with weather on the lakes? I wouldn’t say any “sketchy situations” because, as I say, I’m pretty well born on the water. I know these areas like the back of my hand. If you get caught in a situation, you just work your way out of it. I’ve never been afraid—but I’ve been out in lots of stormy weather, that’s for sure.
» Have the lakes or fish changed much over the years? The fishing on Bear Lake in certain areas can be just as good as it was 40 years ago because, again, we adopted catch-and-release policies in the early ’80s. We’ve had people say up on Bear Lake, they think the fishing’s getting better.
» Do you have any plans to retire?
I don’t, really. I know a lot of people are asking me what I’m going to do—my partners are asking what I’m gonna do. As long as I’m healthy enough, I want to keep doing what I’m doing. I don’t consider it a job when I’m out on the land. My idea of a day off is to go grade the runway. That’s what I do: fix things, keep things going. That’s not work to me.
» So there’s no succession plan?
Not really. [Laughs.] No. The places will keep on running long after I’m gone. But even if I was retired, if whoever took over wanted me I’d be up here. I’d keep working for nothing. Then I wouldn’t have to do anything else.