This Canada

No room at the lodge-yet

Peter Carlyle-Gordge September 8 1980
This Canada

No room at the lodge-yet

Peter Carlyle-Gordge September 8 1980

No room at the lodge-yet

This Canada

Peter Carlyle-Gordge

A stunning contrast awaits the stranger stepping down from the train at the CN station at Minaki, a sleepy town 50 km northwest of Kenora, Ont.: ahead stretches a breathtaking vista of lakes and forest, behind droops what must be one of the ugliest, most unkempt stations wherever rails run. The peeling green woodwork begs a drink of paint, birds roost in the faded rafters, there’s not even a bench to sit on. The gone-to-seed drabness affronts the watery splendor. Behind the sta-

tion, on the steps of the Bayridge General Store, native children sit idly licking ice-cream cones. They face a fading sign that beckons to a twisting, narrow road, proclaiming this is the route to a vast and deserted pile of timber, granite and glass where the well-heeled once took their pleasure in baronial splendor—Minaki Lodge.

Chancing upon the lodge in its wilderness setting, its escutcheoned windows staring out to the lakes of the Winnipeg River system, is like stumbling suddenly on Camelot. The visitor steps over high-grown weeds, blinking at the unsuspected scale and grandeur of it all. Here lies enchantment, reverie; it is a place of memories. Within, its cathedral-like ceilings of chinked logs whisper of an age when Chargex and charter flights were unknown. To Minaki Lodge came the dinner-jacketed and long-gowned elite. They came to play golf, to fish, to sip tea on the airy veranda. Sitting in the Main Hall in ele-

gant rattan chairs they penned notes home on rattan writing desks, in the plush dining room they gossiped about the latest grain deal or they snoozed in the Trophy Room beneath the baleful stare of a stuffed deer. It was, for some, an age of elegance and gentility.

The rattan furniture is still there, all intact, but the people are gone, the ballroom echoes no longer with the tinkle of a piano, merely with the footsteps of a solitary caretaker. Conceived as the Minaki Inn by CN in the years following the First World War, the operation began with ill omens. The original

building burned down in 1925, even before the first guest had registered. In 1926 it was rebuilt, a nine-hole golf course, costing more than $1 million in 1920s terms, was added and the lodge prospered. It was the place to be seen and it provided jobs for Minaki locals.

Today, beautiful but abandoned, it lies, like Snow White, sleeping quietly in its jewelled setting; poisoned not by an apple but by changing vacation habits, stories of mercury pollution in the area’s fish-laden lakes and colossal overhead costs. The final blow came in 1974, when the last in a line of struggling private operators defaulted on a $450,000 Ontario government loan. No one could make the lodge pay. The province bought the sprawling spread, including a swimming pool and assorted grand lounges and cottages, for $1.2 million. The politicians said they had plans to modernize it and make it viable

again. Those who knew a thing or two about lodge operations smiled.

Over the next five years, in excess of $8 million was pumped in. A new roof was added, along with new kitchens. The old guest rooms, once housing 225, were ripped out and the veranda was enclosed, heated and air-conditioned. Plans to build new rooms out over the water were unveiled. Ambitious announcement followed ambitious announcement and still the old lady slumbered, and Minakians waxed cynical. And then, as governments tightened belts, the entire project was mothballed. It became a joke. In the Ontario legislature it was branded a monstrous money-gobbling white elephant by the NDP and Liberals.

What the Conservative government sought was a kissing prince, a private operator who could bring the place back to life and ease the political embarrassment. Last April, with fanfare aplenty, Northern Affairs Minister Leo Bernier (MPP for the surrounding Kenora riding) announced that the prince was found —Radisson Hotel Corporation Inc., based in Minneapolis. The firm was to oversee construction of 150 new guest rooms, develop marketing plans and prepare for an opening in the spring of 1982. Opposition members screeched when they heard the government would sink in another $12 million in capital construction and renovation costs—none of it any more recoverable than the $8 million already spent. Radisson was to receive $100,000 annually or five per cent of gross operating income, whichever was greater, plus an incentive fee of 10 per cent of gross operating profits.

Radisson is now working on design plans and expects to announce details this fall. Its fond wish is to turn Minaki Lodge into a world-class convention resort, attracting both Europeans and North Americans. No one, however, expects much activity until next spring. Just what will happen may well depend on an election in Ontario. Says Liberal leader Dr. Stuart Smith: “Frankly, it’s

one of the most foolish expenditures in history. Even if the lodge makes $600,000 after three years, as the government hopes, it will still lose over $1 million a year. The interest charge on the $22 million is over $1.5 million a year forever. How can it ever make money?”

Northern Affairs Minister Bernier is unrepentant. “I don’t apologize for this investment in Northern Ontario at all,” he says. “Southern Ontario has had endless capital poured in by government. I’m confident it will benefit the whole area. It’ll be a winner.” Industry Minister Larry Grossman agrees: “It’s a calculated political risk. I’m a typical Torontonian and I know most people see it as a beaten-up, abandoned old mistake. But once you see the place you become a believer.”

While the bickering goes on, Minaki locals are keeping their fingers crossed. Says Barry Gibson, a community

spokesman who has a business selling crafts: “People are skeptical. It’s taken so bloody long to get to this point and we still don’t see any construction jobs.” He says he has no doubt the lodge could attract guests but notes that the small airport will have to be upgraded, as will the narrow road that links the town to the Trans-Canada Highway: “As for the station, it’s a disgrace, but we’re pressuring CN to do something about it.” Below the station, at Minaki Marina, owner Mervyn Reid smiles at all the talk. He managed Minaki Lodge from 1972 to its closing in 1974 and would love to see it prosper. He sees the shortness of the season as one major problem. Radisson plans to begin with a 180day season, later extending to yearround operations. “But who wants to

come to Minaki between October and Christmas?” asks Reid. “The main problem, though,” he adds, “is politics. If the Liberals or the NDP win the next election I think the lodge is dead.”

Nearby, at the smaller Holst Point Lodge, an 80-guest little sister to the big lodge, manager Ron Simms checks the caretaking schedule. Holst Point, also owned by the government, is responsible for Minaki Lodge’s security. Simms says they still get phone calls and mail from people wanting to book a room at Minaki Lodge: “We explain that it’s temporarily closed and offer rooms here. A few of our regular guests like things better with the big lodge closed. They’re afraid more people would spoil the fishing.”

Back at the station there’s no sign of life. A notice advises intending passengers to dial a toll-free long-distance number to find out if the train is on time. Nowhere is a telephone visible.