The Canadian Outfitters Who Survived 2020 Are Rewarded with Another Uncertain Season

The U.S.-Canada border closure forced many hunting outfits to adapt or close, and 2021 might not be any better

Editor’s Note: This has been a tough year for everyone. And while we’ve collectively experienced many of the same events, the changes, challenges, and often outright hardships everyone has endured remain deeply personal. We asked six contributors to look back on 2020 and reflect on how the events of this year shaped their lives, in ways both big and small. We will be publishing one essay each day through the end of the year, on topics ranging from subtle differences at deer camp to the enormous task of parenting during a pandemic. You can find all the stories, as they’re published, right here.

The weeks leading up to hunting season are normally a joyous time for me. That’s when summer is in full swing, and we’re preparing to host the excited hunters who make our jobs possible. When the familiar faces of past clients and the fresh faces of new ones show up in our basecamps, we ready the horse string and head into the backcountry. Each new excursion is like Christmas morning.

But 2020 was a much different year. Instead of preparing for a camp full of clients, we didn’t know if we would even be allowed to hunt due both to COVID-19 restrictions and the closure of the U.S.-Canadian border.

In my home province of British Columbia, I have made a career of guiding clients on Stone’s sheep, moose, mountain goat, bison, black bear, and caribou. And as a guide, a very large percentage of my income stems from working for outfitters. The harsh reality of making ends meet weighed heavy on my mind, and I was also concerned for all my fellow guides and outfitters who were in the same position. How would they pay the lease notes and overhead costs with no clients? Would we all be financially ruined?

We were held in limbo until three weeks before the season, waiting to find out if American clients would be allowed to cross the border and fill Canadian camps. At the last minute, the British Columbian government announced a strict allowance of only Canadian clientele, and harsh guidelines for operation of the backcountry tourism that was allowed. The Northwest Territories remained tightly shut down, while the Yukon implemented quarantine protocols and equally strict travel guidelines for visitors and businesses alike. It was surreal.

Every Canadian outfitter was thrown into a tailspin, scrambling to cobble a season together and market their available hunts and fishing trips. We depend on U.S. dollars to drive our businesses; now outfits had to make adjustments so these hunts were attainable for our fellow countrymen. Outfitters called friends, sent email blasts to Canadian clients, and bartered what deals they could. Outfits with a strong social media following fared better than most with quick marketing during this short timeline.

Two caribou hunters and their horses stand in the foreground of a big mountain valley in British Columbia.
Many clients were not able to keep their bookings with Canadian outfitters in 2020. Here, a hunter in BC watches a herd of caribou trickling through the valley bottom. Rachel Ahtila

The decision meant outfits were putting together a skeleton crew of guides, and purchasing tags for the few new hunters that could be drummed up. At the same time Canadian outfitters were trying to respond to the massive influx of emails sent by international clients, who were wondering what was next.

Protocols for safe hygiene were swiftly drawn up, and new contracts were sent outlining the guidelines for travel and advisories for clients who could come to camp. Crews were kept in the same small groups to minimize cross-contaminating work environments and equipment, and to mitigate risk for incoming guests. One of our biggest hurdles was finding enough food and supplies for camp. With people hoarding so many goods this spring, it was no easy task to stock up on everything we required. In the end, we opted for more freeze-dried meals to keep our loads light and meals plentiful.

I was fortunate enough to be one of the lucky guides to get a spot working with Backcountry BC and Beyond and help take clients into the mountains. I did a little bit of everything instead of being lead guide: wrangling, filming, cooking, expediting, and scouting because with a year like this, we were all willing to do whatever it took to work. I would estimate roughly 70 percent of guides, wranglers, trail cooks, and seasonal workers were without jobs this fall in Canada. Many of us are dependent on income from the fall hunting season (I certainly am). And this year, it simply wasn’t there for most people.

RELATED: Can You Keep Covid-Vulnerable Hunters Safe and Still Have a Real Deer Camp?

Outfitting is big business in Canada. In BC alone, the outfitting industry normally contributes a GDP of $192 million, creates more than 2,500 guide jobs, and welcomes an average 11,000 clients annually. Some businesses were forced to not operate due to running costs and lack of clientele. At least hunting was deemed an essential service, so we were thankfully allowed to go into the backcountry. With no clients or outfits to work for, some guides took to the hills to fill their own hunting tags with family and friends—the first chance they had to hunt for themselves in a very long time. But even as resident hunters, there were still policies and procedures for social distancing and travel that they had to follow.

Looking back, I think guides handled the pandemic restrictions the best we could. Those of us who could find work enjoyed a most unorthodox season. Some folks who would usually spend months in the mountains found other pursuits, like furthering their education, taking up trades, and looking for any work they could find.

A female big-game guide with trekking poles and a heavy pack rests on a rock beside her dog.
The author with her dog, Dolly, and a camera and mic strapped to her pack. This year Ahtila had to adapt to a variety of non-traditional duties, including filming hunts. Rachel Ahtila

But it’s clear our country needs the border to open, so that those of us who are passionate outdoorsmen and women can get back to doing what we love full-time, and providing for our families. COVID-19 has stopped us from doing many of the things that make us free. And for small businesses, like the one I work for, we have to return to some sense of normalcy to survive. I know traveling is still scary and that there are many unknowns, but I refuse to live in fear. It’s possible to travel while mitigating risk, and it’s time to start living again before irreparable damage is done to the outdoor industry.

This year handed us a pretty impossible situation, and we made it work with the proper safety precautions in place. We still don’t know what the 2021 season holds. But I do know that, come fall, I’ll be in the mountains of BC, doing what I love. I hope to see you at the trailhead.