If living on the edge of wilderness and helping people explore the outdoors sounds like fun, a career as an outfitter might be just the job for you.
Matt and Cassidy Ritter manage Voyageur Canoe Outfitters, a final stop at the end of Minnesota’s Gunflint Trail and a jumping off point in most every direction for the east side of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, including two entry points right off the property’s dock on the Seagull River.
The husband and wife team are in their sixth year leading operations at the outfitters, a place they’ve come to know and love through all four seasons. And earlier this year, the pair became minority owners in the business, ensuring Voyageur Canoe Outfitters will continue providing excellent customer service for years to come.
Voyageur Canoe Outfitters has been in operation since 1961, when Don and Opal Enzenauer started the business. In 1993, Enzenauers sold the business to Mike and Sue Prom.
The Proms have operated Voyageur since but have also ventured into the microbrewery business, starting Voyageur Brewing in downtown Grand Marais. The brewery and the outfitter business are separated by nearly 60 miles of the Gunflint Trail, and the brewery has flourished, requiring more of the Proms’ attention, hence the hiring of Ritters to manage the outfitting business.
Voyageur Canoe Outfitter’s first year under the Proms outfitted around 10 trips. Today, Voyageur Outfitters sends out around 5,000 people each year.
“The middle of July through the middle of August is as busy as the rest of the summer combined,” Matt Ritter told me. “People want warm weather but they also want bugs to be at a minimum.”
Ritter says October, November, and December constitute the offseason, when visitors are scarce. But Christmas through April brings a busier pace to the property.
“You’ve got cabin rentals, people coming up for winter trips, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and ice fishing,” he said. “We’re also selling older equipment and placing orders for new gear. Permit reservations come online in January, so you’re on the phone with people booking trips.”
May and June bring a few parties for trips, after the lakes open and especially after fishing opener. Throughout it all, Voyageur Canoe Outfitters offers a variety of services, including wilderness permitting, issuing licenses, renting or selling camping supplies, clothing, and fishing equipment, and giving rides and tows with vehicles and boats.
Advertising services and attracting new clients has changed incredibly since the Proms, fresh out of college and new business owners, traveled to sport shows to book more trips. Today, new clients are reached on social media, with some work by Matt, Cassidy and the rest of the Voyageur team.
“As much as our jobs are to take care of buildings, staff, equipment, and clients, social media and promotion is a part of the job now, too,” Matt said. “You really need to know how to advertise and market yourself. We’re partnering with outdoor gear companies like Duluth Pack and Granite Gear and working with influencers that help us extend our reach.
“We participated in a Reddit Ask Me Anything to help people learn about the Boundary Waters and canoe trips. All the exposure helps you find new customers. I think today Voyageur Canoe Outfitters has brand value.”
New Voyageur Canoe Outfitters customers are looking for an experience, which is exactly what a wilderness camping trip offers. In the 1990s, Ritter said, the usual outfitted trip was five or six days. Today’s groups are heading out for only three or four days, a reflection of different needs and expectations, less free time, or the chance to fit more trips into limited vacation time.
Returning clients are very Midwestern, but some states like Indiana and Kentucky send a lot of visitors to Voyageur Canoe Outfitters and their end of the BWCA. The Ritters also note they get a fair amount of Europeans who fly in for a wilderness camping experience.
Whether you’re an experienced wilderness camper just looking for jumping off points or a tow, or are new to the BWCA, Voyageur has you covered. New folks can call and get information from the Ritters and the rest of the summer staff on what to pack and what to leave behind.
Food and gear can be bought and rented. Heck, you can even get a paddling tutorial on the docks.
Matt and Cassidy put in long days, up some days before the sun and working well into the night. They help neighbors and guests and do whatever is needed, from cooking and cleaning, to booking and reservations, to equipment maintenance and every job in between.
“Some days you’re just exhausted, but you look out over this beautiful place and there is nowhere else you’d rather be,” Matt said. “Or you help someone by answering an email or a phone call. Even if they don’t book with you, you still helped that person experience one of the most beautiful places in the world.”
Scott Mackenthun is an outdoors enthusiast who has been writing about hunting and fishing since 2005. He resides in New Prague and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.