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Passing the paddle: Churchill River Canoe Outfitters changes hands as it enters 60th year in northern Sask.

Ric Driediger wanted to sell the shop while he still had the energy and desire to head out on his own canoe adventures. He's looking forward to spending many days out on the water.  (Katee Pederson/Facebook - image credit)
Ric Driediger wanted to sell the shop while he still had the energy and desire to head out on his own canoe adventures. He's looking forward to spending many days out on the water. (Katee Pederson/Facebook - image credit)

Ric Driediger has been helping people explore the Churchill River system in northern Saskatchewan for decades.

He worked as a canoe guide in the area and then, 35 years ago, bought Churchill River Canoe Outfitters (CRCO) in Missinipe, Sask., about 400 kilometres northeast of Saskatoon.

The business offers guided and non-guided trips, canoe rentals and paddling courses.

Driediger has inspired hundreds of adventurers, sending them away from the CRCO headquarters and out onto the water armed with gear, maps, stories and excitement.

"My passion is this wilderness that we have, but my passion is in sharing that wilderness," he said. "I get most of my joy — or whatever you want to call it — in life in being able to share that with people."

Driediger's favourite part of the business has been chatting with people when they return from an excursion. The paddlers are typically bursting with an uncontrollable desire to schedule the next trip, and show a strengthened connection with both the outdoors and their fellow paddlers.

"It is the most incredible feeling when people come off a trip and I see that sparkle in their eyes."

These are the moments Driediger will miss the most. He has decided to sell CRCO.

The news was announced publicly this month, but it's been a while in the making.

The right time to sell 

CRCO has a rich history, beginning in 1964. It has passed through the hands of a few canoe enthusiasts over the last six decades. Ric and his wife Theresa bought CRCO from Paul and Nancy Wilkinson 35 years ago.

Driediger said the relationships he's formed through CRCO have made his time in business worth it.

He cherishes being able to swap stories with all of the travellers who have passed through, as well as close to 200 staff members — many of whom became lifelong friends.

But now is the right time to sell for a couple of reasons. The first is his desire to embark on his own adventures while he still can.

"If I keep waiting to sell, I might not have enough time for another chapter, you know? I've watched other people hold on and hold on and hold on, and by the time they finally do sell, it's too late," he said.

"I still have lots of energy and I'm still strong. I'm still able to do what I would love to do."

Ric Driediger is a tour guide with Churchill River Canoe Outfitters. He says seeing people out on the water brings a warm feeling into his heart.
Ric Driediger is a tour guide with Churchill River Canoe Outfitters. He says seeing people out on the water brings a warm feeling into his heart.

Ric Driediger said the best part of his time at Churchill River Canoe Outfitters has been seeing people transformed by their experiences out on the water. (Churchill River Canoe Outfitters/Facebook)

He reveres the wilderness in the area.

"There is not another place in the Precambrian Shield in Canada, or any other place in the world for that matter, where you have a river that flows across the grain of the land and it forms this incredible, beautiful waterway," Driediger said.

"It's these valleys that are filled up with water that have spilled over a ridge into the next valley, and so you have these beautiful waterfalls and rapids, and in between those you have these lakes that are just full of islands."

He also said he was starting to find the detailed day-to-day tasks of the job draining rather than fun.

Driediger let it be known through the local grapevine that he was ready to sell. He talked a lot about it in the summer of 2023 and eventually the right person stepped up.

At the end of November, the Driedigers signed the papers finalizing the sale to Martin and Heather Bernardin, the couple behind Montreal River Outpost, a paddling excursion outfitter in La Ronge, and Kisseynew Canoe Company, which manufacturers canoes.

Ric Driediger, left, has sold Churchill River Canoe Outfitters to Martin Bernardin.
Ric Driediger, left, has sold Churchill River Canoe Outfitters to Martin Bernardin.

Ric Driediger, left, has sold Churchill River Canoe Outfitters to Martin Bernardin. (Churchill River Canoe Outfitters/Facebook)

Driediger said Martin is a perfect fit.

"He knows the industry, he knows the area, he knows a bunch of my clients because they're his as well," he said, adding with a chuckle that Martin will probably encounter some surprises as he settles into the gig.

"It's similar to when I bought it 35 years ago from Paul Wilkinson. I'd been guiding canoe trips by them already for 15 years, and I knew the industry. I knew canoeing. I thought I knew what I was getting into — but when I got into it, I found out I really didn't know as much as I thought."

Meanwhile, Martin said it feels unreal to be at the helm of CRCO.

As he was getting his own business off the ground, he said viewed the outfitter as an iconic business to be emulated.

"To own it now, I've kind of got to pinch myself," he said. "It's exciting and I'm really looking forward to it, and we'll make it our own."

There are already some changes in the works. Martin said they've launched a new CRCO website with an online booking system. He's also looking forward to seeing how having the locations in both Missinipe and La Ronge can offer more flexibility for paddlers.

Martin is also hopeful people are patient through this transition. He said Driediger has been supportive and generous with his time.

"Ric and I have had a really good relationship over the years, and developing our business here, he was basically one of our first customers and has been one of our biggest customers," Bernardin said.

"Even though we've run what some people would say as competitive businesses, it's never been like that. Our businesses — our philosophy has always been: how do we get more paddlers up here, right? How do we increase the size of the pie? Not how do you try and get a bigger piece."

Driediger said he always thought there would be more people travelling to northern Saskatchewan to paddle.

"I really thought that there'd be this huge breakthrough and all of a sudden we'd be just inundated with people and we'd have to figure out how to manage. Certainly it has grown dramatically, but not as much as I thought it would," Driediger said.

Driediger said there are some obvious barriers that keep people away. It's difficult to get up there, considering the unpaved, single lane road to Missinipe past La Ronge is "horrible" and flights into La Ronge are "grossly expensive."

He also believes there are still too few people who know about the opportunities that exist in the province.

"[It's] the best place to paddle and it's a secret. It shouldn't be."

Looking forward

Driediger has been busy thinking about where he will go first this paddling season. There are several places that come to mind, but he's most eager to explore places he hasn't been in years, back when his children were young. What makes the places special are the memories he has attached to them.

He's also looking forward to paddling routes like Missinpe to Sandy Bay, which he calls one of the most special sections of the Churchill.

"It is beyond description. it's just such a beautiful piece of water with the waterfalls and the rapids and the rock paintings," he said, adding the land carries a rich history of First Nations life and the fur trade.

Driediger said he was part of a group of people who fought fiercely against a SaskPower proposal to dam the area back in the 1970s.

As much as Driediger wants more people to experience the area, he's hopeful those who do spend time there understand the importance of respecting the land. He worries for its future.

Driediger sees that the mighty wilderness can become fragile in the hands of careless humans.

"It feels so often like if there's money to be made, it doesn't really matter what we do, and that's really scary," Driediger  said.

"I want it there for my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren and my great-great-grandchildren. I want them to be able to experience the wilderness as I have."