Randy Engen was in his early 20s and fresh off a stint in the U.S. Army when he joined his parents and wife, Verdean, on a 1971 fishing trip to the Churchill River in northern Saskatchewan.
Engen, of Tolna, N.D., had fished northern Saskatchewan with his dad, Milo, several times in the past, and he liked the rugged wilderness country.
It was on that long-ago fishing trip to the Churchill River, Engen recalls, that he brought up the idea of starting a wilderness lodge for guided fishing and moose hunting trips.
Through a land prospector contact in LaRonge, Sask, which was basically the end of the road in those days, Engen learned a commercial lease was available on Reindeer Lake.
Engen’s dad, a banker in Tolna, went along with the idea of buying the lease.
“I’d been thinking about it for a long time,” he said. “And with his help, I was able to find financial support, and I think two weeks later, in late June, we were there.”
So began Lawrence Bay Lodge, a camp on Reindeer Lake accessible only by boat or floatplane from Southend, Sask., about 930 miles from Grand Forks.
This summer, Lawrence Bay Lodge marks its 50th season. In an industry where camp operators come and go, Lawrence Bay Lodge has persevered and remains a family business in the truest sense of the word. Engen’s son Phil, 43, handles all of the bookings and day-to-day operations of the lodge, a job that includes overseeing a staff of about 15 Cree Indian guides. Daughter Mindy, 36, manages the kitchen and maid staff, orders all of the groceries and maintains the inventory of clothing and other souvenirs available at the lodge.
A certified floatplane pilot, Randy Engen says he has stepped back from the day-to-day operations but remains involved with the flying and customer service at camp. The task of keeping a lodge in the middle of the wilderness running smoothly and maintaining the Cessna 180 and DeHavilland Beaver floatplanes the camp owns never ends, he says.
“When you’re there, there’s something all the time that you need to think about or address some way,” Engen, 71, said. “(Phil and Mindy) are doing a very good job. When people ask, ‘How are you involved now?’ I say I pour coffee, fix toilets and fly the airplane.”
That family connection is a big reason for the camp’s longevity, Phil Engen says. All of their respective families live in Tolna during the offseason.
“If someone calls us up who had been there five years ago, I’ll usually be able to tell them without looking it up what guide they had,” he said. “We know everybody, and we’re the ones booking the trips here in the North Dakota office in the winter, but then we’re also the ones up there operating the camp.
“You’re not booking through somebody and then having somebody else up there.”
Known for big northern pike, lake trout and the occasional arctic grayling, Reindeer Lake covers more than 2,500 square miles in northern Saskatchewan and a small portion of northwest Manitoba. Lawrence Bay Lodge is an “American Plan” camp, meaning guests are fully guided, and all meals are provided, including a shore lunch the Cree guides prepare on the lake.
With an annual allocation of 12 moose tags, Lawrence Bay Lodge also is the largest moose outfitter in Saskatchewan, Phil Engen says.
Repeat business represents a high portion of their clientele, some of whom have been coming to Lawrence Bay Lodge more than 30 years, Randy Engen says. With nine guest cabins, the camp can handle upwards of 30 people at capacity.
“I honestly don’t know how you can market enough to fill a camp without a high repeat,” he said. “It’s tough. I just think we really do our best to take care of people.”
The Cree guides also are crucial to the camp’s success, Randy said. Knowledgeable in the ways of the lake and the wilderness, the guides are a big reason lodge guests regularly catch northern pike from 18 pounds to upwards of 30 pounds, he says.
“They just know things -- they do,” he said. “When it comes to big northerns, they’re just magic. The (Cree) guides are really important, too, and with the guides, you have to look at a lot of things from what their point of view might be because we grew up in a different world than they did.”
Now … and then
Lawrence Bay Lodge today features a log lodge completed in 2003 that is the centerpiece of the camp, where guests gather for meals and socializing. The Engens also operate two outpost camps on nearby remote lakes, where guests are on their own for fishing and meals.
Wi-fi internet access and a microwave cellphone tower mean Lawrence Bay Lodge no longer is cut off from the outside world, despite its remote location.
“Even 10 or 15 years ago, it was hard for people to call,” Phil Engen said. “Now, people are Skyping home and Face Timing when they’re sitting in the lodge.”
It’s quite a change from the early years, Randy Engen recalls.
“There were a couple of old cabins, that’s all there was” in 1971, he said. “And I think we had two boats and one old Johnson 5-horse motor, which never ran, so we ended up buying a couple of 20-horse Mercurys, and that’s how we started.”
Like the camp itself, business gradually expanded.
“As far as people goes, we had four moose hunters in the fall of ‘71, and that was all we had,” he said. “In ‘72, we had 37 people; ‘73, we had 73 people; and after that, it just kind of exploded.”
The season begins in early June, with a break in August before winding down in late September after moose hunting ends. The Engens also farm about 2,000 acres back in Tolna. Mindy’s husband, Lee Smith, splits his time between farming and helping at the lodge.
“The lodge is the bread and butter, and the farm was more of a hobby, but now it’s turned into a big thing, too,” Phil Engen said.
Despite the camp’s longevity, there have been some tough times, Randy Engen says. In September 2001, his wife, Verdean, had a brain aneurysm in camp late one night and had to be taken by boat to Southend and then air-lifted some 300 miles to Saskatoon, Sask., where she died the next day, Engen says.
“That was tough,” he said. “When we started, there wasn’t a chance that I would have made it without her supporting me. It wouldn’t have happened if we wouldn’t have had the teamwork we had.”
Then, in July 2002, the original lodge burned to the ground with a near-full camp.
“I was pretty well ready to hang it up at that point,” Randy Engen said. “But then a day or two later, we were figuring out a way to rebuild the lodge, and we did.”
They set up an outfitter tent to serve as a makeshift lodge for the first 10 days or so after the fire, later moving to another building on the site that had a big fridge and two 30-inch ranges, he said. They started rebuilding the lodge in August 2002, had it enclosed by October, and the new lodge was ready when the 2003 season began in June.
Building the lodge took 3½ semi-truck loads of materials and “many hundreds” of trips by boat for the 30-mile trip from the floatplane base in Southend to the camp.
“It turned out good, but that was challenging,” he said. “If there’s a blessing in disguise that’s probably one of them.”
As Lawrence Bay Lodge enters its 50th season, Phil Engen says they’re looking to the future by replacing the guest cabins at a rate of one or two every year and improving and refurbishing their outpost cabins. This past year, Lawrence Bay Lodge also replaced its fleet of guide boats with new 18-foot Lund SSV fishing camp boats, specifically designed for the rigors of daily guide use.
Such is life for this wilderness family.
“I’d say it’s all a package of why we’ve managed to stay in business 50 years, and almost all the other lodges have had 10 to 15 owners over those years,” Phil Engen said. “It’s all our family knows. It’s all we wanted to do.”
On the web: lawrencebay.com.