who we are: wendy grater, the river queen

who we are: wendy grater, the river queen

 

Wendy Grater will never forget the autumn day in 1977 when she decided, “It’s time to go North.” Grater and her partner, Fred Loosemore, were outdoor educators operating a youth summer camp north of Toronto. They spent the winter with four friends building fibreglass canoes, sewing tents and poring over topographical maps to hash out a plan for a summer north of 60. “I think back and compare this to how we do things today and it was so different,” laughs Grater. 

Thirty-five years later, appearances alone suggest that that inaugural canoe trip on the Coppermine River was a game-changer. At 60, Grater has the sinewy build of an endurance athlete. The corners of her eyes radiate crow’s feet and her skin seems perpetually toned and textured. She’s introverted and unassuming – the sort of outdoors enthusiast that has experiences, not adventures. But cut to the core of Grater’s first expedition in the Northwest Territories and you’ll find all the elements of a pilgrimage: The endless drive North, the jaw-dropping expansiveness of the tundra, the wildlife and whitewater, and the exceedingly friendly locals who greeted them like “oddities” at the journey’s end in Kugluktuk, on the Arctic coast. “The world was so raw,” recalls Grater, who grew up in suburban Montreal and Toronto. “I loved the fact that you got to a campsite and there weren’t any trees. The space was liberating. It totally changed my life, obviously.” 

Obviously. Within a few years, Grater left the summer-camp business and was guiding groups of tourists on Northern rivers. She paddled the iconic South Nahanni and pioneered expeditions on little-known gems like the Burnside River in the Barrenlands. Soon she was launching sea kayak expeditions in the Arctic archipelago and travelling internationally to guide trips in coastal Greenland. The ecotourism industry was new and exciting, each trip an adventure for both clients and guides. “We were often seeing these rivers for the first time,” says Grater. “We went up there and figured it out. I wouldn’t say we were winging it, but we were definitely working at the top end of our abilities. When you’re in your 20s and 30s you feel somewhat indestructible.”

Grater has always had an even-keel, unflappable personality that makes for rock-solid leadership. Still, her soft-spoken demeanour – not to mention her XX chromosomes – meant she faced plenty of sidelong glances from skeptical men when she showed up to guide a trip. “I remember one trip on a river in Quebec,” she says. “I was leading a group of five guys and their jaws just dropped when they met me. I could tell they were thinking, ‘She’s guiding us?’ But we had a fantastic trip. Those guys ended up coming back and doing the Hood, Mountain and Nahanni rivers with me.”

Another time, in the late 1970s, Grater agreed to be part of a committee of Canadian canoeing instructors. “I walked into the room and it was full of bearded guys in plaid shirts,” she recalls. Her method for proving herself has always been the same: Demonstrate competence and confidence, and the “outdoors is a great leveler.”

She’s used this quiet determination to spearhead an outfitting business based in southern Canada that makes Northern dreams a reality – for her and thousands of adventure-seeking clients. She operates Black Feather out of her home in Parry Sound, a central Ontario cottage country town 250 kilometres north of Toronto. She hasn’t missed a summer in the North in decades, cumulatively spending years in the Territories on wild rivers and spectacular sea coasts. Grater was rewarded for her efforts in 2011 when Tourism Northwest Territories offered her a lifetime-achievement award, effectively making her an honourary citizen. Grater, the outsider, knows the North better than most Northerners.

Two canoeists from Ottawa laid the groundwork for Black Feather long before Grater got involved in 1984. Wally Schaber and Chris Harris hatched the company as a sister entity to Trailhead, their Ottawa-based outdoor-retail store. Schaber led initial trips on the Nahanni and Coppermine and realized he was onto something. “There was thinking that the future was in four-day work weeks and that wilderness was an antidote to urbanization,” says Schaber, who’s now retired and lives in Chelsea, Quebec. “Pierre Trudeau was in power and he was into wilderness recreation. We were lucky. Our timing was right.”

He scored permits to run commercial trips on the whitewater rivers that tumbled out of the Mackenzie Mountains – the Nahanni, Natla-Keele and Mountain – as well as those that coursed across the Barrens to the Arctic Ocean, such as the Thelon and Hood. Fort Simpson and Norman Wells – the towns where they rendezvoused en route to the wilderness – “felt like the frontier,” notes Schaber. “There were people living in the North doing these trips on their own, and I think they were jealous of us. They were keen on what they’d discovered and they wanted to keep it that way,” he adds. “I don’t blame them. But the airlines were supportive of a new form of tourism and so were the other commercial interests.”

Even back then, Black Feather was competing with Northern operators like Fort Smith’s Alex Hall, whose Canoe Arctic started guiding Barrenlands trips in 1974. Competition in an industry as close-knit as adventure tourism is a lot like sibling rivalry: You want your counterparts to do well, but you want to do a little better. Grater estimates that “at least half” of the substantial four- to five-figure price tags for Black Feather’s Northern canoe, sea kayak and hiking trips remains in the territories. The company brings about 150 clients North each year. “You think of that number over the years,” she says. “It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars from us alone.” 

Longtime guide Mark Scriver insists Black Feather has developed a good reputation in the North – largely because it’s become a second home for Grater and many of its long-time guides. “We’ve been embraced, to a large degree,” notes Scriver. “People pick us up at the airport, and I lived in someone’s basement in Fort Simpson between trips. Sometimes you stick out because you’re from away, but generally people are friendly and happy to see us.”

When Grater started with Black Feather in the mid-80s, the company was run on a part-time basis, its business model entirely reactionary. Schaber and Harris fostered a small, dedicated group of clients with almost as much river experience and skill as the guides themselves. “We didn’t put a lot of thought into it until someone phoned,” says Grater. “As time went on, my feeling was that it had to be an entity unto itself. In the mid-90s we started getting enough business to focus on it full-time. There was growth in people going North. [Black Feather] needed more attention to thrive.”

Grater and Loosemore decided they’d had it with Toronto, where they spent winters managing a Trailhead retail outlet, and moved to rural Ontario. They bought out Schaber and Harris’ interests in Black Feather in 1998 and focused on it exclusively.

Nowadays, Grater keeps overhead low by running Black Feather from home. She’s retained core guests by continually expanding the company’s trip options, and played up the cachet of Nahanni National Park to attract new clients. More recently, she’s developed “softer,” base-camp-style trips for older demographics. 

Somehow, Grater has established a unique formula that allows her to spend at least a month paddling or trekking in the North each summer. “She’d rather be on a trip than in the office selling it,” says Scriver. “She’s interested in travelling and seeing new places and that’s what’s driven her to try new things.” 

Grater’s busiest seasons are late winter and spring, when she works on “the thinking, planning, and contracting with Northern people.” A familiar sense of excitement surges like floodwater when the logistics are ironed out and she chooses which trips she’ll lead. “If my job’s done right, all things are in place by July,” says Grater. “Then it’s a cruise ’til the end of summer.”

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