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Home Story Carving a Path to Adventure: Women in Tourism

Carving a Path to Adventure: Women in Tourism

“Where’s the driver?” one of Nadine Ellsworth’s guests asked as she welcomed them aboard her 24-passenger tour bus down in Old Town Yellowknife. Without skipping a beat, Nadine replied, “I’m the driver”. 

“But you’re a woman,” the guest responded boldly.

Nadine met his comment with confidence and kindness, “And that’s perfectly okay.”

Nadine is among many women working in tourism in the Northwest Territories. Read on to hear Nadine, Dana, Wendy, and Christine share their perspectives on the challenges they have encountered as female tourism operators, and how their stories shed light on  women’s perspectives working in tourism. While gender doesn’t solely shape their identity, their roles are sometimes marginalized because of it. Elevating visibility for women in the industry continues to foster greater opportunities for them to occupy more space and gain rightful recognition in the field.

Treat People Like Family

Nadine, along with her husband Ian and their son Christopher, launched Trailblazer Tours in 2019, just before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the challenges, they persevered, and are finally seeing their hard work pay off.

Nadine is constantly amazed by the vastness of the Northwest Territories, and each time she guides new guests, she stands in awe of its beauty as if she just got off the plane thirty years ago for the first time. Guests often comment on how clean the air is, and the freshness of everything around them; they are consistently fascinated to learn that some people here hunt and fish for sustenance.

Nadine grew up in northern Newfoundland, helping her parents with their outfitting business. She would watch her mother perfect the hospitality side of the business, hosting people from all over the world, treating them like her own family, and sharing the beauty of Newfoundland. Today, Nadine works tirelessly operating her own tours, keeping the memories of her mother’s legacy back home close to her heart by sharing the gift of hospitality.

But navigating a traditionally male-dominated field as a woman does come with its own unique challenges. Her secret to success? Surrounding herself with supportive people who share her vision. Without her network, she realizes overcoming the challenges would be significantly more demanding.

That’s why she would love to see the Northwest Territories host a Women in Tourism conference to foster connections and help support women in the industry. She envisions mentorship programs, networking opportunities, and a safe space to share victories and challenges freely.

Nadine clarifies that there is nothing wrong with learning from men; she grew up in a whole family of men, which has influenced her perspective. But for her, it says a lot when women can “get together for a chat” and uplift each other in solidarity.

Your Business is a Reflection of You

Dana Hibbard’s connection to Nahanni River Adventures runs deep. “We’re a family business,” she says, her tone brimming with pride. She was raised paddling down rivers from a young age, learning from her parents, who shared their love of the wild and the skills they have acquired with their children. Her dad loved the North, drawing Dana’s family to settle in the Northwest Territories in the late 1980s. He worked as a river guide, and then as an entrepreneur. He pursued a business license- no easy feat as a young parent with young children. However, Nahanni River Adventures was truly a family affair, everyone pitched in to help. Dana realized that her parents were doing something unique to make a living. She observed how connected they were to the land, culture, and place, and how much meaning can be gleaned from those experiences. 

Over thirty years later, Nahanni River Adventures still runs strong, weathering transitions, like the passing of the torch. Dana and her brother Joel inherited her parents’ legacy, and she reminds herself that “the business is a reflection of who you are – your strengths and unique characteristics.”

Dana often reflects on her role as a female tourism operator. She credits much of her success to the women who have come before her and understands there needs to be continual efforts to empower more women to take leadership roles to express their skills in a distinctly feminine way. She perceives the female perspective as a blend of strength and emotional awareness that can be effective in positions of power.

Dana expresses gratitude to her community as the ideal environment for finding one’s place in society and cultivating confidence. She advises women to discover a meaningful and authentic experience or product to commit to.

“If it comes from a place of love, it’s going to help keep you going when the challenges arise.”

And when asked about how the tourism sector can encourage more women to lead their businesses, Dana highlights the need for societal support to leverage women in business. “If families are healthy, if there is affordable housing, and needs are met at home, that is going to allow women to step up and be leaders in business.”

She acknowledges that there is still progress to be made in achieving gender equality in outdoor leadership roles. She recommends finding “your people” – even people you may consider competitors because “there’s not many of us!”. She encourages women to build communities, seek allies, and embrace their unique strengths as they navigate their careers in the tourism industry.

Both Joel and Dana have children and enjoy sharing the mechanics and the spirit of the business with them, as their parents did. Discover why National Geographic Adventure Magazine recognized us as one of “The Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”

Success demands Not Only Skill But Mastery

Planning an adventure north of 60 in the late 1970s often meant choosing an outfitter among the bundle of bearded outdoor operators, clad in plaid. Yet, nestled within the sea of flannel and facial hair, stands a young Wendy Grater, her sparkling blue eyes hinting perhaps a different approach to exploring the beauty of the North.

Black Feather Wilderness Adventure Company was born in 1972, coinciding with the dawn of Anik A1, a satellite that revolutionized communication in the NWT. Five years later, in 1977, Wendy moved north from Ontario. Drawn by the beauty of the territory, Wendy made her mark as a guide and partner at Black Feather in 1984 and has been moving through the territory’s storied rivers and lakes ever since.

As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated industry, Wendy faced challenges that were invisible to her peers. She often juggled work and home life, something not many women were doing at that time. She vividly remembers when her kids were young and how busy life was. “One summer, I had to put my daughter in eight summer camps so that I could work.” She understands this is not only a woman’s issue; however, the responsibility for childcare often falls on the shoulders of women.

She recognized early on that success demanded not just skill but mastery. “It was a blessing in disguise,” she remembers, “because that meant I just had to work really, really hard.”

She credits Black Feather’s success to this hard work and determination. In 2011, Wendy received the Northwest Territories Lifetime Achievement Award, a prestigious acknowledgment for continued service and commitment to the tourism industry. Two years later, Black Feather was presented with the Northwest Territories Tourism Operator of the Year Award. She was thrilled at the recognition in promoting women’s travel in the North.

Wendy’s outlook revolves around seizing opportunities within challenges and the ever-changing landscape. “If you think of them as problems, they tend to stay as problems, but if you think of the solution, then you’re on a road to recovery.”

This mindset has sustained her business throughout the years, and throughout evolving technological advancements. Despite nearing retirement, Wendy understands the power of leveraging modern communication tools while also honing the value of traditional ways of doing business.

During her time with Black Feather, Wendy opened up unique river routes across the NWT and was the first commercial operator to paddle on the Mountain River, now considered a world-class river for paddling enthusiasts. There is no question why Wendy has aptly garnered the nickname “River Queen.”

In addition to her achievements, Wendy’s presence is as captivating as the waterways she paddles. With turquoise beaded earrings framing her face, and a quiet confidence in her step, she embodies the spirit of the North – resilient and wise. Her blue eyes sparkle, reflecting the shifting light across the room. She notes the significance of body language in indicating success:  for Wendy, women who show confidence in their posture and remind that inner voice of their worth will be able to stand their ground, be it in a boardroom or paddling down a river.

As Wendy approaches retirement after 38 years in business, she has no intentions of slowing down. She looks forward to passing on her wealth of wisdom to the new owners. She is also committed to championing tourism in the North and embracing her health by biking, canoeing, and moving outdoors.

A Delicate Balancing Act

It started with her husband’s love of dogs and has transformed into an entrepreneurial smorgasbord of kick sledding tours, velvety homemade ice cream, a community hub, and even sauna rentals. Christine Wenman and her husband, Rich McIntosh, are undeniably entrepreneurial spirits, continuously finding innovative solutions and opportunities in the world around them.

Their base is in Old Town, Yellowknife, in a charming log cabin overlooking Back Bay,  aptly named the Sundog Trading Post after the original Yellowknife Trading Post, which originally occupied the little cabin. Sundog Trading Post is a one-stop shop offering a space that shares delicious food, drinks, homemade ice cream, events, and art. The couple also operates Sundog Adventures,  a tourism hub offering a variety of winter and summer activities. A tasty café filled with the smooth smell of espresso, Christine and Rich’s business also offers a place for tourists and community members to congregate, connect, share stories, and make plans.

Navigating the world of business as a woman requires a certain level of determination to overcome systemic stereotypes. It also is a delicate balancing act between meeting work expectations and being present in family life. For Christine, this challenge is one she believes many women can relate to. The pressure is undeniable, but the small victories make it worth it, like the heartfelt comments from community members describing the impact that the Trading Post has brought to the community.

The presence of women entrepreneurs like Christine benefits the community, and in turn, society as a whole. This is great news for young women living north of 60. Having tangible role models creatively shaping their communities from a female perspective brings forth innovative and rich communities. For Christine, confidence is a key factor to her success and wishes women interested in business to be empowered by their unique voice and encourages them to present themselves assertively. She believes that women attracted to entrepreneurship possess a personality that drives them to think out of the box and break away from the traditional 9-5 work mindset, which can lead to blossoming creative outcomes. She is mindful that for her, setting personal boundaries and prioritizing family alongside work are key to sustainable success in her life.

And as for sound advice for women looking to launch a successful business? “Find something that you are drawn to, there is a lot of satisfaction to come”. 

For Christine, that was ice cream. She loves it, absolutely positively loves it.