Ragnar Wesstrom sits in a high school gymnasium, surrounded by photos of Hagglunds. An ex-marine-turned-backwoods tycoon, he’s a retailer for the tracked military vehicles, imported straight from his homeland of Sweden. They’re like little juggernauts – unstoppable, fully amphibious, with power steering and a Mercedes Benz engine. For $60,000 you can get the base model. Pimped-out versions cost up to $350,000.
It sounds crazy, a Northern landscape crawling with miniature tanks. But Wesstrom, who uses one to chug the 30 kilometres between Yellowknife and his real business, Trout Rock Lodge, believes they’re the answer. “I’m a Haggoholic. I’m serious. They’re my babies. They go anywhere. Nothing stops them,” he says with a Swedish lilt. His own personal land-crawler is decked out with satellite radio, drink-holders, ashtrays and a personalized licence plate.
It’s the annual Yellowknife Geoscience Forum, and as Wesstrom sits here, relaxed in a blue plaid shirt and Trout Rock jacket, with a black Hagglunds cap on his head, he looks like what he is: one of the North’s shrewdest, most eccentric businessmen.
The phrase “only in the North” is overused, but in Wesstrom’s case, it fits. Known as a rambunctious drinker, smoker, talker and self-promoter, Wesstrom came to the Northwest Territories to fish, but then fell in love – with the place, and with his future wife. Only here could a man so rowdy and rough-around-the-edges build one of Canada’s most successful tourism businesses with his bare hands. Of course, he says, flashing a yellowed grin, it helps that his lodge has the best Pike fishing in the world.
When Wesstrom turned 16, he enlisted in the Swedish marines. As a young boy growing up outside Stockholm, he was keen to see the world. The armed forces, he figured, would be a solid way to do it. “Being on the ship, it’s a good school. You learn responsibility and discipline,” he says. “And then, on the downside, you learn how to drink.”
He sailed around the world, all over Europe, the Philippines, Japan, America. He calls it the best time of his life. And, on nights when he wasn’t hitting the bottle, he was curled in his bunk, reading Jack London. One book had a map of Great Bear and Great Slave lakes, in the Northwest Territories. He remembers that page, and swore at the time that he’d head north to fish, something he’d grown to love as a young boy in northern Sweden.
In the summer of 1986, he made good on that promise. Out of the military and the owner of a courier business, he came to Canada and drove north from Edmonton – a two-day-long, dusty, sweaty trip. When he arrived in Yellowknife, he says, “It was like an oasis in the middle of nowhere. I fell in love with the place right away.”
Still, he might not have stayed if it weren’t for an empty chair at the back of a busy bar. He checked into the Discovery Inn and inquired about where to have fun. “I asked the girl at the front desk, ‘where’s a good place to go party?’ She said, ‘right upstairs, at the bar.’ So I walked up and the place was packed, there were no seats, nothing. I turned around to look for another bar and just before I hit the exit, there were three ladies sitting there and an extra chair at the table. So I said, ‘ah, what the hell,’ and asked if I could sit down. And that’s how I met my wife, the first night.”
Wesstrom and Doreen Drygeese spent an idyllic month canoeing, hiking and exploring the Yellowknife area. “She was very beautiful. And she’s a bush woman,” he says. He returned to Sweden, sold his company and, the next summer, headed back to the Northwest Territories. That’s when Doreen took him to her childhood home, Enodah, an island in Great Slave Lake that once held a cluster of cabins.
They started to fix up what was left of her family’s old place, got an outfitters’ licence and, the following year, began welcoming guests. “We built a tent, one tent. And we started to promote to American fishermen,” he says. “I saw the area and I just knew. I thought, ‘oh my god, more people should see this.’” The second summer, they added another tent, and so on, until 1998, when they decided they had to build real lodgings if they wanted to be competitive.
They’ve come a long way since that lone tent: Now, Trout Rock Lodge has dozens of beds, which Wesstrom fills with American father-son fishermen in the summer and Japanese and Chinese Aurora-watchers in the winter. To lure the latter, every year he goes to a tourism showcase in Japan that he says is like speed dating for travel professionals. He gets 15 minutes each with agents from Japan, China, India and South Korea, trying to sell them on why his Aurora-viewing is the best in the world. Sometimes, he takes it up a notch. One year, he says, he joined some Korean agents in their country’s biggest-ever dance fad, doing the “Gangnam Style” dance.
Among Wesstrom’s summer visitors, he’s developed a loyal following – because of his fishing, and because of his larger-than-life personality. One of his clients, an American Pike-hound named John Kuller, gifted Wesstrom two bottles of Two Buck Chuck, a quick-and-dirty Californian wine, on his second trip to Trout Rock. Wesstrom proceeded to pound the two bottles, says Kuller. “He then disappeared, presumably to bed. Next morning, he showed up late for breakfast, looking like he had lost a fight with a polar bear. His face was all torn and bloody, his foot and leg were all beat up, and he could hardly walk. He claimed that he had fallen out of bed, an unlikely happening for an old merchant seaman. The ladies on the staff were not talking, so who knows what really happened. Maybe he got mixed up with a moose while taking a pee.”
Nowadays, Wesstrom doesn’t drink much – two years ago, he was diagnosed with diabetes and gave up his vices, save for the pack of Players cigarettes that peeks from his jacket pocket. All that’s still visible from his days as a marine are a gold anchor ring and his arm-length “sleeves” of tattoos. “We keep it civilized now,” he says, though the lodge’s popular karaoke machine still makes an appearance once in a while.
But, as is his nature, Wesstrom remains feisty. He jokes about not getting a steady paycheque; he’s cagey about how much cash the lodge pulls in. “Five bucks,” he answers with his toothy grin.
At the Geoscience Forum, an airline executive wanders by the booth. “I saw your machine outside; that was pretty cool,” he says. Wesstrom, ever the salesman, quips: “Gimme a cheque, I’ll give you the keys!”
The man keeps walking. Wesstrom shrugs. “You have to try,” he says.