Doug and Helen Webber have established an incredible legacy in the Canadian tourism industry that will live on for generations, not only through their children, grandchildren and Churchill Wild, but also through the thousands of people who have experienced their pioneering spirit, warm northern hospitality and culinary creations over the past five decades.
Doug and Helen provided the backing for their daughter Jeanne and her husband Mike Reimer, when the young couple first ventured into the ecotourism business at Seal River Heritage Lodge. Without them, Churchill Wild might not exist. They have been responsible for, or involved in, the development of at least 12 separate lodges and outpost locations in Manitoba, and have hired, trained and mentored countless students, aspiring guides, bush pilots and First Nations people.
Celebrating 55 years of marriage in 2020, the couple met by chance in 1964 when Helen was driving to the bank in Fort Churchill, a former military base just outside of the town of Churchill, Manitoba. Helen saw Doug and two other Royal Canadian Navy men on the side of the road and offered them a ride. Doug sat in the front seat and was instantly smitten.
Thirty minutes after being dropped off, Doug paid a visit to Sigurdson and Martin — the general store owned by Helen’s mother Sigrun — and asked Helen for a date. Helen recalls that she turned him down and, in fact, couldn’t even remember Doug’s name at the time. But it wouldn’t be long before she succumbed to the charms of the young Navy Radioman Special. The couple started dating and were married the following year.
Doug grew up in Stettler, Alberta. His father, Frank, was a carpenter with Austrian roots from Dysart, Saskatchewan. His mother Jeanne, who was of British descent, hailed from Botha, Alberta. Helen’s father, Fred, was also of British descent, while her mother’s family came from Iceland.
Their combined heritage — never-give-in British resilience, tough Icelandic blood and hard-working Austrian roots — made for an excellent match, and those traits would eventually be passed onto their three daughters, Toni, Jeanne and Shari.
Helen thought she was going to see the world through Doug’s travels in the Navy. Instead, Doug left the Navy and went to work for Helen’s mother. He would later go on to work at the Shell station, the Ford dealership and the Harbour Board in Churchill, while Helen raised their growing family and ran a home daycare. But ordinary jobs could not satisfy Doug’s restless spirit.
Doug was looking for adventure, similar to what Helen’s father Fred Martin had done decades earlier with his brother-in-law, Oscar Sigurdson, when they established a trading post on the Maguse River in the then Northwest Territories. But in this case, Doug was searching for something with a connection to tourism. The lodge business was calling his name.
The newly married couple started out in the northern tourism industry in much the same way that son-in-law Mike and daughter Jeanne would do years later with Churchill Wild. In 1967, on a wing and a prayer, they purchased a rustic property at Dymond Lake in partnership with Doug’s best friend Bob Fortin.
Four years later they bought Bob out and began to build their own tourism business with what is known today as Dymond Lake Ecolodge, home of Churchill Wild’s Great Ice Bear Adventure. The business got off to a rocky start, but with help from the Manitoba Lodges and Outfitters Association (MLOA), Travel Manitoba (and Helen’s cooking!) things would quickly improve.
In 1972, Doug realized that if he wanted guests flown into Dymond Lake he’d have to pay for an expensive charter. Instead, he decided to get a pilot license and a plane and establish Dymond Lake Air Services. In typical fashion, Doug bought his first plane in 1974 and got his private flying license, including his night rating and float rating, within three weeks.
Dymond Lake was tricky to land on, but Doug proved himself up to the task and soon decided that he and Helen were ready for a new challenge — running a remote fishing lodge. Their first fishing venture at South Knife Lake proved unprofitable, and Helen recalled thinking, “This is NOT my dream.” So, on advice from the couple’s Chipewyan First Nations friends, Doug decided to build their own lodge at North Knife Lake.
Doug flew in to test the waters at North Knife Lake — fishing from the plane’s floats — before making his final decision to build on the lakeshore. In 1975, the first load of lumber was flown in to build Manitoba’s inaugural five-star catch-and-release fishing lodge, North Knife Lake Lodge. “A lot of people in Churchill thought I was crazy,” said Doug. “But by then I was so busy I didn’t have time to think about whether I was right or wrong.”
Construction of the first small cabins at North Knife Lake began in 1976 and was finished by 1980. The main lodge building began to take shape in 1983 and, unbeknownst to most, Helen “was in there like a dirty shirt,” said master builder Len Friesen, “filing and sanding and learning how to veneer doors. I think she enjoyed getting out of the kitchen.” The main lodge was finished in 1987 and two additional cabins were added in the 1990s.
“Looking back, it has been one pile of work,” said Helen, who in the early days was often at the lodges on her own with the kids, surrounded by wilderness and wildlife.
Doug flew guests and supplies to and from the lodges and managed guest logistics in Churchill, all while maintaining his other jobs in town.
“When Doug talks about going flying it sounds like he just took off and came home, but that wasn’t always the case,” said Helen. “The first time he didn’t come home when expected I remember thinking, ‘How do I start looking for him?’ All we had was an unreliable CB radio that you could occasionally talk to someone in Churchill on. It wasn’t like it is today. I remember going to bed that night thinking there was something seriously wrong.
“The next morning, I heard a plane and thought it had to be Doug, but it wasn’t. It was my brother Bruce, who acted like everything was fine. He asked me what was wrong, and I burst into tears due to the stress of it all.”
Thankfully, Bruce promptly cleared things up by telling Helen that Doug had experienced a hard landing and needed to repair something on his plane.
There were also polar bears to deal with on a regular basis at Dymond Lake. The fenced-in compound wouldn’t be built until 2012, and not only would there be polar bears at the windows on occasion, early morning wake-up calls for guests required that Helen do a hop-skip-and-jump from one cabin to another, often in the dark. She still remembers using a flashlight to scan the area between her cabin and the one where her guests were staying and spotting a polar bear in the middle of her path.
“I would have run right into him,” said Helen, who returned to her cabin and had to find another way to make her wake-up call that morning. After that incident, she quickly learned to be vigilant — a habit that would also be passed on to her daughters.
By the early 1980s, Doug had quit his additional jobs to work full time as an outfitter. He’d also hired future son-in-law Mike Reimer as a guide in 1981. Business was good and getting better, and Doug would go on to serve the Manitoba tourism industry in various roles, including Manitoba Lodges and Outfitters Association President, board member for the Canada/Manitoba Tourism Agreement, member of the Northern Manitoba Sustainable Economic Development Commission (1991-92) and Mayor of Churchill (1990-96). He would also be honoured by Travel Manitoba with the 2012 Airports Authority Award of Distinction.
In 1993, daughter Jeanne and her husband Mike bought Seal River Heritage Lodge and Doug began to fly for their new operation. One year later, Helen and her friend Marie Woolsey published their first cookbook, Blueberries & Polar Bears. Three more cookbooks would follow in a series that sold over 100,000 copies and found its way into hundreds of camps, lodges and resorts around the world. And into the hearts and homes of guests.
Doug and Helen have played an integral role in the development of Manitoba ecotourism over the past 50 years, setting industry benchmarks for service and quality and constantly improving their products and facilities. They were the first fly-in lodge owners in Canada to implement consistent solar and wind generation technology at their lodges, resulting in a seventy-five percent reduction in fossil fuel consumption and noise pollution. Their unwavering commitment to sustainability and responsible tourism is the inspiration behind Churchill Wild’s business model.
Doug and Helen now play supporting roles with Churchill Wild and bring a wealth of knowledge and insight to the development of new experiences.
Helen’s wish to see the world has come true, but she still never misses a summer of cooking for guests at North Knife Lake Lodge with fellow chef Marie Woolsey. And when Doug isn’t flying from one lodge to another, you might just spot him relaxing on the dock at North Knife Lake, gazing across one of the most pristine lakes on the planet, or watching a school of newly hatched minnows dance in the waters beneath him.
“It just doesn’t get any better than that,” he said.