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Sharing Wilderness Paradise with Visitors a Dream Business

Backcountry Operation Offers Exclusive Access to Grand Rapids

They are a roaring, churning marvel of nature found at only a few spots on the planet.

Set in Alberta’s pristine northern boreal forest accessible only by water or float plane, the Grand Rapids on the Athabasca River were formed by some of the world’s largest spheroid boulders called concretions.

For almost 10 years, Darcy and Shirley Zelman have been living their dream of sharing “our piece of paradise” with travellers in a unique wilderness experience.

As exclusive providers of expeditions to the area, they’ve built Grand Rapids Wilderness Adventures, a highly regarded tourism operation named 2013 Marketers of the Year by the Athabasca and District Chamber of Commerce and chosen as one of Travel Alberta’s Alberta Stories videos in 2012.

“We pride ourselves on having one of Alberta's most remote backcountry lodges,” says Darcy Zelman. “We offer a chance to get away from the hustle and bustle of everyday living, to let the wind blow through your hair and immerse yourself in nature at its purest.”

All in the Family

In the 1990s, Zelman’s parents operated a big game outfitting business at this secluded getaway in northern Alberta, catering to U.S. and European travellers. About 15 years ago, they sold the business and Zelman bought the backcountry lodge “mostly to keep it in the family.”

Not long after that he met Shirley, an artist and photographer who grew up in the area and shared Zelman’s dream of a small-footprint, eco-tourism business that offers guests an intimate and authentic experience with nature.

Soon after they were married, Grand Rapids Wilderness Adventures truly came to life.

“As partners, both in business and in life, we’ve learned that the secret to success is teamwork, a game of give and take,” say the Zelmans. “Compromising is not giving up; it's how you grow.”

A Remote Wilderness Experience

Located about 265 kilometres downstream of Athabasca on the Athabasca River in Grand Rapids Wildland Provincial Park, Grand Rapids Wilderness Adventures offers several backcountry log cabins to accommodate a total of 10-12 guests, with additional tenting available.

There are shower facilities, fire pit, solar power, high-speed Internet and a central cookhouse with attached screened-in deck overlooking the river.

Access is by boat, float plane or snowmobile only. Although the core season is May to September, cabin rentals are available in winter for experienced snowmobilers on their own machines.

Experiences include paddling adventures, boat tours, fishing, wildlife viewing, and tours of settlement remains of First Nations peoples, fur traders and gold miners.

The biggest attraction is the Grand Rapids, just a few miles below the lodge. These Class 6 whitewater rapids were formed from massive spheroid boulders called concretions — some of the largest in the world have come to the surface here.

Learning Never Stops

What started off basically as a word-of-mouth enterprise with 10-12 guests per season, has grown steadily for a decade, hosting a record 40 visitors from across Alberta last season.

“We continually research the tourism market, watch what's trending to see how we can make our guests more comfortable,” say the Zelmans. “We've attended, and continue to attend, many workshops as they become available, with Travel Alberta being one of the best resources in that department.”

The Zelmans have attended Travel Alberta’s Explorer Quotient seminar series, SHiFT and Adventure EDU and are working with their Travel Alberta contacts to connect with international markets.

“All the support we’ve received has been great for stimulating the imagination and helping us grow,” says Zelman. 

“It's always encouraging to network with like-minded people at these types of events. It helps us renew and grow our dream.”

Rhonda Reid, Travel Alberta Manager, Experience Development, says the couple is very proactive at using all avenues open to them, including loading product information onto Travel Alberta’s new ATIS 2.0 website.

“They have been flexible at looking at new ways to diversify what they offer to customers and learning how to create a more authentic experiential product,” she says.

Grand Rapids Wilderness Adventures collaborates with a number of partners, such as the Royal Tyrrell Museum on expeditions down to the Grand Rapids in search of petrified fish and dinosaur bones.

They also work with groups such as Alberta TrailNet, Trans Canada Trail, Paddle Alberta, Alberta Parks and the province’s Environment and Sustainable Resource Development department to provide infrastructure to paddlers and build safe paddling routes.

The Zelmans realize the importance of community and giving back, so they host an annual jet boat rally to encourage families and friends to enjoy the gifts of nature in their own backyard and raise funds in support of local charities.

Perseverance, Passion and Promotion

The Zelmans credit their success to perseverance and an abiding passion to share their “natural wonder” with others.

“It's easy to throw in the towel when things get tough, but you've just got to keep at it. Tourism is not an easy business to be in — it takes a lot of hard work behind the scenes to deliver a memorable and happy experience to your guests.”

For promotion, they’ve relied on word of mouth, advertising, videos and pictures. “But social media is an important part of today's world, so you've got to stay abreast of what's out there. That's not to say that newspaper, radio and television can’t all be useful in their own way.”

They’ve also had great response from working with Michael Short’s Let’s Go Outdoors television and online YouTube program.

An Evolution of New Products

The couple says that over the years they’ve learned the only constant is change, particularly in tourism.

So they are looking to introduce new products such as yoga and artist retreats, workshops on medicinal and edible plants of the northern boreal forest, basic wilderness survival skills as well as archery and axe throwing.

In the near future, they’ll set up a couple of tipis to provide people the opportunity to experience, in a small way, how First Nations people lived historically. They’re also looking to add a couple of “micro cabins”— quaint little log cabins to accommodate two people but with luxuries for comfort camping. 

“We also have a few other ideas in the works, gleaned from encouragement at SHiFT to make more use of our shoulder seasons,” says Shirley.

Their advice to others is to stay true to yourself while listening to what the market and adventurers are saying.

“Follow your dreams, but make sure you dream big. And always remember, it’s all about what makes your guests happy.”

This is the ninth in a 12-part series on Alberta tourism success stories.

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