The History of Algonquin Outfitters
In The Beginning
Algonquin Outfitters opened in 1961, with one location in Oxtongue Lake, Ontario. Bill Swift Sr. (better known as Swifty, Mean Dude or Meanest) and Dave Wainman, a former park ranger, started the business. The partners’ first plan had been to locate the outfitting business in Algonquin Park, at Cache Lake. The late Jack Hayden, of the Blue Spruce Inn, offered his friends a small piece of land in Oxtongue Lake, a newly developed cottage and resort area just outside the park. Swifty and Wainman realized that operating costs would be much lower at Oxtongue Lake and bought the land. Hindsight has shown that this was the right decision. The front section of the Oxtongue Lake store was the original building, located at what is now the corner of Hwy 60 and Algonquin Outfitters Road.
The first rental canoes were 40 cedar-canvas Chestnuts, delivered by train from the factory in Fredericton, NB. When Hwy 60 was paved and expanded, the building had to be moved and an additional parcel of land was purchased from the Hayden family. The building was moved to its present site and there have been about six additions over the years. A few years later, the Swift family bought Dave Wainman’s share of the business. Jack and Peggy Hurley later became partners and managers for a period of time in the 70s and 80s. Peggy still helps out in the outfitting room from time to time and their sons Alex and Brent have been valuable staff members and canoe trip guides.
For the first 30 years of operation, Algonquin Outfitters was a seasonal business with one location, specializing in canoe rentals and complete outfitting for Algonquin Park canoe trips. In the early days, there was even a snack bar in the store serving burgers and fries (the exhaust fan is all that remains). Most of the staff lived on the property and a full-time cook served meals in the “cook shack.” Retail items consisted primarily of t-shirts, fishing tackle, some camping supplies and a few canoe paddles.
Being the first outfitter to offer lightweight Kevlar canoes, AO was a trend-setter in Algonquin Park. Most of the original Kevlar rental canoes were made by Mad River Canoe, then located in Waitsfield, Vermont. At that time there were very few, if any, Canadian companies building good-quality lightweight tripping canoes. In the 1980s, as Swift brothers Rich and Bill became more involved in the company, some new dimensions were added to the business. The retail side of the store began to expand as Rich and his wife Sue sought out more modern camping equipment and clothing to offer to AO’s customers. In response to the popularity of Kevlar canoes, the Swift Canoe Company started up during those years, originally building Sawyer Canoes, a popular US brand, under license. In the late 80s and early 90s, it was clear that there was a need for a canoe designed specifically for Algonquin Park canoe tripping. The first model designed and built by the Swift Canoe Company, the Kipawa, is still in production and is our most requested rental canoe. The original canoe factory was located in the building that now houses our canoe repair shop and the Swift sales office at Oxtongue Lake.
In the late 1980s, AO expanded in several other ways. Jake Pigeon, one of the few people who can truly claim to have grown up in Algonquin Park, was asked to take over the Brent Store by its former owner, Gerry McGaughy. Jake made an arrangement with AO to provide outfitting services at that location. The Brent Store is unique in Algonquin Park in that it is privately run and sits on land owned by the Canadian National Railway. All other outfitting stores in the park (like the Portage Store and our Opeongo Store) are operated by private businesses, but the property is owned by the government and the store is run under contract to Ontario Parks. Speaking of Opeongo, AO won the contract to run this concession in 1989 and has held it since then. Jerry Schmanda, who had worked seasonally at AO prior to this, has managed the Opeongo Store since 1989. Around 1990, with both Jerry and Rich now working year round, the Oxtongue Lake location starting staying open through the winter, adding winter sleeping bags, cross-country skis and snowshoes to the rental list. Gord Baker started in 1992, becoming the first person at AO to be hired specifically as a year-round management employee. Carolyn Misener, our book-keeper, joined the team the following year.
The Huntsville store was added to the mix in 1994. The original location was on the opposite side of Main St., just up the hill a bit. After moving to its current site, and then moving out temporarily while the building was completely renovated, the Huntsville Store really started to take off. The bike and snowboard sections were a completely new category of merchandise and have added an exciting dimension to the AO business. With the momentum provided by the Huntsville store, many new year-round employees have joined the team and several new locations have been added to the roster. In 2004, AO won the concession to operate the Valley Shop, a small winter-only retail outlet at our local ski hill, Hidden Valley Highlands Ski Club. The next year, a retail opportunity presented itself in Bracebridge. AO Bracebridge, also known as Swifty’s Surf and Snow Shop, opened on Manitoba Street to serve the local and tourist population of that community. More recently, AO has formed a partnership with Boatwerks, a paddling shop with locations in Minden and Haliburton. With these new stores and other projects in the works, one can truly say that Algonquin Outfitters is the Outdoor Adventure Store of choice in Ontario cottage country!
So long, Swifty
November 1999 marked the passing of the patriarch and founder of the business, Bill Swift Sr. Better known to family, customers and friends as Swifty, Meanest, or Mean Dude, this colorful character had been an Algonquin Park legend for many years. He died of a heart attack on Nov. 17, 1999, shortly after undergoing knee replacement surgery in his home town of Rochester, NY. He was 71 years old.
Swifty’s relationship with Algonquin Park went back to the late 1930s, when he started as a camper at Camp Pathfinder. Pathfinder is a wilderness canoe tripping camp for boys, operating since 1914 on Source Lake. The camp experience had a profound effect on Swifty’s life. He attended Pathfinder for many seasons, eventually joined the staff and finally became owner for a period in the 1960s and early 70s. Swifty also guided at the Highland Inn, located on Cache Lake until it was torn down in the late 1950s. So strong was the connection with the park that when Swifty and Wendy, his wife of 46 years, were married, they spent their honeymoon on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park.
While working as an engineer at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, Swifty’s passion for canoe tripping got the better of him and with partner Dave Wainman, a former park ranger, he founded Algonquin Outfitters in 1961. The outfitting business was different back then – on a nice day the staff might decide to shut down the store and go fishing!
Besides keeping an eye on Algonquin Outfitters, Swifty was very active behind the scenes of canoeing and tourism in Ontario. He was a long-time board member of the Northern Ontario Tourist Outfitters Association (NOTO) and a founding board member of both the Canadian Recreational Canoeing Association and the Algonquin Wildlands League. In 1997, Swifty was awarded the prestigious Director’s Award by the Friends of Algonquin Park, in recognition of his service and contributions to Algonquin Park. One of Swifty’s pet projects was the restoration of the historic Brent Ranger Cabin. Visitors to this beautiful cabin today enjoy the benefits of Swifty’s donations.
Swifty and Wendy loved to travel. Every year, staff and customers would look forward to hearing tales of their adventures in far-flung places. Whether it was rafting on the Omo River in Ethiopia, canoeing among hippos on the Zambezi River, dancing in a mock war dance in Irian Java or hanging out with Jerry Jeff Walker at the annual birthday party in Lukenbach, Texas, Swifty would never let bad knees or advancing years stand in the way of enjoying himself.
Once the news of Swifty’s passing got out, many customers called, e-mailed and wrote with their special memories of him. One of the most heartfelt was sent by Duncan Ross, a tourism consultant who spent many years working for Ontario Tourism, promoting canoeing and camping in Ontario. Duncan wrote “…he was a great man. He had a very profound impact on my life. He demonstrated the quality of perseverance and standing up for what he believed in. He spent countless hours sitting on advisory committees and providing input that would benefit future generations of outdoor enthusiasts. He built a business that has brought joy and adventure to hundreds and thousands of people. He was a global ambassador of epic proportions and he was so passionate about his love of his family, the Park and canoeing.”
Just about anyone who ever walked in the door of Algonquin Outfitters when Swifty was alive will have a memory about him. It might be hearing his trademark laugh, wondering at his phenomenal memory (he could remember many customers’ zip codes and would recite them when they walked in the door), looking forward to seeing his big hat a sports show, being the recipient of good-natured ribbing, withering under his glare for some misdeed or even just wondering who was that fellow barking over the telephone.
Swifty’s influence and memory will live on at Algonquin Outfitters. While Wendy continues to be active in the business, his oldest son, Richard, along with his wife Susan, has taken over the day-to-day operations. The entire Swift clan went on a memorial canoe trip in the fall of 2000, with the final destination being Lake Lavielle, Swifty’s favorite lake in the park.