The History of Algonquin Outfitters
In The Beginning
Algonquin Outfitters, like most businesses, started small. The first location was opened in 1961 at Oxtongue Lake, Ontario, by Bill Swift Sr. (better known as Swifty, Mean Dude or Meanest) and Dave Wainman, a former park ranger. AO’s inaugural rental fleet was made up of 40 cedar-canvas Chestnut canoes, delivered by train from the factory in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Initially, the partners had planned to locate the outfitting business in Algonquin Park, at Cache Lake. However, the late Jack Hayden, owner of the Blue Spruce Inn, offered his friends a small piece of land at Oxtongue Lake, a newly developed cottage and resort community just beyond the park’s western entrance. Swifty and Wainman realized that operating costs would be much lower outside the park, so they bought the land. Hindsight has shown that this was the right decision!
The front section of the current Oxtongue Lake store was the original building, located at what is now the northeast corner of Highway #60 and Algonquin Outfitters Road. When the highway was paved and expanded in the late ’70s, the structure had to be relocated, so Algonquin Outfitters purchased an additional parcel of land from the Hayden family. The building was moved to its present site and, in subsequent years, there were about six additions. Not long after this move, the Swift family bought Dave Wainman’s share of the business and, during the ’70s and ’80s, Jack and Peggy Hurley were AO partners and managers. Since then, Peggy has continued to help in the outfitting department 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 only one location, specializing in canoe rentals and complete outfitting packages designed for Algonquin Park canoe trips. In the early days, there was a snack bar in the store that served burgers and fries; the exhaust fan is all that remains of this venture. Most of the staff lived on the property and a full-time cook provided meals for them in the “cook shack.” Retail items consisted primarily of T-shirts, fishing tackle, some camping supplies and a few canoe paddles.
As the first outfitter to offer lightweight Kevlar canoes, AO was a trendsetter in Algonquin Park! Most of the original Kevlar rental canoes were made by Mad River Canoe which, at that time, was located in Waitsfield, Vermont. In those days, there were very few, if any, Canadian companies building good-quality, lightweight tripping canoes. In the 1980s, when Swift brothers Rich and Bill Jr. became more involved in the family business, some new dimensions were added. 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 AO customers. As well, in response to the popularity of Kevlar canoes, the Swift Canoe Company was founded.
Swift initially began building Sawyer Canoes, a popular U.S. brand (under license) but, by the late ’80s and early ’90s, it was becoming clear that a canoe created specifically for Algonquin Park tripping was needed. With Bill Jr. at the Swift Canoe Company helm, the first model was designed and built with Algonquin in mind. This special canoe, the Kipawa, is still in production and remains a popular rental model. The original Swift canoe factory was located in the building that now houses the AO 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 when former owner, Gerry McGaughy, was ready to sell. Since then, Jake has lived on site every summer, welcoming AO customers to the Brent Store, which is unique in Algonquin Park because it’s privately run, although it sits on land owned by the Canadian National Railway. All other outfitting stores in the park (like the Portage Store and AO’s Opeongo Store) are operated by private businesses but the property is owned by the provincial government and each store is run under contract to Ontario Parks.
AO won the contract to run the Lake Opeongo concession in 1989 and has held it since then. Jerry Schmanda, who had worked seasonally at AO prior to this, began managing the Opeongo Store in 1989 and, now, manages the Lake of Two Rivers Store/Cafe & Grill. Around 1990, with both Jerry and Rich now working year-round, the Oxtongue Lake location began remaining open through the winter, adding warmer 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. Bookkeeper Carolyn Misener joined the team the following year.
The Huntsville store was added to the mix in 1994. Now situated on Main Street, backing onto the Muskoka River, the original location was on the opposite side of the street, just up the hill a bit. After moving to its current site, and then moving out temporarily while the historic building was completely renovated, the Huntsville store really taken off! The bike and snowboard sections, which were completely new categories of merchandise for AO, have added an exciting dimension to the business. With the momentum provided by this store, many new year-round employees have joined the AO team and several new locations have been added to the lineup.
In 2004, Algonquin Outfitters won the concession to operate the Valley Shop, a small winter-only retail outlet at Huntsville’s ski hill, the Hidden Valley Highlands Ski Club. The following year, a retail opportunity presented itself in another Muskoka town; 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 Boatwerks, a pair of paddling shops in Minden and Haliburton, became part of the fold. Since that addition, AO has continued to grow. Seasonal shops at Port Carling, Gull River and Sir Sam’s Ski Hill now also enhance the roster. 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. Known to family, friends and customers 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, shortly after undergoing knee replacement surgery in his home town of Rochester, New York. He was 71 years old.
Swifty’s relationship with Algonquin Park went back to the late 1930s, when he first became a camper at Camp Pathfinder, a wilderness canoe tripping camp for boys that has been operating since 1914 on Source Lake. The camp experience had a profound effect on Swifty’s life. He attended Camp Pathfinder for many seasons, eventually joined the staff and then became owner for a period in the ’60s and early ’70s. Swifty was also a guide at the Highland Inn, located on Cache Lake, until it was torn down in the late ’50s. So strong was his personal connection with the park that when Swifty and Wendy got married, they spent their honeymoon on a canoe trip in Algonquin Park. During their 46 years together, until his death, they enjoyed as much time in or near the park as possible.
While working as an engineer at Eastman Kodak in Rochester, Swifty’s passion for canoe tripping got the better of him, so he left that company and founded Algonquin Outfitters in 1961 with Dave Wainman. The outfitting business was quite different back then, though – on a nice day, the staff sometimes decided to close the store and go fishing!
Besides keeping an eye on Algonquin Outfitters, Swifty was very active behind the canoeing and tourism scenes 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 the park. Over the years, 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 contributions.
Swifty and Wendy also loved to travel to other interesting places. 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 Jaya or hanging out with country music legend Jerry Jeff Walker at his 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, wrote and emailed to share their special memories of him. One of the most heartfelt messages 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 at 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. After his demise, Wendy continued to be active in the business for many years. His oldest son, Richard, and wife Susan have 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 favourite lake in the park. His canoe tripping legacy also lives on in the form of a challenging route called “The Meanest Link,” which connects the four original Algonquin Outfitters locations.