Most days in the summer at this time of year, Linwood Township resident Terry Brelje packed his bags for the long trip to Saskatchewan to oversee the seasonal closure of his fishing camp. But that won’t happen this year – not the year of a pandemic. It was a wasted season for Plaisted Camps, an air-accessible fishing camp 165 miles north of one of the last small towns in northern Saskatchewan.
For Brelje, 59, and his son Dan Brelje, 33, the camp director, 2020 has been a disappointing year, thanks to the COVID-19 epidemic and Canada’s decision on March 21 to close its border with the United States. Only essential workers are allowed to cross the border. Visitors who intended to travel to Canada to fish are not eligible, says Terry Brelje.
In its 45 years of providing guided fishing opportunities in the northern Saskatchewan wilderness, Plaisted Camps has long relied on visitors from the United States. Terry and his wife Sue bought the fishing camp in 2010 following the death of camp founder Ralph Plaisted. During the 2019 season, Brelje said 95% of the camp’s business came from south of the Canadian border. This adds to a season of lost income as the camp has remained closed.
When the Canadian government announced in July that the border with the United States would remain closed until the end of August, Brelje said he had no choice but to accept that the camp would not open in 2020.
It has been a difficult time for Brelje, but in the big picture of the pandemic and burgeoning outbreaks of infection in the United States, he understands it perfectly.
“I can’t blame them, if you think about it,” he said, highlighting low rates of coronavirus infection in Canada and a national commitment to prevent the virus from traveling north from the United States. .
Like many Americans, Brelje watched with interest at the start of the virus outbreak in the United States at the start of the year. Interest reached a new level with the announcement on March 21 of the border closure. He was hopeful that it would be short-lived.
“They will open it [the border] in time for us to get there, âBrelje thought. âWe have April and May to prepare. But as additional 30-day closings followed, it became clear in June and July that the season was in jeopardy.
The camp was full for an 11 week season that would end in mid-August. Groups of eight to ten fishermen had planned to go to La Ronge, a town of 2,700 inhabitants. From La Ronge, groups travel the 165 miles north to Russell Lake on the Wheeler River system to fish and enjoy camp life.
The financial blow of a lost season is difficult, Brelje said, but the inability to see old friends again is also disappointing.
âWe have a lot of the same groups of people who come every year,â he says. “This is where you fish with your friends.”
To anyone who knew Ralph Plaisted of Linwood Township, his role in such an operation 1,270 miles from Forest Lake is not surprising. He was an outdoor enthusiast and adventurer who could easily have been an explorer or trapper in a pioneer life.
Plaisted gained international fame in April 1968 when he led what is widely recognized as the first ice surface crossing to the North Pole by snowmobile. A native of Bruno in Pine County, Plaisted left school in Grade 10, joined the Navy at age 16, and served during the last years of World War II. After the war he started a successful insurance agency in St. Paul and added to his life with multiple speaking appearances telling the story of the ice cap crossing.
It was his desire to enjoy the outdoors that led to what has become the Plaisted Camps. Two years after crossing the ice to the North Pole, Plaisted and his wife Riki devised a plan to spend a year in the Saskatchewan wilderness. After a year of planning and searching for land to claim on Russell Lake in the fall of 1970, the Plaisted family (daughters Taffy and Lesle) and three friends arrived in May. from 1971 and remained for the following year. A large cabin and outbuildings were built during the short summer.
The year passed quickly and in 1972, the adventure ended when the family returned to Minnesota at the end of the summer. But the Plaisted kept returning to Russell Lake and they found plenty of friends and buddies who wanted to fish in the Saskatchewan wilderness where northern pike, walleye, grayling and lake trout were found. abundant.
As the idea of ââan airplane fishing business grew, Plaisted Camp grew. More cabins were built and by 1975 the business was up and running. By the late 1970s, Plaisted was no longer selling insurance.
It was as a friend of a friend that Brelje got the chance to visit the camp for the first time in 1999. Rarely did any openings arise and when Brelje was invited to participate he quickly said yes.
He had been in the community for just over two decades in 1999. He arrived in Forest Lake in 1978 just out of Hutchinson High School. Hutchinson’s Jahnke family owned a grocery store where Brelje worked while in high school. When the family opened a store at Lake Shoppes in Forest Lake, Brelje came too.
âI had a job and I knew I was going to go to school,â he said. He worked nights at the supermarket and took day classes at Anoka Tech and Lakewood Community College. It was a defining decision in Brelje’s life. It was at the store where he met his future wife, Sue Beattie, a baker. They married in 1984 and their son Dan and daughter Andrea followed suit.
He quickly made friends in Forest Lake and it was with Kelly Becker and Ron Lasiuta that CU Recovery in Wyoming was born. The company was started in 1990 and today has more than 90 employees working in all 50 states for more than 90 collection departments and 2,500 credit unions. The company is a full-service collection agency that handles both non-performing and written-off loans.
In 2010, the Brelje were the owners of the fishing camp. It was 2014 when Brelje, eager for a new adventure in life, sold his interest in CU Recovery.
In the decade before the camp was purchased, Brelje visited Lake Russell every two years.
âI got to know Ralph through the camp,â Brelje said. It was a quick friendship and the two met regularly when Plaisted was not in Saskatchewan. They were going to lunch and both were ice fishing on Green Lake, not far from where Terry and Sue lived in Chisago City.
âHe was inviting me to happy hour,â Brelje said.
When Dan Brelje graduated from Chisago Lakes High School in 2005, Terry said that Plaisted called him to tell him that he had two camp openings and that he should bring Dan. It looked like an expensive graduation gift, Brelje thought. Plaisted’s reply was gruff and straightforward.
âYou take care of yourself,â said Plaisted, âI’ll take care of the child! The Breljes went and Dan was hooked.
âDan loved it,â Brelje said.
Young Brelje had gone to Black Hills State University in Spearfish, South Dakota, but found a perfect summer job at camp. He quickly learned the fishing trade and was hired by Plaisted to run a boat in 2007. He was working back at Russell Lake in 2008 when Plaisted passed away suddenly on September 8th. The camp, which had been run by Plaisted’s daughter Lesle Tobkin, was closed in 2009 as the family weighed what to do with their father’s dream. (Ralph’s wife died in 1998.)
When Brelje expressed interest in buying the business, the Plaisted estate decided to sell to the Brelje.
It is clear that the camp will remain in the Brelje family for the foreseeable future. When the camp reopened in 2010, Dan Brelje was installed as manager. Terry and Sue remain majority owners of the camp but have gradually transferred shares to their son.
âI’m just going to do that,â Brelje recalls of the decision to buy the fishing lodge. âI thought it would be a very good opportunity for us. I enjoyed going there as a guest. I loved the solitude.
Not much has changed in the way Dan Brelje manages the camp.
âWe’re doing pretty much the same program as Ralph,â said Terry Brelje. âEach building is original.
But that’s a lot of work for a short season. Planning for the season begins seven weeks before the first guests arrive. The average ice release is May 26 and in late September and early October snow and ice are expected. Most of September is spent closing the camp for the winter.
Opening it in the spring is a task. A narrow gravel road through a uranium ore mine ends 11 miles from the camp. Weather and road conditions mean that transporting a 14-foot trailer full of supplies can take up to 12 hours.
From the end of the road, a pontoon flatboat carries 35 55-gallon barrels of premium gasoline, food and supplies to serve guests and staff for 12 weeks. Perishable items are delivered weekly; all guests fly to Russell Lake. Batteries, solar panels and a generator are used to provide heat, lights and electricity.
Customers can expect to catch fish and eat fish, Brelje says. But the menu is far from fish alone. Steak, pork, and chicken dinners come with all sides. A generous breakfast is served. Fishermen will enjoy a shore lunch of fried fish before returning to camp.
As his father did many years ago, Dan Brelje also met his future wife at work. Dan hired Canadian Morgan Deopker to guide and run a boat. They hit it off and will get married in 2021. They are locked up in Canada because of the virus. Dan is considering obtaining a government residence permit which will give him all the rights of a Canadian citizen except the right to vote.
For now, the Brelje on this side of the border are also sitting tight. The usual one-week camp vacation for Sue and Andrea will not take place. Sue and Terry, as empty nests, moved to a smaller house in Linwood, just a mile from the Linwood house where Plaisted spent his later years.