Nothing lazy about the owner of Churchill’s Lazy Bear Lodge

The stark beauty of Manitoba's far north.
The stark beauty of Manitoba’s far north.
By Dorothy Dobbie
By Dorothy Dobbie

He’s tall, lean and intense. Wally Daudrich, the owner of the Lazy Bear Lodge in Churchill is a man who knows exactly what he wants and how to get it: by hard work.

Here’s a guy who decided to make his life in this northern post just above the tree line on the shores of Hudson Bay because it was here that he felt free to be his own, individual self. “I’m a bit of a libertarian,” he confesses, not that this prevents him from following the rules. He’d just prefer that there weren’t so many.

Wally behind the wheel of the tundra buggy on the look out for Polar Bears
Wally behind the wheel of the tundra vehicle on the look out for Polar Bears

Free to move forward

Growing up in the west end of Winnipeg of eastern European immigrant parents, Wally appreciates freedom in a way many of us don’t and the North has generously offered this to him in that open-minded way that the North seems to engender in its inhabitants. It’s allowed him to go from tour guide to tour operator in less than ten years; to build a dream-inspired hotel from found materials and to challenge the incumbent MP for a place on Parliament Hill three times, getting closer to success each time.

Wally met and married his wife, Dawn, at college in Arizona 19 years ago. She fell into the magic spell of Churchill as easily as he did and together they are raising five beautiful children (four girls and one boy, ages 4 to 16), home schooling them while they run their hotel and the various other enterprises they have inspired over the past few years. These now include not only the hotel, but a fully integrated wilderness-experience company that will tundra-tour you to see the polar bears in winter, show you the amazing bird migrations in springtime and take you into the Bay to cavort with beluga whales and polar bears in summer.

It all began when Wally was still working for a competitor tundra bus operator (there are three in town now) as a tour guide. This is seasonal work so Wally and Dawn built a little log house, a skill he had learned in another life, from which to provide a take-out food service. The logs came from a burned-out forest at Twin Lakes, about 35 km south of town, where locals used to have cottages to “get away from the city”. The logs were just lying there after a forest fire in 1991-92, some of the trees 150 years old, and would just rot into the muskeg if left alone.

Wally has a lifelong friend, Dave Daley, who helped harvest the wood and would eventually use his share of their labours to build a next door gift shop. Between the two of them, they hauled the logs out of the bush, working in the off season in the dead of winter. They would drag four to five logs from the bush at a time, by snowmobile, to a “landing” point near the road, stockpiling them until they could come and load a dozen to 15 logs onto Wally’s low bed truck and drive back to Churchill, sometimes making two trips a day. It was slow, backbreaking work, loading and unloading 25- to 30-foot trees by hand. In the end, they had hauled over 1,000 logs for the hotel, plus 250 for Wally and Dawn’s house, plus the logs for Dave Daley’s Wapusk General store. Dave later also started a thriving dog mushing business.

It was in 1995 that Wally and Dawn opened the take-out stand (it now forms the reception area of the hotel). This little log cabin was so picturesque, and just what tourists wanted to see in Churchill, that Wally was constantly hounded for photo opportunities. Gradually, too, and at the urging of patrons, he began to see the value in expanding this little enterprise so they could entertain sit-down diners. “I also realized that by substituting the bread with potatoes, I could charge twice as much,” he laughs. The fare was the usual burgers, fries, Arctic char – all the expected things in a northern town back then.

The addition, which opened in 1997, meant many treks back to the bush for more logs. In the interim another fire had raged through the area in 1996, and the local joke was that Wally and Dave started that one now that their businesses were taking root.  “It was fine-looking wood,” says Wally who could see beyond the charred bark to the beauty of the inner wood. He had the lens to look into the future to see what could be created from dead standing trees that would lose their bark within a year.

Wally was still working as a tour guide at the time, but this ended when one day the then owner asked the guides to sign an affidavit making them solely responsible for the passengers in their care. That just didn’t seem right to Wally, who wanted to check things out with his lawyer; the boss took offence and their 11-year relationship was severed.

Maybe it was just as well. Things were moving fast.

It wasn’t long before the decision was taken to add the hotel portion of the growing building. Plans were drawn up and they proceeded to build the first floor of the hotel, adding on to what was then the dining room and is now the lobby. These first 16 rooms opened in 1999, with plans to build a second floor as soon as possible. Those 17 rooms were finished in 2000. It has now become a completely modern hotel with all the amenities right up to the phone, Internet and multi-channel television service.

In 2002, they built their own home next door to accommodate their growing family. Wally jokingly remarks that each time he and Dawn added to the lodge, they added to the family. Finally, in 2005, just about the time the second youngest was born, they added a large new restaurant featuring a beautiful central fireplace that is constructed of local limestone surrounding a high-efficiency Swedish fireplace. The baby came at a critical time just before the planned opening and Dawn wasn’t about to go traipsing off to Winnipeg two weeks in advance, so this child became the first child in two years to be born in town with the help of a midwife.

The actual construction of each phase of the hotel was labour intensive for Wally. He had a contractor to do the framing and handle the technical details, but he himself chose, finished and installed all the logs. Some of the most interesting gnarled and twisted specimens were set aside to serve as rafters or features in the rooms and key areas of the hotel. Wally wanted to show the agony of the wood, how it had grown and survived in spite of the climatic challenges the trees faced. Perhaps it symbolized his and his family’s own experience, a spiritual paradigm of hardship and tenacity in carving a life out of this north land. He worked at night and on weekends and in the off season while he was still with the other company.

“I didn’t think it was anything all that special,” Wally said of the remarkable feat of building this 15,000 square foot, hand built log hotel from scratch, not to mention the furniture in the dining room which he also made by hand in the winter of 2003-04. “That’s just what you do,” he shrugged. “We didn’t have the money to buy everything, so we found another way.” He drew up the designs for the tables and chairs, then built them factory style, carving all the table tops and finishing them first, then the chair seats and then the legs. Many of the seats are sawn from the root flanges of the trees; their lovely rings and irregular shapes are pieces of forest art.

The fireplace shell too was constructed by hand. The limestone was carefully cut and cemented in place with mortar on a huge concrete pad “half the size of the restaurant”. The idea was to leave room in the placement of the limestone pieces to allow the Swedish system to breath. Bear skins, one from a black bear and one a polar bear, and a moose hide adorn the walls; the bearskins are from an extended family-owned animal kingdom down in Manitoba’s Swan Valley. The moose hide he got himself.

The logs throughout the building are of black and white spruce with some eastern larch or tamarack. They are all finished with a reddish glow. The floors in the lobby are of red Douglas fir, salvaged from an old Canadian National warehouse built back about 1919. In the lobby, a couple of the multi-paned windows came out of a century old Hudson Bay trading post. “I’ve just left them as single panes,” says Wally, speaking with amusement of how it amazes his American visitors when they realize the frost on the windows is real and not something sprayed on. If you look closely, you can see the wavy imperfections of the vintage glass.

The hotel has a homey feel; you’d never know that they employ five chefs to run the restaurant. Everything is handled in a quietly professional manner; the service is smooth and efficient and friendly.

Meanwhile, the hotel is just one part of the burgeoning enterprise. After parting with his former employer, Wally realized that the fastest way to success was an integrated operation and he bought a school bus, and then another, to take visitors on excursions around town and into the tundra. In 2011, he took possession of two tundra buses that he designed and had constructed down south, then shipped to Churchill. They cost in the upper six figures a piece, but just as he did with the hotel, Wally financed this without any help from government.

Last summer, as a freshly-certified captain from a school for handling large watercraft, Wally took possession of a 40-foot vessel with a landing craft front door that looks like it was part of the D-day invasion. This he added to his whale watching fleet of eight smaller craft. He offers the adventurous eight-day wilderness tours, which travel 150 miles through the boreal forest and out onto the northern Manitoba barren lands from an area where he trapped back in the 1980s.

For the PM, it’s home

Thrice now, Prime Minister Steven Harper has graced Wally’s lodge with his presence and the last time a senior staffer made it known that this was the one place in the world when traveling where the PM felt “completely at home”. That’s a wonderful tribute to the whole family and the staff that Wally carefully nurtures to keep them coming back to what is still a seasonal operation.

Nor has Wally given up his dream of someday taking his seat in the House of Commons. That this will eventually happen seems more than likely if hard work has anything to do with it. Wally Daudrich is a committed and determined individual. His work ethic and dedication could only add a touch of grace to a sometimes tired institution.

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