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Entrepreneur - Atikokan

Imagine a place where there is no traffic, there are no cellphones and no pavement on the ground. The only sounds are the occasional call of a loon, the splash of a northern pike and the gentle rustling of leaves in the wind.

This is Quetico Park, 4,800 square kilometres of untouched wilderness in northwestern Ontario. Motorized oats, firearms, hunting roads and development are all prohibited.

If it sounds like a place you could get used to, just ask Sandy Dickson.

Dickson, originally from North Dakota, has been operating Canoe Canada Outfitters in Atikokan with her husband Bud since 1973.

"I love the fact that there are no distractions," Dickson says. When we go (canoeing), it's usually just me, m children and husband. It's family time. It's very spiritual. You don't get many chances like that in life."

Dickson discovered the joy of canoeing in 1970 when she married her husband, who grew up in Atikokan and dreamed of opening a canoe business.

Three years late , they started the business and aggressively marketed in the United States, making the rounds at sports shows south of the border. "Toronto is a small market for us," Dickson says. "It's easier to get here from the Midwest US."

Within 10 years, they had a successful business. Today, Dickson says 95 per cent of their guests are Americans.

"(The Americans) don't have a lot of parks like Quetico," she says. You can drink right out of the lake. There's no motorized travel or designated camping area. It's a truly primitive area - no logging or hunting. There are even pictographs."

Adventurers have come from as far away as New Zealand, Australia, Japan and Germany for the wilderness experience Quetico affords.

Canoe Canada Outfitters supply gear, food, maps and assistance with planning canoe trips from five days to three weeks. Dickson estimates about 4,000 guests visit between the second week in May and the end of October.

In addition to her business success, Dickson's commitment to the community of Atikokan has earned her the distinction of Influential Woman of Northern Ontario from Northern Ontario Business.

From the start, Dickson and her husband wanted their business to contribute to the economic life of Atikokan. Instead of locating their business on the shores of a lake outside of Atikokan, they set up shop in the down town area, to give the community exposure to a wider range of tourists.

"(Tourists) come into Atikokan to use hotels, buy groceries and souvenirs," Dickson says. "That was our goal."

But maintaining a pristine wilderness has not come without a struggle. Dickson has been constantly lobbying to make sure logging and development don't intrude on Quetico Park.

"It's amazing how compromising the logging industry can be when you sit down and negotiate," Dickson says.

To effectively influence decisions regarding the area, Dickson has been on the Fisheries and Wildlife Advisory Board and the Ontario Parks Board.

But Atikokan is more than an outdoorsman's paradise. Along with seven other women in the community, Dickson has organized the Atikokan Entertainment Series. Every year Dickson travels to Toronto to recruit performers, then is involved in fundraising and organizing performances in Atikokan.

For 24 years the series has offered residents who wouldn't normally visit a larger city the opportunity to see professional entertainers.

Dickson has been a contributing resident of Atikokan since 1970, says Dennis Brown, mayor of Atikokan. Her contribution to the local chamber of commerce is only one of many examples of her commitment to the community, he adds.

Dickson was elected as president of the Atikokan Chamber of Commerce at a time when the chamber was facing a large deficit, declining membership and little enthusiasm on the part of the executive to continue.

"Sandy quickly devoted herself to overcoming these challenges and was the driving force behind an initiative that combined the chamber of commerce executive director position with the Atikokan economic development office, where it still operates quite well today."

Brown doubts the chamber would still be operating today had Dickson not persevered to overcome the challenges.

Dickson says she is motivated to invest in the community because it has been a wonderful place to live and raise a family.

"And I want to make sure it continues to be," she says.

After operating Canoe Canada Outfitters for 29 years, Dickson and her husband are starting to think about retiring, "but not for at least five years," she says. "We're having too much fun."

The paddles will likely be passed on to their son who is now 24-years-old, the same age his parents were when they began the venture.

As a young newlywed leaving North Dakota for the northwestern Ontario wilder ness, starting a business was at the same time both exciting and terrifying for Dickson.

But she believes success is inevitable for those who pursue a dream.

"It doesn't matter how young you are," Dickson says. "If you dream, if you have a passion for something, you'll probably be successful."
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Title Annotation:businesswomen
Author:Faye, Donna
Publication:Northern Ontario Business
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1CONT
Date:Jun 1, 2001
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