Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge: Fantasy Island for Fishermen
Outdoor Hub Staff 08.10.16
Pit Turenne remembers the day, 28 years ago, when his life forever changed. He and his sister hopped off the school bus and were greeted in the mustard yellow, vinyl-floored kitchen by his mother and father.
“We have some news for you,” his father said. “We own a lodge.”
With those words, Pit’s home (from spring to fall) changed from a bungalow in south Winnipeg, Manitoba, to a log cabin so far removed from civilization––in the heart of Manitoba’s boreal forest, on the shores of Aikens Lake––it could only be reached by float plane. He was 10. His father, Gerry, a larger-than-life bundle of energy referred to as “The Big Guy,” threw himself into making Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge a world-class destination.
Three decades later, Aikens is exactly that. It’s been named a top five worldwide fishing resort by multiple publications and earned lofty praise as “still the finest all-around experience I’ve ever had on a fly-in trip,” by a guy who might be the best judge of all: In-Fisherman Editor-in-Chief Doug Stange. As for Pit, he’s gone from a self-described “young punk” growing up in the bush to co-owner and head manager of a luxury resort, with a wife and family.
This is his story.
It’s also the classic story of a three-generation, family run fishing lodge, though Aikens is hardly your conventional fishing lodge. The Turennes’ vision was to transform the 40-year-old fishing lodge into a five-star destination where guests want for nothing––an angling oasis that combines lavish accommodations with remote wilderness; gourmet food and a fully stocked bar with a fly-in camp; personalized service with first-rate fishing.
Pit has evolved along with his family’s lodge, which is surrounded by birch trees in Atikaki Wilderness Provincial Park. The math wizard born on Christmas Day had a foggy understanding of what a fishing lodge was when his parents first told him the news.
“When they told me they bought Aikens, I was like, ‘OK. Can I go play?’” he recalls. “My first couple years at the lodge I didn’t pay much attention to the guests. I was usually fishing from the dock and spent a ton of time at the beach. When the weather wasn’t good, I’d stay inside and play Nintendo.”
That’s when his parents put him to work, paying him $1 an hour to sort cans. Two years later he graduated to the ranks of fishing guide. “My first guide day was a disaster, but what else would you expect out of a 13-year-old?” Pit said. “I started logging with my high school friends when I was 15, and we helped harvest all the material to build our Great Gray Owl (GGO) mini-lodge.”
GGO is a private cabin across the lake from Aikens’ main lodge that groups can reserve to be on their own while still receiving guide service, maid service and meals prepared for them. Its construction was a major undertaking and a meaningful opportunity for Pit.
“It was an exciting project to work on because we had recently purchased a sawmill to be able to create hand-crafted cabins from our surrounding woods. GGO is this beautiful two-story log cabin with four bedrooms, two bathrooms and showers, a full kitchen, a large fireplace and vaulted ceiling, a game room, a private shore lunch station and a deck looking over the lake,” Pit said. “We felt it was a true luxury cabin that allowed us to offer another unique experience to our guests.”
“After that, I then went through the ‘Aikens Lake Boot Camp’ for 5 years and graduated from being a certified young punk who was only good at hauling heavy logs to becoming the head guide.”
Along the way, Pit developed a sense of pride in his family’s resort. His father’s vision for the future and tireless work ethic taught him a valuable lesson: Good enough, never is.
“Don’t do anything half-heartedly,” Pit said about his dad’s favorite mantra. “If you are willing to surrender and say ‘good enough,’ then you can expect your results to suck accordingly.”
Pit was impressed with his father’s hard work and charitable inclinations––Gerry donated trips and money to various community causes––and eventually got the chance to lead the Turennes’ efforts. In 2005, Pit’s parents retired and investor Chris Jensen came on-board as a majority partner, agreeing to infuse boatloads of capital to further upgrade Aikens under one critical condition: Pit and his wife, Julie, continue the family tradition of managing the lodge.
Incredibly, Pit found out only AFTER the deal was done. At age 10 he was told he was moving to a lodge; at age 26 he was told he was managing it! The transition was natural, though; Pit and Julie have an instinct for hospitality and are clearly living out their passion.
“My favorite part of this whole thing is doing something special for a guest and seeing their reaction,” said Julie, who’s orchestrated scavenger hunts for kids, arranged surprise candle-light dinners on the beach, and even became certified to officially administer a wedding at Aikens. “I live and breathe this. I pride myself on doing those extra things.”
The PV Capital partnership with Jensen also proved to be a blessing.
Jensen first visited Aikens as an 18-year-old (catching a 32-inch walleye his first night) and then became a frequent guest while simultaneously developing as a successful entrepreneur with investment dealings in software, agriculture and emerging market companies from Arizona to China.
“You don’t buy a fishing lodge to make money,” Jensen said. “My objective was to preserve and enhance Aikens. It’s such a special asset and resource, I just want to protect it and make sure it never falls into the wrong hands.”
Jensen’s enthusiasm and investments intensified the Turennes’ mission to make Aikens a world-class destination. In the first 3 years alone, Jensen helped Aikens build two new luxurious guest cabins, a store, staff house, office and managers’ residence, while also purchasing a new fleet of boats and a luxury van to shuttle guests from Winnipeg to the float plane launch in Silver Falls (Aikens boasts that anyone in the continental U.S. can catch a flight in the morning and catch walleyes that evening).
Over the years, improving and building new cabins has become an annual occurrence, while the fleet now consists of 16- and 18-foot Lund Alaskan Guide boats equipped with 60- and 70-hp Yamahas, Minn Kota trolling motors, Humminbird Helix 7 fishfinders and automatic live wells.
The Turennes’ refusal to settle for “good enough” is clear to guests who, believe it or not, are outnumbered by staff members on any given night (the lodge averages 20.8 guests per night while employing more than 30 staff members).
“What impresses me the most about that place is they’re always making improvements,” said Joe Harrington, of Monticello, Arkansas, who’s been to Aikens four times with his bride of 46 years. “I call it a five-star hotel in the wilderness. If you ask for something special, they’ll fly it in for you. It’s like Fantasy Island.”
Last summer, Harrington brought his cousin, Jeff Hall, who came with his wife and was impressed by the young staff employed by the Turennes.
“Those young staff members make me realize that our future is in good hands,” Hall said. “Every one of them are class act young people, such a joy to associate with.”
For Pit, working with a crew of university students is extra meaningful.
“Seeing staff members develop is very rewarding,” he said. “Being able to support our community and hire 25 kids a year is great. We’ve got doctors and chiropractors and engineers and accountants, all of whom worked at Aikens when they were in that 18 to 24 range going through school and developing as individuals. Now they’re young adults in the community doing good things.”
Of course, Pit and Julie have three young people they’re especially proud of––their children Annika (12), Martin (9) and Natasha (7). They’ve made a deliberate point to include the kids in daily tasks; all three kids greet every guest at the dock and hand out awards at the nightly award ceremony for big fish.
“It’s a unique way to raise a family,” said Pit. “It helps the kids develop a more worldly view in terms of meeting people from all over. Being able to get along with people is an important skill. Our kids are all-stars in school because if a teacher asks a question they’re not afraid to raise their hand and answer. They’re not too shy to make friends and talk with people because that’s what they have to do here.”
Unfortunately, the Turenne family suffered a devastating loss last June. Gerry, the family patriarch, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. The impact he had on the community was profound, as evidenced by the 1,000 people who packed his funeral.
“Gerry was a father figure to me,” said Rob Jounot, who worked multiple summers at Aikens. “He was a father figure to many of us who worked there. He made me a better person, and it’s amazing that he had a similar effect on so many other people as well, just by being himself.”
An outpouring of support from friends and guests gave the Turennes the strength last summer to continue running the lodge their late patriarch envisioned.
“We’re continuing with my parents’ vision,” said Pit, who hopes his dad is looking down on him with pride. “Without what my parents did years ago and the partnership with the Jensens, we wouldn’t be where we’re at today.”
In terms of his own children and their future, Pit hopes they benefit from their unique upbringing and realize the value of building something together.
“Whether they want to work in this business or not, I hope they acquire a good work ethic,” he said. “This is a cool way for them to grow up, experience this beautiful place and for us to be close as a family.”
As for the work ethic, it appears the next generation of Turennes will not settle for good enough.
“The best advice I’ve ever received,” Annika said. “Is ‘Give a man a fish, he eats for the day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’”
Check out the video below for on-the-water footage of the fantastic fishing available at Aikens.