North Knife Lake Lodge owns a treasured piece of Paul Vukelic’s heart, and not only because of the fishing.
“The fishing obviously lends itself to us wanting to come back every year,” said Vukelic, who has now been venturing to North Knife Lake for 20 years. “The remoteness of it means the water is rarely fished, so you’re guaranteed certainly to catch a lot. You get a lot of action. And we’ve seen a lot of wildlife, bear, eagles, moose, wolves…”
“We go fishing at our cottage in Parry Sound (Ontario, Canada) for bass, pike and muskie, but the fishing is not as prolific as it is at North Knife. I’m more of a leisure fisherman than I am serious, but my love of fishing really bore itself out of all these years fishing at North Knife.”
Life is not quite as hectic as it once was for the 53-year-old CEO of Try-It Distributing, the largest distributor of Labatt products in the world, but it still offers its challenges, and good people have made travel possible for both work and leisure. This summer will be the 20th anniversary of Vukelic family visits to North Knife Lake Lodge.
“This trip gives us an opportunity to get away from technology, to get away from work. It’s a very stress-free environment at North Knife Lake. You really get to let your hair down, so to speak. I think that’s why we like it so much there. I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world where we feel more relaxed than we do when we are there.
“We are fortunate to have a lot of good people working for us who look after the day to day tasks. That allows me the time to work on expanding our business and establishing relationships. You’ve got to gain people’s respect and one way of doing that is by getting to know people, caring about them and their businesses.
“We really try to teach that to our employees, who we like to call stakeholders. We’re distributors, but most of our business is centered on selling. So we spend a lot of time and energy on training people, and let them know that once you’ve gained a person’s trust and friendship you get their respect, and it’s a lot easier to work with them. They certainly buy a lot more from you if they respect you and know you and trust you. This is very, very important to our business.”
The North Knife Lake trip is considered an adventure by the Vukelic family. Fathers and sons, brothers, uncles, people who are close to them.
“It’s a time that we really cherish together,” said Vukelic. “Not only the days of fishing but getting together back at the Lodge later on, getting a nice fire going, especially on those cold days, just sitting around hanging out, having a good time with each other. It’s good clean fun. There are no TVs; no Internet, no other technological distractions. In my mind, the way life really should be.”
While there is a TV for playing movies on at North Knife Lake Lodge, and Internet service if required, these amenities are certainly not overused by guests, most of whom prefer to escape the noise of today’s busy world.
Paul and his wife of over 30 years, Amy, bought a cottage in Parry Sound a few years ago and it had three TVs in it. Not anymore. The couple took two of the TVs out and left one, as at North Knife Lake, without cable, just to watch occasional movies.
Vukelic still remembers the early days of going to North Knife Lake Lodge with his father Gene, recalling the hospitality his family received from Doug and Helen (Webber), their daughters Jeanne, Toni and Shari and sons-in-law Mike, Nelson and Dave.
“They’re a family business, we’re a family business,” said Vukelic. “We can really identify with that. And I think they appreciate that. They have an appreciation for what we do. There’s just a mutual respect and love for each other, given that we’re close knit families. Certainly the hospitality is second to none. And of course the food, you can’t speak enough about the food. You don’t expect to find gourmet food when you go on a fishing trip like this, but they really, really, do have great food.
“They get their family members involved, just as we do. They really take it to heart. It’s very, very, important to us that we take care of our people and we do treat them like family, and we feel like they are family. They’re important. I can see that in the Webber family too. They take great pride in their people. You treat them right and they’re going to treat you twice as well.”
Both family businesses also give back to the community.
“We found out that the more we give, the more successful we are,” said Gene Vukelic in an earlier interview. “The guy upstairs looks after you.”
“It certainly seems that way,” said Paul. “We put a lot of trust in God from our standpoint. That’s what it’s all about, no doubt about it, if you have the wherewithal and the means.”
The Vukelic’s did have the means to help someone in 2007, and it resulted in one of Paul’s most cherished memories. A personal memoir of the feeling someone gets when they’re able to experience a week of fishing at the North Knife Lake.
One of Paul’s childhood friends, Mike Gomel, ran into some problems in 2007 and moved back to Buffalo. Paul and his wife Amy took Mike into their home for eight or 10 months to try to help him get back on his feet again. They had four young children at the time, who also welcomed Mike with open arms.
“My Dad knew his father,” said Paul. “And I’d known Mike since we were kids. He was an only child and had become clinically depressed and an alcoholic. Mike was a very pleasant guy. And he loved fishing. He was a serious fisherman, all his life. His family, our family and four other families shared a cottage in Parry Sound growing up. He and I would go up there together with other friends, in our college and post-college years. We were very tight.
“So I took Mike on this trip to North Knife Lake. He didn’t have a dime to his name. We went out, bought him the gear… I just knew that it would be good for him. We took him up and he had a great time. I hadn’t seen him smile like that in a long, long time. He was just really in his element.”
A few months later, while out of town, Paul felt something just wasn’t right with Mike, who had by that time moved into his own apartment, but who hadn’t answered his phone for two days. Immediately after landing at the airport, Paul rushed to Mike’s apartment, where his worst fears were confirmed. His longtime friend had passed away.
“Mike hadn’t been happy for probably years and years,” said Paul. “But for those five days of his life at North Knife Lake Lodge, he was smiling every day and back to his old self. It was good to have my old buddy back, even if only for five days. It was worth it. That’s the kind of place North Knife Lake is.
“For me, it is very, very special.”