South River's Swift Canoe and Kayak Factory makes boats sold around the world

·5 min read

Sometimes when people drive by the Swift Canoe and Kayak retail store on Highway 124 in South River, they think that's all there is.

It's a small shop with only a handful of employees.

However in this instance, looks can be deceiving because the retail store is just the tip of the iceberg of a huge behind-the-scenes operation.

Turning east from Highway 124 onto Ottawa Avenue eventually takes you to 14 Howard Street, the site of the Swift Canoe and Kayak Factory.

This is the heart of the operation where each day 45 to 50 people are busy at work making canoes or kayaks that are sold worldwide.

The factory has been at the Howard site since 1996.

Production manager Jillian Conrad says prior to the move to South River the factory was located in the small community of Dwight, east of Huntsville at Oxtongue Lake.

It was founded by Bill Swift Senior who operated the plant under the name Sawyer Canoe until 1986 when his son Bill Swift Junior took it over and changed it to Swift Canoe and Kayak to reflect the family name.

Conrad says Swift Canoe and Kayak has been a family run business from the beginning.

Conrad says under Bill Swift Junior the company experienced continued growth to the point that the Dwight site was no longer able to accommodate the operation and the move to South River came in 1996.

“We have a lot of land and there's more room for growth,” Conrad said.

In fact two years ago a large warehouse was added to the operation.

Conrad says Swift Canoe and Kayak has four retail sites in Ontario.

In addition to the South River store, there is an outlet in Georgian Bay and Gravenhurst, which is the largest store with 10 to 15 sales staff and there is also a retail shop at the former location in Dwight.

The Georgian Bay and Dwight sites employ three to four people as does the South River store.

There are private dealers in Ottawa and Alberta who Conrad said also sell the Swift boats in addition to other brands.

By far Canada and the United States are the company's biggest sales markets.

But sales are increasing overseas thanks to the company having a dealer in Austria and it's now working on securing a dealer in Australia.

Conrad has been with Swift Canoe and Kayak for 18 years having started at the factory in the kayak assembly room when she was 17.

Later she became a general labourer, worked her way up to supervisor and then to the office manager and assistant manager positions before being named the factory's production manager.

Conrad wasn't at the Dwight location but she's been around for the growth the company has seen in the ensuing years.

“At Dwight they made one or two boats a day,” she said.

“Now, we sometimes get up to 13 boats a day.”

Conrad says nowadays the workers make a little more than 2,000 canoes and a little less than 500 kayaks a year.

In Canada the company takes care of its own transportation every so often loading up a trailer and then undertaking a drive across the country dropping off the boats as well as entering the U.S.

Conrad says the company has a social media presence but it wasn't used much until the pandemic hit.

The arrival of COVID-19 in 2020 changed the business model for Swift Canoe and Kayak.

“Pre-COVID we went to the boat shows like the Toronto International Boat Show and others,” Conrad said.

“These generated enormous sales. For example, going to the Toronto show accounted for one quarter of our sales for the summer.”

Conrad says the pandemic shutdown the boat shows and that's when Swift Canoe and Kayak began increasing its social media presence.

The factory has a Facebook page, it posts to Instagram and has a YouTube channel where it loads up videos.

In fact during COVID Swift Canoe and Kayak hired YouTube personalities who specialize in outdoor camping videos and have a large following.

“COVID didn't hurt us and we worked around it,” Conrad said, adding the company got a lot of sales through its social media platforms.

She says even though the lockdowns have been over for sometime and the boat shows resumed, Swift Canoe and Kayak hasn't been to one boat show this year.

However, she expects a return to the events in 2023.

Conrad says Bill Swift Junior “is very innovative and he loves trying new things and new materials” on boats.

“He likes to be on the cutting edge of canoe building,” she said.

Conrad says one reason why the company is so popular with people is because its boats weigh very little.

Many of the company's boats are made from carbon fibre.

“It's more expensive but it's also what people want,” Conrad said.

Swift Canoe and Kayak makes boats in varying lengths and also makes pack boats which is a cross between a canoe and kayak that allows the user to pack more into it.

Prices vary with the type of boat a person is thinking of buying and then there are options to consider which add to the final price.

Conrad says considering the number of boats the employees make each year “people are surprised to learn this is the only factory”.

“Everything comes out of this factory in South River in the middle of nowhere,” Conrad said.

Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The North Bay Nugget