Sudden N.W.T. lodge closure shocks workers, guests

·4 min read
A sign over the Yellowknife office of Blachford Lake Lodge. Guests and staff were blindsided by an email last week announcing that all operations would cease.  (Graham Shishkov/CBC - image credit)
A sign over the Yellowknife office of Blachford Lake Lodge. Guests and staff were blindsided by an email last week announcing that all operations would cease. (Graham Shishkov/CBC - image credit)

Staff and guests planning a stay at a luxury off-grid lodge near Yellowknife were blindsided by the sudden closure of the lodge last week, and the owner is not responding to any questions around the sudden move.

Blachford Lake Lodge most famously hosted Prince William and Kate, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, during a 2011 visit to the Northwest Territories. Located 100 kilometers east of Yellowknife, the lodge has been in operation for about 40 years.

The lodge's assistant manager, Martina Pennell, said the 12 staff at the lodge got the news just as they were about to start what they expected would be another busy 12-hour day. The 25 guests at the lodge were flying out and another 25 were scheduled to fly in.

"So we went in ready for the day and during our morning meeting we received an email from the owner saying, effective immediately, all operations would cease and we had to pack our bags and be out on the final plane, which was in just a couple of hours."

Graham Shishkov/CBC
Graham Shishkov/CBC

Pennell said last week that's the only communication that owner Mike Freeland has had with her and, as far as she knows, any of the other staff. Her husband, Andrew McLauchlan, also worked at the lodge managing all of the mechanical systems there. Freeland did not respond to calls and texts from CBC inquiring about the closure.

The only clue to what may have contributed to the sudden shutdown is a note on the door of the Blachford Lake Lodge office in Yellowknife.

"We regret to inform you that expected funding required for Blachford Lodge to complete its current season has fallen through," reads the note, which has Freeland's name at the bottom.

It goes on to say, "Blachford Lake Lodge is not able to reimburse expenses incurred as a result of your booking. Government authorities have been advised and are unable to provide assistance."

The lodge, five log guest cabins, staff quarters and all other parts of the operation have been listed for sale for $3.9 million.

Pennell said in the employment contracts with staff, Blachford agrees to pay the airfare, travel and accommodation expenses for staff traveling between the lodge and either Edmonton or Calgary. She said after the abrupt shutdown some staff, including her and her husband, were left to pay their own way home.

"There's been no communication to see if we're OK," said Pennell, who has been working at the lodge since January. "We have one staff member who is only 19, who had nowhere to go, didn't even have a credit card to book her own ticket, so we had to take care of her and make sure she's good."

Blachford Lake Lodge
Blachford Lake Lodge

Pennel said she and her husband are owed three weeks' pay, in addition to the promised travel expenses.

John Stephenson has worked for the lodge, arranging flights and supplies for it, for about 10 years. He's also been visiting the lodge as a guest for 35 years and is a friend of the owner. He, like Pennell, said the sudden closure comes during one of the lodge's best seasons ever.

"This winter was one of the most successful guest bookings ever," said Stephenson, later adding, "Running a remote village — and that's what I'd call it, a village, not a lodge — is challenging… it's an expensive operation."

Stephenson said he doesn't know anything about the lodge's finances. He was reluctant to say anything more about the closure.

Clients in the lurch

The shutdown has left those who have booked stays at the lodge in the lurch. One of those bookings was by FOXY and SMASH, organizations that promote the healthy development of young people through art, discussions about sexual health and consent, and building communication skills.

Executive director Candice Lys says the groups had booked Blachford for their first all-gender retreat this winter. They're now scrambling to line up an alternate venue and will be notifying all participants this week of the change.

"Blachford has been a huge part of FOXY and SMASH right since our start," said Lys. "We've had, I believe, 25 peer leader retreats out at Blachford over the last 10 years. Blachford has been one of our key really amazing supportive partners. So the news is pretty devastating to FOXY and SMASH."

Lys says she's hoping the relationship with Blachford can continue if new owners are found.