It’s been 20 years since Thomas de Jager first discovered the Yukon. Today, he runs his successful business Yukon Wide Adventures that gives locals and tourists the opportunity to enjoy the Yukon’s outdoors.
Thomas, originally from Monheim, Germany first came as a tourist through Alaska and the Yukon in 1996. His parents were avid kayakers and canoers and got him into these sports. At six years old, he started competing and has continued ever since. This year his team won first place in the Yukon River Quest.
De Jager started out like many who are captured by the Yukon spell and did a work exchange to be able to experience the Yukon. Work exchange is a way for travellers to fund their travel and also experience a culture and country by working in exchange for accommodation and food. De Jager worked on a ranch for food and accommodation on the Takhini River.
But in 2002, at 34 years old, he thought, “I needed to change something in my life. Things were not going as they should.”
He had been helping out with a company called Log Cabin Adventures. Founded in 1991, it was a family-run business that claims to be one of the first adventure companies in the Yukon. In 2002, Thomas bought the business, even before he had his visa arranged and founded the new company Yukon Wide Adventures in 2003.
“Like all dreamers who come here, I sold everything I had in Germany in 2003 and had $7,000 in my pocket,” he said. “I flew to Vancouver, bought a Jeep Cherokee and two canoes and had less than $2,000 to run my business.”
He still has photos of the two canoes strapped to his jeep in 2003 and the trunk filled with everything he owned. A new life means going all in. He sold his jeep last year to an ex-employee and it has made its way to Central America.
It can be a scary decision in life even starting a small business, particularly in a remote place and being far from your family, friends and original home. But fortunately for de Jager, his paddling background in Europe and Condor flights meant a successful first year of business, where he tripled revenue from the business’ previous years. “Without this, I would’ve been bankrupt,” he said.
The success with tourists from Germany, Austria and Switzerland and the Condor flights have continued to grow his business. These tourists have been fundamental for tourism and are drawn to the Yukon through the stories they grow up with of the Klondike and Jack London. “Yukon is a word that due to the stories stands for adventure, the wilderness,” De Jager said. “People want to experience this.”
Fortunately for de Jager he met his wife Kelly in 2006. Originally from Cold Lake, Alberta she was working for Up North Adventures and had been studying and working in outdoor adventure tourism. They had their first date at Kopper King pub and married in 2007. Ten years later they have four children.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest obstacles that they faced and continue to face today, surfaced in 2007, when an incorrectly placed epidural left Kelly paralysed. Eventually she could walk again, but there are ongoing issues. She still cannot feel anything around her waist and along her left leg and foot; a big issue when it comes to the cold and any sort of activity. It has caused her outdoor career to come to an end.
Over the last decade they have had to downsize their personal lives while trying to run the business and almost being broke from medical costs. At one point they lived in a small one bedroom cabin in Gruberville.
It has been not only a financial challenge, but has also impacted their personal and family life. De Jager wouldn’t change a thing though.
“It has been very difficult but I wouldn’t still be here if I hadn’t met my wife. Family is so important,” he said.
Running a family business can be tough, but the future hope is to create enough revenue to have more staff and then be able to spend time with family. Two years ago they bought their current downtown location and have been restoring it and opened in June 2017.
Its incredible location opposite the Tourist Information Centre allows for tourists to step across the street to inquire and shop at their authentic store front.
So what are the keys to being successful, particularly in a place like the Yukon? Coming from Germany, like many other immigrants here, you bring a different work ethic and experience and, as de Jager said, “Being in tourism, you serve people first then yourselves. I hear many say they ‘cannot do it,’ but they aren’t trying. If you want something done, then you need to do it yourself.”
Another point is that you must assess your priorities.
“Look at the business first, before yourself,” de Jager said. “Be in it with your heart. It’s your passion. It is my entire life.”
So what is his advice to others, whether born and raised Yukoners, from other parts of Canada or the world?
“If you want to start here, take over an existing business. Competition is much harder now than when I started.”
It’s evident that if you want something in life, no matter what obstacles are thrown at you, you can make it happen if you have the passion and drive. If you don’t believe that, then meet with Thomas de Jager.
Yukon Wide Adventures is a one-stop shop for guided tours, self-guided tours and rentals. Their products for sale are all brands that they use on tours, and back their quality. Whether you want to rent a sled and trailer or have an adventure in the Yukon, they can help you.
Yukon Wide Adventures is located at 102 Lambert St. For more information go to YukonWide.com.