Up North: Up-and-coming, award-winning outfitter is just a nice guy

I’ve known Mark Stenzig, owner of Up North Adventures, for a few years. But my most memorable meeting with him was during Christmas 2003. My brother, visiting from Calgary, and I had decided to try out a new pair of snowshoes that he and my sister had given me. A cold but beautiful day, we decided to hit the nearby trails around Chadburn Lake.

We set out along the trail, noticing the tracks of other snowshoers. It was one of those perfect December days in the Yukon. The sky was brilliantly blue, the sun was beaming and although it had been cold in town, once we were in the trees and began moving, the temperature was much warmer.

As we moved further down the trail, the tracks we had been following appeared to grow fresher. We crested a small hill and I spotted a group of people, just off the side of the trail. As my brother and I approached, I realized that it was Stenzig with a group of Asian tourists.

Dressed in his fur hat, Stenzig’s face lit up as he recognized me. After we exchanged greetings and I introduced my brother, our attention turned to the astonished faces of the visitors. Still adjusting to the sheer vastness of the Yukon, to someone from Asia even Miles Canyon seems wild.

I’ll never forget their looks of amazement as Stenzig explained that we knew each other to the only women who spoke a smattering of English and she translated to the others. The amazement turned to smiles when they considered the fact that two acquaintances might meet on a trail in the middle of the Yukon “wilderness”.

I had first met Stenzig a couple of years earlier while I was working for the Yukon Convention Bureau. Stenzig provided a voyageur canoe trip for some potential corporate clients we had brought in from the United States.

Stenzig’s easygoing style, disarming sense of humour and reassuring confidence instantly impressed me. Now the owner of my own company, Latitude, we’ve hired Up North Adventures to help us host some of our own groups. We love their accommodating approach and our clients rave about their services.

Up North Adventures is a Yukon-based, family enterprise. Stenzig started the business with his parents in the early ’90s. His Dad, born in Germany and working at a well-known Whitehorse bakery, often spoke to visiting German tourists as they stocked up on supplies at the bakery before heading out on their adventures. He was often asked for travel advice, or the best place to see this or that. One day, he came home and asked his son if he’d be interested in opening a canoe rental business with him.

“I had always loved the outdoors and took the outdoor education/ACES program in high school, so I thought it was a great idea,” said Stenzig. “Dad sent me to the store to get a quote on six canoes and gear. When I came back with a price, he said, ‘good job’, and sent me right back to get a better deal.

“That was my first lesson in business. I realized then what it meant to deal with the ‘bank’ of Mom and Dad.”

The business took off. In its second year, Stenzig’s Mom got into the act when she opened a bed and breakfast. “It just seemed to make sense,” said Stenzig.

“We were renting canoes to all these people who needed a place to stay. We’d pick them up at the airport, take them to the B&B, transfer them to their river, pick them up at the other end and return them to the airport. It was seamless and well received by our guests.”

Now providing a wide range of products from guided fishing and quad tours in the summer to snowmobiling and Northern Lights tours in the winter, Stenzig grew the company to a thriving year-round business providing some of the Yukon’s most unique tourism products.

In addition to his tour business, which now includes a Northern Lights viewing centre catering to Asian visitors and a line of corporate and incentive travel products, Stenzig is gaining a reputation of having one of the best water sports shops in the Yukon. Located on Strickland Street, Stenzig sells canoes and kayaks, paddling and camping gear, dry bags, dehydrated camping food and maps.

“I hope to expand the retail business,” said Stenzig. “I really enjoy it.”

Expansion is definitely a word that Stenzig takes seriously. In 2004 he attended Rendezvous Canada, the country’s most important international tourism trade show, for the first time.

“That was a huge learning experience,” said Stenzig. “We’re giving it three years to see if we realize our investment.” At $5,000 per trade show, it represents a significant risk, but Stenzig is confident.

It would seem that Stenzig is well on his way to realizing his goals. In 2001, The Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon awarded Stenzig the CKRW Little Guy Award for being the company that has best demonstrated community spirit, promotional excellence and/or management professionalism for the benefit of Yukon residents and visitors.

“That was something special. My father had passed away earlier that year and I had to start making all the decisions without my safety net, knowing I was going to make tons of mistakes. To be recognized by the industry that year in particular really blew me and my Mom away and we display that award very proudly.”

Stenzig also won a Business Development Bank of Canada Young Entrepreneur Award in 2004.

“It was great to win, but the award ceremony was at the worst possible time. It was hunting season!” exclaimed Stenzig. He continued, “It turned out to be a really educational trip though and we met business people our own age from all over the country, each experiencing the same challenges as us.”

Despite all the accolades, Stenzig is grounded. He clearly loves dealing with people and chuckles when he spoke about a recent client from Germany he nicknamed “Frank Six-Socks”, after he discovered his client was indeed wearing six pairs of socks when his feet got cold on an ice fishing tour. “The guy said he knew he had on two for sure, but surprised even himself when he counted six pairs!” Stenzig laughed.

When asked what he is most excited about in his business, he points to the significant number of repeat customers. “We have a number of clients who travel with us year after year, they’re like family. And when someone spends their hard-earned travel dollars year after year, you know you’re doing something right.”

Something right indeed.

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