août 22, 2019
It’s said joy, when shared, is multiplied. That certainly proved true with Steve Doonan, Nick Papanicholas and a group of Illinois-area construction contractors who recently enjoyed an unforgettable corporate trip to Aikens Lake Wilderness Lodge.
The group itself has multiplied, several times over, from the initial four subcontractors who paved the way in 2013 to the group of 30 who took over the resort two weeks ago as part of an exclusive Aikens Lake corporate retreat.
When the foursome first visited Aikens in 2013, they immediately knew they had to come back and, this time, bring their wives so their better halves could experience the five-star service and accommodations, the breathtaking scenery, and the world-class fishing. Like that, four became eight for a return trip in 2015 with the wives surprising their husbands (but not their friends) by out-fishing the men and relishing the on-the-water adventure every bit as much as the fine dining and nightly entertainment.
Steve, a part of the group each time, mentioned what a unique and special place Aikens is to one of the leaders at Nicholas & Associates, a big contractor in Illinois. One thing led to another, and 16 colleagues from the Nicholas Family and select subcontractors returned to Aikens in 2017 for a trip that turned out just as magical as the past two.
“We were standing around the dock getting ready to leave on the float plane and we said, ‘We need to this again,’” Steve recalls. “Yeah, everybody said. Everyone was excited and we asked Pit then about doing an exclusive lodge buyout and we basically committed to it that morning on the dock before we flew home.”
This year, the group of 30 arrived on August 1 with more than half the group comprised of Aikens rookies, many of whom had never before fished. The group booked a private flight from Chicago to Winnipeg, where they were shuttled with snacks and drinks to the float base and flew into Aikens. Impressively, they left Chicago around 8am, were at the float base by lunch and on the water fishing by 1:30 to begin their adventure.
“Everybody was blown away,” Steve said with a laugh. “They couldn’t believe the accommodations, and they didn’t expect the service levels and the food we got. They had heard all these great stories about Aikens, but in no way were they anticipating what they’d be receiving up there. They were overwhelmed.”
The group did everything from fine dining to knee-boarding to cliff jumping, with plenty of time for sheer relaxation, too.
Of course, the group was eager to try their hand at Aikens’ primary activity, fishing, and the action did not disappoint. They caught boatloads of fish, with several in the group even landing once-in-a-lifetime type trophies such as a 29-inch Manitoba Master Angler walleye and a pair of giant, 41-inch pike.
The crew enjoyed teasing Steve, the most experienced Aikens vet among them, when he didn’t catch anything his first evening out.
Steve gave the ribbing right back the next morning, however, when he had the hot hand and achieved the Aikens Century Club award for catching four walleyes totaling 100 inches in combined length. What’s more, he completed the feat by 10:30 in the morning, after just a couple hours of fishing!
Another highlight was “life jacket fishing.” A bunch of guys in the group wore lifejackets, sat on floaties and bobbed in the water while fishing in the back bay.
“The guys were in the lake casting for northern pike. When they caught a northern it would drag them around the lake,” Steve said. “It was the funniest thing you’ve ever seen on the lake.”
To up the ante and make things even more interesting, the group decided on a contest one day to see which boat could catch the most inches of fish before lunch. Each guy put in $5 for prize money, creating a $150 pot for the winner. Steve and his fishing partner Dave developed a great strategy with their guide Jesse that paid dividends: After quickly catching their shorelunch fish, they ditched walleyes and targeted abundant northern pike––all by themselves––in the Back Bay.
Contest or not, shorelunch for big corporate groups is always a special highlight at Aikens. The entire group comes together and swaps stories over drinks at a beautiful spot with picnic tables and scenic lookouts, while the guides do all the work and prepare a feast of fresh fish made multiple ways, completed with an array of sides including potatoes, caramelized onions, onion rings, fruit and cookies. The delicious food and natural beauty are cathartic; barriers between co-workers and customers disappear and quality conversations flow freely.
On this particular day, however, there was an extra buzz at lunch as the guides quietly tallied each boat’s catches for the morning and began to announce contest results.
“We’re going through the results, and there are guys with 200 inches of total fish, 250, 350. One guy had 530 inches and everybody’s saying, ‘You’re going to win.’” Steve said. “Then they announced us at 585 inches and immediately it’s like, ‘You’re a bunch of liars!’”
That night at dinner Pit and Julie formally announced the winners of the contest at the evening award ceremony, but an unexpected twist created more laughter and “controversy.” Steve’s guide from the day, Jesse, suddenly stood up and made an announcement, confessing that his boatful of Steve and Dave had in fact cheated and the 585 inches was a hoax. Jesse was secretly put up to the charade of pretending the 585 inches was a scam by a few group members who wanted to get a reaction from Steve.
Again, the room erupted in laughter and Steve pointed out he had photos of every fish caught that day––defending his claim and rightful stake in the history books. In the days and weeks since the trip, the group of co-workers continue to bond over the highly controversial contest results, trading jokes and playful accusations via emails and texts.
The only place louder than the dining room was the bar each night, Aikens’ fully-stocked Big Molly’s Bar.
“It was roaring laughter and fun in there,” said Steve, explaining how the crew took to a rowdy dice game that had people howling whenever someone would lose their bet. Others played billiards and shuffleboard, with one individual bemoaning the fact he lost 19 consecutive games of shuffleboard. “Each night around 10pm they’d bring out hors d’oeuvres and appetizers for us––it was just awesome. It was really good for everybody to connect like that. We got to know guys that are usually just on the other side of an email or a business exchange.”
It became a running joke that guys would declare, “Yeah, it will be an early night for me,” only to become so engrossed in Big Molly’s fun that they couldn’t pull themselves away.
In fact, the group was sad to pull away from Aikens when their floatplane arrived to fly them away.
Their only consolation? Knowing for sure they’d be making a return trip.
“We already got our 2021 dates picked out!” Steve declared.
“This is an experience we all did together. I can see 6 months from now guys are going to be on the job site together and it’s going to be, ‘I still think about when you jumped off that cliff, or I remember that huge fish you caught,” said Steve. “Business in general has gotten too impersonal nowadays. That’s why this trip is important. You realize the people on the other side of the email have emotions and feelings too. You see them reeling in a great big fish and how excited they got, you see them laughing about it. It humanizes them so it’s easier to work with them. It’s awesome.”