Gord Vaadeland was born and raised on a cattle ranch near Big River, Saskatchewan. He lives on the southwest boundary of the Prince Albert National Park with his family. They love the wild, free ranging bison in and around the Prince Albert National Park and wake up to them in their back yard on many occasions. Horses have been a part of Gord’s life since before he can remember and he currently operates Sturgeon River Ranch, an adventure tourism company that allows guests the opportunity to view wild bison while on horseback in the Prince Albert National Park. It’s also a working ranch – they raise Quarter Horses on their 5000 acres.
Additionally, Vaadeland serves as the executive director of both the Sask chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Sturgeon River Plains Bison Stewards. Gord has twice been cast as “Sidekick” on OLN’s adventure reality show Mantracker, which was filmed at the Ranch. He was also featured in the Discovery World HD series, The National Parks Project and the Global-TV documentary, Branded.
How do the experiences you offer at Sturgeon River Ranch give guests a unique perspective on the history, environment or culture of your region?
First of all, the Sturgeon River bison herd is the only remaining wild Plains bison herd in Canada still free ranging in their historic range. So there is uniqueness there right away. The area is also a transition zone between the prairies and the boreal forest, so there is plenty of flora and fauna from both ecosystems. It is a very unique and spiritual area. Add to that the fact that our family are an authentic ranching family with deep roots in the area and combine that with our connection to local First Nations people and their culture, and we check off a lot of those boxes.
How have the experiences that you offer evolved since their inception?
I think at first there was a temptation to try to be all things to all potential visitors. But as we’ve grown, we’ve simplified. We’ve learned that what our guests really want is the authentic experience, which means we need to focus on what we do naturally, as that is ultimately what we will do best.
What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?
I don’t think guests realize just how important and special areas like the West Side of Prince Albert National Park are. At first, I think they feel they are just coming for a horseback ride. We feel it’s important for them to leave feeling like they are part of the land here and that they can play a role in ensuring it is protected and looked after into the future.
What do you wish every guest knew as they consider participating in the experiences you offer?
I think this answer is almost the same as above. When we have repeat guests come, they come back the second and third times because they connected with the land on the first visit. Once they are connected, it’s a bit of a vortex and people want to come back. I wish there was a better way to create that connection ahead of time.
What is one travel trend that really excites you?
There are a couple. The use of social media by regular people as they travel is very exciting. We love when our trips are shared around the world on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The more the better! I also love that both adventure and conservation are becoming bigger focuses for outdoorsy type travelers. They are also checking off ‘bucket list’ types of experiences earlier in life, which means the lists are getting longer and people are getting out in nature more. Combined with the power of social media, this creates the best possible advertising for why we need to conserve the many amazing natural areas that still exist out there!
What sets Sturgeon River Ranch apart from other guest ranches in Saskatchewan?
The main thing is that we really focus on wildlife viewing and the authentic outback experience, rather than the more typical ranch activities like cattle drives and the like. We are actually quite unique in that sense.
What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?
Do your homework ahead of time and find the best person to show you the area and guide you through the experience. There are a lot of different types of guides associated with the various experiences out there, and not all are going to give you the best or most authentic experience.
What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow?
Keeping it simple. That sounds almost too simple, but that’s what we’ve done and it works. Do what we do best and don’t try to do too much. Of course, our experiences with TV and the media have also helped, but those also came about due to our focus on authenticity and simplicity, so it all works together.
What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?
It took a while for this to become a habit, but becoming comfortable with the personal brand side of our larger brand. With an experience like ours, I had to learn to become comfortable with developing a personal brand within the brand of our company. That took some doing, for sure, as my folks raised us to be humble. But I did learn that the personal branding can be carried out without compromising humility, which is important. Once I figured that out, it worked out great. People want to feel like they are having an ‘insider experience’ and when they can get out with the people from the area that are part of the land, it makes the entire experience more authentic and valuable to them. So, I needed to learn and understand that and make it a habit.
Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.
One experience that comes to mind was when I was out doing a ride and had my dad, Ruben (who is now 82 and still doing the trips) driving wagon for me. The family we had with us was from Australia. We were sitting out on Long Meadow eating lunch. The bison were in full rut and we were lucky enough to have a herd a couple hundred yards off from us carrying on like crazy, mostly oblivious to our presence due to the rut. As we watched, Ruben was telling one of the guests about his recent trip back to his homeland in Norway to visit family and how much he loved the fjords on the west coast and thought it was the most beautiful place he’d seen in his life. The Australian fellow replied by saying “Well, it must be pretty nice, because I’ve traveled the world and right now I’m sitting in the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen”. Sometimes it’s great to get some perspective from the outside. My dad had been living in that area for almost 80 years at the time and was aware that it was a really nice place. But it was only then that he gained a real appreciation for how beautiful it actually was.