Regardless of what you’re doing, outdoor activities all require equipment of some sort and if you’re anything like me you aren’t committed to just one sport, so the gear just continues to pile up. Outdoor enthusiasts are passionate about their chosen pastimes and their extensive gear collections are a source of pride. We’ve all walked into the local shop with no intentions of buying, only to leave with the latest ‘needed’ item, and an even longer wish list. Gearheads like us have all dreamed about ditching the nine to five and opening our own spot to live our best life. Michelle Faerden used to be like the rest of us, but turned that dream into reality more than thirteen years ago.
If you’ve spent anytime in Kananaskis Village then you’re well aware of Kananaskis Outfitters, the impressive rental shop, retail space, and tour operator. Michelle purchased the small shop back in 2006 and has been cruising on an upward trajectory ever since. These days Michelle and her husband Claude, whom I had the pleasure of working with for several years, are the dynamic duo balancing a young family and operating a successful business.
I won’t waste anymore of your time, instead you can learn what it takes to carve out a niche in a crowded market from the owner herself.
Calgary Guardian: “How did Kananaskis Outfitters come about? What made you open a gear shop?”
Michelle Faerden: “I graduated from an Adventure Tourism program in Northern Ontario and moved to Alberta having visited once and still in complete awe of the beauty and possibilities the mountains had to offer. I had worked teaching outdoor education to school groups, as a raft guide, and dog sled guide. I loved the industry but wanted to start something of my own. I started thinking about opening a guiding company and running it out of my house when a friend told me about a gear rental shop that was for sale in Kananaskis. I stopped in to look at it. It was very small; the gear was old, and it was obvious the current owner had fallen out of love with it. But I could see the potential! Negotiations started, Kananaskis Outfitters was incorporated and weeks later it was real. I joke that no one grows up aspiring to open a rental shop. The market was there for a rental service, so I started that division, got established and then started offering guided tours, which was the ultimate goal.”
CG: “In what ways has the shop grown since 2006 until now?”
MF: “Quite literally we have grown from 400 square-feet to 1,650 square-feet, plus a mobile lakefront location. In our first year, we were a rental shop with a small retail selection. Now we are an established retail shop with an expanded rental fleet and have a year-round selection of guided tours in multiple sports.”
CG: “What’s the best thing about your job?”
MF: “I get to take families, school groups, and co-workers out into the mountains, tell them stories, and teach them techniques and skills. Even just to instill a sense of awe and wonder by bringing their focus to the minutia of the ecosystem to help break down the big picture of the systems in place within the natural world. The interesting flora just near their feet that they never noticed before. When I’m not doing that, I love the diversity that entrepreneurship offers. In the morning I can be crunching numbers and, in the afternoon, helping design an advertisement, or working with a partner to design a new experience.”
CG: “What’s one of the most challenging aspects of your job?”
MF: “The weather! I grew up on a farm so I’m well trained at grumbling about weather and I never thought I would get into a job with the same challenge. It’s too cold, too smoky, too windy, or there isn’t enough snow. The forecast is our nemesis, it’s rarely correct but most of our guests are coming in from at least 85 kms away so they look to it to decide what their adventure will be or if they will even come to Kananaskis. For instance, this past summer the forecast called for rain almost every day but it didn’t rain every time it was forecasted.”
CG: “Why should folks choose Kananaskis Outfitters for their rental needs? What sets you apart from the competition?”
MF: “Our customers love that we are ‘where the action is’. They don’t want to fight traffic in the city and wait in lines when they can drive out, pick it up, and head straight out on the trails and lakes. Also, we are locals! We have the most accurate and up to date trail knowledge. Our guides and customers report back precise trail conditions multiple times a day. Finally, our gear is of high quality and our customer service is top-notch. There are so many awesome activities provided by our partners and neighbours there is something for the whole family out here. We have a beautiful golf course, a casino, horseback riding, paddleboarding, canoeing, kayaking, river surfing, hiking, snow shoeing, cycling, mountain biking, and fat biking. The diversity of activities is endless.”
CG: “You’ve come a long way already, but what direction is Kananaskis Outfitters heading? Where do you see yourselves in five years?”
MF: “We are working on growing our guided tours and lessons division. This fall we are focusing on building out our school group program. In five years, we’d like to be running trips every day in every season.”
CG: “It’s not always easy to narrow it down, but could you describe a memorable moment from your time at work?”
MF: “We used to keep our bikes outside locked up 24/7. One day, in our first month of opening the business, I came to work and found one of the locks smashed open and three bikes missing. I was devastated, called the RCMP, and went through the motions necessary after a theft. A day later, the RCMP came back saying they had found the bikes and the thieves. A few out-of-country military privates had a few too many drinks and realized there were no taxis to get home. They ‘borrowed’ the bikes with the intent on returning them under the cover of darkness. Their commander was furious and ordered them to return the bikes, to write me a very polite apology letter, and to put in eight hours of community service. I put them to work for a day painting and helping me get the shop ready for opening. They were nice guys who made a bad decision and the situation turned from bad to good.”
CG: “Your shop is located in the heart of Kananaskis Country, one of the most beautiful areas in the entire province. I’m not asking you to give away your hidden gems, but do you have a favourite spot in Kananaskis? What makes it so special?”
MF: “I couldn’t list all the amazing spots in Kananaskis and my favourite places vary based on activity. For paddling and hiking, Barrier Lake is one of my favourites. The beaches are sandy and vast, the views, stunning. Couple that with Barrier Lake’s proximity to Calgary and Canmore, it is a wonder why so few people have discovered it yet. Biking is also awesome in K-Country. The High Rockies Trail is a new gem that many people haven’t heard about yet. It is a modern style of flowy trail with otherworldly landscapes and unbelievable views. Terrace South starts right at Kananaskis Village and goes right to the Galatea Trailhead parking lot. It has a good mix of short technical uphills fast, flowy downhills, and the ride is super fun as an out and back, or a loop via the Bill Milne for variety. I think the magic lies in the way Kananaskis has retained its raw beauty, it is undeveloped and relatively untouched by people and crowds. Wild, both in its diversity of furry ‘locals’ and the wide array of adventure opportunities.”
CG: “Do you have any closing words for us?”
MF: “Love what you do, and never stop adventuring.”
CG: “Thank you Michelle for taking the time to provide a glimpse into what it’s like to operate your own shop and some of the history behind Kananaskis Outfitters. I really appreciate it.”
Three years ago I got to experience a couple of firsts, my first fat bike ride and my first tour with Kananaskis Outfitters. I reported on the whole experience in my story Fat Tire Revolution and was blown away by the level of service I received that day. I know you will not be disappointed when you choose Kananaskis Outfitters for all your rental and tour needs.
For the latest up-do-date information or to book your next adventure please visit the Kananaskis Outfitters website. You can also connect with them on the following social media platforms, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TripAdvisor and make sure to use #KOmtnLife when sharing your photos.
About this column:
Wild Jobs is a running series that focuses on people in outdoor-related professions. It provides a brief snapshot of their career and the duties that it entails. Please see my previous post, Wild Jobs Part Twenty: Park Warden to learn more.
*Feature Image Photo Credit: Bence Horvai