Trails North closes, era ends

The customers never stopped coming. The hotel rooms were filled, the restaurant was packed and the bottom line continued to rise. But after more than three decades, Whitehorse highway stop Trails North is closing its doors.

The customers never stopped coming.

The hotel rooms were filled, the restaurant was packed and the bottom line continued to rise.

But after more than three decades, Whitehorse highway stop Trails North is closing its doors.

For owners Murray and Donna Swales, it’s a matter of priorities.

“Her health is our top priority now,” said Murray.

Donna first got breast cancer in 2004. Last year, it returned.

“It’s gotten to the point where it’s serious enough that we have to make a choice,” said Murray.

“If I hadn’t been sick, we would probably still be here,” said Donna.

The Swales have seen friends die while running businesses.

“That’s pretty sad,” said Murray.

For two years, the highway lodge has been up for sale.

Potential buyers were easy to find, but nobody wanted to pour their waking lives into managing a highway lodge.

“It’s seven days a week, 16 hours a day,” said Donna.

“You get out what you put in; so if you want something to be successful, you work at it — and that’s what we did,” said Murray.

Running a restaurant/motel/convenience store/gas station is tough work in any city, but Whitehorse’s volatile labour market doesn’t make it any easier.

“Two months ago we had a one-week period where we had to cover seven shifts ourselves in a week,” said Donna.

“That’s a lot when you have an eight-hour shift,” she said.

Working day-long shifts in between Edmonton-based chemotherapy treatments, Donna wondered if the business was slowing her recovery.

“I have no doubt that a lot of it is triggered by stress … I really do,” said Donna.

“I just can’t do it any more,” she said.

“Our kids are grown; it’s just him and I now, and how many times do you have to be hit over the head?”

Friends came by to brainstorm an easier way of running Trails North.

“How could we modify this or figure out a different way to do it,” said Murray.

Shut down the motel? The restaurant?

Trails North, they decided, is an organism.

Shutting down any one part of the lodge would kill the experience, said Murray.

Workers crowded the restaurant’s kitchen — feverishly scrubbing behind stoves and counters.

An employee stripped the shelves of the convenience store, carefully boxing up the lodge’s last cartons of unsold cigarettes, pausing occasionally to talk about the weather.

The dining room was unrecognizable, tables and chairs now lay stacked against the wall.

A gallery of semi-truck photographs still covered the walls of the dining room.

Come winter, Murray will board up the windows.

The once-teeming restaurant and motel rooms will sit empty for the first time in decades.

A friend of their daughter’s will live in an upstairs suite, keeping watch over the empty lodge.

“For the next six months, we’re not going to be too concerned with this,” said Murray.

Whitehorse will remain their home.

The lodge generally employs a staff of 15.

The Swales have seen top-notch reliability and professionalism from 75 per cent of the Trails North staff.

The other 25 per cent is the headache, said Murray.

In the lodge’s last week in business, Murray had to spend three shifts washing dishes after their prep cook failed to show.

Labour fluctuations are a “common denominator for anybody in the hotel/restaurant business,” said Murray.

He spoke of about a downtown Whitehorse hotelier who boasted about having “long-term cooks.”

“The longest-term cook was 18 years, and the shortest-term cook he had was eight years,” said Murray.

“Two weeks later I saw him downtown and they’d both left,” he said.

Trails North is the latest endeavour for the two entrepreneurs.

The Swales first came up to the Yukon from Calgary in 1973 and started Swales Electric.

In years to come, DC Furnace, Pyramid Distributors, Kreitzer Fuel and a property management business would all come to being under the Swales’ “hands-on” management style.

“We were doing all this at the same time; I don’t know how we did it,” said Donna.

Trails North is best-known to most Yukoners under Steve and Audrey Clare, the lodge’s owners of 12 years.

When the Swales took over the lodge, they also took over the Clare’s family of regulars.

Truckers, miners and visitors from the communities all counted Trails North as their home away from home.

Summers saw packed rooms. Even in the winter, the Swales could expect at least three of their six motel rooms to be occupied.

Loyalties ran deep.

“We keep getting customers saying, ‘My God, we’ve been coming here for 35 years,’” said Donna.

The restaurant’s homestyle meals attracted “a lot of men that couldn’t cook for themselves,” said Donna.

“Our food didn’t come out of a box; it’s homemade,” said Donna.

Everything from hamburgers to pies to muffins were made onsite, and from scratch.

Last year, the Swales hosted a couple for three weeks while they waited for their motorhome to get fixed.

By the time the RV was back on the road, the stranded RVers had become good friends, said Donna.

Two weeks ago, they dropped by Trails North again, with their children.

“They wanted us to meet their son and daughter,” said Murray.

Customers were known to walk from their motel room to the restaurant wearing only their pyjamas.

One night while Donna was manning the counter, a man clad only in boxer shorts dropped in to buy a midnight snack.

Donna graciously completed his purchase without any talk of lobby dress code.

“I didn’t want to offend him” said Donna.

“It’s kind of a compliment; I guess they feel like they’re at home,” she said.

On Monday, a Trails North regular had motored onto the lot, only to find the doors locked.

Donna and Murray rushed outside to greet him.

With the lodge’s last bit of diesel, they filled his tank and sent him on to Inuvik.

Hundreds of appetites satisfied, thousands of tanks filled and the Swales were suddenly seeing their last-ever send-off pull onto the Alaska highway.

“It was hard,” said Donna.