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Captaining the "Chief" never gets old for Stivrins

'It’s kind of the first sign that summer is right around the corner and it tunes people in to the fact that the season is changing again'

“Rooted” is all about the people and places that make us proud to call our community home.

It is one of the truly recognizable signs of the summer in the city of North Bay. The Chief Commanda II docked at the end of Kings Landing, sitting patiently in the sunlight, ready to embark on her next voyage around Lake Nipissing.

“I don’t know how many phone calls and texts I get the day we put the ship in,” says Captain Rich Stivrins.

“We don’t normally do a big announcement about it; the ship usually just shows up in the afternoon at some point and invariably my phone goes off like crazy as people drive down and see it.”

He adds, “It’s kind of the first sign that summer is right around the corner and it tunes people into the fact that the season is changing again and we’re excited for another summer on the water in North Bay.”

Whether they get a full season in or not a single cruise on the lake this summer remains to be seen at this point with the parameters surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak. However, the trip around our scenic lake is a trip that people have been making for centuries now.

“The idea is a longstanding one,” says Stivrins.  

“The Chief Commanda II has been in operation since 1975, prior to that the predecessor vessel was the Chief Commanda I which was in service from 1946 to ‘74.”

Stivrins says prior to that there was a cruise service in the ’30s, but he adds, “Having a passenger vessel on the waters of Lake Nipissing goes back to basically the turn of the century.”

One of the first things I remember thinking personally when I saw that North Bay had its own cruise ship was, “Is that lake even big enough to warrant a cruise?” Stivrins says I wasn’t the first, and probably won’t be the last to have that thought.

“We hear that all the time, especially with the travelling public. They come to check out the waterfront and can’t believe how big it is. It’s the third biggest lake in the province of Ontario so it is a massive body of water. It’s an area that is historically significant.”

The waterways were explored by Samuel de Champlain, it in the generations since, it has been used for logging, minerals, and transportation. Now it is a place that is known as a serene spot for fishing and recreational waterway, including those cruises offered by the Chief.

And those cruises continue to be as popular as ever says Stivrins, “I think there are a few different things that play into that.

“One is that getting out on the water is just such a release, people are able to leave their troubles on the dock as you pull away. You do see people hit relax mode as soon as we head out. We also have a number of different cruise offerings, everything from an hour and a half short sightseeing cruise to a more formal sit-down dinner cruise. Every year we also do corporate events and weddings. We really make it a very flexible venue and so we appeal to a very large cross-section of the community and the travelling public as well.”

While the ship is supported very well by North Bayites, Stivrins says over the years they have many people who travel into North Bay and spend some time on the ship.

“We get great local support, and so we get a lot of the same kinds of relatives or friends who come up to visit residents and one of the first things they do is they head out on the Chief. People like showing off that they have this cruise ship here. We also get people who come up to see the area, they’ll spend a week or two at a lodge or hotel and they’re looking for something to do and they find us and book a trip.”

There’s probably a point in every young person’s life when they put on a hat and pretend to be the captain of their own ship while playing with their friends on the playground or in the backyard. Stivrins grew up to live out that playtime scenario and says it was basically in the genes.

“It’s straight nepotism to be completely honest,” he says when asked about having a career in captaining the Chief Commanda II.  

“When I was 14 years old my family bought the first steel hauled Maid of the Mist called the Chippewa III. We operated that out of Parry Sound, so I spent a good chunk of my summers on that ship, I was probably driving the crew nuts but getting to drive the ship and learn about how it worked.

"I’ve done a few things over my life. I was a financial advisor and I lived in London, Ontario for a bit. But I always kept coming back in the summer to do boat related stuff. And after I graduated, I came back up in the fall of 2003 I believe, and we had taken over operations of the Chief just a year or two before. So, I came up that fall, I fell in love with the city and the area and I’ve been here ever since.”

He says there is a lot of work that goes into it than just being around a boat your whole life.

“You have to get your first mates’ papers, and there are five or six things you need to get as a far as marine emergency duties and you need your radio operators’ certificate, things like that. You will also work as an apprentice to a captain at some point and go through a different series of courses and exams. Transport Canada will also have you do a written exam and a practical exam and make sure that you know how everything works, makes sure you can take the ship on and off the dock, and are you prepared for an emergency, those kinds of things.”

So after being on a ship summer after summer in his youth and then doing it as his career, how does it never get tiring for Stivrins?

“The big thing is the people that come out,” he says.

“We get a broad cross-section of people that come out. You get to hear their stories and expose them to the thing that you love the most. More often than not we have the bridge opened up for tours and so we have folks seeing how the ship operates and taking a turn at the wheel and that kind of stuff. And that’s just awesome to be able to share with people because not everyone can have the opportunity to drive a 100-foot-long boat.”

He adds there’s never a dull moment when you’re taking people around a picturesque lake,.

“I have a soft spot for weddings, it’s certainly a unique thing to do. Our fireworks cruise every year sells out, we get a heck of a lot of people on there from not just the local area but people who are coming in to celebrate Canada Day and they come on for a nice boat ride and catch the fireworks. Certainly, the Blues Cruise in connection with the Capitol Centre in the Fall is something that is always a fun one as well.”

“We are heading into our 19th or 20th year now and the community support has been absolutely amazing and we’re certainly very thankful for that.”  

If you have a person or place in mind that you think would be an excellent addition to this series, feel free to send Matt an email at [email protected] or find him on Facebook and twitter @matthewsookram.

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Matt Sookram

About the Author: Matt Sookram

Matthew Sookram is a Canadore College graduate. He has lived and worked in North Bay since 2009 covering different beats; everything from City Council to North Bay Battalion.
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