Navigating Success: Uncle Ducky's journey from the skies to the shores of Lake Superior

William Duckwall, affectionately known as "Uncle Ducky," has left an indelible mark on the tourism industry around Munising and Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore with his kayaks, campgrounds, cruise boats, yurts, and more.

Under the banner of his company, Uncle Ducky Outdoors, he oversees eight distinctive enterprises in Christmas (a town near Munising): Grand Island Cruises, Paddling Michigan, The Duck Pond Eatery & Beer Garden, Paddler's Village Campground, Au Train Beach Campground, Picture Rocks Transportation, Paddler’s Inn, and his newest venture: Pictured Rocks Yurts.

Duckwall's dedication to the community, his zeal for adventure, and his business prowess have reshaped the region's recreational landscape. While he is not the only kayak outfitter in the region, he has become Munising's unofficial tourism ambassador. His kayaking and other enterprises have set him apart in the industry and have made Uncle Ducky a familiar name across the peninsula. 

His journey in Munising began with a vision to offer unique experiences that would showcase the area's natural beauty.

Uncle Ducky OutdoorsWilliam Duckwall, affectionately known as Uncle Ducky, has become an unofficial ambassador for Munising.

"I wanted to create experiences that would not only be memorable but also highlight the incredible natural beauty of the Upper Peninsula," Duckwall said.

His vision and dedication to showcasing the region's charm has not gone unnoticed.

“Bill Duckwall’s number one skill is his vision and his ability to understand the power of marketing,” said Cori-Ann Cearley, who is executive director of the Munising Visitors Bureau. “His ventures have added new ways for people to experience Pictured Rocks, providing a more intimate connection with the natural beauty of the area.”

Duckwall’s marketing strategies have been a game-changer, she noted. His approach to marketing employs a full spectrum of strategies to attract visitors. From leveraging social media platforms like Facebook and Google to collaborating with WBAY in Green Bay for advertising and engaging in traditional paper advertising through brochures and publications from the Visitors Bureau, Duckwall ensures his businesses remain visible and appealing to potential tourists.

“His advertising ventures have significantly boosted the local economy, creating a need for more lodging and drawing tourists who contribute to businesses across the spectrum, from restaurants to hair salons," Cearley said.

What started as a small kayaking business has evolved into a multifaceted tourism venture, offering a range of activities from kayaking tours to scenic boat cruises to Pictured Rocks Transportation, a new service designed for backpackers exploring the North Country Trail. This service offers secure parking and transportation to various trailheads, enhancing convenience and safety for outdoor enthusiasts.

Before kayaking

One of the most remarkable chapters in William Duckwall's adventurous life occurred years ago. It was a week he spent flying the legendary entertainer Bob Hope. As a seasoned pilot, Duckwall had the unique opportunity to serve as Hope's personal pilot, an experience that not only highlighted his aviation skills but also gave him a glimpse into the world of a Hollywood icon. 

Uncle Ducky OutdoorsPaddling Michigan offers day kayak adventures to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

"Flying Bob Hope around for a week was an incredible experience," Duckwall recalled. "It was an honor to be in the company of such a beloved figure and to see firsthand the charisma and charm that made him a legend." 

This extraordinary experience added a significant highlight to Duckwall's already illustrious aviation career, one of many diverse and exciting paths his life has taken.

Born and raised in Indiana, Duckwall's love for the outdoors was instilled in him at a young age. 

"I grew up in northern Indiana on a lake," he reminisced. "We had boats and everything. I was really active in water skiing and fishing. That's where my passion for outdoor sports started." 

His aviation career spanned decades. After joining the Marine Corps and becoming a flight navigator, he learned to fly through flying clubs and earned all his commercial pilot licenses and ratings.

"My first flying job was for a bank in California, financing aircraft," Duckwall shared.

His journey then led him to fly jets for Coachman Industries and later for Simmons Airlines in Marquette, which was eventually purchased by American Airlines. He worked for American Airlines until his retirement in 2003.

Despite retiring from flying, Duckwall's entrepreneurial spirit thrived. He started a fishing charter business in 1994, which transitioned into a kayaking business, thanks to a little serendipity. 

"After a big flood in 2003 or 2005, I received a call from a company needing 25 canoes for a month-long study," he recounted. "I didn't have that many canoes, but I bought what I needed and that kick-started our canoe and kayak rental business." 

That moment marked the beginning of Paddling Michigan, which has since become a familiar name in Munising's flourishing tourism industry, attracting visitors from across the country eager to explore the iconic Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Paddling Michigan

Under Duckwall's leadership, the business has grown exponentially, employing nearly 100 people during peak season and contributing significantly to the local economy.

"It's been a remarkable journey watching Uncle Ducky’s grow and evolve over the years,” Duckwall said. “Our team's dedication and passion have been instrumental in our success.” 

Duckwall's businesses now draw approximately 20,000 kayakers and around 50,000 visitors across all properties annually. While his businesses thrive primarily during the summer months, he acknowledges the challenges of maintaining year-round operations in a seasonal destination.

"We can't stay open in the winter,” said Duckwall. “It's too hard.”

Greg Scott, who has served as William Duckwall's manager for nearly 14 years, plays a pivotal role in Uncle Ducky’s success. Duckwall called him instrumental to the company, with the ability to connect all the dots to ensure seamless operations." 

Said Scott: “We have an owner who says, ‘This is my dream. This is my vision. This is what I want to get done. Go get it done,’ and that support is crucial.” 

Scott's adaptability and reliance on a dependable crew, including long-term employees like Miles Glendenning, kayak operations manager, are key to the company's smooth functioning. 

“I never show up to work with a plan,” Scott admitted. “I show up to work and say, ‘What needs my attention today?’ and then address it.”

Glendenning's focus on enhancing the efficiency, safety, and performance of the kayak team is evident. Safety is a top priority for the company. Guides ensure the safety of the hundreds of kayakers who paddle Lake Superior each year.

 "As a certified instructor, I've crafted a manual that adheres to American Canoe Association (ACA) guidelines," Glendenning said. 

More than paddling

Beyond kayaking and boat cruises, Duckwall's commitment to innovation is evident in his latest project – the introduction of yurts overlooking Munising Bay. This addition not only enhances the visitor experience but also reinforces Duckwall's dedication to sustainable tourism practices.

Uncle Ducky OutdoorsUncle Ducky stands near his yurts, part of his growing enterprise in and around Munising.

"We're always looking for ways to enhance our services and provide unique experiences for our guests,” he said. “The yurts are a perfect example of that.”

Duckwall credits much of his success to the support and inspiration he received from others in the community. 

"I have known Bill since the days he piloted the (state Department of Natural Resources) plane to Lansing. I have admired his foresight in business and the company he has built. It is amazing what Bill has done in a very short time," said John Madigan, owner at Pictured Rocks Kayaks and Pictured Rocks Cruises, among the other outfitters in the region.

"I've had a lot of help," Duckwall acknowledged. "John Madigan has been a great inspiration to me. After I retired, I flew for the state for about a year and a half. During that time, John was on the DNR Commission, so the state based a small airplane here. I would pick him up and fly him down state, which allowed me to get to know him well. Even though he's a competitor, he's a good friend. The people we've met and worked with have been great to us." 

Sourcing locally is a priority for Duckwall's businesses, with frequent purchases from Munising-based suppliers like 41 Lumber and Madigan's Hardware, which employees refer to as their parts department. This commitment to local commerce reflects Duckwall's dedication to the community and its economic growth.

Staying connected with the local community is crucial for Duckwall. Active involvement in local organizations, such as the Alger County Chamber of Commerce, and collaborations with nearby businesses reinforce his commitment to community growth and development. From supporting fishing tournaments to contributing to firefighter organizations, Duckwall's contributions extend beyond his business interests.

"Community engagement has always been a priority for me," Duckwall said. “We're not just business owners; we're part of this community, and it's important to give back.”

As Munising's popularity continues as a must-visit destination in Michigan and the Midwest, Duckwall remains optimistic about the future.

While there may be limited land available for expansion, Duckwall's focus is on enhancing existing offerings, upgrading equipment, and exploring progressive ways to cater to the evolving needs of his customers.

“We are always looking at how we can improve what we have,” Scott said. “It’s about making sure we stay ahead of the curve.”

Reflecting on his journey, Duckwall attributes his success to hiring exceptional people and fostering a culture of excellence and forward-thinking.

Surrounding myself with a talented and dedicated team has been key to our success,” said Duckwall. “Together, we've been able to create experiences that resonate with our guests and keep them coming back year after year.”

Jennifer Champagne is an accomplished entertainment + visual effects writer with a passion for storytelling. When she’s not crafting articles on industry giants, you’ll find her enjoying life with her family and their three crazy golden retriever floofs at home in middle earth.
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