Women have always been a crucial and colorful part of Alaska’s heritage. Strong, resilient, determined and savvy, historically they have been the backbone of their evolving land, where one out of every ten gold stampeders struggling over the Chilkoot and White Passes was a woman. On the Alaskan frontier of today, women own and manage an array of successful businesses in the undaunted spirit of their predecessors. Travel Guide is delighted to salute a few of these exceptional women with the following stories.
Wei Wei Jeang came to the United States from her native Taipei, Taiwan when she was 11 years old. She has lived in Dallas, Texas for the past 24 years, where she is a partner in a law firm. In January 2012, Jeang and her husband Keith Mantey bought historic Gwin’s Lodge, a cherished landmark since the 1950s located in Cooper Landing on the Kenai Peninsula. A former client and friend told the couple about Gwin’s when he learned they were looking for vacation or investment property in Alaska. After checking out the lovely five acres in the middle of the Chugach National Forest and immediately falling in love with the lodge and surrounding area, they made an offer a few days later and it was accepted.
Gwin’s had been closed down for about a year, and it became apparent that the log roadhouse should be gutted, with the plumbing, electrical, floors, equipment and fixtures replaced. All the cabins were fitted out with new bedding and underwent a sorely needed scrubbing down. After a lot of hard work, some of the cabins and the store reopened in June 2012. On the morning of July 11, 2012, the restaurant at Gwin’s had a grand re-opening ribbon cutting ceremony with breakfast, complete with members of the Cooper Landing Chamber. Jeang says it has been gratifying to hear positive feedback from loyal customers who had been coming to Gwin’s for a long time and really missed it, and that they hope to remain open through the winter with reduced hours.
Jeang is unable to be at Gwin’s full time, but travels from Texas to Alaska as needed to tend to business there. Her husband spent about 6 intense months at the lodge this first year, putting the business back in order. The busy couple oversee its operation with the help of their general manager Charlotte Bright, store manager Rob Brashears and kitchen manager Gail Zeisloft. Jeang expresses how extremely honored and privileged she feels to be able to bring this venerable institution back to life. Gwinslodge.wordpress.com carries the fascinating story of the lodge’s history and how things are going with the property now.
Gwin’s features cabins, store and restaurant, open from 6am to 10pm for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Visitors can also book guides, charters and excursions through Gwin’s Lodge, located at Milepost 52 on the Sterling Highway in Cooper Landing; call (907) 595-1266 or visit gwinslodge.com.
Ronna Lindeman Martin has lived all but the first year of her life in Alaska, having moved from Oregon to Ninilchik in 1968 when her father John accepted a teaching job at the local high school. At first, the family rented a 160-acre homestead with cabin. When she was 13 years old, her family of eight purchased a 40-acre section and built a cabin with logs harvested from their property.
During the short summers they fished, dug clams, tended their garden, raised chickens and milked cows…and they had fun! Everything was a family affair from planning the annual moose or sheep hunt to grinding the wheat that Ronna’s mom Delores baked into bread. While being hard working, fun loving and adventurous, John and Delores also taught their children to live off the land. To this day, Ronna holds the coveted title in her family for bagging the largest sheep! She fondly recalls years of weeklong camping trips when her parents taught their children safety skills, survival techniques, how to protect the land and wildlife and how to have fun in the great outdoors. They instilled in their children a great love and respect for the Alaska way of life.
Ronna was on several athletic teams in high school and graduated as valedictorian. She attended U of A Fairbanks where she majored in Education, competed in skiing and cross-country and met her future husband Blair Martin. Although the Lindemans and the Martins were acquainted, Ronna and Blair weren’t close until heartbreak struck both families. Ronna’s older brother was killed in an ATV accident in June of 1986. The next year, Blair’s younger brother was killed in a plane crash while returning from a deer hunt on Kodiak Island. While the two helped each other heal from the loss of a sibling, love began to grow and they married three years later.
Ronna taught school at Eielson AFB and later at Denali Elementary School until their first child was born. Two years later, her husband accepted a teaching position at an Athabascan community school in Sleetmute located 250 miles west of Anchorage and accessible only by bush plane. They lived in a log cabin with no insulation or running water and a wood stove for heat. Toward the end of the school year, Blair’s dad Carrol visited them in the bush…and he arrived with an idea - he wanted to build an RV Park.
Due to the scarcity of campgrounds and the growing popularity of RV travel, tourists and locals alike frequently asked Carrol if they could park their vehicles on his ranch in Kenai while visiting the area. Being quick to recognize an opportunity and scheming a way to get his grandchildren closer to home, Carrol proposed his plan. At the end of the school year, Ronna and Blair moved their family back home to build an RV Park on the Diamond M Ranch.
The Diamond M Ranch RV Park opened in 1997 with 17 sites located in a beautiful stand of spruce trees adjacent to the ranch. Ronna, with her mother-in-law JoAnne’s help, took reservations, kept the books and generally managed the administrative work necessary for the business. She also traveled to Seattle with eight-year-old D.Anne, who was in need of open-heart surgery to correct a valve defect.
Being tenacious and boundlessly energetic, Ronna managed a growing business while her family grew to five children. They learned to raise their own beef, grow their own vegetables and work the ranch and RV Park. The children were home schooled, raised their own 4-H animals, learned to safely explore their surroundings and were given the freedom to discover what nature had to offer.
In 2003, customer demand, creativity, hard work and heart-felt prayers fueled an expansion that transformed the RV Park into a resort with the opening of the Mainstreet Historical Lodge. The outside resembles five turn-of-the-century Alaskan and Yukon Territory buildings built during the Gold Rush era, and inside are four one-bedroom units including a honeymoon suite. The original homestead ranch house was renovated to offer a bed and breakfast experience as well. The full-hook-up RV sites now number nearly 100 and vary from big rig friendly to private, secluded ones. Three generations of Martins offer activities at the Resort including hiking, clamming, salmon potluck dinners, ranch tours, campfire s‘mores and storytelling.
A crushing blow struck Ronna’s family in 2009 when they lost 9-year-old Mathias in a tragic fairgrounds accident. As they desperately dealt with a grief so overwhelming nothing else mattered, friends, relatives and neighbors came together to comfort them and to keep their business running. In time, strong support and a deep and abiding faith in God allowed Ronna and her family to take up their lives again. In the wake of their loss, the family memorialized “Matti” by establishing a non-profit organization called Matti’s Farm to benefit area children.
Last year, their enthusiasm and spirit slowly returning, Ronna and Blair resumed work on another exciting expansion project. The Club House, now under construction in the South Park, will house a new check-in office, store, additional restrooms and showers and two rental units on the 2nd floor. Within the past couple of years, the Resort has been named one of the Top 300 Good Sam Parks, as well as the Kenai/Soldotna Outstanding Business in Tourism, and Alaska Farm Family of the Year. Providing her guests with a great Alaskan experience gives Ronna an immense sense of satisfaction, and although she looks forward to someday passing the day-to-day responsibilities to someone else, she plans always to keep her hand in the business. She’s currently visualizing a frozen water park in the Resort’s future!
One of the things Ronna loves about Alaska is that it remains wild and untamed, and she loves being outside with her two youngest children. While she thrives on the demands of running a business, her greatest source of joy is spending time with Darius and Sonora and sharing their almost daily delights of watching a moose or caribou stroll through their yard, hiking to the river to catch a fresh salmon or ice-skating on their frozen pond. Ronna understands that growing up in Alaska is an honor and a privilege that must not be taken for granted.
All the great goings-on at Diamond M Ranch can be discovered at 48500 Diamond M Ranch Road in Kenai. Call (907) 283-9424, email email@example.com or visit diamondmranch.com.
Cheryle James is a second-generation Alaskan who has lived here most of her life, aside from brief stints in Seattle, Washington and Lincoln, Montana. She was drawn back by the beauty and serenity of her native state because as she puts it, “Mt. Rainier just wasn’t enough mountain for me.” Cheryle grew up in Anchorage, attended college and worked for First National Bank Alaska for many years, ultimately transferring to Cooper Landing in 1986 and continuing as a bank officer. After retirement, she worked at the Cooper Landing Grocery Store in addition to helping her parents through a period of failing health. Cheryle serves on several community boards in Cooper Landing and Soldotna. She owns two motorcycles, one with a sidecar for her Rottweiler! She loves getting out on the beautiful Russian River, renowned for great salmon fishing, although she says the only way she catches fish is if they are suicidal!
Cheryle and her husband (“Wildman”) Jerry got the idea for their business at an annual barbeque, when they bought a bottle of very expensive rum from one of the local businesses and realized they could probably do better. And so Wildman’s was born, starting out as a liquor store and laundromat on Christmas Eve in 1997, with their very first sale made to their carpenter. Wildman’s has since grown to include a convenience store, ice cream, sandwich and espresso shop and taxi/boat shuttle business. You can shower there, get your fishing license, buy propane, RV camp by the day or month and access free Wi-Fi. As one happy patron writes, “I found myself at Wildman’s every single day this summer. You can buy a mug for $9.00 and drink free coffee for the rest of your life. It has every single thing you need between Anchorage and Soldotna.” They also ran a towing company for a time, but decided to close down that operation.
Neither of the James had any previous experience running a retail operation, and give credit for their success to their sales rep, banker and friends for suggestions and training. They also have a great managerial and supervisory team. Cheryle praises their own ability to listen to sound advice and make tough decisions about whether or not a product or service is working. She refers to herself as “an awesome price label scraper” as they learned how to figure out pricing. She says Jerry is the creative person on their team and the mechanic, while she is the one looking at the books and figuring out where the money is spent. Cheryle takes great pride in their business, which is reinforced by many loyal customers who make Wildman’s, located at Mile 47.5 on the Sterling Highway in Cooper Landing, their main stop all year long. Call them at (907) 595-1456 or visit their website at wildmans.org.
For more than 25 years, June Arnoldy and her husband Marty have been the hard working proprietors of Summit Lake Lodge, located on the Kenai Peninsula at Mile 45.5 of the Seward Highway. Originally from a small town in Minnesota, when it got too cold there for him, Marty moved to Oregon in 1978 to enjoy the good weather. He found work with a small restaurant chain where he met his lovely wife June. Marty had always dreamed of traveling to Alaska and owning a small lodge. He talked it over with June and she said, “What a great idea! Count me in, but I will be needing a commitment first!” So after a beautiful wedding, Marty and June sold all their belongings and drove up the Alcan Highway to Anchorage (which is a story in itself). Upon arriving in Anchorage in the spring of 1984, they decided the big city was not for them and headed to the Kenai Peninsula.
In May 1985, they saw an ad in the paper that Summit Lake Lodge was for sale, so they took a ride up to look at the place. All that was there at the time was the main log building and it was not in very good shape. Built in the early 1950s by the Hass family, it had seen better days. It had an old John Deer generator that provided a somewhat steady stream of electricity, no telephone, no radio, no TV and a furnace that burned either coal or wood.
Marty and June fell in love with the place and by the time they left that day, they had given their entire life savings down as earnest money and were given 10 days to come up with a 40% down payment (another story in itself). Summit Lake Lodge opened under new management on July 1 that year and the adventure began.
Summit Lake Lodge is an historic log lodge situated on the north shore of the lake, offering comfortably appointed cedar cabins and cozy motel rooms with awe inspiring mountain views. Experienced staff can help tailor your vacation package to fit your schedule, budget and dreams, making it a great home base for exploring the Kenai and Prince William Sound.
Featuring a large fireplace and rustic bar, the main lodge serves as the dining room and gathering place for guests, with a focus on relaxing conversation. Start your day with a delicious breakfast then choose from the many activities in the area. After your day’s adventure, return to the comforts of the main lodge to share your discoveries at cocktail hour, then conclude your day with fine dining and spirits.
For more information contact Summit Lake Lodge at (907) 244-2031, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.summitlakelodge.com.
Sharon L Romine of Sitka talks about her businesses Creative Connections, Welcome Home Vacations and Welcome Home Auto Rental:
My husband and I, and our teenagers Amy and Dan, first moved to Sitka in November of 1989 by way of Saudi Arabia, where my husband worked at Lockheed Aircraft and I ran a scuba diving and travel business. Fragments of snow lay on the frozen ground and a strong wind met me as I exited the airport. Having just left 90+ degrees, the cold, biting wind made me wonder if I’d lost my mind. The next morning, however, I fell in love with Sitka.
Fast forward to today: I currently own three businesses. Creative Connections is my original umbrella company. Welcome Home Vacations is my home management division, and my third is Welcome Home Auto Rental. My main focus is online publishing and marketing: bringing people to the website so they can see the many beautiful residential homes in Sitka that are so much better than staying in a motel. But, I did not get here in one easy step.
Within a couple years after arriving in Sitka, I looked around to see what kind of business I could start. One thing I noticed was that grocery store owners had to scramble to get their ads into the daily paper on time, as Sitka did not have a weekly advertiser. I set out to create a weekly paper that would be easy for owners to advertise in. Response was great, so in 1992 I started Creative Connections with my free weekly paper The Sitka Soup. Supported by advertising, it became very popular, expanding to over 3,000 prints a week. I had The Sitka Soup for 9 years, but it had become larger than what I wanted, so I sold the paper while keeping Creative Connections for future publishing and marketing endeavors.
My husband has always been there for support. I don’t know what I would have done without him. No matter how tight money got, and it did get very tight many times, he never once complained or suggested I get a “real” job. His trust in my ability and his recognition that I would not be happy working under someone else’s rules meant a lot to me then and still does. Now semi-retired, he is very involved in the business, assisting in the day-to-day operations.
Since 2003, we have grown to encompass three dozen homes, managing over 300 reservations. The main key has been automation and online technology; with my booking system we can take a reservation, accept payment, send confirmation and directions to the house to the guest and send notification to the owner, all in less than five minutes.
I love walking through a home and envisioning guests spending their time with friends and family, sharing a home cooked meal in the fully furnished kitchen – or making that little tweak, like placing a lamp so a guest can read in bed, or moving a table to just the right spot for enjoying coffee with a sunrise or sunset view. Business is business and you have to make a profit, but in the end it’s all about people having a wonderful trip and the connections made along the way that makes it truly worthwhile.
Sharon can be reached at email@example.com or www.sitkatravel.com; (907) 747-4712 or (907) 738-0176; (800) 750-4712 or 2821 Halibut Point Road (PO Box 1841) Sitka, Alaska 99835.
My mom Rosemary Libert arrived in Skagway in 1982 after graduating from Boston College with a fine arts degree. She had worked as a park ranger near her childhood home in Valley Forge National Park, and feeling that jobs in Yellowstone National Park were too competitive, accepted a ranger position on the Chilkoot Trail in no-man’s-land Alaska instead.
It wasn’t long before she met my dad Karl Klupar, who like a lot of people, landed in Skagway through much chance and happenstance. They made quite the duo, he working for Holland America managing their hotels and she running the hotel gift shop and bartending on the side. One thing led to another and as you know, up here when it comes to men, the odds are GOOD but the goods are ODD. They are still married after 30 years so he can’t be all that bad.
Two events occurred in the subsequent years that kept our family in Skagway. The gift store my mom artistically managed for the Westmark was actually a thriving native art gallery that sold rare sculptures from Eskimos off St. Laurence Island and authentic Chilkat blankets from coastal Indians in Southeast Alaska (in 1985, these blankets valued at $50,000 to $100,000). She felt it was time to expand and decided to lease an historic building next door on 4th Avenue and Broadway. In 1993, Lynch and Kennedy Dry Goods opened for business, a welcome addition to Skagway’s bourgeoning art community. Her store raised the standard in visual appeal, quality and experience for travelers coming to Alaska who thought that all people did here was hunt, fish and sleep in igloos. Her gallery continues to decorate people’s homes and warm their hearts in a way that can only be described as magical.
My dad’s boss at the Westmark considered this expansion a conflict of interest and asked him to step down as hotel manager. So my parents purchased the Historic Skagway Inn just down the street on 7th Avenue and Broadway After several artistic remodels, the property developed into a Victorian-era brothel-turned-B&B, the cozy garden restaurant Olivia’s, a culinary catering business for cruise passengers, and a second fine arts gallery. Also on Broadway midway between the two locations in an 1890s storefront, Brackett’s Trading Post offers Native art and jewelry.
With five kids and six businesses, my mom certainly keeps busy. The day might find her cooking breakfast for Inn guests at 6 am, laughing with visitors at a gallery, steaming king crab legs or writing new business plans. Not only is she a beautiful example to her only daughter of what it means to be a strong, independent and original woman, she is also a proud model for women all over Alaska with her courage, drive and persistent sense of wonder for this grand state.
Rosemary and her businesses can be reached at (907) 983-2289 for the Inn, (907) 983-3034 for Lynch & Kennedy and (907) 983-2600 for Brackett’s.
Rie Muñoz has been one of Alaska’s most popular artists ever since she disembarked from an Inside Passage cruise ship in 1950, instantly fell in love with Juneau and told herself if she could find employment and a place to live that day, she would cancel the rest of the trip and stay. She succeeded on both counts and began working as a cartoonist and women’s page editor for the Juneau Empire Newspaper.
Born Marie Mounier in 1921 to Dutch parents living in California, Rie spent much of her young life traveling between the US and Holland, where her father was a journalist and partner in a business magazine. In 1939, when Holland was on the brink of German occupation, she was sent back to the US with her younger brother; her parents were unable to escape until 1946. Rie completed a year of high school, then joined her older brother in Hollywood where she began decorating windows in a dime store to make ends meet.
On the first leg of a drastically under funded trip around the world with a friend, Rie joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1944 and was assigned to Special Services, studying art at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. While in transit to European duty, the War ended and she had the good fortune to spend the next couple of years in the Bavarian Alps winter resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Once there, Rie was able to make her way into Holland to find her parents, and discovered her father had used his printing press connections to forge food ration cards for other families hiding Jews during the War, and her mother had made 100-mile nighttime bicycle journeys into the countryside to bring back potatoes.
Soon after taking up residence in Juneau, Rie met geologist Juan Muñoz and they married in 1951. In order to put together a prospecting grubstake, the couple took teaching positions with Alaska Native schools in the bush. One of Rie’s favorite assignments was teaching Inupiat Eskimo children in the Bering Sea settlement of King Island. No longer inhabited, the isolated island was a 13-hour voyage by walrus-skin boat from Nome. The King Island Journal details Rie and Juan’s experiences there. Her playful illustrations adorn King Island Christmas, a children’s book by Jean Rogers, as well as numerous other publications.
After returning to the Juneau area, Rie and her husband spent the next decade prospecting and working short-term contracts. Twin sons were born in 1955, but kidney disease claimed the life of one of the boys in his third year. Eventually realizing that their marriage was no longer working, they divorced in 1963 and Rie embraced the full time commitment to rearing her son Juan.
Rie has lived in many small Alaska communities and traveled the state extensively, holding a variety of jobs including journalist, author, teacher, museum curator, illustrator, cartographer, muralist and artist. Devoting herself full time to her art since 1972, she has produced thousands of delightful watercolor paintings and published over 500 images as signed and numbered lithographs, silkscreen prints and posters.
Located in Juneau, the Rie Muñoz Gallery is a 3500 square foot venue managed by her son and filled top to bottom with her original paintings, published artwork, tapestries and stained glass. The gallery can be reached at (907) 789-7449. The University of Alaska-Juneau awarded Rie an Honorary Doctorate of Humanities Degree in 1999. She has also seen three major collections of her work published.
At 90, Rie has finally ‘put down her brushes’ as her eyesight and steady hands are not what they used to be. She is happy as a clam however, staying busy with family, travel, writing her memoirs and painting an occasional watercolor of her five-year-old grandson Matthew.
Korean-born Lee Cho immigrated in 1987 to the US, where she met her husband Hoon in Seattle. The couple decided to see what Alaska had to offer and in 1994 they settled in Valdez. First on the agenda was opening the Fu Kung Restaurant, located near the waterfront at 207 Kobuk Street. In 2003, master carpenter Hoon seriously remodeled the location’s Quonset hut structure. From the open feel of arched interior windows and plentiful Asian and Alaskan details, to the friendly staff, unsurpassed cleanliness and excellent Mandarin, Szechuan, Thai and sushi menu, the licensed and roomy premises is popular with locals and visitors.
Mike’s Palace had been another Valdez favorite for about forty years when the owner decided to retire to Greece. The Chos saw an opportunity to expand their restauranteering and purchased the building, opening in 2010 after remodeling the location over the course of a year. Located at 201 North Harbor Drive by the small boat harbor, their menu includes fresh seafood, steaks, Italian fare and pizza, Greek and Mexican dishes. Wine and local ales are also available and the walls sport old Valdez newspapers for your historical reading enjoyment. Mike’s can be reached at (907) 835-2365 and Fu Kung at (907) 835-5255.
Over the years, Lee and her husband have come to love the beautiful Valdez area and its inhabitants; as Lee says, “All the townspeople are like family!”
Michelle (Mickey) Meyer has experienced the good fortune to live in Alaska, marry into a great family and develop a career she loves at Meyer’s Muffler City and Brake in Anchorage.
Mickey was born in Italy where her dad was stationed with the Air Force, moving to Alaska from Oklahoma 43 years ago. Working retail while still in high school, she went on to manage high-end women’s boutiques then worked at Nordstrom for 12 years.
In 1982 Mickey went on a blind date with Al Meyers. They dated for years, marrying in 1991 and quickly starting their family: Lily attends UAA while working at Nordstrom. AJ works at Muffler City and starts at UAA this fall. Olivia is a junior in high school and works part time at the shop, and Christian is a freshman at the same high school. When the kids were young, Mickey worked with her father at his company, Ray’s Pro Shop & Sports Marketing.
Since 2000 she’s worked with her husband in the business his family has now owned for 60 years. Mickey’s mother-in-law Marge Meyers describes how her brother-in-law talked her and husband Al into going to Alaska a few weeks after they were married, to work all summer in construction and save enough money to pay for tuition. It was the first time Marge had been out of California and it wasn’t quite as fun as she expected it to be! In 1953 jobs were very hard to come by but the three of them found work, planning to return to California in a year. Their plans changed when Al decided Anchorage really needed an auto parts store, so with only $4000 between them, they opened their first buisness. Marge brought her baby to work every day and filled the shelves with empty boxes to make it look like they had some merchandise. A few years later they moved locations and also opened an engine shop, eventually owning nine stores throughout Alaska. For a few years Marge did payroll for over 60 employees by herself, by hand. Consolidating to one store in 1987, they have been operating out of it for the past 25 years. With an eye on slowly retiring, the Meyers are happy to have their youngest son Al and his wife Mickey in charge of Muffler City.
Mickey says, “I love selling tires and chrome wheels, it’s like a brand new pair of shoes for a car! I also love that I get to remain very family oriented. Muffler City is more of a lifestyle then a job!
Meyer’s Muffler City and Brake is located at 105 W. 5th Ave. in Anchorage; (907) 279-0408.
Wanda Vandergriff and her husband Darrell heard the call “North to Alaska” in 1975, sold their home in El Centro, California and packed their children Dawn (age 4 ½) and Ty (age 1 ½) along with all they could carry into their truck and trailer, and headed for the Last Frontier. They didn’t have jobs lined up and had no idea what they would find, but knew it was best for their family to venture out and make a new, exciting life!
They traveled by ferry from Prince Rupert, BC up the Inside Passage, but were unable to make their first port call at Ketchikan due to a slight ship mishap there the previous day, unaware they would eventually call Ketchikan their home. They continued sailing through Southeast Alaska, eventually coming to rest in Eagle River near Wasilla where they stayed for several months at the Eklutna Campground.
At first they didn’t know their travel trailer wasn’t built for Alaskan winters or how much they hadt to learn! They wrapped the pipes with heat tape and skirted it with styrofoam, but the walls were so thin and under insulated, Wanda had to hold a lighter to the door knob to defrost it so she could get the door open to go to work.
In 1977, Darrell was offered a job with General Telephone Company on Annette Island, a Native reservation south of Ketchikan. The couple loved living there and have many fond memories, but eventually knew it was time to make a permanent home. They moved to Ketchikan, bought land and built a house where they still live 30 years later, having added onto it several times.
In 1986, they decided to outfit their apartments and change them into Almost Home Vacation Rentals, finding that fishermen enjoy having a place to relax and a well-appointed kitchen to cook their catch and share fishing stories. Wanda housed clients for one charter operator, then in order to fill the openings between his groups, joined with her friend Linda Ruhl to form North Tongass Bed & Breakfast, sharing reservations for each other’s differently situated properties.
Ketchikan Reservation Service (907-247-5337; www.ketchikan-lodging.com) evolved in 1996 from the realization that not everyone traveling to Alaska wants to stay in the rural part of Ketchikan. Wanda is now able to match travelers with the best places for them to stay based on their interests and needs. The Vandergriffs have many return guests who were with them at the beginning and are now friends. Wanda says she loves her business and hopes to continue with it for many more years.
Marilyn Usibelli was born and raised in Alaska, growing up in the small town of Healy. As children, she and her sister picked rocks, cut hay and bailed it for the horses they kept as pets. In 1996, they had $2500 each and a lot of land their father had been leasing from the Alaska Railroad since the 1980s. They decided to build a driving range on the land and with the help of their parents, the sisters opened 5 golf holes the following year, with an “on your honor” can to pay the $12 fee.
The year after that they purchased a building, with no electricity or running water. They kept at it and were able to get electric and water, opening their first restaurant with a Coleman stove and an outside barbeque grill.
Today, Marilyn operates a beautiful 70-seat restaurant, serving fresh Alaskan fish and the best locally grown produce, seasoned with her own home grown herbs. The golf course is 9 holes right next to a pristine mountain lake, with an 18-hole mini golf course. There are 40 ATVs for touring, plus an ATV Side by Side Tour and a backcountry Treasure Hunt Adventure. She also owns 6 wagons and 12 draft horses, offering visitors horse drawn covered wagon tours.
It has been a long haul of 16 years and Marilyn still hasn’t paid herself a dime, continuing to reinvest everything she makes, but her business had over 30,000 people come through the doors last year and it has been an unbelievable adventure the whole way! Black Diamond Resort Company is still just a little family run business though, offering staff, family, friends and visitors a great place to gather and have fun in the heart of the Alaskan Wild, located just south of Healy at Mile 247 off the George Parks Highway and10 miles north of the Denali National Park entrance; 907-683-4653; www.blackdiamondgolf.com.
Originally from Northern California, Alice Paulson Kerkvliet traveled as a seasonal employee throughout 28 states. In 1996, she ventured North to Alaska and discovered it suited her so well that she decided to stay, returning permanently three years later. After acquiring a degree in business management, Alice intended to take one winter off to ski, and ended up working seasonally for ten years floating from resort to resort, observing and enjoying the energy and diversity of restaurants and hotels. She worked extensively in the hotel, resort and restaurant hospitality industry, including five different lodges in Alaska before settling in Soldotna.
When she grew tired of running other people’s businesses for them, Alice leased her own in 1999. She owned Mykel’s Restaurant located inside the Soldotna Inn first, but the hotel was facing bankruptcy due to unsound business decisions, so she also bought the hotel in 2003. Both are now in good order. She added a duplex, triplex and an eightplex in back. While she owns the businesses 100%, Alice says she has the best employees on the Kenai Peninsula.
Now that most of the huge capital expenditures have been handled, Alice can enjoy her successes and plans to enjoy more free time with her family and traveling. Offering quality lodging and fine dining, the Soldotna Inn & Mykel’s Restaurant are located in downtown Soldotna at 35041 Kenai Spur Highway; (907) 262-9169 for the hotel and (907) 262-4305 for the restaurant.
Laura Saxe and her husband Jeff both grew up in Washington state, occasionally visiting Alaska in the summers, so when they married in 1980 it was a natural decision to move to Alaska’s south central coast the following year. For almost ten years, the couple raised their family of three children as Jeff worked in construction and equipment operation, and Laura in accounting.
In February of 1991, they went to work on their plans for an RV park in Valdez, opening in May that same year; Laura laughingly describes the condensed process as ‘putting their minds to it.’ Starting with 2.5 acres and 83 sites, Eagle’s Rest has expanded on an additional 10 acres of land to encompass 187 full hook-up RV sites, including super pull-throughs to accommodate larger rigs, 40 dry sites, 50 spots for tent camping and 18 cozy rental cabins.
For seven years Laura and Jeff had a partner, buying out Herb Hirsch in 1998 to become sole owners of the RV Park, CJ’s Tesoro and Capt’n Joe’s Gas Station, which now has a convenience store and laundromat attached. Eagle’s Rest can also arrange bookings and ticketing for Columbia/Mears Glacier tours, helicopter tours, fishing charters and rafting trips.
Laura says that their biggest asset is that they have been blessed with a wonderful staff of about a dozen employees, many of whom have been with them for ten to twelve years. The couple’s children were raised on the property and helped out with all aspects of the business. They had their son with them up until last year and now are proud grandparents to four grandkids.
With a background in commercial fishing, Jeff enjoys putting on free, all-you-can-eat fish fries complete with his special Chef Jeff sauce for everyone, while Laura works hard to insure their guests, many of whom return happily year after year, feel very much at home. They were recently honored by the City of Valdez for 20 years of successful business practices and for their commitment to the community by supporting more than two-dozen organizations and events.
Eagle’s Rest RV Park is conveniently located in downtown Valdez, across the street from the ocean flats of Prince William Sound and surrounded by beautiful views of mountains and glaciers. You can find them at 139 East Pioneer Drive; (800) 553-7275 or (907) 835-2373; www.eaglesrestrv.com
Melissa Thorsen-Broschat was born and raised in Petersburg, a fourth generation Alaskan with a heritage rich in the commercial fisheries. She moved to Sitka in 1983 and together with her husband Perry, started their coffee business with a small roadside cart. Cold temperatures and higher demands led them into an expanded drive thru/cyber café venue that is a favorite haunt of both locals and visitors.
Distinctively different from any other coffee house in the area, Highliner boasts an impressive array of historic and contemporary photographs showcasing Alaska’s commercial fisheries, in addition to quality beverages, good eats and simple ambiance, where the beans are roasted fresh daily!
The name Highliner refers to “the best of the best” in commercial fishermen: the elite of the fleet that are respected and envied. For Melissa, this name exemplifies the dedication she shows to customers and community by providing educational information on Alaska commercial fishing, sustainability, and the environmental and social issues that combine to preserve commercial fishing awareness. She’s sold over 13,000 of her “Friends DON’T Let Friends EAT FARMED FISH” bumper stickers, which have been spotted across the US, on military tanks in war zones and most recently in a movie.
Driven by her passion for keeping Alaska’s commercial fisheries wild, Melissa utilizes Highliner Coffee Company as an avenue to share her enthusiasm and commitment by offering sundry gifts, apparel, and gourmet coffee blends that reflect her mission and are also available through their website: www.highlinercoffee.com.
Melissa, her husband and daughter, along with up to 15 employees, are currently active in the family business, while her son is a commercial fisherman. Stop in and enjoy all Highliner Coffee Company has to offer, located in the Seward Square Mall in beautiful downtown Sitka; (907) 747-4924.
Greta Lindley and her two sons left their home in Spokane, Washington to drive to Fairbanks as her husband had accepted a position as a bush pilot. Determined to be an Alaskan woman and to belong in her new environment, she acquired several husky dogs from the villages and had them trained for race dogs. She never missed an opportunity to learn about the Alaskan culture including spending a summer gold panning.
Greta then attended business college and upon completion accepted a position with a CPA firm, Ray Kohler & Co. where she was employed for many years. Having dined at the Turtle Club in Fairbanks many times, greatly enjoying the food and atmosphere, when the opportunity to purchase the restaurant presented itself Greta and her husband decided to try their hand at the business.
Greta’s experience in an accountant’s office helped her with the financial part, but she says they owe their success to the hard work and dedication of their employees. Others would say it is attributable to Greta’s warm heart and generosity, made evident by all the contributions she makes community-wide. She has often said, “I run my business from my heart, not my head.” Greta loves her customers, many of whom return year after year after spending their winters in the Lower 48.
Her boys are now grown with families and careers of their own in Fairbanks and Fort Collins, Colorado. Outside of work, Greta is an avid pet lover, going so far as placing a newspaper obituary for the “Turtle Dog” Elsie, when she passed away. She is also a huge supporter of Pet Pride. When she has time for herself, she enjoys reading and literally smelling the flowers.
The Turtle Club has received #1 Reader’s Choice Awards from the Fairbanks daily paper for several years. Greta is very proud of the awards and of the success of her fine steak and seafood restaurant The Turtle Club, located 10 miles north of Fairbanks at 2098 Old Steese Highway; (866) 415- 7388.
Camille Ferguson was born and raised in Sitka. Through her mother’s Tlingit ancestry, she is a member of the Raven moiety and Kiksadi/Frog Clan. Kiksadi elders relate that their people were led to the Sitka area by smoke from a burning volcano. They chose to stay because of the abundance of food. One of the most beautiful places on earth, the area is backdropped by snow peaked mountains and protected from the ocean surf by surrounding islands. Camille remains in Sitka out of appreciation for a profound sense of history and place, the unsurpassed beauty, fresh air, clean water, fishing and gathering of foods that are still abundant. She loves to hike, cook and sit around a nice fire with good friends.
Employed with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska as Economic Development Director, Camille oversees the tribe’s existing businesses. Tribal Tours and Naa Kahidi Dancers, Tribal Travel, Made In Sitka, Alaska Wild Game and Public Transportation were all developed and expanded during her 13 years with the organization. One of her favorite projects is the tourism segment of the enterprise department.
Camille relates that she was born into the tourism business: “My grandmother Mary Marks passed away in 1997 at the age of 100 and truly understood how to survive in an ever-changing world. She taught me to do beadwork, make Alaska pins and sew seal skins so that I could make money.” While teaching Camille to bead, Mary passed on many old stories and lessons that later would be shared with visitors. “So from the time I learned to count money, I was sent down to the unpaved, dusty Crescent Harbor lightering (cargo transferring) facility to sell our hand made items. I was the little native girl selling moccasins, pincushions and beaded pins to the visitors who came off the cruise ships.” Her fascination with all those people and answering their questions made Camille want to be one of the people who drove the tour buses. “I was fortunate; I got behind the wheel of the bus and off I went, my desire to succeed and move up in the industry led me to going back to school and furthering my education.”
Sitka Tribe of Alaska operated a tour bus company that was not advancing due to the political challenges and it seemed to be the project that Camille was looking for. After much restructuring, quality assurances, and by adding the elders into the training program, Tribal Tours gained its first contracts with tour operators, ultimately winning onboard cruise sales with Royal Caribbean Cruises. Tribal Tours Naa Kahidi Dancers have been showcased around the country, including Washington, DC. The enterprise has successfully grown from 2 buses to 10, employing roughly 14 summer staff and 21 native dancers.
Camille has greatly enjoyed the tourism industry and expresses that serving on the Sitka Convention and Visitors Bureau Board and the American Indian Alaska Native Tourism Board has given her valuable insight into the direction needed in order to adapt as the industry itself evolves.
Cindy Godbey was living in San Francisco on a 50-foot sailboat, planning to marry and sail around the world when she had a change of heart and followed her dream to move to Alaska, having heard that it was a land of men and money.
She lived, worked and traveled all over Alaska: in the Eskimo village of Dillingham on the Bering sea, at a fishing and hunting camp south of McGrath, in Anchorage where she flew in the hot air balloon races – her balloon caught on fire but she flew anyway and came in last. She worked the oil spill in Valdez and lived on a boat called “the Outlaw” and worked in the rowdiest bar in the USA. She worked at a Glennallen fishing and hunting lodge and lived in a log cabin, where she got stuck to the outhouse seat at 70 below. She’s hung out with polar bears and watched the whaling hunt in Barrow, and has snow machined, dog sledded and ice fished. She’s a gold miner and a “gold digger” and has even skinned a bear!
After moving to Skagway, Cindy worked as an actress portraying Dawson Dolly, a Madam at the world famous Red Onion Saloon. As Dolly, she performed theatre shows in Liarsville and gave brothel tours and red light district walking tours for eight years. There she found Will, her gold miner husband, and had a “Madam and Miner” wedding on Otter Creek in Atlin, BC.
Cindy then worked at the Klondike Gold Dredge, where she won “Tour Guide of the Year” with Princess Cruise Lines three years in a row. She also worked at the White Pass and Yukon Railroad and started her own business doing Dolly’s Parlor Car. Now she’s giving Dolly’s Wildlife Adventure tours in the summer to Dyea, to view wildlife and visit the trailhead of the famous Chilkoot Trail.
Cindy has just returned from Nome, where she witnessed the 2010 Iditarod, performing all over town and even doing a commercial she wrote with four-time winner Lance Mackey.
Cindy’s passion is to be a blessing and touch people’s hearts. She is delighted to love and honor the Lord with inspirational speaking, giving her testimony at various churches. She has published a very funny book about all her Alaskan adventures called “Hoots and Toots on Dolly’s Parlor Car,” which she describes as big print with lots of pictures. The book can be purchased and her tours booked through www.dawsondolly.com. Cindy likes to remind people to “Live your life with passion, expect great things to happen, and remember the Gold is within.”
“The weather is clear for your flight to Katmai today. Call back when you fly over…” (This is part of Mary Harvey’s job as she talks to her husband Steve on his daily flights out of Kodiak State Airport.)
Steve and Mary own and operate Harvey Flying Service, a flying business started the late 1950s by Steve’s father. Steve pilots their Grumman Widgeon airplane, while Mary takes care of all flight operations, dealing with customers over the phone and internet, booking reservations for fly-in bear viewing, fishing trips and flights to wilderness lodges. She keeps in touch with Steve and monitors the weather around the island for every flight of their 9-month season.
Mary first came to Alaska during the summer of 1976 and fell in love with the beauty of Kodiak Island, returning a year later to call Kodiak her home forever. The Harveys married in 1981 and Mary has been running the ground operations ever since. As Mary says, “See you when you return to the airport…have a nice flight back to Kodiak, over and out.”
Jody Bunn started life as Mildred Marie, but the name just didn’t suit, so the spunky 4-year old changed it to Jody. In 1956 her dad Lloyd Fillion bought a Hyder bar known as Dago Marie’s Place, which already had quite a colorful history by that point. In 1929 it was the most modern drug store in the territory of Alaska. In 1939 owner Oren Hill went fishing one day with a nephew and never returned. The wife of the new owner operated the business until 1949, when she sold the Hyder Drug Company to Dago Marie, who had run a roadhouse at 13 Mile near the Canadian border. Dago Marie moved her business, obtained a liquor license and opened a bar - Dago Marie’s Place was quite a hot spot on the border!
Lloyd made many renovations to the bar, renaming it the Glacier Inn. When the rest of the family moved from Ketchikan in 1957, there were no roads into Hyder and no float for the chartered planes to dock at. The plane landed on the tidal flats and Lloyd’s family was piggy-backed through the mud and water. With only six other children to play with in Hyder, all boys, Jody quickly became fluent in shooting, trapping and fishing. After high school, she took a hairdressing course in Vancouver, BC then returned home to work in the gift shop and kitchen of the Glacier Inn.
In the 1960s, the Granduc Mine opened and Hyder boomed. A miner named Jim Bunn came to town for work and never left. In 1972 he and Jody were married in the Glacier Inn. Kimberly was born in 1974 and Jennifer followed in 1976, the year Jody and Jim took over operation of the Glacier Inn, while Lloyd focused on another bar next door named the Hyder Inn. They began running the Hyder Inn too, the following year when Lloyd passed away. In 1980, the family was complete with the arrival of twins, Jane and Jim Jr. Sadly, Jim Sr. passed away in 2003 after a lengthy illness.
The Glacier Inn received a facelift in 2004 when all the kids and their spouses returned home. The garage was turned into a gift shop and with the opening of a restaurant in 2009, the Glacier Inn again boasts a bar, liquor store, gift shop and restaurant.
Shortly after the Glacier Inn opened in 1956, a miner who came to town wrote his name on a two-dollar bill and asked Lloyd to tack it up on the back bar in case he didn’t find work - insurance for one last drink. The tradition was born, and today over $80,000 adorns the walls of the Glacier Inn, with names and currencies from all over the world. Around the same time, Lloyd instituted the custom of “Getting Hyderized.” The ounce of alcohol involved was not available in Canada or most states in the Lower 48. The custom continues today, and there are many unsuspecting patrons who do not realize how warm the welcome to Hyder can be!
Jody Bunn grew up in the Glacier Inn, met and married her husband there, raised her own four children, loves to watch her grandchildren, and knows Hyder and the Glacier Inn will always be home. She continues to operate the business with the help of her eldest daughter Kim, and proudly carries on the traditions begun by her father which have made the Glacier Inn famous worldwide.
Vernie Nielson decided in 1981 she wanted to go to Alaska to work the oil pipeline in Prudhoe Bay and be Social Director on the Slope for the employees. She and her daughter drove in the dead of winter from Montana to Alaska, on ice all the way and hoping to not run out of gas in the dark. She worked in advertising for many years and was an invaluable asset to the Travel Guide’s team.
Vernie loved driving around Alaska selling ads and checking out everyone’s gardens. She was an avid master gardener and her 10-foot delphiniums and nasturtiums as big as your hand were the talk of her street. The moose loved her vegetables, and she could be seen quite a few mornings going after them with a broom and a lot of words in her bathrobe. An accomplished cook, she canned and made use of everything she grew or shared it with others.
She was also known for assisting those in need, providing seed money to start businesses, preparing meals for neighbors when they were ill, and filling out mountains of paperwork so they could receive medical treatment or home energy upgrades. The week she passed away, her neighbor just had new windows, doors, furnace and electrical upgrades completed from a grant Vernie submitted for him.
A member of the Sweet Adeline’s, Vernie had a beautiful voice and on road trips would break out in song driving down the road. She started Fireweed Tours in the late 90’s and loved showing off Alaska to her clients. Very active politically, at one point she was the Montana Governor’s Assistant, and was offered a position in Washington, DC.
Hysterical stories about her Alaskan adventures start with an apartment unknowingly rented upon arrival in close proximity to the rowdiest bar in Alaska. There was a weekend snowmobile trip to Talkeetna when it was -30 and she had to don every piece of clothing she brought with her, including fur coat, hat, scarf, gloves and boots just to get under the covers at the motel. Another time her husband caught a halibut as big as a piano in Resurrection Bay. The ugliest fish they’d ever seen, he had to shoot it with a rifle 6 or 8 times. Vernie thought she’d never get done cutting and wrapping fillets because as soon as they got to shore he left her to go brag about his catch.
In October of 2009 before Vernie went to Florida to visit her daughter, she drove her van filled with visiting friends on her old Fireweed Tour route. She said that had been just the best day and that Alaska was as beautiful as when she first arrived. She said when she died, she wanted “to go out just like a shooting star.” We think she got her wish. Goodbye Vernie – you will be greatly missed.
Tom and Kim Huddleston are the current owners of the gold rush era Copper Center Lodge, which has been owned and operated by Tom’s family since 1948. Driving the Old Richardson Highway south of Glennallen, travelers are beckoned by the Christian-based business, where they can enjoy beautifully appointed, quaint and cozy rooms, and exceptionally tasty home cooked fare in Nummy’s restaurant, known for serving up the absolute best sourdough pancakes!
Growing up in a homesteading family in Nelchina, Kim met her husband in school when they were 16. Starting in 1999, she was head cook for the Hot Lunch program in Glennallen’s schools, and ran the overall program there and in Kenny Lake for four years, splitting her time and energy between that undertaking and the Lodge, where she shared chef duties with Tom and other cooks.
Kim was instrumental in starting up the area’s first quilting guild about 20 years ago. In November of last year, she and her friend opened a quilt/fabric shop on the property that they call Stitches from the Attic, since that is where Kim’s sewing room is in the Lodge. Quilting is as big a passion for her as cooking, and now as Kim says, she gets to do it and get paid for it!