This article was produced by First National Bank Alaska. The Anchorage Daily News was not involved in its production.
In the mid-80s, Dennis and Susan Swiderski purchased an acre of land in scenic Humpy Cove in Resurrection Bay, roughly nine miles southeast of Seward. Over the next twenty years, they purchased additional pieces of property, including an island they named Orca Island. At that time, they were able to create Orca Island Cabins.
The Swiderskis, owners and operators of Orca Island Cabins and longtime Anchorage residents, decided to move their family to Seward in 1996. They chose to make the Kenai Peninsula their home after living on Fox Island while managing the Kenai Fjords Salmon Bake and Lodge during the inaugural 1996 season.
“The more time we spent in the Seward area, the more we enjoyed it,” said Dennis. “That’s where it all started.”
Bringing the “glam” to “glamping”
Guests venture to Orca Island by the Swiderski’s water taxi, bringing their food and personal items. Accommodations are yurts with a queen bed and futon, kitchen, living and dining area, private bathroom with shower, fireplace, and private deck with barbecue. Guests experience lodging in a wilderness setting in both comfort and style. During their stay, guests have unlimited access to kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, rowboats, fishing equipment and other gear. The cove is filled with unique places to explore, including a waterfall, salmon stream and a World War II bunker that’s just a hike away.
“It’s multi-dimensional in terms of activities,” said Susan.
Guests are given an orientation upon arrival and quickly learn that they are free to pursue recreational activities on their own and not as part of a group, leaving them fully in charge of their experience in the cove.
"Alaskans appreciate the opportunity to engage in a variety of backcountry activities at any time,” said Susan.
During stays, there is as much to see as there is to do - the cove is home to plenty of wildlife, including whales, sea lions, harbor seals and an array of birds.
“It’s not uncommon to sit on your deck and have a whale surface 50 or 60 feet away from you,” said Dennis.
Several years ago, the couple added a large brass bell to the property to alert guests of whale sightings. Initially, Susan would run to each yurt to alert the guests of the whales; adding the bell provided an alternative that wouldn’t leave her winded.
“If you hear the bell, there’s a whale,” laughed Susan.
Additionally, there are several decks on the island property as well as an on-site art gallery that has been very popular among visitors. Susan, a lifelong artist, shows oil and watercolor paintings inspired by the area.
Her works were featured initially in the yurts, and Susan would even send watercolor prints home with guests as a thank-you. Over the years, she realized that she could make her art more easily available.
“It dovetailed very nicely,” said Susan. “We first built a small gallery, which was another yurt on another location. We outgrew it and decided we needed a larger indoor space to serve multiple purposes and provide more wall space for the gallery.”
Constructing with conservation
Running a remote business comes with a unique set of obstacles, but Susan and Dennis have managed to work with the tides. When they began construction on their first cabin, the Swiderskis took immense care, keeping the delicate environment of Resurrection Bay in mind as they built.
Since then, Orca Island Cabins has grown to include eight yurts, which are all solar powered and fit with a composting toilet. In an impressive feat, the yurts were also erected without damaging the surrounding landscape.
“Often, people will look at our yurts up on the mountainside, and they say, ‘How did you look at that piece of land and think, I can put a structure there?” said Susan. “It’s quite vertical, and quite an accomplishment to get those structures built as we did.”
The terrain in the cove presents plenty of logistical issues. Each yurt is built right on the water’s edge, so the ocean is — quite literally — outside a guest’s door. As such, the choice to build yurts, instead of other, more common structures, was made in part to lessen the impact on the fragile terrain.
The Swiderskis found sustainable builders that helped them build their yurts within a short construction window: weather conditions in Resurrection Bay can be ferocious during the winter months, and wind and sea conditions can change dramatically in the shoulder seasons of early spring and late autumn. Building and making improvements can only be made in April since the business is fully operational the first week of May, Dennis explained.
Due to their environmentally conscious approach, the couple has been recognized for their work in ecotourism. In 2010, they were awarded gold-level certification by Adventure Green Alaska for their sustainable practices.
With the success of their business, the Swiderskis have continued to build, adding walkways and even an 80-foot footbridge connecting the island to the mainland where additional yurts and walkways are located.
Funding the future
As Orca Island Cabins has grown over the years, expansion has been essential.
Creating the business took a financial toll — purchasing the island, dock and ramp costs, and building the initial three yurts exceeded the comparatively low revenue that was being generated. The Swiderskis knew to turn a profit they needed to expand the experience, constructing additional yurts and walkways, improving the quality of services available on the island and investing in advertising.
“Initially, we attempted to build as much as we could with our own funds and some assistance from friends who supported the project. Eventually, we came to a crossroads where we were not able to go forward,” said Susan.
Their local First National Bank Alaska loan officer made it a mission to help Dennis and Susan obtain a Small Business and Administration loan, helping the Swiderskis to make Orca Island Cabins what it is today. The small loans they arranged with the bank were necessary for their growth.
“Funding a remote lodge like this is problematic unless you have a lot of equity in it,” said Dennis. “We took our time and let the business evolve and built accordingly. We were able to get financial assistance when we needed it and as we needed it.”
The expansion of Orca Island Cabins is on-going — their eighth yurt was erected last season — and with their eyes on the future, Dennis and Susan are working toward making Orca Island Cabins friendlier to larger groups looking for an exciting space for retreats.
As they continue to grow, the Swiderskis remain grateful to the community and enthusiastic about upcoming seasons.
“We have received a great deal of support over the years from various segments of the Seward community,” said Dennis. “We are excited about the ongoing opportunity to entertain guests from Alaska and around the world and having our family share in this experience.”