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For these families, showing off Alaska is a multi-generational affair

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: June 2
  • Published June 2

Traveling around Alaska, you'll run into many folks who will show you around. Sometimes they work for airlines or hotels with familiar names: Alaska Airlines or Hilton Hotels. As you get further away from the urban centers, though, your hosts are likely to be families. Perhaps they run a lodge, an air taxi or a guide service. Perhaps they run all three.

Those who start and operate these enterprises often are guided by their affection for a particular slice of Alaska.

"I left Chicago back in 1975 and 'discovered' McCarthy," said Rich Kirkwood, owner of Kennicott Glacier Lodge. In the mid-'80s, he thought it would be a good idea to share the beauty of the area, located in the newly-formed Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

Over the years, Kirkwood has built up the lodge to its current size: 43 rooms. It's one thing to share the dream and spin the tale of a place with visitors. But it's something else to pass the torch to the next generation.

"I loved coming out here during the summers when I was young," said Christina Kirkwood, 28. "We came out almost every weekend from Anchorage," she said. While both Rich and his wife Jody Kirkwood are on-site, Christina's in charge.

It was a beautiful day at the lodge when I visited with Christina to ask her about being a second-generation businessperson in the travel industry. Flower baskets were hung carefully on the deck, looking out over the hundred-year-old buildings at the old copper mine. Beyond the buildings, the Root Glacier fills the valley and the snow-capped Wrangell Mountains loom in the background.

"When I went to college, I wanted to be a mechanical engineer like my dad," she said. "But after awhile, I started to examine my career options. One was to work in a cubicle with one week off each year. The other was to return to Alaska and work with my family. It was a fairly easy decision," she said.

Christina received her degree in mechanical engineering, returning each summer to work at the lodge.

"My dad had an idea to help people visit this area. And now I do this because of my love of the place," said Christina. "I'm absolutely building on what my parents have done and I want to continue that legacy."

That legacy now is bolstered by the National Park Service, which has maintained an aggressive restoration schedule. Several buildings at the mine site, just steps away from the lodge, now feature interpretive and historical displays on the mine and the people who lived there between 1902 and 1938, when the mine closed for good.

Down in Valdez, the season has begun for Colleen Stephens. There are cruises each day out to both Mears Glacier and Columbia Glacier. Stan Stephens Cruises was started in 1978 by her parents, because of Stan's love of Prince William Sound.

Stan and his wife, Mary Helen Stephens, both asked Colleen if she really wanted to run the company. "They didn't force me at all," she said. "But when we got our first boat, the Vincent Peede, my parents said I was stirring hot chocolate and telling lies for our guests at age 7," she said. "Really, though, I was just answering questions."

Colleen Stephens stands next to her parents, Stan and Mary Helen Stephens. Stan died in 2013 and Colleen now runs the company, Stan Stephens Cruises. Photo: Scott McMurren

When she finished college in 1994, she moved back to Valdez. Colleen's been running the company for several years, particularly after Stan died in 2013.

"We have the platform here at Stephens Cruises to teach about Prince William Sound. We talk to our guests about protecting the forest and the Sound itself," she said.

Because of Valdez's unique location, up to 40 percent of her guests live in Alaska. Many are showing off Alaska to their visiting friends and relatives, and many are military families. "With our cruises, we have the chance to get people excited to learn more about the Sound," she said.

"I have dedicated my life to this," she said.

When I asked Robert Sheldon about being a second-generation entrepreneur in the travel business, he corrected me. "I'm the third generation," he said. Sheldon's grandfather, Bob Reeve, founded Reeve Aleutian Airways and Robert served on the board of directors.

Sheldon's parents, Don and Roberta Sheldon, operated an air service in Talkeetna and built the Sheldon Mountain House on Denali. After Robert's dad, Don Sheldon, died in 1975, Roberta continued to book guests at the Mountain House. After she died in 2014, Robert became trustee of her estate, which included the Mountain House.

"I've been a trustee in various capacities for 25 years," said Robert. "Part of my responsibility was to provide for my mom. But I also looked toward fulfilling the wishes of my parents — to share the (Don Sheldon) Amphitheater with the world," he said.

The Sheldon Chalet, a high-end getaway, recently opened just a few hundred yards away from the Mountain House on a promontory high above the Ruth Glacier. It's accessible only by air from Talkeetna. While Sheldon was building the structure, he discovered some old blueprints made by his parents. The plans were very similar to Sheldon's own plans.

"I was standing on my parents' shoulders with this project. The location and the blueprints were there for us to work with. If it wasn't for them, there would be no opportunity," he said.

It's one thing to market Alaska to visitors from around the world. But it's remarkable when your own family is sold on the idea — and picks up the flag to carry on!

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