Alaska, the “Great Land,” offers travelers a double helping of natural splendor, served up with the midnight sun. Whether you’re going fishing or hiking, or have your heart set on seeing bears in the wild, there’s an adventure with your name on it in Alaska.
There’s also a small army of folks who are getting ready to drive the bus, make the beds, serve the dinner and lead your expedition. These travel industry folks are not in your “bubble.” That means there are extra safety protocols for guests and employees, specifically regarding COVID-19, testing and vaccinations.
“We require guests to be fully vaccinated,” said Megan Meyer, the personnel manager at Camp Denali at Denali National Park and Preserve. Camp Denali is located just outside the park at the end of the road in Kantishna.
“There are 19 guest cabins, spread out along a ridge,” said Meyer. Camp Denali is located above Wonder Lake and has a stunning view of Denali when it’s not behind the clouds.
“All guests have a private cabin,” said Meyer. “Each cabin has an outhouse, but there’s also a shower house with a flush toilet.”
Meals are served in the main lodge, although the staff will deliver meals to individual cabins on request.
Camp Denali runs on a fixed schedule for three- or four-night stays: either Monday-Friday or Friday-Monday. Opening day is June 4. The cost is $655 per person, per night. That includes accommodations, meals and daily outings with naturalist guides.
“We didn’t want to create additional risks for travelers,” said Meyer. “It felt like requiring vaccinations was a small thing we could do to be as safe as possible.”
Kirk Hoessle is president of Alaska Wildland Adventures. The company has three lodges on the Kenai Peninsula. Kenai Fjords Glacier Lodge is located near Aialik Bay in Kenai Fjords National Park. Kenai Backcountry Lodge is on the south shore of Skilak Lake, accessible by boat. The third lodge, Kenai Riverside Lodge, is in Cooper Landing.
Alaska Wildland also offers multiday “safaris” that visit more than one lodge and also continue to Denali National Park.
“We require our staff to be fully vaccinated, without exception,” said Hoessle. “Our lodges are remote and the living is communal. I couldn’t think of any other safe way to do it.”
Alaska Wildland requires guests to be fully vaccinated after July 1. Prior to that, if guests are not fully vaccinated, they must have a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of arrival in Alaska.
“We offer remote trips,” said Hoessle. “There are bears, bugs and weather to deal with. We’re not trying to force anyone’s hand (with vaccination). We’re trying to protect guests and the staff.”
On Alaska Wildland’s daytrips for fishing and sightseeing on the Kenai River, the company does not monitor vaccinations or COVID-19 tests. “Guests are outside the whole time!” said Hoessle.
Alaska Wildland did not operate its lodges or adventures last summer. “We’ve been through interruptions and disappointment before,” he said. “It all came down to how we’re going to do things. We needed that safety net (of vaccinated staff and guests). We can’t do it otherwise.”
Lars Larson is general manager of the Knik River Lodge, located about 54 miles from Anchorage at the end of Knik River Road. The collection of more than 20 individual cabins sits on a ridge overlooking the Knik River valley. You can’t see the glacier from there, but it’s less than five minutes away by helicopter, two or three of which are parked in the front yard for glacier adventures.
“We’re in the valley and we get a lot of local business. As far as the Mat-Su valley goes, restrictions are non-existent,” he said.
Larson encourages the staff to get vaccinated. “Everyone is masked up on the helicopters,” he said. “Social distance is our motto.”
The Raven’s Perch restaurant is open seven days a week for dinner — and affords a great view of the Knik River Valley. “We can deliver dinner to guests’ cabins if they wish — including a bottle of wine,” he said.
Josh Howes is president of Premier Alaska Tours. Premier has a fleet of more than 100 coaches, which hold between 48 and 56 passengers. The company also has four deluxe rail cars which are pulled by the Alaska Railroad. Each of the cars holds 80 people on the top deck, with a restaurant below. “They’re very similar to the “Gold Star” cars with the Alaska Railroad,” said Howes.
“We are a receptive tour operator. Almost everything we do is brought to us by other companies,” said Howes.
Those other companies include Globus Tours and Disney, who use the coaches for group tours around the state.
“Each company has its own procedures. One requires vaccination. Another requires vaccination or testing. Disney requires vaccination and testing,” he said. “All of our staff that has to overnight outside of Anchorage is vaccinated.”
In spite of the changing CDC guidelines about masks, “masks are required on every coach and train car for the foreseeable future,” said Howes.
Although the specific COVID-19 testing protocols are determined by various clients, Howes has upgraded all of the filters on the buses and the trains.
Carl and Kirsten Dixon have two lodges in Alaska: Winterlake Lodge is open year-round. It’s located 198 miles northwest of Anchorage at Finger Lake, on the Iditarod Trail. Tutka Bay Lodge is located across Kachemak Bay from Homer and is open just for the summer.
“We don’t require vaccinations, but highly recommend it,” wrote Kirsten Dixon. “Guests with no vaccinations need to have a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of arrival in Alaska.”
Stillpoint Lodge is located in Halibut Cove, which also is across Kachemak Bay from Homer. Beka Thoning is the general manager and executive chef. Her husband, Lucas, is the lead adventure guide.
“Our staff is fully vaccinated,” said Beka Thoning. “In accordance with the state of Alaska’s guidelines, we recommend testing prior to travel.”
As part of the lodge’s upgraded health protocols, there are no same-day changeovers for the lodge’s eight individual cabins. The lodge has added air purifiers and they are sanitizing the surfaces, particularly in the main lodge.
“All of the other businesses in Halibut Cove are mandating vaccinations,” said Beka. “So if our guests want to visit, they have to be vaccinated.”
Dan Oberlatz runs Alaska Alpine Adventures, which operates backpacking and adventure trips all over the state: Lake Clark National Park, Katmai National Park, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Denali National Park.
Oberlatz is not requiring trip participants to be vaccinated, but everyone on his staff has received their shots. In his letter to potential participants, he spells out his request that they get vaccinated:
“Fully vaccinated groups will be able to enjoy the wild serenity of Alaska as it was meant to be experienced, and COVID will be merely a topic of conversation rather than an annoying distraction. So do yourself and your adventure team a favor and get vaccinated! And if you’re choosing not to be vaccinated, please let us know as soon as possible.”
Two of Alaska’s small-ship cruise companies, Uncruise Adventures and Alaska Dream Cruises, are mandating that all passengers and crew be fully vaccinated.
As Alaskans roll out the welcome mat for visitors this summer, each business owner has a little different approach to protecting guests and their own staff.
“It’s going to be a complicated summer,” muses Kirsten Dixon of Tutka Bay Lodge.