Tim McDonnell came north to Fairbanks in 1971 to drive buses for Westours. It was fantasy to imagine that 50 years later his nephew and his kids would bring him out of retirement to be CEO of their multimillion-dollar bus company serving Southeast Alaska and Seattle.
More than 60 years ago Willy Porter, following in his father’s footsteps, was fishing Snug 12 on the west side of Cook Inlet. Snug 12 was one of many cannery-owned boats delivering red salmon to the Snug Harbor Cannery on Chisik Island. It was a big dream to imagine that he and his sons would one day buy the now-shuttered cannery. Today, it’s an outpost to see bears, go fishing and enjoy the wilderness.
Chance Miller’s grandmother homesteaded land in Lowell Point near Seward in the 1950s. Did she think that 70 years later, her grandchildren would be at the helm of a recreational hub including campsites, cabins, fishing charters, rental boats and a tour company?
Dreams are powerful things. Where you live can amplify your dream and bring it in to focus. Alaska is awe-inspiring. Who doesn’t love showing it off? Some entrepreneurs in the visitor industry have made showing off Alaska into a family affair.
Tim McDonnell spent 10 years in Fairbanks working for Chuck West, founder of Westours. West also was known as “Mr. Alaska” for pioneering the tourism industry with hotels, buses and small cruise ships.
In addition to coaxing visitors to Alaska, McDonnell was tasked with hiring people to work for the expanding Westours operation. That included his nephew, Dennis McDonnell, who started as a bus mechanic.
West’s company was sold and both McDonnells went on to other jobs in the helicopter business, for different companies. Along the way, Tim set up additional travel businesses, including a motorcycle touring company designed for his brother to run, as well as the first dog sled tours on glaciers.
“We called it a trifecta,” said Tim. “It had a helicopter, a glacier and a dog sled ride. At one point, we had 800 dogs.”
But soon, Dennis was tapped to head up a new bus company, Alaska Coach Tours, started by another driver Tim had hired at Westours: Tom Tougas. Dennis tapped two of Tim’s kids to help him in Juneau and Skagway.
By 2015, Dennis, his relatives and co-workers had bought out the founding partner and coaxed “Uncle Tim” out of retirement to be the CEO. Since then, Alaska Coach Tours expanded to Sitka and Seattle. Recently a partnership between Doyon and Huna Totem Native corporations called “Na-Dena” purchased most of the shares.
“We’re working on different growth strategies,” said Dennis McDonnell, who plans to continue with the company. “We want to leverage our strong team to continue to grow, done in a sustainable way — the way the community wants it.”
Willy Porter sat by a bonfire on the beach at Snug Harbor, just like he used to after a full day of fishing for the cannery. But this time, he looked over buildings that have been transformed into a modern kitchen and accommodations.
“We just want to show people what we love about Alaska,” he said.
Chisik Island is due west across Cook Inlet from Ninilchik, about a two-hour boat ride from Homer. It takes a little longer if you stop and watch the whales along the way.
Willy and Jennie Porter, along with their twin sons Eli and Abe, purchased the Snug Harbor Cannery and have been working for years to get it ready for visitors. This is the second year they’ve been accepting guests.
While the elder Porters are retired, Abe and Eli and their wives live and work north of Kenai in Nikiski. It’s their goal to devote more time and energy to Snug Harbor, which has become the family’s legacy.
James Leslie was born and raised in Wrangell. His parents, Jim and Wilma Leslie, had seven floating logging camps around Southeast Alaska.
“I remember riding out to the logging camps,” he said. “The chefs always had really big cookies.”
That all changed around 1995 when Wrangell’s sawmill closed. “Wrangell collapsed when the sawmill closed,” said James.
Jim, James’ dad, pivoted to tourism and jetboats. Alaska Waters was formed in 1997. “In those years, he served on the port commission and the city council to push Wrangell into tourism,” said James.
“I started driving jetboats when I was nine years old,” said James. “Even before that, I would run around with a pack of local boys in our little boats with 8 to 25 horsepower motors.”
Alaska Waters takes travelers up the Stikine River, to the LeConte Glacier and to the Anan Bear Observatory on jetboats. The company also offers some land tours to showcase Chief Shakes Island and the Petroglyph Beach.
James Leslie said there are more than 20 on the company’s payroll. “All of them are locals — and half of them were born here,” he said.
After being made president of the company earlier this year, James confesses he enjoys the seasonal lifestyle. “I’ve been doing it for 21 years,” he said. “I fully expect tourism to be a good, lucrative industry with a sustainable future.”
Miller’s Landing is located in Lowell Point on the shores of Resurrection Bay, just south of Seward.
“I’ve never really done anything else in the summer other than work at Miller’s Landing,” said Chance Miller.
“This year, the company will be 40 years old. I’m not even 40 yet,” he said.
“After my grandmother homesteaded, my father bought the adjacent property,” said Chance. “People started showing up and wanted to go camping.”
Chance’s parents, Mike and Sherrie Miller, founded the company in 1982.
Today, Miller’s Landing runs water taxis all over Resurrection Bay. The company offers fishing charters on several boats. Additionally there are rental boats and kayaks, plus camping sites, cabin rentals and kayak tours and rentals.
Chance and his brother, Tom, now run the company after their parents retired in 2012. “I do the guiding and manage the boat,” said Chance. “Tom does water taxis, operations and lots of administrative work.”
Chance is philosophical when asked if his 3-year-old son may one day run the business.
“I don’t know if running the business will be an option,” he said. “The value to me is I can teach my kids something with a boat or a front-end loader. And we can do stuff. And (he) will know how to fish!”
The families we profiled four years ago still are working together in the visitor industry:
Robert Sheldon, of the Sheldon Chalet, is still running his luxury lodge on the slopes of Denali, in addition to a lodge outside Fairbanks specifically designed to see northern lights. When asked if his three kids plan to continue in the business, he answered, “We already have a succession plan.”
Colleen Stephens, of Stan Stephens Cruises in Valdez, notes that all of her co-workers are locals. “We have mother/son, uncles/brothers and sisters working for us. In one family, we had four sisters working for us. That’s commitment through and through,” said Colleen.
Every business is different. But having a family-run business that includes members of other generations inspires confidence. The goal of the best businesses in the visitor industry is to make sure visitors and guests have a great time in Alaska — so they’ll come back.