TALKEETNA — A few days before Memorial Day weekend and the start of what’s usually a booming summer season, an unsettling quiet filled the iconic Alaskan hamlet with views of the snow-covered peaks of the Alaska Range.
A normal May at this time would bring cruise-ship passengers disgorged from tour buses and trains into restaurants and gift shops along Talkeetna’s only main street.
Air taxis would buzz overhead ferrying mountaineers and flightseers into the mountains for a closer look at Denali, North America’s tallest peak.
Climbers from around the world sporting bright gear and clunky boots, fitter and grungier than the other tourists, would wait for their turn at the mountain.
On Thursday, Talkeetna was quiet like it was a cold, dark winter night — except the sun was shining and the days were long.
The cruise ships and the climbers aren’t coming this year.
“I’m trying to not be too dramatic about the situation, but it’s really heartbreaking. I don’t know how else to say this outside of, what’s happened in the last two months is heartbreaking,” said Sassan Mossanen, co-founder of Denali Brewing Co., a brewery/distillery and restaurant business.
Denali Brewing has laid off nearly half its year-round staff of 55.
“Opening up and getting back to work is absolutely critical for our community’s psyche," Mossanen said.
Cut in half
Travel and other restrictions hit in March at the worst time: the slowest point of the season, just as tourism-dependent businesses were getting set to ramp back up for the spring, merchants here say.
COVID-19 forced Princess Cruises and Holland America to cancel Gulf of Alaska sailings that include add-on Talkeetna packages. The National Park Service suspended the issuance of climbing permits for Denali and neighboring Mount Foraker in March.
Now, though pandemic-related uncertainties still hover, Talkeetna’s businesses, like their counterparts around the state, hope Alaskans can help offset the loss of more than 1.4 million cruise ship passengers originally predicted to visit this summer.
It won’t be business as usual.
Normally, several hundred thousand summer tourists come through Talkeetna. That’s like almost half the population of Alaska converging on a place with fewer than 1,000 year-round residents.
The sudden disappearance of the spending power from cruise-ship passengers (estimated to drop an average of $625 per person in Alaska), not to mention climbers and early-season independent travelers, has already cut deep.
Three-quarters of 126 Talkeetna businesses that responded to an ongoing Matanuska-Susitna Borough survey about COVID-19 effects said their revenues have dropped by 50% or more, according to Mat-Su assembly member Stephanie Nowers. Nearly half said they’ve laid off employees.
A number of business owners said this week that they received some help from federal COVID-19 loans.
Denali Brewing, unlike some other downtown businesses, stays open through the winter to keep people employed and feed locals, Mossanen said. The business “hemorrhages" money at that time.
Now Denali Brewing is losing half its revenues to the tourism drop.
“You’re coming out of the cold, dark winter only to realize summer might not replenish your ability to keep your staff employed next winter. That’s what I’m incredibly concerned about,” he said. “If summer doesn’t create a situation where we can build cash reserves, I’m concerned we’ll have a hard time employing as many people in years past in December.”
Usually on a nice day in late May, air taxi planes — de Havilland Otters and Beavers, bigger than Cessnas and Super Cubs favored by private pilots — roar overhead from morning into evening.
On Thursday, as Talkeetna perched on the edge of an unsettling summer, the silent skies were a sign of the strange times.
“Without the air taxis flying, it’s really quiet because there’s no airplane noise,” said Frank Preston, a National Park Service mountaineering ranger in town. “I’m used to just that constant buzz and being able to walk down the street and say, ‘Oh, I hear another Otter. That must be another scenic flight coming back.’ The only ones you hear right now are the private planes."
Talkeetna Air Taxi, normally busy with climbing teams this time of year, has trimmed down to just a few pilots, mechanics and office staff.
They’ve mothballed — or “pickled” — half their planes, putting a preservative oil in the engine that keeps microbes from forming in the fuel system, said director of operations Paul Roderick.
The company went from 45 employees to fewer than 10, Roderick said.
“It’s pretty drastic,” he said.
Talkeetna Air Taxi is starting to fly customers for Alaska Range glacier landings again, using larger Otters to distance passengers who aren’t family members. Some skiers are going out.
The white ice sheets above town are different, too. Normally busy areas like Ruth Glacier are empty of the usual landing tracks from plane skis, Roderick said.
“It’s just like a white sheet,” he said. “It’s like a blank canvas almost everywhere.”
Making the most of a tough time
Talkeetna did get busier over the past few sunny weekends as trails dried out and Alaskans started to travel amid looser COVID-19 restrictions, locals say.
Now that Gov. Mike Dunleavy has lifted pandemic-related restrictions on restaurant and retail operations, businesses here say they hope Alaskans will make Talkeetna a summer destination, especially without the usual summer crowds.
Some in Talkeetna are pivoting to serve a different demographic.
This is Shawn Thelen’s third summer operating North Shore Cyclery near the airport. He’s having his best May so far, Thelen said Thursday.
Along with bike sales and rentals, the shop started food deliveries this spring. Thelen plans to add a more affordable picnic bike tour to existing options that include a helicopter trip to ride a fat-tire bike down a mountain.
“I built this place and my entire business plan doesn’t have the word ‘tourist’ in it anywhere,” he said.
At the Talkeetna Tako food truck on Main Street, diners see a new menu without the halibut tacos that flew out the window last summer.
“People that are in Alaska aren’t going to go to a food truck and spend $30 on halibut or crab legs. They’ve usually got that in their freezer,” owner John Krattiger said. “This year, (we’re) doing cheeseburgers ... pulled-pork sandwiches, quesadillas -- things I think are going to grab the majority of Alaskan tourists that are coming through town.”
Manager Jackie Glenn was busy at the Once in a Blue Moose gift shop Thursday unloading boxes full of hoodies ahead of the weekend opening. Glenn said she’s heard from people planning their first trip to town after living in Alaska for 30 years.
“A lot of people have never been to Talkeetna,” she said.
‘Not going to have a season’
Some businesses, on the other hand, aren’t opening at all.
Musher Jerry Sousa and Kathleen Holden own restaurant Kahiltna Bistro, a sport fishing business and a dog-tour operation out of their kennel.
The restaurant is closed until at least July, Sousa said. He’s not expecting much demand for guide services given the poor fishing expected from high dirty rivers flowing with heavy snowmelt. Besides, Alaskans generally don’t pay somebody else to do something they think they can do themselves.
Typically, Sousa and Holden bring in $15,000 to $20,000 the last two weeks in May. As of Friday, Sousa said, it’s about $200.
He’s looking into unemployment insurance — for himself.
“We saw this coming in February,” Sousa said. “Figured that we were not going to have a season. That has pretty much played out.”
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