WASILLA -- Businesses along the Glenn Highway historically live a tenuous existence. Despite being the state's primary driving route to Canada and the Lower 48, the road remains far less popular, and less populated, than its commerce heavy, west-reaching cousin, the Parks Highway.
Established businesses have shifted their focus to hang on and in recent years, a few new ones have joined the group, carving out niches they hope will help them keep going. Those who run the businesses say they're drawn to the area's scenic beauty and peaceful wilderness feel. Still making a living here is tough. Customers are often few, and many business owners take second jobs to help pay the bills.
"As long as you don't have to rely on this income to survive, you're doing OK," said Samantha Keller.
Keller, the oldest daughter of long-time bush pilot Michael Meekins, is in her second summer offering guided backcountry hiking trips in the Sheep Mountain area for her business, Alaska Wilderness Trails.
The business is paired with Meekins Air Service, which her parents run. Her husband, Matt Keller, is a pilot for the air service and also guides with Alaska Trails. The guiding company taps her family's two generations of familiarity with the Sheep Mountain area.
"I think people are really excited about our area, especially once they find out it's so close to Anchorage," Keller said.
Their business, just past Matanuska Glacier at Mile 114, is about a 2.5-hour drive from the city.
But both Kellers hold other jobs to make ends meet. Keller works at North Star Bakery in the winter. Her husband, who is the son of Wasilla Rep. Wes Keller, does a variety of jobs when hunting season, the busiest time of year for Meekins Air, ends.
Feeling the downturn
Businesses on the Glenn aren't dependent on cruise ship traffic like many on the Parks Highway, but they've felt the effects of the economic downturn too.
Don Wray runs Mica Guides and Exposure Alaska with his wife, Tina Green, at Mile 102.5 Glenn Highway. Mica focuses on glacier climbing and tours while Exposure focuses on longer, multi-sport package tours.
Wray said the package-tour side is going steady but he's seen about a 20-percent drop in the number of Mica clients. Most of that drop is linked to larger tour companies like REI that contract with Mica for glacier tours and ice climbing services.
"We're definitely feeling it," he said.
Overall his business has seen good growth in the last 10 years. But, like the Kellers, the couple still relies on a second income. For Wray and Green that comes from working at a scientific research station in Antarctica during winter.
In many ways the story for businesses here can best be explained by numbers. State traffic data from 2007 shows about 1,900 vehicles driving through the Matanuska Glacier area each day. Seven times that many pass through the Glenn and Palmer-Wasilla highway intersection in Palmer in a day. Most of the traffic comes during the short summer tourist season.
"We've got just over a 100 days to make it," Wray said. Still the smaller number of visitors can be its own draw, making the area feel wilder and less crowded than common tourist stops such as Denali National Park.
Just off the Meekins airstrip, Jodi Talcott and her mother-in-law Cordean Talcott run Majestic Valley Wilderness Lodge, a private resort that offers both rooms and meals for its guests. The business has been slowly expanding over its 14 years of operation. Talcott too is focusing on carving out a niche to keep her business going. For her it's hosting weddings.
There are still moments that remind both Talcott and the wedding party how remote the area can be. Like last summer when the woman delivering a wedding cake was in a car accident en route. Talcott and the bride's mother whipped up a new three-tiered cake -- from scratch, since she had no cake mixes -- and frosted it just in time for the event. This month wedding preparations were interrupted by a seven-hour power outage.
"We were trying to accommodate the guests with limited amounts of water. The chef had a headlamp on," she said.
Talcott also relies on a second job -- she's a teacher at Glacier View School -- for both income and health insurance.
Love for the area not always enough
Despite occasional drama, life in the upper Matanuska Valley is its own reward, said longtime King Mountain Lodge owner Judy Nix. Nix has owned King Mountain Lodge at Mile 76 on the Glenn, one of the oldest lodges on the highway, for 15 years.
Formerly an on-call hospice nurse in the Anchorage area, Nix said she took a several-year detour as a lodge owner after falling in love with the place during frequent stays in a tent near the river, where she let the sound of the water melt away job stress.
But a love for the area isn't always enough to eke out a living here. The difficult economy forced Nix back into full-time nursing in 2006 and now she's trying to sell the lodge.
"It has really been a struggle," she said. "It was hard to find help and the economy on the Glenn was really painful."
A combination of decreased business due to road construction and high overhead from rising fuel, food and utility costs made for a tough business climate, she said. At 66, Nix said it's also too much work for her to do on her own. For now the lodge is closed. But she's hoping someone new will take it over.
"Our little place out there is like the Chickaloon performing arts center. I would love to see it go again. She has a lot of life left in her -- when I'm out there, I can just feel it," she said.
Find Daily News reporter Rindi White online at adn.com/contact/rwhite or call her at 352-6709.
By RINDI WHITE
Alaska Dispatch Publishing