New guests arrived at Wilderness Place Lodge ready to fish. Approximately 60 miles north of Anchorage, the Alaska fishing lodge is only accessible by float plane. Guests come from around the world to experience not only stellar fishing for rainbow trout, grayling and five types of salmon but for the chance to catch a legendary king.
The float plane landed on the Yentna River and the guests and gear were ferried by boat over to the lodge, comfortably tucked away in a lazy bend on Lake Creek. Over lunch Noah Albrecht, the fishing guide manager for Wilderness Place, discusses fishing options.
“Let’s get ‘em out there and get ‘em fishing!” said Jason Rockvam, co-owner of Wilderness Place.
Flexibility is one of the lodge’s core values.
Wilderness Place originally opened in 1986 by Ed and Judy Sharpe. Current owners Jason Rockvam and Cory Wendt initially came as employees during college, though Jason has been connected to Wilderness Place since he was young. Judy Sharpe and Jason’s aunt graduated high school together.
“Before I even came to Alaska I knew about this place. I received my first brochure when I was 10,” said Jason. Jason and Cory met at UAF and decided to try working a summer at Wilderness Place in 1999.
“We were both newbies to Alaska and both adventurous,” said Jason. “I was born on a lake. I’ve been fishing my whole life,” Jason said. “Cory came as a jack-of-all-trades and a part-time guide.”
They continued working there for three more full summers and in 2001 upon graduating college, decided to buy it from Ed and Judy. The purchase was finalized two weeks before 9/11. The first marketing season was tough but they initially inherited a lot of what Ed and Judy did. With Jason’s experience as a guide and education in biology, and Cory’s expertise in finance and entrepreneurship the owners made a balanced team.
“We did everything that the industry told us to do. But we were in our early 20s and no one took us seriously.” Jason said he’s the people person. He also wrote the business plan and Cory focused on the finance. “He figured out how many years we had to sleep in a jeep to get it going,” said Jason. Jason and Cory reinvested in all new boats and motors and installed bathrooms in all the cabins. They updated, tweaked, added and subtracted until the lodge became their own dream.
“We were younger and had less at stake and weren’t looking at retirement.” Now the lodge boasts six cabins all with bathrooms and memory foam mattresses. It has beer on tap, fly fishing and spin fishing gear for all sizes and 16 staff members. Jason said the goal is to be a self-sufficient lodge within three years. This includes things like solar panels for power. The lodge already has a recycling system that crushes recyclables so they can box it and ship it out during winter.
“I come from an environmental background. It’s important that you take care of the resources,” said Jason.
Now the lodge books almost a year in advance and most guests are return customers or referrals. One couple, Ed and Sheila Austin, have been coming all the way from Johannesburg, South Africa yearly. Even though Ed passed away, Sheila will still come for a month this summer. It will be her 20th year. The Austin’s cabin, which was the first building on the property, is a small cabin right on the river. It’s made of logs and flies the South African flag year-round. Jason calls it comfortably rustic because it’s the only cabin without plumbing.
“They are the benchmark for what this lodge became,” Jason said of the Austins. “The quality of what this has become is from input of return guests. We took the incredible people who have come here for years and tapped them to target the right people for this place.”
Wilderness Place goes to lengths to make sure guests are the right fit for the lodge. Jason and Cory refuse to go through agents for bookings and make sure to personally talk to each guest before arrival. The biggest reason is to discover why the guests are coming to Alaska to go fishing.
Is this for a 60th birthday? Is this a father-son trip for which they’ve saved for eight years? Is this a honeymoon? Jason likes to ask guests what would make this trip special so the lodge can aim to meet or exceed guests’ dream trip.
“Name your own adventure and we’ll be as accommodating as possible within our capacity,” he said. “People want a laid back, unstructured vacation; so many of our guests are coming here just for the experience.”
Wilderness Place tends to float to the current of the river during the summer. The staff is busy day and night but the atmosphere is peaceful. Guests who tend to be the right fit are those who can match the beat of the Alaskan bush.
“I don’t want to be a stressed out lodge owner running around,” Jason said. “There is so much logistics in this so you have to be structured behind the scenes.”
This enables the relaxed flexibility up front. One way the owners do this is by thorough organization during the winter months when the lodge is closed. Only a caretaker stays at the lodge during the winter. Jason and Cory spend the winter months busily working on reservations, logistics, planning and meeting customers so that come summer the business can run smoothly.
“Be original. The beautiful thing about small business is there is no right or wrong way to do things. There are so many things that have not been done.”
Jason said that as a lodge owner, he’s constantly learning and constantly evolving.
“It gets easier every year and more enjoyable every year. As long as that continues, I’ll do it until I’m 85.”
Written by Meghan McCausland, Entrepreneur Alaska: www.entrepreneuralaska.com/