Women In Business
Women have always been a crucial and colorful part of Alaska’s heritage. Read their exciting stories from Travel Guide 2008 and 2009
Women have always been a crucial and colorful part of Alaska’s heritage. Read their exciting stories from Travel Guide 2008 and 2009
Women have always been a crucial and colorful part of Alaska’s heritage. Strong, resilient, determined and savvy, historically they have been the backbone of their evolving land, where one out of every ten gold stampeders struggling over the Chilkoot and White Passes was a woman. On the Alaskan frontier of today, women own and manage an array of successful businesses in the undaunted spirit of their predecessors. Travel Guide is delighted to salute a few of these exceptional women with the following stories.
Fulfilling a lifelong dream, Sharon Forster moved to Alaska from Salt Lake City 3 years ago, after touring the state all the way to the Arctic Ocean with her dog Mugsey. Leaving behind family, friends and long-term corporate job, she packed what she could into a 17-foot U-Haul, attached her loaded Jeep Cherokee and set off with Mugsey for Kenny Lake Mercantile & RV Park, where she’d previously befriended the owners and spent 2 weeks finishing the first draft of a book. Knowing this was where she belonged, Sharon bought the property, which also includes the hotel, diner, laundromat and gas/diesel/propane station. She has recently and happily remarried; she and her husband Jim Jordan invite you to stop at Kenny Lake, Mile 7.2 on the Edgerton Hwy; (907) 822-3313.
Originally from Philadelphia, Cynthia Moon visited Alaska 22 years ago with her sister and knew she was coming back. She served in the US Navy and developed a love for travel, and last year opened an on-line travel website at victorytoursandtravel.com which she feels is a great match for her. The site offers many extras, like arranging golf tee times, bridal registry, sending flowers, theme park and Vegas tickets, visa applications and the opportunity for others to start a life-changing business of their own from the comfort of home.
Five years ago Lisa Wingo realized her life’s dream of living in Alaska, after her place of employment in Arkansas shut down. Seeking a pastime during the cold winter months, she began manipulating imagery in Photoshop and soon realized there was a market for her unique digital artwork. She shares space with Boreal Imagery at the 4th Avenue Market Place in Anchorage and maintains a website showcasing her Alaska In Fantasy series – it’s real Alaskan people, real Alaskan places, with a ‘Twist.’
Steve and Rosie Bowser moved to Alaska in 1971, where Steve joined the Army. They developed a close friendship with Ray Powell, who owned the car wash that employed Steve part-time. They eventually became shareholders, taking over when ‘Uncle’ Ray retired. Rosie kept the books until 1989, when Steve faced a lengthy recovery after brain tumor surgery. Rosie learned quickly and hired 2 employees; their college-bound children helped out until their dad regained his strength. The couple then ran their business together until 2006, when Rosie lost Steve to an unknown illness. Their oldest son returned from Fairbanks to take over operation and maintenance; he and his mom make all the business decisions together now, for Mt. View Car Wash, 124 Taylor St. in Anchorage; (907) 274-3128.
Tales of grandeur led 20-year-old Susan Gilpatrick to hitchhike to Alaska 26 years ago. She had a job within a week, spent her first winter alone in a Palmer shack with no water, electricity or insulation, and loved her new life. She met her husband Lance and a few years later taught herself how to run a thriving 8500 sq. ft. greenhouse in Valdez, which they operated together once it grew to be their sole income. For years the couple passed by an abandoned hotel in Chitina, thinking it a shame no one ever fixed it up. Susan chose the hotel for a college assignment to draw up a business plan, and watched the plan snowball into the purchase, financing, engineering, construction, furnishing, staffing, stocking and finally in 2006, opening of Gilpatrick’s Hotel Chitina, which includes a 48-seat restaurant. Their 2 children learned all aspects of both businesses from a young age and still work with their mom, who suddenly lost her life partner Lance a year ago. The wheels continued to roll, and with support from family and friends, Susan was able to roll with them. Steadfast and positive, she works to complete the vision she and Lance shared for the hotel, cherishing the rewards and challenges of business – and she continues to travel and entertain great joy and fun in her life. Located at the corner of Fairbanks & Main Street in historic downtown Chitina; (907) 823-2244 (summer) or (907) 835-5542 (winter).
Self-motivated and vivacious, Sherelle Keita journeyed to Alaska 7 years ago to work on fishing boats and in the home and day care industry, until she saved up enough for her own import and gift business. Keita Place Gifts offers a serious selection of the eclectic and culturally diverse, from elegant jewelry and hats to African dresses and precious gifts at the Saturday 4th Avenue Market Place in Anchorage; (907) 764-8980.
Delora Garcia moved to Alaska with her parents when she was 10 years old to homestead in the Matanuska Valley. She worked with her husband at commercial fishing in Cook Inlet, gathering the fascinating stories she now gladly shares with the welcome guests of Tanglewood B&B, the big family home her husband and oldest son remodeled in 1996, at 2528 Beaverloop Road in Kenai; (907) 283-6771.
Korean-born restaurant owner Wae Song left New York in 1995 to join family members and enjoy the snow in Alaska. She loves to cook and visit with her customers at Alaska Salmon Chowder House, famous for seafood specialty dinners and great prices. Sip a glass of beer or wine under the open sky or indulge in a superb red crab dinner indoors, at 443 West 4th Avenue in Anchorage; (907) 278-6901.
Donna Love came to Alaska in 1967 with her family when her father was in the military. In banking since high school, she’d dreamed of owning a unique gift and bridal business, but put it off until her home was nearly destroyed by the 1996 Miller’s Reach fire and she quickly rearranged her priorities. The shop has grown in scope and renown over the years, hosting the Bridal Spectacular event each year, offering a complete line of formal wear, gifts and collectibles, and providing full service wedding planning. Donna has over 500 happy couples to her name, arranging ceremonies in the Lower 48 for Alaskan couples as well as local weddings, from Donna’s Corner in the East Lake Mall, 3261 S. Big Lake Road in Big Lake; (907) 892-6866.
Off from college in Illinois for the summer, Martha Nichols came north to work in an Alaskan cannery to pay off car and school loans. In 1983 she met her husband, a self-employed gillnet fisherman and raised 3 sons, spending 11 years as a certified teacher. In 1995, they purchased and renovated an old 3-story hotel near the harbor and opened the Prince William Motel at 2nd and Council in beautiful Cordova; (907) 424-3201. Their adjacent Front Door and Back Door retail and wholesale grocery stores, laundromat and the motel keep 50 to 60 Cordovans employed.
Arlene Butler and her husband shared a lifelong dream of owning and running a family business with their children and grandchildren, so after retirement from the military, they moved to Alaska 13 years ago. Now they own and operate the Alaska R&R Laundry and RV Park (and U-Haul dealership) with their daughter, son-in-law and their children, who work hard every day to insure the continued success of their enterprise, located at Mile 49.4 Parks Hwy in Wasilla; (907) 373-7286.
Mary Rolfing jumped at the chance to move from Santa Barbara to Alaska when her husband was assigned to document an oil spill in 1991. Working as an ultrasound and x-ray tech, she soon became a vibrant participant in local clubs, orchestrating the placement of an immense bronze statue of Grizzly Bear and Creator Raven in a downtown park she’d been instrumental in restoring. Now Mary’s state-of-the-art Bear and Raven Adventure Theater, located at Bear Square, 4th and E St. in downtown Anchorage, provides a most unique and exciting Alaskan experience. In the surround-sense theater you can ‘hook into’ a 35-lb. king salmon, ‘step aboard’ a hot air balloon to drift over Prince William Sound and ‘jump on’ a dog sled to command your team on the Iditarod Trail. (907) 277-4545.
After moving to Alaska 20 years ago, entrepreneur Susan Wiren bought up part of the town of Chicken, stocking the Chicken Creek Café, Saloon and Mercantile Emporium with a tasty home-cooked menu of pies, buffalo burgers, reindeer bratwurst, famous potato salad and delicious baked wild Alaskan salmon and her catchy, self-designed line of quirky gifts, thus transforming a tiny part of old gold rush Alaska into a truly unforgettable stopover. Downtown Chicken is just off Hwy 5, straight down Airport Road a few hundred yards.
Roberta (Bobbie) Lekanoff came to Unalaska from Oregon in 1976, to work in the galley of a seafood processing ship with her dad. She signed up for a 6-month contract, but loved it in Alaska and stayed. A couple of years later she met her husband, who was born and raised in Unalaska. Her sister-in-law operates a tour business, and in 1997 she trained Bobbie so she could fill in for her if needed. The following year, Bobbie branched off on her own (with coaxing), and expanded her tour, adding extras like flower identifying, birding and WWII sites/history. She named her company The Extra Mile Tours partly because she travels further out on the road system, but also because she goes ‘the extra mile’ to make sure the client leaves the island with a knowledge and understanding of the area, and a positive attitude toward the community. It seems a natural niche, with her interests in nature, history and the culture of her husband’s people. She absolutely loves showing off the beautiful island of Unalaska to anyone interested in knowing about it, and has expanded from 14 tours in 1998 to 46 in 2007. (907) 581-6171
Margaret Varlamos and her husband Don were thinking about going into business for themselves for some time when he showed her an ad for a reasonably priced restaurant in Whittier. After taking the train from Portage to Whittier twice, imagining the premises cleaned and fixed up and speaking with many folks about the challenges and untapped potential of doing business in Whittier, they sat down with the owner, worked out an agreement on a yellow legal pad, they gave him a down payment check for $5,000. On the way back to Anchorage, Margaret asked herself, "What have we done? We've never run a restaurant before. We don't even have insurance on it!" Don put his heart and soul into fixing the place up for the next couple of months and on July 17, 1997 they opened their doors and hoped that customers would come. After about 2 hours, a tour bus operator came in and bought the first meal. 'Doc' is still a customer today, 12 years later! That first summer, Margaret kept her regular job selling insurance in Anchorage and did the shopping for the restaurant in the evenings. On Friday afternoons when she got off work she would run downtown and pick up the frozen French fries, then swing by the babysitter's house for their 18 month old son and race to catch the train at Portage. She didn't want to think what would happen if she missed that train and the French fries thawed out... Don spent every day at the restaurant with a little Japanese woman who taught him everything he needed to know about preparing, cooking and serving fish. It was a small miracle that they’d met her and she agreed to help because they knew nothing about running a seafood restaurant! Margaret and Don worked hard every day of the summer for three years and built up a loyal clientele. However, nothing prepared them for what was to happen in June of 2000 when the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel into Whittier opened to vehicle traffic. On that day, they saw more customers than in the previous 6 weeks! There was a line out the door for over 2 hours! At the end of the day, Margaret just sat in a chair holding their new baby and cried! When her husband asked what was wrong, she said, "We are going to die. We can't do this!" It was then they decided they were going to concentrate on fish. Over the next nine summers they developed a reputation for the best fried fish in the state, featuring local seafood straight from Prince William Sound. The Swiftwater Seafood Café is located at the end of the triangle in beautiful downtown Whittier; (907) 472-2550.
Hedy Sarney arrived in the United States in 1963 as the teenage daughter of Romanian Jewish concentration camp survivors. She lived in Brooklyn, graduated from university at Berkeley and was employed in New Mexico before venturing to Valdez. There she worked a variety of jobs, including cleaning fish in the canning industry and for the state with disabled adults. At the time, Valdez had a single rafting company; in spite of advice that the area probably couldn’t support a kayak-based business and that she’d be bankrupt within a year, with the moral and financial support of her husband Lee, Hedy created Anadyr Adventures 20 years ago and never looked back. The company offers guided day trips through spectacular Prince William Sound, multiday camping trips, lodge-based trips with day excursions, and mothership supported two-to-ten day kayaking tours, an ideal choice for anyone desiring the amenities of a support vessel. With a perfect safety record, Anadyr can help visitors comfortably experience the power and beauty of Valdez Glacier via hiking and kayaking or explore the towering icebergs calved from immense Columbia Glacier. Wildlife highlights include up-close encounters with curious, basking sea lions, shy harbor seals, sea otters and tens of thousands of marine birds. Anadyr employs about a dozen expert guides/trainers, many of whom return year after year. The knowledgeable guides conduct interpretive natural history discussions and share fascinating tales of gold rush miners and colorful characters from the 1800s. Visitors with little or no experience are encouraged to join one of the fully outfitted and guided trips or participate in an instructional class. Complete gear and kayak rentals and water taxi shuttles are available for experienced paddlers. Anadyr Adventures sea kayaking trips have been featured in National Geographic Adventures and Cosmopolitan, and the business was the recipient of the 2004 Spirit of Alaska Award, for best exemplifying the Alaskan spirit of community and public service. Lee, who has lived in Alaska since high school and initially worked in surveying, manages the accounting for Anadyr and pilots the water taxi. Hedy is busy with bookings and overseeing the company, which also features an art gallery in the building, carrying the work of 40 to 45 Alaskan artists. She is understandably proud of owning a business that causes no harm to the environment and provides clients with exceptional and unforgettable experiences. Anadyr Adventures is located at 225 North Harbor Drive in Valdez; (907) 835-2814 or (800) 865-2925; www. anadyradventures.com.
Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Amalia Estrada moved to Phoenix, Arizona when she was 14 to care for her nephews. She put herself through school, raising her two sons as a single mother. In 1994 Amalia moved to Alaska, a state she had wanted to visit her whole life. In Valdez she met her future husband, Ernesto Hernandez. They moved to Fairbanks, where Amalia took business classes at the University of Alaska and worked as a hairdresser and Ernesto was employed as a cook. After four years of hard work and long hours, they were able to move back to Valdez and open a janitorial business. In 1999, they purchased Headhunters B&B and Headhunters Beauty Salon, then opened the restaurant and catering business Ernesto’s Taqueria in 2000. Managing their three successful businesses still keeps the two of them very busy!
Emmalou (Lou) Busby was born in Farmington, NM in 1951, graduated from Colorado State University in 1973 and worked in research for the university while helping to establish Rocking Thistle Ranch, a Labrador Retriever training and breeding kennel. In1978, she married Mike Busby and moved to Homer, Alaska to build a homestead. They spent part of the first winter together traveling Alaska and searching out old prospectors in quest of a possible gold mine to work. The following summer, they began a gold mining adventure on a remote creek 30 miles west of Chicken, Alaska. Since then, they have spent summers gold mining in the interior and winters on the homestead in Homer, with the family (children, dogs and cats) in tow. Although her new life in Alaska was exciting, Lou felt a need to pursue her own occupation. Due in part to the lack of locally available (particularly educational) toys in Homer, she started and ran Cloud Nine Toys. During the mining season, to add value to the gold they were mining and fulfill her artistic desires, she began dabbling in jewelry creations. This quickly led to the start of Wild Goose Enterprises, a wholesale jewelry and gift manufacturing business. One of her creations was selected to represent Alaska in QVC’s “Quest for America’s Best” show. A vision for her new business came while working at the Chicken Post Office; inquiries from visiting patrons made her aware of the need to provide more tourist attractions and services in Chicken. An opportunity, though hardly recognizable as such, came in 1998, when the mining lease that the Busbys had been working was jeopardized and they were forced to move. Lou and her husband negotiated the purchase of 50 acres in the center of Chicken and started the Chicken Gold Company. Following their mining and reclamation of the ground, they built the Chicken Gold Camp & Outpost, comprised of a rustic resort, RV park, gift store carrying Lou’s original jewelry and gift designs, and restaurant featuring her gourmet cooking. The business property also encompasses a National Historic Site, the 500-ton Pedro Dredge. In 2001, the Chicken Gold Camp was recognized by the State of Alaska when it received the Governor’s Award for Outstanding Reclamation. In 2006, it was recognized nationally as recipient of the US Interior Department’s Reclamation and Sustainable Development Award for exemplary post-mining development and stewardship of the land. The Gold Camp continues to evolve, recently adding recreational mining, dredge tours and kayak trips. Last year, the business was featured in Alaska Business Monthly, Gold Prospectors magazine and on Europe’s TV program Planetopia.
Angelika Krinner was born in Munich, Germany in 1955, and immigrated to the United States in 1983 after marrying an American soldier. Their first duty station was Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Georgia, where their daughter was born. In 1986, Angelika’s husband received orders for Ft. Wainwright, so the couple moved to Fairbanks and eventually had two more children, both sons. After raising the children and getting a divorce, she returned to the work force, finding employment with a large home improvement store chain. A couple of years ago, she had the opportunity to buy a well-established gift and souvenir shop in Fairbanks, which had been in business for over 50 years. Angelika took the leap of faith required and has made her shop a very successful enterprise, employing four additional sales clerks. During the short summer season, tourists from all over the globe stop in; speaking two languages has helped Angelika better serve her customers from Germany. She also caters to many visitors who come to enjoy the winter wonderland, viewing the northern lights and watching the famous ice carving contests and sled dog races. Specializing in Native arts and crafts and other Alaskan made articles, including a large selection of t-shirts, sweatshirts and plushed animals, Arctic Traveler’s Gift Shop is located at 201 Cushman Street in Fairbanks; (907) 456-7080.
Geri Gillespie, owner of the Alaska Fur Exchange (that's the big gray building with the red stripe on the corner of Old Seward and Tudor in Anchorage), started her business with only $4 plus lots of hard work and blessings from God. With the $4 investment she bought $40 worth of beads and created beautiful necklaces and earrings, which she sold at bazaars and art and craft shows. “Fur Rondy 1979” was her first exposure to Alaska. As a child, Geri was taught to give 10% tithes to God and she has continued to do so throughout her adult life. As a result, her business has flourished and grown to be one of the largest truly Alaskan shops in the entire state! She has been able to help many people throughout the years, building a small Bible school in Haiti and a wing to an orphanage in Africa with the money she sent to a missionary friend from her home town in Iowa. Geri’s philosophy has been directed toward assisting many artists and craftspeople throughout Alaska. She buys the best there is to offer and from her heart, giving her customers a fair and honest price. One of the many advantages of shopping at Alaska Fur Exchange is the large selection of truly one-of-a-kind works of art and the knowledge passed on to the customer about the creation of the work. The huge inventory in her shop is an inspiration to everyone who walks through the door; plan to spend some time because you will also be looking at one of the best taxidermy displays in the state, with animals from around the world. On most days you will also see Geri's smiling face and cheery personality, fun and funky hair and dress. Alaska Fur Exchange offers a full range of Alaskan arts and crafts made from fur, including bed spreads, pillows, slippers, mukluks, hats, mittens, earmuffs and headbands. Native made items fill the store, including whalebone carvings, soapstone, ivory, dolls, masks, dance fans, ulus, jade, gold nuggets, jewelry of all kinds, antler art and much more. Alaska Fur Exchange is a unique and wonderful, family-run shop, that many customers claim is the best they’ve ever been in. Stop by and look around, and be sure to tell Geri you read about her in the wonderful Travel Guide article, Alaskan Women in Business.
The tale of Bronze Maiden Seafoods really starts with a conversation Linda Koons Auger had with her husband Bill shortly before they married in 1977. Descended from a long line of Norwegian commercial fisherman, Bill talked about his idea of producing a value-added seafood product for retail sales. Many years later, Linda gave up her 9 to 5 office routine and with the help of her daughter Rachel, opened the seafood shop in a small, historic Ketchikan building previously used as a garage. Inside you will find diverse offerings from fresh, frozen and tinned WILD Alaska seafood, seafood and foods from around the world, local artwork and some of Linda’s favorite Alaska cookbooks. She strives to have recipes available for all the seafood and specialty foods she carries; many are from friends, relatives and special customers. Linda sells some of Bill’s catch from his fishing vessel under the Bronze Maiden Seafood Signature Seafood label, and has worked hard to develop relationships with companies having high quality control standards. Linda observes that the old saying “you can’t turn a bad fish into a good fish no matter what” is very true, and that quality control from the beginning and on down the line is essential. Since she arriving in 1957 from Colorado, Linda has lived in Ketchikan, so it is very important to her that Bronze Maiden Seafoods be deemed “well worth the stop” for local and visiting shoppers. She passionately enjoys the challenge of operating a small business, thankful for the support of family and friends and blessed to have a special group of folks who help out at the shop. Come see the new offerings on the shelves and have a cup of complimentary Highliner Coffee, a fresh, roasted-to-order “import” from Sitka; there is often a product sampling offering as well. Open year round, except for a few weeks in February, Bronze Maiden Seafoods is located at 1414 Tongass Avenue in Ketchikan; (907) 225-2646 (COHO).
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