Bed and breakfast reluctance and reward
April 1, 2023 | View PDF
Spring weather makes me think of summer's influx of visitors to our wonderful state and I am reminded of our years living in Slana running a bed and breakfast in our home. My husband Gary and I provided a home away from home for many people from 2001 through 2006. Each year was busier than the one before, until we stopped serving the public due to health reasons – first my dad's and then my own. I was surprised how disappointed I was to close our business when we did.
I had doubts back in 2000 when Gary tried to convince me that offering travelers a place to stay would be a good way to supplement his retirement income. I wasn't sure I wanted to share my home with strangers, and I knew I didn't like idle chitchat.
The one and only time we thought about staying in a bed and breakfast ourselves was in 1992 when we went to Fairbanks for one of my sisters' graduation from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. After calling the third location and being told the only rooms available had shared bathrooms, Gary told me to forget it – make reservations at a motel. That we were unwilling to stay in a B&B with a shared bath is ironic since we ended up owning and operating one.
Our lovely log house only had one bathroom, so Gary remodeled the two upstairs bedroom closets into a bathroom and installed additional sink vanities in each room. We officially opened July 1, 2001 and our first guests were a couple on a world tour – riding motorcycles. That first summer, we had so few guests I had their names, faces and where they were from all memorized at the end of the season. But as the years went by, the numerous guests became a blur with only a few standing out here and there.
We found that the shared bathroom was not a problem for most guests. In fact, I only remember one couple deciding not to stay because of that. Most people seemed pleasantly surprised after they toured our facilities. Most likely they were expecting more rustic accommodations because of the remote location.
Most of the time our different groups of guests were quite compatible. In fact, many times they visited among themselves, which made our job as hosts easier. Although one time a gentleman sought me out very late one night to request a different breakfast time for himself and his wife. He said he did not want to sit at the same table as the other, very opinionated man.
For breakfast we served blueberry pancakes, scrambled eggs and caribou sausage. When we first started, we were advised to set a specific breakfast time and make guests conform. We soon learned that even though it was a little more work on our part, we had much more satisfied customers when we inquired about their time preference.
Most Europeans, for example, preferred to eat no earlier than 8 a.m. unless they were hiking, while two temporary Dept. of Transportation workers needed to eat at 5:30 a.m. at the latest, in order to be at work by 6 a.m. One couple might be leaving early to go hiking and want breakfast at 7 a.m., while another couple just wanted to have a relaxing morning with breakfast at 9 a.m. And of course we varied the menu for those guests who stayed with us for three or four days.
After our little local café closed during the summer of 2002, we made a point to advise guests coming from the north to eat dinner in Tok or Mentasta, and those coming from the south to eat in Glennallen or Gakona. Still, some showed up at the door hungry (we had a nearly equal number of drop-ins vs. reservations), and for those we offered grilled cheese sandwiches and canned soup. Another option was to buy food at our small local grocery store and use our kitchen to prepare a meal. Imagine telling someone on a bicycle they only have to pedal 17 more miles to Mentasta Lodge to get dinner.
We had such a variety of guests, from foreign hikers to Alaskan employees. Sometimes the draw was nearby Wrangell St. Elias Park, while other times, we were just a place to lay their heads en route to another destination. Most guests asked to tour our vegetable and flower gardens and the greenhouse. Others played croquet, panned for gold, fished for grayling, checked out a local fishwheel, or otherwise explored the area.
Many wanted to visit with us in the evening for as long as we allowed, while others relaxed in their rooms or the upstairs sitting room. We had a term for the more needy guests – "high maintenance." One military couple stands out in particular. They were being transferred out of Anchorage and the wife needed my listening ear late into the night, while the husband was up before 6 a.m. conversing with Gary.
The daily routine ran the smoothest with both Gary and I working together as a team. Sometimes one of us would take off for a day or two now and then, usually to drive to Anchorage for supplies. When this happened, the absent partner was definitely missed – mostly during breakfast preparation. Gary was the official pancake maker, while I did the eggs and sausage. He was also checked out on everything else (changing sheets, cleaning the bathroom and rooms, laundry and vacuuming) but I will say, it was not a fun or easy process for either of us while he went through training.
My original reluctance to run a bed and breakfast didn't last long, and the positives certainly outweighed the negatives. Sure we were tied down all summer, but with a generator, garden and dog, we were tied down anyway.
Our worldview expanded because of numerous conversations with many international guests. According to our records, we had over 40 groups of guests in 2004 and they came from Germany, Switzerland, Italy, Holland, Austria, Israel, China, South Korea, Canada, Puerto Rico, mainland U.S.A. and Alaska.
Although we closed our bed and breakfast years ago, it's still very satisfying to read back through our two guest books and find so many entries similar to this one. "Staying in your home has been the highlight of our vacation!"
Maraley McMichael is a lifelong Alaskan currently residing in Palmer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.