Decatur family runs lodge in Alaska

In remote southern Alaska, a lodge sits facing a vast sound. Woods filled with wild creatures, including beavers, wolves and bears, surround the lodge.

The closest grocery store is two and a half hours away, the nearest school has a total of 10 students, kindergarten through twelfth grade, and lodgers don’t have cell service. Decatur resident Kevin Ryter bought the Lodge at Whale Pass 12 years ago.

With no background in the field of hospitality, Ryter dove in with the sole desire to build a business.

“This was completely out of left field,” Kevin said. “I used to be an investment banker and when my kids were very young, both under the age of four, my wife and I decided to do something where I wouldn’t be away from the house the whole time and have to work long hours year round.”

While looking into alternatives to banking, Kevin and Lyn Ryter decided to explore the travel business. The Ryters sparked the idea for an “adventure lodge”after brainstorming with friends who had already taken the plunge into the Alaska fishing lodge industry.

While the food is comparable to Kimball House or Wahoo in Decatur, and it’s a highly service-oriented, highly hospitality-oriented business, Kevin and Lyn designed the lodge for people searching for an authentic Alaskan experience.

“We wanted people that wanted to come to Alaska to hike through the woods and look for all the wild creatures,” Ryter said. “They could go see a glacier [or] go see the native culture in Alaska, [like] the totem built carving.”

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From the lodge, Kevin Ryter said, “you can see 20 feet, 30 feet waves rolling through the ocean. That’s two story, three story, waves that would crush DHS.”

And the idea of opening the lodge panned out.

“It worked from a financial standpoint. We thought the return on the investment would be good,” Kevin said, “and it worked from a family lifestyle standpoint.”

After finding a foreclosed fishing lodge and developing a concept, the Ryters faced numerous challenges that accompany starting a new business.

“It took a long time to figure out the logistics, meaning how do we get all our supplies there?” Kevin said. “How do we do rebuilding of things like piers and docks and painting and carpeting?”

Since the lodge isn’t on a road, all materials had to be delivered by barge, a flat-bottomed boat, which arrives on a dock in front of the lodge.

Although a “dramatic change,” the Ryters quickly adapted to the new way of living.

Running a lodge requires work from the whole family, but being together makes it worth it.

“We say family is where the fun is and the surroundings are just what gives it flavor,” Kevin said.

The Ryters new business venture provided an opportunity for the family to spend summers working together while living in an entirely different atmosphere.

“Lyn, my wife, calls it the catapult effect,” Kevin said.

Since the lodge is only open to guests during summer, the Ryters spend the school year in Decatur before “catapulting” across the country to a lifestyle revolving around work.

“The biggest difference is the raw exposure to Mother Nature there. We gather our water from a stream,” Kevin said. “If we want heat, we have to burn wood. You just have raw exposure to the real world, the real world being not with all the creature comforts of city living.”

Kevin’s oldest son Lucas loves his summers spent in Alaska. His experience working at the lodge “almost completely shaped” who he is today.

At the age of 12, Lucas started helping out around Whale Pass. From there, he gradually gained responsibilities around the lodge, ranging from helping move furniture to “deckhanding,” assisting the lodge’s boat captain.

IMG_8440But several days full of manual labor can be exhausting.

“I’m always hurting myself and always tired. I never get as tired in school as I do in Alaska,” Lucas said. “Within the last three [summers], I’ve gotten maybe one day off a month and on that one day off, we’ll go out and just explore Alaska.”

Through it all, he’s “loved every single second of it.”

Since the Ryter’s cater towards high net-worth individuals, Lucas worked with people he would’ve never known otherwise.

“I’ve taken high-paying clients like CEOs who are basically running America out fishing,” he said, “and to have eight hours of their day has really shown me values in life that are unteachable.”

In addition to a strong work ethic, patience and a strong passion for fishing, Lucas said, “it has given me connections with people that I would never in my wildest dreams.”

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The Ryter’s take guests who visit the glaciers on a plane and a boat to provide different views of the icebergs.

“I’ve met movie stars. I’ve met pro football players. I’ve met tons of celebrities,” Lucas said. “I meet up to 200 different people a summer, and I can learn something from each of those people and apply it to my own life.”

Celebrities aren’t the only people who’ve spent time at the Lodge at Whale Pass. Freshman Anna Brim is just one of the numerous Decatur residents who have visited.

Brim traveled to Alaska over the Fourth of July in 2013. When she first arrived, she couldn’t “how clean and beautiful” the scenery looked.

“All of the nature that surrounds the lodge is breathtaking,” she said.

Brim’s trip to the lodge was “chill, with not a lot of things planned” and more “nature-y” than other vacations.

“You don’t really know what to expect because Alaska is different in a lot of ways,” Brim said. “You feel like you are somewhere different from the U.S.”

To add onto the natural world surrounding her, she was surprised by the intimacy between guests and the lodge’s staff.

“I thought it would be more crowded,” Brim said. “We really had more of a one-on-one relationship with the staff. We talked to the cook. We talked to the deckhand.”

IMG_4273Junior Auguste Hanna also enjoyed spending time with the staff when he visited the lodge last summer.

“There weren’t a lot of people there, and the staff was really personal. Even the [staff members] we didn’t know got friendly really quickly,” Hanna said. “Everyone could hang out and talk together. It was cool to talk to the staff and other guests and to hear where they were from.”

Hanna couldn’t believe “how far you are from everyone else.”

“It required so much work to get the simplest things like food to the lodge,” he said, “whereas in Decatur, we just go to Publix.”

Hanna didn’t mind the grocery store drought, he wasn’t concerned with lacking cell-service or a scarcity in Internet access either.

“It was a little bit weird to be disconnected, but it was kind of peaceful and calm,” he said. “You focus on other stuff, and it just got you away. It was cool.”

During Hanna’s stay, he fished, biked, boated to neighboring cities and went to a glacier.

Brim ventured on similar territory, and her favorite part of her visit was seeing the glacier.

“You see all these big old icebergs and these seals flopping into the water and seeing how big the glacier actually is is crazy,” Brim said. “Seeing them in movies is like ‘oh, it’s just ice,’ but then you get there and you’re like, ‘holy crap, that thing’s huge.’”

For Brim, spending time in nature feels calm, “like there’s nothing going on in the world. You’re just there and you can just focus on yourself.”

Immersion in a nature-centered environment left a lasting impression on both Hanna and Brim, which was Kevin’s intention from the start. His favorite thing about running the lodge “is being able to give our guests truly life affirming experiences that make them happy to be alive.”

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