What is it about Alaska? What do visitors want to experience when they visit? Why do more than a million people come here every year? The answer I have come up with can be summed with four simple words: “Alaska memories last forever”.
I spent my childhood in Ketchikan living those future memories. For three of those years, I lived on an island much smaller than Ketchikan’s Revilla Island. Directly across the channel from Ketchikan, everything we did revolved around a boat. We got to school via a boat, shopping via a boat, work via a boat, going to the hospital via a boat, and or course fishing with a boat.
I can recall being nine years old and taking my mother into town in our small power boat. It was exhilarating and gave me a sense of accomplishment that no ‘A’ on a report card ever could. Most kids have a park for a playground, my younger brothers and I had the protected waters of Alaska’s inside passage.
Fishing off the dock
We shared a dock with our neighbors and I have vivid memories of laying on my stomach, looking down into the “fish tank”, the same fish tank that exists in tens of thousands of Alaska’s coves. Rock cod, perch, greenling, black cod, flounder, salmon, and many other types of fish were down there in abundance. Spending hundreds of hours with a fishing line in my small hand, peering to the bottom, I experienced how the fish reacted when I jigged, when to give the line a flick of my fingers and when to just wait. Every time I caught a fish I remembered what I did and I did it again. Every time a fish came and left without even biting, I remembered that and made adjustments for the next fish. Pretty soon, I was a deadly fishing machine.
One day I was fishing on the dock and I saw a flounder, twice the size of anything I had seen before approach my hook. My heart racing, I applied all that I knew and I caught that fish! Flopping around on the dock, the excitement of landing that fish has never left me. He tasted good that night, and the next day, I was down on the dock again.
Many times I went fishing with my family for those bigger Alaska fish: king salmon, halibut, lingcod and red snapper. I remember my aunt catching a ling cod with a mouth so big, that I was pretty sure I could climb in and hide in it! We caught fish so big that we never knew how big. After a 45 minute fight with a king salmon, it never came close to the surface, only to break off and leaving us wondering if we just lost the King Salmon derby.
Falling asleep in the bow of our rickety boat on the way home from fishing, I would lay up in the bow of the boat on a bed of life jackets with a smile on my face, wondering how it could get much better than this. Not knowing that 25 years later, I would build an Alaskan fishing lodge, giving those precious memories to my daughters and guests, the same way it was given to me.
Fast Forward 25 years…
After 15 years of hard work and fortunate success in the software business writing flight simulators in Oregon, my wife and I found a 62 acre piece of property off the road system in Ketchikan, where I grew up. I couldn’t believe how perfect this property was. The property was the site of an old cannery that had existed over 100 years ago.
With its own freshwater salmon stream and waterfall, tons of wildlife, warm southern exposure, and proximity to great Ketchikan fishing, my wife Angela let me buy this gem, with the understanding that if I got this dream property, she wanted a dream house to go on it, not a one room cabin, which I would have been content with!
We handed over control of our software business to our business manager and proceeded to purchase the property, and design and build our home over the next four years.
I have always been too naive to not start large projects which I have never done before and too stubborn to quit when I learned the water was deeper than I thought. So in life I learned to swim. This attitude has served me well in life and worked for this house as well. We severely underestimated the time and money we would need to complete this project. Being off the road system, everything was brought out by boats and barges, including over 400 dump truck loads of rock, building materials, heavy equipment, subcontractors, and furniture. But the story of the construction of the lodge and its many trials and turns is for another time.
The Foundation is built
During those years of construction, I reconnected with all the great memories I had as a child growing up in Alaska. My young daughters thoroughly enjoyed the same things I did when I was a child: great salmon and halibut fishing, examining the fish guts of a cleaned fish, catching fish off the dock, and pulling in big pots of Dungeness crab.
We also enjoyed the best wildlife Alaska had to offer including humpback whales, bears, eagles, and seals. Nothing beats the sound of big humpback whale exhaling near your boat, taking your own breath away, or watching a young black bear chase salmon up and down a stream bed, while his mother patiently waits for the salmon to come to her, or having a pod of Dall’s Porpoise playing around your boat while you are pulling shrimp pots.
Many times, my daughters and I would go fishing for a couple hours after working on the house during the day, and would catch king and silver salmon, sometimes right before deciding to pull up the gear for the night. Having that fish flop around in the boat reminds me of that flounder flopping around on the dock many years ago. The squeals of my girls told me they are were creating lifetime memories of their own.
Saltery Lodge is born
In February 2008, my wife and I donated a one week stay at our lodge for a scholarship auction for our kids’ school. After doing so, we decided to take the next step and let more guests experience Alaska, but in a different way than most other fishing lodges in Alaska.
We are a small lodge compared to others, but what we lack in size, we feel we make up for in quality and personal service. We spared no expense when building the lodge and when it came down to decisions of doing it right, or doing it cheaply, 99% of the time we did it right.
While we love to fish and want our guests to catch lots of them, we also focus on the experiences other Alaskan lodges don’t offer. I want them to experience the many facets of Alaska I remember as a child, but do it in a first class facility.
We typically book the lodge only to a single group of ten or less. This lets us completely customize the experience to exactly what they want and expect from Alaska. If they want to fish for salmon, we’ll do that. If they want some halibut, we’ll find them. If they want to watch whales or bears, we’ll do our best to get them that opportunity. If they want to kayak in our protected bay surrounded by tens of thousands of jumping salmon, we can do that as well.
The lodge we have built is designed for people who have succeeded in life and now want to experience Alaska while still enjoying the finer things in life, like fine wine with dinner cooked by a private gourmet chef, or heavy cotton bathrobes hanging in your private bathroom, or 780 thread count sheets to comfort them after a long day of fishing.
We encourage family groups to come to Ketchikan and visit our lodge. Having kids ourselves gives us the perfect perspective for making this experience fun for kids as well as adults. We enjoy showing kids a great time, as that makes the parents relax and enjoy their experience even more.
If our guests don’t experience at least ten additional things during their stay that weren’t listed on our brochure or our web site, then we haven’t done our job. We spend countless hours thinking of new things we can do for our guests, making sure they leave ecstatic about their stay. We find it is the little things that count and that make the difference between an average experience and a Saltery Lodge experience. Our greatest fear is that our guests leave disappointed. We will do everything in our power to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Unique Fishing in Alaska
The great thing about Ketchikan and other cities in Alaska’s inside passage are the thousands of small islands that break up the big ocean waves, creating a much calmer fishing experience. Sometimes, the wind can be howling, and yet, you can be fishing in the lee of an island, completely oblivious to the six footers on the other side.
The variety of species, depth of water, and types of fishing is immense in Ketchikan. One day you could be fly fishing in knee deep water for trout in freshwater streams, the next day you could be trolling in 60 feet of water for salmon, and the next day, be fishing for halibut in 200-400 feet of water! The interesting thing about fishing Alaska is you never know what you are going to pull up, especially bottom fishing. I recall one day last year where an angler caught a lancetfish, a rare catch for sure that took a specialist in Ketchikan to identify.
There are many out of the ordinary things that occur in Alaska while fishing. I talked to the skipper whose client caught a large king salmon and got it within ten feet of the boat, only to have it attacked by a killer whale. Only half a bloody fish was brought aboard. Another friend of mine was hooking a downrigger up, trailing his flasher and bait, only to have a bald eagle grab the rig, flying off with the bait and the spinning flasher acting like a strobe light in the sky. I have used halibut rigs with multiple hooks in order to maximize chances, only to find out that it is very hard to reel in two big halibut at the same time!
Of course there are thousands of these stories, most of them true! When you come to Alaska, we want our guests to have stories like these to tell their children. We want them to enjoy being pampered. We want them to have their own memories to last a lifetime.
Scott Kemp is the owner and host of Saltery Lodge with his wife Angela. Growing up in Ketchikan gave him unique experiences that have shaped the construction and operation of the lodge. He spends his summers showing guests the wonders of Alaska.