The following appears in the September issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY PETE ROBBINS
KING SALMON, Alaska–By the time COVID-19 fully inhabited the national consciousness in mid-March, Nanci Morris Lyon, owner and operator of King Salmon’s Bear Trail Lodge, knew she’d have some tough days and tough decisions ahead of her. Those suspicions proved accurate as the year has progressed.
“Overall, at least 70 or 80 percent of my bookings either deferred or cancelled,” she said. Nevertheless, Lyon is a survivor. She’s worked in Bristol Bay since the 1980s and purchased the Bear Trail operation from the former owners in 2017. She wasn’t about to go down without a fight. Still, there were certain obstacles beyond her control that made it a tough sell.
The first hurdle came when Ravn Air, previously the primary airline serving King Salmon – a town that cannot be accessed by road – declared bankruptcy in April. That left prospective travelers in a lurch. Of course, there would always be private options, but at a greater-than-normal cost. Alaska Airlines vowed to take over the routes. There were certain scheduling and logistical hurdles that arose that prevented any sort of certainty.
On top of that, Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy quickly implemented a requirement that all travelers from out of state quarantine for two weeks upon arrival. That effectively made vacation travel into Alaska from outside impossible.
That early action was credited with keeping case numbers low, but it also devastated much of the tourism that the state depends upon. Later, that standard was loosened to allow out-of-staters to enter if they fulfilled one of three options: quarantine for two weeks; get a negative COVID test within five days of arrival, another one upon arrival, and then quarantine until the results came back negative; or get a negative result within 72 hours of traveling, in which case no quarantine would be required.
Those scenarios made travel more likely, but nevertheless it remained a moving target. On July 28, Dunleavy changed the standard again, instead requiring that all out-of-state travelers have a negative test result within 72 hours of arrival, a standard that started August 11.
Of course, there was the psychological aspect too. Even if they were able to enter relatively easily, would travelers want to make the long haul to the Last Frontier? For communities with limited medical resources, and especially those with substantial Native populations, there was an ethical aspect to that choice. No matter how badly one wants to fish, the guilt of bringing a previously absent, fast-spreading disease to remote areas would likely be substantial.
ADDRESSING IT HEAD ON
In addition to running Bear Trail Lodge, Lyon has been active in opposing the Pebble Mine, like many others in the Bristol Bay area and beyond. She took a similarly activist approach to the virus. “I’m on the state board for lodges, guides and outfitters,” she said. “I wrote the policy for clients and lodges for the state.”
Lyon knew that no matter what happened, some diminution in visitors would ensue, which meant that she’d be unlikely to need – or able to afford – a full staff. She dropped from her usual four to six housekeepers down to two, and from two chefs down to one.
“With new hires, half of them were afraid to come anyway,” she explained. “I told them that if they could get another job, I wouldn’t hold it against them, and I could only promise eight weeks of employment if I got the (Paycheck Protection Program) money.”
Although cases in Alaska rose in early summer, hospitalizations did not, and traffic picked up. That meant Lyon could add another chef in late July and another housekeeper for August and September. Hires who arrived before the lodge opened in June were all tested and quarantined together.
“We’re all family now,” Lyon said.
Once they arrived at the lodge, she kept employees close to minimize any potential virus exposure.
“They cannot go into town, period. The only place they can go is to the airport (to pick up guests), and (go) out for walks and exercise,” she said.
On top of the state’s protocols to which she’d contributed, Lyon also changed the operations at Bear Trail Lodge specifically. Her already strict cleaning standards were enhanced and hand sanitizer stations were sprinkled around the lodge.
Furthermore, a limited form of social distancing was enforced. Masks were not required within the lodge, because, she said, “this is a huge building compared to most.” Some guests elected to wear them and that was certainly not discouraged. Masks were, however, required on all float planes.
At the same time, some changes were normalized. For example, typically the guides, staff and clients eat together, but that bonding practice was at least temporarily eliminated. Now guides sat at one table and each family, couple or otherwise distinct group of guests had their own table.
Furthermore, guests could no longer serve themselves at the usual breakfast buffet and evening appetizer spread. Instead, a staffer asked what you wanted and plated your food. The same practice was utilized at the bar.
While there now are fewer flights between Anchorage and King Salmon than there were in the past, the addition of Alaska Air to the itinerary has been a “net plus,” Lyon said. “They’re more reliable, and it makes it safer to book your whole itinerary through Alaska. That way if there’s a delay on any leg, they take care of you.”
The reduced guiding clientele freed up days for employees to help with much-needed repairs and construction, including building a new, more modern guide shack.
It also opened up a few more days for Lyon to renew and reinvigorate her relationship with the Naknek River and other local waters, something that is all but impossible in “normal” years.
“I went from 200 days a year (when she was guiding) to almost 85 or 90, and then to 65 or 70, and then to just a few a month,” she explained. “This year I’ve gotten out fishing more.”
The guests who do make it to Bear Trail benefit from less traffic – both commercial and recreational – on the Naknek, which when combined with stellar salmon runs has made fishing exceptional. It also means that there are more flyout options, plus a higher likelihood that you’ll have desirable locations to yourself.
“It’s very possible you’ll see nobody,” she said. “Just like the good old days.”
FUTURE UNCERTAINTIES REMAIN
Lyon feels fortunate that she was able to open Bear Trail in the summer. Many Alaskan lodges, including several others in King Salmon, simply shut down for the season, hoping to regroup in 2021. Depending on how long the pandemic lasts – and what it does to the overall economy – some of them may never reopen.
“Roughly a third closed and of the two- thirds that opened, I was the only one I know of that opened on time,” Lyon said.
Part of what she believes makes Bear Trail Lodge an especially personalized experience is the fact that it’s family- run and funded – she and her husband Heath are in charge, and daughter Rylie joins when on break from college in the summer. But the noncorporate touch that structure brings with it also means she doesn’t have a deep-pocketed investor to cushion blows or float her through the tough times.
“I’m proud of that, but it’s still a problem,” she said.
While her initial inclination was to “hope the phone rings,” Lyon quickly realized she’d have to be more creative this year to stay afloat. Bear Trail Lodge made up some of the lost income in various ways, such as housing construction crews and Alaska Airlines employees who needed to stay over. She quickly matched their needs to her abilities and forged mutually beneficial agreements.
The local chamber of commerce also worked diligently on a campaign aimed at helping “Alaskans visit Alaska.” Lyon created specials aimed at bringing in intrastate traffic and guests who either wanted to fill their freezers, or who might have left the state for their summer vacation – or both.
“Eighty percent of my business this year so far (speaking in July) has been from Alaska, but I don’t know if that will last the entire season,” Lyon said.
Those programs may have to continue, in some capacity, for the foreseeable future, or perhaps longer. But she remains cautiously optimistic, and despite glacial- speed internet service she’s become an avid consumer of COVID-related news. Lyon has to be, because each change in status and change in policy requires a different chess move in response.
She’ll plan for worst-case scenarios and hope for the best, but she knows that at least one more financial hit is coming. After rolling over deposits to next year, she stopped sending out final invoices. As it is, she’ll get taxed on the money received.
“Uncle Sam doesn’t give a rat’s ass,” Lyon explained bluntly. “Taxes could take me under as opposed to COVID, and it might be the end of 2022 before we know if we survive it or not.”
Despite that one detour into negativity, compounded by the release of the Pebble Mine EIS in late July that was another step into the mine getting a permit, Lyon will pull out all possible stops to make sure that she continues to operate a world-class lodge, under the conditions that face her.
Lyon purposefully came to King Salmon over four decades ago, and it will take more than a virus, and more than a few bumps in the road, to break her away from the rivers to which she has devoted the majority of her adult life. ASJ
Editor’s note: For more on Bear Trail Lodge, call (907) 246-2327 or go to beartraillodge .com. Pete Robbins is an outdoor writer based in Vienna, Virginia. He and his wife Hanna share their outdoor adventures and offer tips for anglers at their website, halfpastfirstcast.com.
Sidebar: EVEN IN COVID-19, FISHING REMAINS EPIC
After sitting in my office chair since mid-March and not sleeping in any bed other than my own, I was primed for a vacation.
My wife Hanna and I had already postponed a trip to fish for bass in Sinaloa, Mexico, in June – not necessarily by choice, but because the border was closed. We sought to sidestep that problem a second time with a trip to Alaska, which is of course a domestic destination, but it feels as exotic as any place within the 50 states.
I’d been to Bear Trail Lodge in Bristol Bay last summer with my friend, Texas bass pro Keith Combs. We’d gone in late July and early August, in time for the last day of king salmon season and the beginning of the silvers’ run up the Naknek River.
This time, we’d be there for the famed sockeye surge. That was one obvious difference, but the other was the fact that we were traveling in the era of COVID-19. I was unsure if that would sully the overall experience.
While I’ll admit that we were cautious – carrying wipes and sanitizer with us everywhere, and wearing masks (especially on float planes and other confined spaces) – overall the experience was exceptionally positive. That starts with the people of Alaska.
To be honest, I’d expected a state founded upon a “frontier mentality” to be resistant to some safety measures, but everyone seemed to take them exceptionally seriously. They also seemed thankful that we were there, aware that tourism is a big part of the state’s income, as well as just being generally friendly.
Last year, Bear Trail Lodge was a social hub, with guides and various groups of anglers mixing freely. This year, not surprisingly, there were fewer guests, and we semi-socially distanced inside, but that had its benefits, too.
At the lodge, we were able to spend even more meaningful time with the always-attentive staff, getting to know them better and picking their brains about the fisheries. On the water, there was simply less pressure. One of our flyouts was to Brooks Falls, which was far less crowded than in 2019, though
still had an ample number of visitors. On our other two flyouts, however, there was no sign of other recent human activity. It was like going back in time, being the first to discover new rivers. That was exceptionally special, and while I’m sure the fishing would have been great either way, it was one of the rare times a 21st century angler can have something like that all to himself. Closer to camp, the Naknek’s sockeye run was beyond extraordinary, even to those who had viewed them for several decades prior. We brought home our fair share of sockeye fillets and a few kings, enough to last us – we hope – through the remainder of the pandemic.
Did we tempt fate? Perhaps, but it seemed like a calculated risk, and one that paid off. Honestly, our biggest regret is that we didn’t stay longer.
As COVID persists, our other options for vacation may diminish, and for the first time in our lives we may find ourselves with leftover vacation time at the end of the year. “Staycation” is not in our vocabulary. Is it too late to head back? PR