From reindeer tourism to accessible fishing, Alaskan entrepreneurs are pioneering new ideas in the Shark Tank


Last week I had a booth at a trade show in Sitka.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association’s end-of-season get-together offers insiders a look at some of the new travel options in the state.

There is an event called “Shark Tank”, based on the popular TV show. Here, travel and tourism business leaders examine new ideas from Alaskan entrepreneurs.

Ryne Olson of Chena Outdoor Collective in Fairbanks wants to develop what she calls “reindeer tourism.”

“Reindeer have a unique history in Alaska,” Olson said.

Olson is best known as a musher who fielded teams in the Iditarod and Yukon Quest.

“We already offer short reindeer rides for $65 per person,” she said.

But Olson wants to offer more options, including reindeer sleigh rides, backpacking trips and a “destination” setting for larger groups.

His goal is to make the Chena Outdoor Collective a hub for reindeer tourism.

Haley Johnston has guided wilderness trips for over 10 years. Now, however, she has her own company called Tundra Travels.

Johnston specializes in hiking in some of Alaska’s most remote areas: the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the gates of Arctic National Park.

I asked her if she had taken any groups on the scenic rivers in ANWR and the Arctic Gates. “Oh yes,” she said. “I led these trips. But we are hikers, not floaters,” she says with a smile.

As she built her trips, she added elements that were important to her. She wanted her guides to be Alaska residents year-round. Additionally, she wanted to develop a model for donating a substantial amount of money to nonprofits committed to conservation.

Johnston came to the Shark Tank to help fund more gear for more guides to provide more trips.

In Juneau, Peter Nave followed the story at Eaglecrest Ski Area. Eaglecrest recently purchased a gondola to take visitors up the mountain year-round.

Nave thought Eaglecrest would be a good site for a “via ferrata”, which he calls a “combination of hiking and rock climbing”.

More specifically, a via ferrata is a course on steep and exposed mountain routes using fixed cables, chains and ladders. Literally translated as “railway”, climbers don a harness and make their way through the course.

“Our proposed course is about half a mile and it would be very family friendly,” Nave said.

Nave is still working on a few details with Eaglecrest, but is looking forward to delivering an “experience steeped in mountain culture.”

Captain Jack Finnegan has been offering fishing trips to Ketchikan for many years. But Finnegan also has years of experience working with adults with various disabilities.

These two skills eventually got mixed up in Finnegan’s head when it became apparent that his fishing boats weren’t wheelchair accessible. The idea for “Fishability Alaska” was born.

Finnegan’s quest is to build a custom boat with accessibility as a core design element. Wheelchair travelers are just one group of visitors. “Not all disabilities are visible,” Flannigan said. “Sometimes visitors with disabilities include hearing or visual impairments, or PTSD,” he said. “Many travelers are on the autism spectrum.”

Flannigan has some good stories about helping blind visitors catch fish. But with the lander on his dream boat, he could run across the beach so people could go for beach walks, do the tide, or explore wild trails on a remote island.

The public present at the Shark Tank tourism listened attentively. Many of the ideas presented offered completely new categories for travellers, such as via ferrata and reindeer hiking trips.

This made it difficult for the judges to choose the winners, who received between $8,000 and $10,000 for their idea.

“These entrepreneurs are really putting their hearts into it,” said Dale Wade, director of marketing at Alaska Railroad. “There is an application process, then a verification before the session and finally the presentation at the show. I really admire them.

The winners of the Shark Tank contest are Ryne Olson and her hiking reindeer, and Haley Johnston and her Arctic hiking business. The judges based their decision in part on the difference funding Shark Tank would make to overall success.

Most Shark Tank participants have been involved in a variety of other fundraisers, including personal savings, funds from friends and relatives, and other crowdfunding sources.

Shark Tank’s competitors didn’t have a monopoly on new Alaskan activities and adventures. There are many new adventures, including new cruises to new ports, a new focus on cultural tourism featuring Alaska Natives, and a new focus on Alaska’s unique culinary offerings, including microbreweries.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association hosts, which produces an annual travel planner. It’s a new catalog of tours and adventures all year round. Most planners are sent out to potential visitors. But you can order one for yourself and start planning a visit to new parts of Alaska.


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