CARLO CREEK — A chance meeting between two young women 23 years ago led to one of the most successful businesses in the Denali Park area.
McKinley Creekside Cabins & Cafe, located at Carlo Creek, 13 miles south of the park entrance, celebrates its 20th summer in business this week. Owners Holly Slinkard and Tracey Smith are just as surprised at this milestone as everyone else.
Their motto? “Perseverance prevails when all else fails.”
“We didn’t make that up,” Slinkard said. “But when all else fails, you just keep going. When you don’t want to get up, you get up. When you don’t want to answer another question, you just keep doing it.”
Their friendship and business partnership has survived a devastating flood, the normal ups and downs of a seasonal business and lifestyle, and even expansion into new restaurants many miles away.
Looking back, neither of them would change a thing.
Both were working other jobs when they met. Smith managed the Eddie Bauer store in Anchorage. Slinkard worked as a travel agent.
The night Slinkard graduated from travel school, she went with friends to celebrate at a local restaurant/bar in Anchorage. Smith was moonlighting there as a waitress and had just finished her shift. She mistakenly sat down at Slinkard’s table. They started talking and they have been best friends ever since.
The young women discovered they were kindred spirits, both yearning to become entrepreneurs. They moved in together as roommates and began sharing ideas for starting their own business.
At one point, they toyed with the idea of opening a drive-through espresso business. They wondered, but who would really pay to get fancy coffee that way? They both laugh now when they think back to their conclusion, “That will never work.”
“We talked and talked, and one day, we were reading the classifieds and saw an ad for a lodge and cabins in the Denali Park area,” Slinkard said. “It was five acres. We said, ‘That sounds like a great idea.’ I was a travel agent. I knew it was a good business.”
With 12 rental cabins and a lodge building, it was called the McKinley Wilderness Lodge, owned and operated by Mike and Debbie Planty, who currently live in Healy.
To purchase the property, the new entrepreneurs cashed out their retirement and collected every other source of funding they could acquire. For more than a year, banks turned them down — until they talked to Don Clary at First National Bank Alaska.
“He believed in us,” they said.
Smith was a single mother with a 2-year-old son. She had a steady paycheck at Eddie Bauer and three weeks of vacation. Her mother fretted about her giving up that security.
“Basically, we had to jump off the cliff,” Smith said.
Luckily, neither one of them had any debt.
Today, they rent 32 cabins and two rental houses plus a loft. The houses provide economical housing for families, they said. A large covered pavilion on the banks of Carlo Creek is the perfect spot for outdoor gatherings.
They also branched out and opened the Denali Doghouse in 2009. New owners took it over last season. They still own Denali Fish ‘N Chips, which opened in 2007 and added Mexican food to the menu in 2015.
“We love the restaurant business,” Slinkard said.
“We love the idea of coming up with concepts, menu, designing,” Smith said.
But eventually, they came to appreciate spending the bulk of their time at Creekside and began to downsize.
“Not every business is going to be a huge success,” Smith said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be a success for someone else.”
“We felt fortunate to take those businesses, build them up, then pass the torch,” Slinkard said.
They believe in competition.
“It makes you hone your skills and raises the level of quality for the whole area,” Smith said.
They don’t regret any of their hard work, even those early years when just the two of them did every job.
“Every time I walk into the mall, in Anchorage, I’m so thankful for what I do,” Smith said. “We’re enjoying the ride.”
The decision and the business has always been about lifestyle, not about money.
“Nobody is getting rich out here,” Smith said.
Their goal has always been to make McKinley Creekside a place they would want to go themselves.
Smith doesn’t’ think they have yet accomplished their full vision, but they are getting close, she said.
When these two ladies think about retirement, they think about starting another business, so they figure they should just stay put for now.
They scheduled a celebration on Tuesday night that included a barbecue, live music from the band Nervis Rex, and then acoustic music with friends and neighbors standing around a bonfire.
That’s how important moments are celebrated in the Denali area, with friends and neighbors and family. It’s the perfect way to commemorate 20 years in business.
Contact community editor and columnist Kris Capps at email@example.com, in the office at 459-7546 or by cell at 322-6334. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMKris.