August 17, 2003 - Anchorage Daily News: India RPCV Steve Mahay runs river guide business in Alaska

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India RPCV Steve Mahay runs river guide business in Alaska

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A Love Affair*

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A Love Affair
For Steve Mahay, running his river guide business is more than just a job

Anchorage Daily News

(Published: August 17, 2003)

Anchorage, Alaska - Naturalist Melissa Chlupach briefs visitors during one of the Mahay's Riverboat Service "McKinley Jetboat Safari" trips on the Susitna River. Chlupach carries a shotgun for bears. The two-hour trip covers 10 river miles and includes a one-quarter-mile nature walk about five miles upstream of Talkeetna. (Photo by Stephen Nowers / Anchorage Daily News)

(Photo by Stephen Nowers / Anchorage Daily News)

Boat captain Israel Mahay, owner Steve Mahay's son, and naturalist Melissa Chlupach look for wildlife during one of the Mahay's Riverboat Service "McKinley Jetboat Safari" trips on the Susitna River. The two-hour trip covers about 10 river miles and includes a short nature walk. Mahay's also runs a 50-mile river trip and a Talkeetna Canyon tour. (Photo by Stephen Nowers / Anchorage Daily News)

Visitors leave the 44-foot McKinley Queen about five miles upstream of Talkeetna for a short nature walk during one of the "Jetboat Safari" trips. (Photo by Stephen Nowers / Anchorage Daily News)

Click on photo to enlarge
TALKEETNA -- For a guy who makes his living selling the Alaska wilderness experience to tourists, Steve Mahay spends a lot of time with his ear planted to that most urban of props, the cell phone.

Out on the Talkeetna River on a sunny afternoon last week, his phone rang for the umpteenth time. He deftly answered while steering his boat into an eddy and then listened to a request from a Fort Richardson Army official.

Sure, he told the woman on the phone. He could take her out on the river and show her where two military men had flipped and sunk one of the Army's recreational boats. No, he added, the boat was no longer visible but submerged under white water.

"Your two friends are very lucky to be alive," he told the woman. And then, impishly, he grinned. "They're in trouble, aren't they?" Then, a nod: "Huge trouble?"

This was Mahay doing what he loves best -- helping a person get out on the river and out of a jam while running his successful fishing and sightseeing guide business, Mahay's Riverboat Service.

Mahay has operated jet boats on the Talkeetna and Susitna rivers for nearly three decades. He started with one 18-foot jet boat in 1975, and his company has since grown into one of Talkeetna's largest employers and the biggest river guiding service, with seven boats and 40 employees.

Yet even with all that management responsibility, Mahay has retained a boyish enthusiasm for running rivers and getting tourists off the pavement and into Alaska's wild country, a passion apparent when Mahay is piloting a jet boat or chatting with tourists.

He can get so carried away telling stories that his 25-year-old son, Israel, one of the company's boat captains, asked his father during a recent sightseeing trip not to talk to the tourists because he was running on a tight time frame.

Mahay's two other sons, Judah, 23, and Noah, 20, also work for the company. Judah is another boat captain, while Noah works in maintenance.

The way Mahay views his business, he stumbled years ago onto a lucrative and enjoyable niche in Alaska's tourism industry and spent years perfecting his product.

"Don't quit," Mahay advises people starting a business. "Stay with it."

About four other companies provide similar guide services in the area, but Mahay's is the largest and oldest. Over the years, other guide businesses have folded, but Mahay has kept going and growing.

Mahay credits his success largely to three main things: flexibility, ample marketing and good timing. He also said he makes a point of training his employees not to overbuild tourists' expectations.

"You need to tell people like it is," he said, "even if it's to your immediate detriment."

A trip works best, he said, if people are surprised by how good of a time they have. On the best outings, he said, passengers are blown away by the fishing, the area's beauty or by views of nearby Mount McKinley. Occasionally, passengers have even burst into applause when the boat returns to the dock.

"That's really when you know you're doing something right," he said.

When Mahay and his former wife, Kris, started the business, they mainly ferried locals to cabins or anglers to their favorite fishing holes. A couple of years later, they tacked on sightseeing tours, even though Talkeetna was not yet a well-known tourist destination.

But even as Mahay's Riverboat Service added new products, it kept up the guided fishing for salmon, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden and Arctic grayling, along with the company's nonguided drop-off fishing and camping service.

A full day of guided fishing costs $185 per person; a half day costs $135. The drop-off service seven miles up the Talkeetna River to Clear Creek costs $45 for adults and $22.50 for kids.

Mahay also uses his boats for rescues when needed or earns money hauling materials or drift boats popular with trout anglers. Being flexible helps keep life interesting.

Once he even transported a SWAT team to several remote cabins along the river during a search for a murder suspect.

Two of Mahay's newest boats, the Talkeetna Queen and the McKinley Queen, each carry about 50 passengers. On a busy day during the peak of the summer season, Mahay estimates his company takes about 500 clients out on the Susitna and Talkeetna rivers -- roughly 200 for fishing and another 300 sightseeing.


Not everyone likes Mahay in the small town of Talkeetna, population 800. To some, Mahay is a likeable and energetic town booster who has helped to build Talkeetna's tourism economy, creating jobs and general prosperity. He helped found the Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce, is currently president of the board of the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau and has promoted tourism marketing throughout the state.

Other locals, however, aren't happy that Mahay has been a major player in the rise of industrial tourism that transformed the once-sleepy hamlet of Talkeetna into a bustling tourist destination. They don't think the business can continue growing without ruining the quality of the experience.

Ed Craver, a retired college humanities instructor who grows vegetables along the bank of the Talkeetna River, said he thinks erosion problems near town and on his property have worsened as Mahay's boats have gotten bigger and faster. Mahay's two newest 50-passenger boats generally travel between 30 and 35 mph but are capable of traveling as fast 50 mph, according to Mahay.

Craver said the dispute over the boat wakes came to a head last summer. He put a sign on his property that read, "Kill the wake, not the shore." Mahay paid little heed, according to Craver, and chose instead to antagonize him. Mahay said he was not trying to purposely aggravate Craver and does not think his boats are responsible for any erosion problems.

Mahay also said he has tried to minimize the impact of his business whenever possible. He cites as one example his creation of a bus parking lot, which he says keeps buses from parking all over downtown.

Last summer, Craver became so upset with Mahay that he lobbed a rock at the Talkeetna Queen. It damaged a window, and the issue wound up in court.

Craver said he was fined $40 and admits now that throwing rocks is "not what a greengrocer should do." The action, however, earned him praise from sympathizers in the community. Some friends even gave him a mock trophy, depicting a man dropping a gold nugget on top of the "Talkeetna Whore."

Craver is not alone is his erosion concerns. Roberta Sheldon, chairwoman of the Talkeetna Flood Control Service Area Board of Supervisors, said the board wrote a letter to all Talkeetna-area commercial riverboat operators this May asking them to reduce their wake near the town's flood-control river dike. Serious erosion has occurred in recent years, and the letter says boat wakes are the cause.

Mahay says storms cause the bulk of the bank damage, pointing out that an island in front of Craver's property was once wiped out by natural changes in the river's course. Mahay thinks he has been unfairly blamed because he has the biggest operation. He chalks the concerns up to a vocal minority and local politics.


Born in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Mahay says he grew up on a 20-acre truck farm where his parents raised poultry and vegetables.

Steve Mahay worked for the Peace Corps in India as an agricultural adviser in the mid-1960s before returning to New York to start a degree in agronomy at a state college. He never completed college but went instead to work in a paper mill, got married, then started traveling and working construction.

In 1971, he and his former wife, Kris, found themselves in the midst of a hippie scene in Denver. A year later, they moved to Alaska, driving the Alaska Highway in a Volkswagen Super Beetle packed with hunting rifles, an ax, beans, flour, a buck saw -- all the things they thought they needed to start a life in the wilderness.

Mahay said they had $240 when they crossed the Canadian border.

Once in Talkeetna, the Mahays staked 10 acres about 10 miles north of town and built a sod-roof, dirt-floor cabin they lived in for five years. Mahay trapped marten, and the couple soon bought their first jet boat. At first, they communicated with customers by CB radio but soon decided to move into town to be near a telephone and to raise a family.

Mahay and his wife built the business together but divorced about four years ago. Kris Mahay no longer works for the company.

Mahay said 1981 was a turning point for his business. He began realizing its potential, buying a third jet boat and hiring two fishing guides. More than a decade later, when Princess Tours and Cook Inlet Region Inc. both built lodges in the Talkeetna area in the late 1990s, Mahay's Riverboat Service was perfectly poised to expand. Much of his business now caters to "soft adventurers" who want to experience wilderness without giving up amenities like flush toilets.

Mahay compares the process of understanding tourists to learning the behavior of the martens he used to trap.

"You have to get into the mind of the client, or the mind of the animal. And you have to understand your employees, to understand how to motivate them," he said.

Mahay said what people want most is to see the Alaska they read about in Jack London or in James Michener's "Alaska." To cater to that, Mahay started taking people to the cabin of a trapper he knew. About eight years ago, he had a replica of a cabin built on 20 acres he had bought along the banks of the Susitna. While not wheelchair-accessible, the area does have an easy trail suitable for the elderly.

Today, Mahay offers three sightseeing packages: a two-hour tour on the Susitna for $50, a 31/2-hour "Deluxe Wilderness Safari" for $95 and a four-hour "Talkeetna Canyon Tour" for the more athletic and adventurous travelers for $125.

Sharon Marks, a tourist from Napa, Calif., chose the two-hour tour. Although she spotted no wildlife during the boat ride, she said she simply enjoyed getting off the road system.

"It's just so nice to get out to a place like this," she said.

Bonnie Quill, executive director of the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Mahay always has understood Alaska visitors well and provided a range of trips with varying levels of comfort and adventure.


Along with business savvy, Mahay soon realized he had another talent worth tapping: the ability to run extreme rivers in a jet boat.

In 1985, he set his mind to trying a stunt never before accomplished -- jet-boating 11 miles of the notorious Class VI white water in Devil's Canyon on the Susitna River. The run had been tried by a Seattle man three years before, but he and his four companions were thrown out of the boat. They all survived but lost the vessel.

Mahay made the run, but not without mishap. At the start of the canyon, he crashed into a cliff at full power. He was thrown from the controls and onto the floor of the boat. He lost several teeth during the accident but quickly regained control of the boat.

"There were times when I really didn't think I would make it," Mahay recalled recently. "But I was going to go until I made it or the boat sank. I wasn't going to get scared off."

Several years later, in 1992, Mahay became the first person to jet boat up Talkeetna Canyon along a 14-mile stretch of Class V roiling river that had only been kayaked before.

Some tourists are fascinated with Mahay's river running feats, and the company sells a video that documents both of Mahay's daring canyon runs.

Why do it? Mahay said he realized he had developed a unique skill and wanted to test it.

"We only pass through life one time, and we only have an opportunity to learn so many things well," he added.

And for Mahay, jet boating and running a jet-boat business are the main things he has learned to do well.

"I can't believe myself what the business has done," he said.

Daily News reporter Elizabeth Manning can be reached at or 257-4323.

More about Mahay's Riverboat Service

Read more about Mahay's Riverboat Service at:

Mahay's Riverboat Service

Steve Mahay founded Mahay’s Riverboat Service in 1975. Back then he had a 16’ Jon boat with a 20 hp outboard motor. Currently, our fleet consists of seven inboard jet boats which have all been custom-made for us in Tacoma, Washington and Lewiston, Idaho. Our staff currently consists of 40-45 employees.

(The picture to the right shows Steve Mahay surveying Devil's Canyon before his treacherous battle against this ensuing whitewater. Steve was the first person to ever succesfully navigate the Devil's Canyon as well as the first and only person to navigate the Talkeetna Canyon.)

The business has immensly grown due to the fact that we pride ourselves in offering nothing but the best, in equipment, a professional and highly trained staff and personalized service. Our operation is based out of the village of Talkeetna where the Susitna, Talkeetna and Chulitna Rivers meet. From our location we access over 200 miles of remote wilderness.

Due to the diversity of our waters, our inboard jet boats have been custom-designed for safety and comfort by Steve Mahay. We operate 24’, 27’ and 44’ boats that carry up to fifty-five passengers and travel at an average cruising speed of 35 mph.

Perfectly suited for our braided rivers, these boats require only inches of water to operate, allowing us to access many tributary streams that may seem impassable.

Our guides are licensed captains by the U.S. Coast Guard and our vessels are Coast Guard inspected. Our guides bring to you over 100 years of local experience insuring you a safe and professional trip.

Our town of Talkeetna is a great place for fishing and sightseeing. Come see the famous Denali and the wildlife that inhabits this Last Frontier surrounding this great mountain. View Grizzly Bears, nesting Bald Eagles, Beavers, Moose, and many more animals on one of our Denali Alaska Tours. Breathtakingly, Denali is the backdrop to our rustic little town of Talkeetna. If you are interested in Alaska Fishing Trips, we offer a variety of options, and if you are leaning more towards bear watching Alaska Tours like our Deluxe Wilderness Safari or our Devil's Canyon Tour would be perfect.

We have continuously catered to travelers and adventurers alike since 1975. Be a part of this and let us show you the adventures of the Last Frontier.

Talkeetna is a beautiful little town at the convergent point of three rivers the Talkeetna, Chulitna and Susitna. Talkeetna is a Native American word meaning, "where the rivers meet." Originally the site of a Tanaina village, Talkeetna was established as a mining town and trading post in 1896, before either Wasilla or Anchorage existed. A gold rush to the Susitna River brought prospectors to the area, and by 1910, Talkeetna became a riverboat steamer station. In 1915, Talkeetna was chosen as the site for the Alaska Engineering Commission, who would build the Alaska Railroad, and the community peaked near 1,000. World War I and completion of the railroad in 1919 dramatically decreased the population. Several of its old log buildings are historical landmarks, and Talkeetna was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in April 1993. During 1998, the community petitioned the Local Boundary Commission for incorporation as a home rule city.


Current Population: 363 (certified December, 1998, by DCED)

Incorporation Type: Unincorporated

Borough Located In: Matanuska-Susitna Borough

Taxes: Sales: None; Property: 16.6 miles (Borough); 5% Accommodations Tax (Borough)

City: Talkeetna Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 334, Talkeetna, AK 99676, Phone 907-733-2330 , Fax


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