When Dennis and Susan Swiderski acquired three acres of property on the iconic Orca Island’s shoreline, the last thing they expected to do was start an exciting vacation destination like Orca Island Cabins. Between a career in law and the growth of their family, their interest in ecotourism was sparked by their passion for Alaska’s beauty, leading to their desire to share it with visitors from all over the world. Since opening in 2004, their nine yurt cabin system has become one of the best glamping destinations in the country. So, we asked our longtime friends Dennis and Susan to share their incredible yurt-building journey and what it’s like to stay there.
Susan, an artist by profession, came to Alaska from New Mexico with her family in 1969. Dennis came to Alaska from Washington, D.C., in 1977, where he was a lawyer with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). After meeting in Anchorage, Susan and Dennis married and had three sons. Afterward, they moved from Anchorage (population 600,000) to Seward (population 3,000) in 1996. As a young, married couple, Dennis and Susan explored Alaska mainly by boat, with a specific interest in areas like Whittier, Seward, and Homer (among others). After acquiring three acres of waterfront property (including a small island that they named Orca Island), the couple decided to build a remote wilderness lodge that now includes nine luxury Pacific Yurts they later named the Orca Island Cabins.
The Construction of Orca Island Cabins: Dennis and Susan Meet Pacific Yurts
As Dennis and Susan developed their plans to start their waterfront vacation destination, they felt a strong desire to make their property eco-friendly. In the mid-1990s, ecotourism was a relatively new concept, but with so much natural beauty in Alaska, the couple committed to preserving the acreage they owned by approaching development sustainably.
Enter Pacific Yurts. A kayak guide that Dennis and Susan knew first introduced them to the yurt (that happened to be a Pacific Yurt), which he used as an office for his business. Due to the Pacific Yurt’s sustainable design and ease of assembly, the couple immediately liked that they could build a unique structure that would minimally impact the island’s fragile and mossy topsoil. They then decided to build their yurts as somewhat of an experiment, knowing they could easily replace the structures with something more traditional should the project go south. Luckily, the responses they’ve received from their guests have been wholly ecstatic and met with positivity.
Dennis and Susan started Orca Island Cabins in the early-aughts with a single yurt. They initially anticipated building four, but they’ve since built nine that are now connected to the island by an 80-foot arched footbridge. Initially, the couple chose the 20-foot diameter yurt because it could comfortably accommodate two guests with a queen bed and futon (for additional guests), private bathroom with compost toilet, kitchen, living, and dining areas. Thus, Orca Island Cabins was born as a seasonally run business after finishing that initial yurt.
According to Dennis, the options available for any yurt in terms of size, height, windows, doors, and heavy-duty materials and reinforcement more suitable to Alaska conditions were clear, and Pacific Yurt’s website was very informative. In particular, the couple appreciated the information and guidance that was readily obtainable from the Pacific Yurts’ staff.
The Challenges of Building Pacific Yurts on an Island
Because the Swiderski’s lodging is located in a remote setting (ten miles SE of Seward, Alaska in Resurrection Bay), all building materials were brought into Orca Island by boat. The temperate and wet climate, which included frequent high winds and strong seas near the island, made it more difficult to access the property and to build on it at the time. To complete the construction of each yurt, they needed to find a crew that enjoyed the challenge of working on the island’s irregular terrain that consisted of volcanic rock with minimal topsoil.
They hired local Seward carpenters who knew how to work on the terrain to assemble their yurts. They did a great job and built the foundation in five to six days, the deck in four to five, and erected the first yurt in two days. The interior then took another ten days to finish, which included adding a bathroom, full kitchen, and propane for hot water along with a range fireplace and other luxury yurt amenities for guests.
The Perks of Staying at a Pacific Yurt on Orca Island
One of the most significant benefits of staying at the Orca Island Yurt Cabins is its locale. Based in Alaska’s remote wilderness, guests stay in a quiet cove surrounded by snow-capped mountains with southern views that face various islands in addition to the Kenai Fjords National Park.
Every Yurt at Orca Island is at the waterline, so visitors regularly get to see tons of spectacular wildlife from their private yurt decks – humpback and orca whales, harbor porpoises, schools of salmon, bald eagles and much, much more. The property also contains an eight to 15 foot tidal variation area, which provides a vast intertidal zone, along with tide-pools on the island guests are free to enjoy.
Finally, flowing into the cove is a pink salmon stream with a majestic waterfall nearby that cascades into an elevated pond. Nearly every guest borrows a kayak to row up the stream to observe pink salmon (Humpies, hence Humpy Cove) spawning. More often than not, this is one of the most moving experiences for visitors to see during their stay at this Alaskan paradise.
Q&A with Orca Island Cabins’ Dennis Swiderski
Apart from their experience with building and creating the Orca Island Cabin’s yurt system, we asked Dennis Swiderski his favorite parts of owning and operating their exciting and remote vacation destination. Here’s what he told us.
Dennis: I particularly enjoy guests’ reactions to both their initial view of the yurts as we approach the island and their view of the interiors of the yurts. As we approach an island in such a picturesque setting, our guests are quite overtaken as they see nine yurts spread along the oceans’ edge. And then as they step onto their private deck with the view described above and then look into the interior of their yurt and see a well-appointed yurt with its lattice wall, dome, circular structure, french doors, among other design features, they are simply “in awe.” I have learned that yurts [have] been a very good choice for our property, and they have inspired many of our guests to consider their use in a variety of capacities – guest bedroom and art gallery, among others.
How has your experience been with Pacific Yurts, and how have guests taken to the structures?
Dennis: My experience with Pacific Yurts has been very positive. The staff has been very attentive and responsive to all of my inquiries. Many of our guests also comment on the structural integrity of the Pacific Yurts. All of the materials we’ve received have been flawless, and the interior wood components look as new today as they did 17 years ago.
What advice would you give to future Pacific Yurt owners, and what are your favorite parts of living and operating “off the grid”?
I would simply emphasize that it is important to erect any yurt per the instructions. As far as living off the grid goes, because we embraced, from the outset, ecotourism and sustainable energy practices, we have emerged as an example of a “glamping” destination,” i.e., an upscale, comfortable and stylish rental destination in a remote, wilderness setting. However, because we are off the grid, we rely on solar panels/inverter/battery bank for our limited electrical needs, along with a generator as a backup. We utilize propane for our range, as well as a fireplace, and a water heater. And we transport all of our water to the island by boat.
Finally, we constructed an art gallery on the island that features a variety of Susan’s oil and watercolor paintings depicting marine wildlife, seascapes, and landscapes of the area. The art gallery adds a dimension of style, as do the yurts themselves. The 80-foot arched bridge and associated boardwalks that interconnect all the yurts also complete the “glamping” experience our guests appreciate. In the end, it all started with the purchase of a Pacific Yurt 17 years ago.