Thom Ely and Justin Craney believe there’s more to a bike trip than just a simple tour of the Haines or Skagway areas.
"No matter where I go in the world people perk up when you say you live in Alaska,” said Ely, President of Sockeye Cycle. "They say, ‘I want to go there someday.’ You can be in Africa, India, wherever, and people have heard of Alaska. It just conjures an image of a majestic wild land.”
"That’s what we try to pass on to our guests. We want to expose them to the wilderness and give them an appreciation for Alaska’s beauty.”
Dustin Craney, General Manager of Sockeye, agreed.
"That’s the reason I’ve made this a long-term job,” Craney said. "We get to live here and enjoy it and explore it on our own terms. We may only have three hours with our guests but it’s nice to give them a well-rounded view of the area and its history and its people. We do that by putting them on a bike.”
Biking is their passion, and they just happen to do it in their favorite place in the world — Alaska.
"Every day our guys have some story about the clients and the tours,” Craney said. "It’s about biking itself. A lot of our guests aren’t regular bikers but we always hope they’ll go home and buy a bike and ride it to work or school. The idea is to get people exposed to bikes. It would be a better world if more people rode bikes.”
But there’s another secret to Sockeye Cycle Company’s success: The staff. The two dozen people who make up Sockeye Cycle are all friendly experts, people who make a bike trip "so that 10 years from now people will remember a great experience,” according to Craney.
With shops in Haines and Skagway, Sockeye Cycle is the place to go if you want a bike tour of the respective wilderness in each town.
Sockeye Cycle offers a half dozen day trips, including one to Dyea on the Chilkoot Trail. There is also a rainforest tour were guests may see eagles and bears. The tours are limited to a dozen or fewer riders with two guides. Another popular tour is called the "Triple Adventure,” where riders start in the Dyea rain forest, go on a two-mile hike on the Chilkoot Trail and wind up on a float tour.
The White Pass bike tour is also a big hit, especially since the return trip is downhill.
"We get people of all shapes and sizes,” Ely said. "I would rate that one as easy. "But you’re coming down a mountain at 15 to 20 miles an hour you just need to be comfortable on a bike.”
In addition to the day trips, Sockeye also offers week-long and 10-day bike trips, including the Golden Circle Tour, in which riders travel 360 miles in seven days.
There is also a Chilkoot Trail tour in Haines where Ely said there are many bears sighted.
Vans are stationed nearby on all tours to offer support in case riders get tired or there is a medical emergency.
Although cycling is their passion, Ely and Craney have other interests in their off-time, too.
"I like to recreate in Alaska,” Ely said. "I like to get out and kayak and ski and sometimes just lay on the couch and read a book in front of the wood stove.”
Craney, who spends his free time building a house, said the environs around Skagway are his favorite part of living in Alaska.
"The thing I love about Skagway is it’s one of those places where you can walk five minutes and be in the wilderness,” said Craney, who is also a backcountry ski enthusiast.
"I really like the whole region,” said Ely. "It’s amazing country. There’s the Golden Circle in Skagway and if you go to Haines Highway you’ll see the largest protected wilderness area in the world.”
The difference between the two towns is subtle, but there is something to like about both, Ely said.
"Skagway has more of a Yukon feel,” Ely said. "It has always had a reputation as a boom town and if you come here during the summer and there’s 10,000 people on the streets it feels like that. I like the energy. It’s fun to be part of that, and it’s a good business environment.”
Craney describes Haines as a welcoming community, but he also loves Skagway.
"The energy in Skagway is great,” Craney said, "That’s what drew me there in the first place. There are so many interesting people, and meeting people from around the world makes it unique for such a small community.
Haines is not as focused on tourism. There’s a lot of timber and fishing. It’s a different community, but it’s always fun and since they’re only 14 or 15 miles away from each other you can have friends in both communities.”
The secret to Sockeye’s success is simple, Ely said.
"I would say excellent customer service, a good knowledge of the history and a narrative that is informative and entertaining,” he said. "We want people to learn about and appreciate the wilderness and beauty of Alaska.”
Sockeye Cycle Company accepts $2 donations to the Alaska Conservation Foundation that the company matches. They have raised up to $20,000 from their clients.