Jeff Peterson has owned a boat in his hometown of Old Harbor since he was 13 years old.
That means he’s been taking people from the village out on boat trips almost his entire life.
“When you’ve got a boat in the village, you’re automatically the guy who takes people out, whether it’s to fish or hunt or gather firewood or berry picking,” he said.
Peterson, who was born in Old Harbor in the days after the 1964 earthquake, has been in the business of taking visitors out to fish and hunt for a long time too, but not quite so long. He started the fishing and hunting guide service Kodiak Combos in 1989.
Kodiak Combos brings people from all over America to the remote reaches of the Kodiak Archipelago to fish for king salmon, halibut and lingcod, and hunt for deer and ducks. That’s the “combos” part of the name, Peterson said. The freedom of the far-out reaches of Alaska means hunting and fishing are not exclusive activities.
“Duck hunters would come here and be surprised you could shoot deer and fish too. So we called it Kodiak Combos,” he said.
“I didn’t know it was a big deal. When you grow up in a village and you go out for wood and see a deer, you shoot it. You don’t think anything of it … But that’s something that’s really appealing to customers.”
After serving in the Marine Corps, Peterson applied for a job with the Alaska State Troopers. But this was the 1980s. The state was in a recession, and the Troopers weren’t hiring. They told him there was a job as a Village Public Safety Officer in his hometown of Old Harbor.
“And I didn’t want to come back. But it being a recession, I came back,” Peterson said.
Every summer, everyone in the village left to work on fishing boats, except Peterson. The mayor would often have various people come in from Anchorage or Kodiak to do odd jobs around the community, like fixing the generator or working in the health clinic. He’d ask Peterson to take the visitors out to hunt or fish.
“So I’d be out in my VPSO uniform taking a guy fishing,” Peterson said.
Word spread. His big break came a bit later when a letter arrived from a duck hunter in Minnesota. The letter was addressed only to the Old Harbor postmaster, who happened to be Peterson’s great aunt.
Dear Postmaster, the letter read, please give this letter to the best hunter in the village. Peterson’s great aunt gave it to him. The man who wrote the letter wanted to come duck hunting on Kodiak and was looking for a guide. They settled on the price of $150. On the trip, the man from Minnesota shot a king eider duck, what Peterson calls the holy grail of ducks.
“Then that duck got put on the cover of Wildfowl magazine,” Peterson said. “And then I was booked for years after that with duck hunts.”
He quit his job as a VPSO and started guiding full time not long after. The business has grown since then.
Ducks aren’t the primary draw anymore. Going goat hunting one day and then halibut fishing the next is what brings people from North Carolina to Old Harbor. Peterson, who runs the business with his wife Lianna, is usually booked for trips from May to March.
That’s been the case for all the years he’s done this, through 9/11 and the Great Recession. But COVID-19, and the travel restrictions that came with it, slowed business to a trickle. Only two groups have come to Old Harbor this summer for trips.
So Peterson has been fishing himself, processing his catch, and selling it to people who’ve come on trips with him in the past. That’s kept them afloat so far, as well as money from the federal CARES Act.
He’s ready for the guests to come back. Not everyone in Old Harbor agrees, but Peterson is obviously an advocate for tourism.
“Tourism is good for Alaska. It’s just got to be done local,” he said.
“If we don’t accommodate these people on their boats, they’re going to come anyway. We might as well just do it right. When people come out and want to hunt, you take them where you want them to hunt. You’re in tune with the other hunters that are local. It’s a better way to control it.”
Besides, Peterson doesn’t have much choice. He’s too old to join the Troopers now.
“And I don’t have a retirement account,” he said.