Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Many of us in Hawai‘i grumble about long commutes. But not many can beat Kaua‘i resident Kenji Yamada, who travels 2,700 miles just to get to work.
During the spring and summer months, Yamada manages Shelter Lodge, his family’s fishing lodge in Alaska. Guests can fish for species such as King (chinook) Salmon, Black Cod (butterfish) and Pacific halibut at the Lodge, which can accommodate 20 guests at a time.
Once the fishing season is over, Yamada heads back home to the Garden Isle, where he and his wife, Claire, are raising their three daughters: Kaley, Carli and Kamryn. Days in Kaua‘i are filled with busy mornings, school drop-offs and preparing for a new round of hiring and renovations for the next fishing season. Despite the lengthy journey, Yamada has no complaints.
“Hawai‘i is too hot for me during the summer. Alaska is too cold for me during the winter, so I get the best of both worlds!” said Yamada. “I like Kaua‘i because it’s a great place to raise a family. Raising our kids there is awesome.”
In 1972, Kenji’s father, Hawai‘i-born Richard Yamada, was stationed in Fairbanks, Alaska, as a Russian linguist in the U.S. Air Force. After completing his tour of duty, Yamada continued living and working in Fairbanks. Kenji was born in Juneau in 1979, and Richard launched a small media production company there the following year.
One day, on an ordinary recreational fishing trip, Richard saw a “For Sale” sign on the beach of Shelter Island. Called KeteXaq by the Tlingit indigenous peoples, Shelter Island is nine miles long and surrounded by rich greenery and pristine nature. Richard could not pass up the opportunity and purchased the piece of raw land. Richard’s father, Richard Yamada Sr., lent his skills as a carpenter to help construct the original lodge from the ground up.
“[My father] was just going to build a cabin so he could have a place to take his friends out to,” said Yamada. “The cabin turned into more of a private fishing club, which turned into a business.”
Soon after opening the Lodge in 1982, the Yamada’s moved to O‘ahu, but returned to Alaska every summer. Yamada recalls helping out around the Lodge starting in the seventh grade. It wasn’t until the summer after his senior year when he started getting serious about the family business.
“I wasn’t really into fishing when I was growing up,” said Yamada. “I just kind of went along with it. It wasn’t until the summer I deck handed for my dad that I really got into it.”
At just 18 years old, Yamada earned his U.S. Coast Guard-issued charter boat captain’s license, allowing him to take passengers aboard. Yamada went on to earn a bachelor’s degree and an MBA at Eastern Washington University, where he did his best to apply his newly acquired knowledge to his family’s business.
Life at the Lodge
Yamada’s typical day at Shelter Lodge starts at 5 a.m. He discusses the weather, the day’s schedule and special events with his fellow captains. The captains set up their boats and gear for the day and head out with their group of guests by 7:30 a.m. The five 26-foot cabin cruisers can typically accommodate four guests each. The groups stay out until 4:30 p.m. Upon returning to the Lodge, each captain cleans and processes their guests’ catch, which are frozen and packed in airline-approved wax boxes to be sent home with the guests on departure day.
Yamada assures that although nine hours seems like a long time to be on a boat, time truly flies when you are on the water.
“There’s a boat ride out, which takes some time, about 45 minutes to get to the grounds,” said Yamada. “But you’re seeing nature – whales, eagles, seals and porpoises along the way, so there’s a lot going on. We do other activities too. We’ll set crab pots on the way out, go fish, and on the way home, we’ll check the crab pots. There are other activities, not just staring at a line, waiting for fish to bite.”
All meals at Shelter Lodge are included in the price of the package and are skillfully prepared by Chef Kenny Pumaras from Kaua‘i, who has been at the Lodge for about 13 years. Continental breakfast and a hot breakfast buffet are available every morning. For lunch, guests can choose either a sandwich, wrap, salad, Spam musubi or bento to go. After a long day of fishing, guests indulge in a five-course dinner, complete with appetizers, soup, salad, a main entrée and homemade desserts. Depending on the catch of the day, guests may even be able to enjoy fresh Alaskan Spot shrimp and Dungeness crab.
When Richard started the business in the 1980s, he focused his marketing efforts solely in Hawai‘i. Forty years later, Shelter Lodge still has strong local ties. According to Yamada, approximately 60 percent of guests are from Hawai‘i, and about 30 percent are from California, many with a Hawai‘i connection. Kenji estimates that 95 percent of customers are repeat visitors, or through word-of-mouth marketing. Guests range in their fishing experience, from total newbies to avid fishermen.
“We have people that come who have never caught a fish before, ever,” said Yamada. “We have other guys that own boats back home and fish for ahi … We get the whole spectrum, for sure. The fishing here isn’t too hard. Everybody catches something.”
Thanks to Shelter Lodge’s small size, guests can make meaningful connections during their four to five-night stay. You can often find guests talking story after meals or gathering around the fireplace with a cup of hot cocoa.
“Some of our guests come up together and book the whole lodge, so they all know each other,” said Yamada. “But definitely the ones that don’t, become friends, for sure. Our guests that come up are like family – a lot of them, I’ve known for so long.”
Since Shelter Lodge’s beginnings, the Yamada’s have hosted Alaska Banquets, an annual event where past and current guests can get together during the off-season to reminisce about their awesome fishing adventures. The banquets, usually hosted in November, have grown over the years; according to Yamada, approximately 500 people attended the Honolulu event, and 200 people attended the banquet in Kaua‘i. In addition to organizing the banquets, Yamada also handles the audio-visual needs, and puts together fantastic videos capturing the guests’ memories.
In 2018, Richard was appointed as a commissioner on the International Pacific Halibut Commission, a position appointed by the U.S. president. He is now semi-retired from the lodging business and lives with his wife, Jackie Yamada, in Seal Beach, California. Jackie handles the sales and marketing for Shelter Lodge and its sister company, Anchor Point Lodge. The couple still travel to Alaska every summer to spend time with Yamada and his family.
Yamada believes in kaizen, continuous improvement. In 2017, he and his crew rebuilt the main lodge building. Then with the help of a COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program loan and economic disaster loan, Yamada and his crew rebuilt half of the lodge buildings in the summer of 2020.
Going forward, Yamada is committed to continue delivering high-quality service alongside his 15 staff members, who hail from Hawai‘i, Lake Tahoe, Washington and Oregon. He does not have plans to expand any time soon.
“We don’t want to lose the personal connections we make with our guests every week,” he said. “My enjoyment is being able to provide a quality experience to not only our guests, but our staff as well. I have an amazing core crew who makes Shelter Lodge what it is.”
For more information about Shelter Lodge, go to shelterlodge.com.
Jackie Kojima works as an eighth-grade Japanese teacher at ‘Iolani School and is a freelance writer. A Gosei, she developed a passion for studying Japanese in her middle school years. In her free time she enjoys singing, listening to podcasts and going on walks.