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By BILLY SINGLETON
Daily News Staff Writer
In the summer of 2001, a tour boat run by a brand new Ketchikan company passed by the same rowboat nearly every day. Rowing the boat were a 12-year-old boy and his twin sister, who often fished in the area with their dog. The tour boat captain, who also served as the tour guide, knew the boy by name and would often announce the kids’ presence as part of the tour. Little did he know that the boy would one day captain that very boat, and eventually come to own the company.
This April, Jeff Karlson, now 29, bought Ketchikan’s Lighthouse Excursions from its longtime co-owner, operator and captain, Rob Holston.
Holston and his wife Pamela had started the company that same summer, in 2001. The company’s two boats carry about 40 passengers each on two-hour tours in the Tongass Narrows. The tour begins and ends at Ward Cove and focuses on Native history, economic history, wildlife viewing, and includes a visit to its namesake, the Guard Island Lighthouse.
Karlson was born and raised in Ketchikan. He knew Holston as a substitute music teacher and as a fellow member of the Windjammers, of Ketchikan’s community bands. A lifelong musician, Karlson eventually moved to New York, received his master’s degree in trumpet performance and planned to play in a symphony.
A few years ago, Karlson realized that city life wasn’t for him and returned to Ketchikan. He took a job as a tour guide for another local tour operator and eventually received his captain’s license.
It was around this time that the Holstons decided to sell the business.
“Any good business owner has to have an exit strategy,” Rob Holston told the Daily News. “And I wanted to ensure that the business would continue. It was a quite positive experience for myself and my wife Pamela. … You know, I’d love to come back to Ketchikan when I’m 98 years old and see the business still going.”
Holston approached Karlson and offered to sell him the company. But Karlson wasn’t sure.
“At first I was a little reluctant, kind of trying to figure out what I was doing with my life,” Karlson said. “But he hired me as a captain and said, ‘Why don’t you captain for a season and see how you like it?’ That was that. I loved it.”
Karlson captained for two summers before buying the company. He told the Daily News that one of his favorite aspects of the tour is that it gives him a fresh perspective on his hometown.
“When you grow up here, it’s normal to see mountains and eagles out your window, and whales and things like that,” Karlson said. “That’s just part of life.”
“My favorite part of actually operating the tour is seeing people who have never seen an eagle before, or a whale,” he continued. “And seeing something like that for the first time keeps it fresh for me. It’s like, I’m just as excited as they are every time I see a whale.”
Karlson said that after buying the company, the transition was relatively seamless. He took over Holston’s job managing the tour and continued working as a captain, and his girlfriend Rebekka Esbjornson took over Pamela’s job as shore operations manager.
Holston said that it felt a bit strange to turn the business over after 17 years. But he also seemed eager to begin the next chapter of his life, which includes more seriously pursuing his musical career. Coming up, he’ll be beginning a six-week stint performing as a one-man band, dubbed Obvious Jazz, at Dwyer's Crab and Fish Company Restaurant.
“It’s a one-man jazz band. Trumpet, trombone, clarinet, flute, saxophone, and I sing better than Frank Sinatra,” he said. “… [That’s] impressive until you realize that Frank Sinatra is dead.”
Apart from Obvious Jazz, Holston plays trombone in the Windjammers, tuba in the Ketchikan Community Concert Band, sings baritone in a barbershop quartet and plays bass and drums in the praise and worship band at the Ketchikan First Assembly of God Church. He also teaches a jazz and cabaret vocal workshop on Friday nights and gives free swing dance lessons Saturday nights at Dwyer’s.
As for Karlson, he says he plans to keep things at Lighthouse Excursions more or less the same. Of this season’s 14 employees, all but three had worked for the company before.
“We’ve tried to just kind of take the torch — take something that’s been operating successfully and efficiently for 17 years and just keep the machine going,” Karlson said. “So far it seems to be serving us well. You know, there’s kind of the old philosophy, ‘If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.’ What Rob has kind of set up for us is a machine for success.”
Holston and Karlson are performing with the Windjammers at 7 p.m. Sunday at the Creek Street Cabaret.