Business success and family bliss in Alaska’s great outdoorsJan 05, 2024 01:30PM ● By Carl Fauver
Former Kearns High School football player Dan Spies now owns a thriving fishing resort just outside Soldotna, Alaska, with his “better half,” Sarah. (bigdansfishing.com)
Three dozen years ago – in 1987, to be precise – Ronald Reagan was still in the White House… the Berlin Wall still divided Germany… and we could still gas up our car for less than a dollar a gallon.
That’s also the year when two successful Utah professionals encountered one another on a football practice field in Price.
“Kyle Whittingham was my defensive coordinator and linebackers coach at the College of Eastern Utah,” Dan Spies said. “We were only together one year, because CEU disbanded the football program after that season.”
It was a turning point for both men, with Whittingham only a few years older than Spies. University of Utah football fans know where Coach Whit ended up. As for Spies, he eventually made his way to Alaska. He’s certainly not as wealthy or as well-known as his former CEU coach. But he’s undoubtedly just as happy, if not more so.
Spies credits a pair of former football coaches – men he knew before Whittingham – with much of his success today. We’ll get to that success – Spies and his wife’s thriving fishing resort business in Soldotna, Alaska – later. For now, meet the special guests the Spies hosted at their resort: Al Sprouse and Mike Miller.
“Al and Mike were like family to me; they still are,” Spies said. “I was kind of ‘hell on wheels’ back then. But coaches hold you accountable – and that’s what they did. Mike took me to his house and made me finish my homework. They looked after me when I needed it. That’s why I pestered them for years to come visit me in Alaska – and they finally did.”
Al Sprouse is a generation older than Spies, while Mike Miller is essentially the same age. Just a few years before coaching Spies, Sprouse also coached Miller. Then the two of them took to double teaming Spies after he arrived in Utah from Kansas, just in time to enroll as a Kearns High School junior in the fall of 1985.
“I had just barely graduated from Kearns High in 1983 and was back as an assistant coach after playing two years of football at Dixie College (now Utah Technical University, in St. George),” Miller said. “I was working to complete my bachelor’s degree at the University of Utah. I soon learned Dan had kind of a tough situation at home and I wanted to help him.”
Miller says he learned that critical compassion component of coaching from Sprouse a few years earlier.
“I met Al when I was in 8th grade, when I moved up to his (Ute Conference Kearns little league football) team,” Miller explained. “I played two seasons for Al – and then he gave me a job at his Durfey’s Dry Cleaning store. He continued to work with me as I went on to play for Kearns High. Lots of nights, I ate one dinner at Al’s house and then went home for a second dinner. He was trying to build me up and make me stronger.”
But despite both their best efforts, Sprouse and Miller were disappointed to learn that after finishing his senior football season as a Kearns Cougar, Spies dropped out of school. He was ineligible to don the cap and gown with his fellow members of the KHS class of 1987.
Other coaches might have crossed that off as a “loss” and moved on to the next athlete in need. But Miller said to himself, “not on my watch.”
“After Dan dropped out, I helped him prepare for and pass his GED,” Miller said. “I also assisted him in getting down to play at CEU. He was an outstanding linebacker. I just helped him get back on the right path. Dan did all the work after that.”
After CEU eliminated its football program following that 1987 season, Spies got into home construction. He would spend the next 20+ years building that into a thriving Utah enterprise – all the while keeping in touch with the former Kearns coaches who had meant so much to him.
Along the way, Spies married Sarah in 2002. He describes her on their fishing resort website (bigdansfishing.com) as his “better half.” They have five children between them, along with one granddaughter.
A couple of years before the Spies headed for the Great White North, Miller came to his former player’s aid again. As the 11-year head coach of the Riverton High School football team, Miller established a tradition with his team members of providing Christmas for a family in need.
“Dan took a bad fall off the roof of a second story home he was building and broke several bones,” Sarah Spies said of her husband. “He was in really bad shape. Mike told his team about the accident and they provided us with Christmas. That’s just the kind of thing Mike has done for us. That’s why he’s family.”
A couple of years later, the “Great Recession” forced the Spies to make a completely unexpected life course change.
“I had never even been to Alaska when I loaded up to make the drive up there,” Spies said. “Utah home construction had gotten so slow. We knew we had to make a change.”
“Dan drove up to Alaska in March 2009, while I followed in June with four of the five kids and my parents,” Sarah added. “It’s a treacherous, bumpy, curvy road. We were in two vehicles and took six days to make the trip. That was the first – and definitely the last – time I will ever make that drive.”
The drive from Salt Lake to Anchorage is 2,984 miles – or the same distance as to Halifax, Nova Scotia, if you point your car in the other direction (or 350 miles out into the ocean, beyond Miami, if you go that way – not recommended).
“We moved up to Alaska because Dan had been hired to build three homes – that’s all the work we knew we had,” Sarah Spies continued. “But the business grew. There’s no question, it has ended up being the best move we ever made.”
Dan Spies had never been much of a fisherman before moving to Alaska. But he gravitated to it – and soon decided he could operate fishing charters better than those he was hiring out.
“I started small, seven years ago, with just one boat,” he said. “But the business grew – and I loved it. We gradually slowed down building homes. I got out of construction for good (in early 2023).”
“We were building 30 to 50 homes a year until Dan started the fishing business in 2015,” Sarah Spies added. “By (2022), it was down to about 12 homes. Dan’s so much happier doing the fishing – and healthier. Our customers love him. They always tell me he’s not grumpy like the other charter boat captains they’ve hired. It’s been a great change for us.”
Sarah admits, she gets violently seasick – so her work is at the lodge.
“We are booked out months and months in advance,” she said. “(Last) year, we had to tell 300 people we could not provide rooms.”
But despite all that demand, Dan found room for his old coaches Sprouse and Miller to finally take him up on his offer to visit.
For Sprouse, who turned 82 last month, it was his first visit to the 49th state.
“I think everyone should visit Alaska at least once in their life; and I hope I am healthy enough to get back sometime,” Sprouse said. “When you go out on the ocean, the swells can beat you to death. But it’s still fun.”
Sprouse is proud of how far his young athlete from Kansas and Kearns has gone in life.
“We used to have lots of players move in from out of state; but honestly, Danny was the only one who played as well as he said he could,” Sprouse concluded. “He was a great linebacker. I’m not surprised he got to play a year at CEU. And what he’s done since then – with his construction company and now his fishing business – it’s just great. He’s a good kid. I’m so proud of him.”
The Spies have no plans to ever move out of Alaska. Relatives go up from Utah every year to visit. And they get back down this way at least annually (NEVER driving).
After finding his way in life – with the help of Sprouse and Miller – Dan Spies says he’s home, and has never been happier. λ