Retreat: whales, water, wonderful |

Retreat: whales, water, wonderful

The ocean-front location, views, and private pier are prized elements of this Ketchikan Alaska home. During a recent visit, the home’s designer Erin Miller and her husband were privileged to see a humpback whale bubble feed just past the pier.
Submitted by Erin Miller |

Editors Note: This is the second of a two-part series.

My husband and I have enjoyed a wide variety of vacation venues — from a suite of rooms in a medieval castle in Tuscany, to a private island in the Caribbean, to another private island in the San Juans off of Washington, and from a screened-in treehouse in the Alaska Range to a luxurious cruise in the eastern Mediterranean.

We’ve done cheap, we’ve done expensive, we’ve enjoyed rustic and resort. We have appreciated every experience. But our preference tends to blend nature, some adventure and Comfort (with a capital “C”)!

In summer 2013, we needed to fit in a business trip to Alaska so I could review and photograph the final results of a home I had designed. We knew we’d enjoy it, but we did not expect to find ourselves in one of the most phenomenal places we have been in the entire world and in the company of extraordinary hosts.

It all started several years ago when I received a phone call from a builder I’ve worked with many times. Bob Pitzer is a phenomenal general contractor from Auburn who serves parts of Placer, Nevada, Sierra and Butte counties.

A client, also named Bob, and he were chatting about how to build a fishing retreat on an ocean-front property in Ketchikan, Alaska, which the client was in the process of purchasing.

Bob Pitzer called me as they sat together pondering this. I remember one of his original questions was whether I had ever designed a modest, three-bedroom, cabin-type home on a sloped site and whether I might have some designs already done and plans ready, which they could purchase and use for this Alaska site.

I did, and many months later we were customizing the design they selected to meet the needs and conditions of the Ketchikan project. I loved everything about designing this house. There were many details that were new and unusual to me, including no permit process, heavy wind and seismic considerations, no municipal water or wells necessitating a 10,000-gallon rain water storage system to be built in the lower level, and I had to fit in a fish-cleaning room, which could be reached without carrying fish through the house!

But there was really just one top priority: The entire home and every moment should celebrate the ocean views. It is all about the water; it is all about fishing.

The structure I designed was meant to “WOW,” and to be extremely comfortable and enjoyable for its owners and guests. As we drove down the driveway when we visited in August and I saw the home with the ocean backdrop, I was giddy with excitement.

When entering the home, the expansive great room has a huge wall of windows facing the water. From the entry, the deck appears to float on top of the water. The view is breathtaking, and the covered decks allow one to enjoy the views no matter the weather. Their private pier allowed us to watch schools of salmon and to fish any time.

But as much as the views and fishing were stars, during our stay, I was equally taken by our hosts. We were entertained endlessly by their charm and great conversations, and we were honored to spend time with Bob’s father, Joe.

During his career, Joe was the head of several park and recreation departments in huge metropolitan areas around the United States. He reorganized and improved challenged departments in areas including Rochester, N.Y., and even San Francisco.

During his time as general manager for the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department from the late 1960s to early 1970s, he was involved in many newsworthy events we remember! He improved and expanded the system greatly, including overseeing the completion of the construction for Candlestick Park.

The great storytelling and warm and entertaining personalities of Joe, Bob and Cindy made for hours of wonderful, memorable conversation!

Every evening we’d retire to an amazing guest suite filled with luxurious comforts. In the morning, I woke up under the cozy cloud of a down comforter and views directly out a wall of windows to the ocean.

The luxurious bath of our suite had a shower with foot-massaging pebble floors, a double vanity and a large tub with views toward the water. There was even a sauna! (The owners also have a sauna in their master suite).

One morning while my husband and I did some computer work in our suite, we heard a loud “whoosh” from the water just outside. We ran out just in time to see the gigantic tail of a whale going underwater — only about 20 yards away! Then there was silence.

And then, a flurry of bubbles, and I knew the whale was bubble-feeding and would break the surface any second! The whales go down deep where there are schools of small fish. They let out streams of bubbles in a circle, and the bubbles scare the fish into a tight group within the circle. Then the whale opens its mouth and swims straight up, catching the fish that have gathered together.

Sure enough, seconds later the huge head of a whale came shooting up out of the water very near the shore where we stood. I was so excited to see something so extraordinary, right before my eyes!

Later that morning, I was on the phone discussing a project with a contractor back at home. I was standing outside near the fishing pier, and mid-sentence, a large bald eagle flew over my head toward the water and attempted to catch a salmon! It shocked me because it was so close. I gasped and had to explain to the contractor that I was a bit distracted.

So I could tell you about many details of the home, its furnishings, kitchen design and all of the things that I feel are important about a home. But this time, I have to say most of the details were eclipsed by the investment the owners made in the amazing location, the comforts they installed throughout the home and their warmth and hospitality.

The structure is beautiful and well-designed, but it is the owners who made our trip so enjoyable and memorable. And it is the owners who make this a spectacular home.

Erin Miller is the owner of Erin Miller Designs in Grass Valley. She can be reached at 530-477-1401, or at

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