Fair air

Entrepreneur selling little-exploited natural Alaska resource - in four native scents

Posted: Thursday, August 08, 2002

Alaskans sell their fish, timber, oil, even the water. And now the air.

A creative Juneau entrepreneur has figured out how to package and market the stuff we all breath for free.

Like Pet Rocks and Florida Sunshine, the magic is in the packaging. For $7 to $9, tourists can bring home a pressurized can of pure Alaska Air in one of four flavors, Mountain, Ocean, Glacier or Forest. For the true Alaska experience, the cans recommend refrigeration before use.

The idea came out of a conversation Douglas Vaubel had with a friend, who said basically, "Tourists will buy anything." Vaubel responded that they'd probably even buy air. That was good for a laugh, but when he came home and told his wife, she took it seriously.

"I just thought, golly, tourists are always looking for something unique," said Judith Vaubel.

Judith Vaubel surveyed gift shops around Southeast and was told that if she could keep it small, cheaper than $10 and humorous, canned Alaska Air would sell. So she tracked down a Seattle company that could provide 1,000 cans, designed glossy labels for them and bought an air compressor.

Since starting Alaska Air, Vaubel has heard of other states in the same market. Colorado and Idaho sell their air to tourists. Some Florida gift shops sell cans labeled Florida sunshine. But when you open those, there's nothing inside, Vaubel said.

The Alaska Air cans each contain about two minutes worth of air at 100 pounds of pressure.

"It's not an empty gag gift," Vaubel said. "They actually get air that they can spray in their home, so it's a real thing, but it's not like an air freshener."

Asked what it smells like, Vaubel advises people to breath in. That's it. Pure Alaska air. The Vaubels collect it themselves. The glacier air comes from the Mendenhall Glacier. For the mountain air they climb partway up Mount McGinnis or drive up to Eaglecrest Ski Area. Forest air is collected in the woods by Echo Cove. Easiest of all is marine air, since they can take their sailboat, Fjording, out into Stephens Passage.

"You have to really have a discerning nose to tell the difference between glacier air and forest air," Judith Vaubel said with a laugh.

Midsummer she sent sample cans to gift shops around Southeast. So far Alaska Air is sold in only one shop, Barger's Fine Gifts in Skagway.

"I just thought it was funny, something different," said owner William Barger.

Vaubel hopes other stores will pick up on the unique souvenir, which she sells wholesale for $5 a can. Her idea stands a chance, according to the director of Juneau's Business Assistance Center, Brian Johnson, who has heard his share of bizarre ideas. Alaska Air reminded him of the man selling Alaska dirt, but sometimes those novelty items sell, he said.

"It seems like a neat idea and it seems like it would be fairly low cost," Johnson said. "They're competing against a lot of other products made in Taiwan. At least this is made here," Johnson said.

About half of all small start-up businesses survive the first four years, Johnson said. Vaubel's not worried. Alaska Air is just the most recent branch of Fjording Ventures, a business the Vaubels have run from their 60-foot sailboat in Auke Bay for five years.

Judith Vaubel sells a children's book she wrote and published, "Adventures of Oceana." Douglas, who is Aleut on his grandmother's side, makes skin drums, full-size baidarkas (kayaks), bentwood hats and spears, which he displays and sells through Pyramid Beads.

"I'm not depending on this to buy my potatoes, so I can afford to wait," said Judith Vaubel, who also works part time at the Alaska State Museum.

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