It’s that difficult-to-describe fireweed and honey ice cream that keeps the customer coming back for more at Rochelle’s near Eklutna Lake.
So believes Tena Cheely and Rochelle Cheely-Williams, the mother and daughter duo that with help from an extended family have kept the mountaintop treat open for 36 summers.
“No, we never did think it would last this long,” Tena said.
What started as teenage ambition in 1982 on the part of the then 14-year-old Rochelle to earn funds to pay for a vehicle and insurance has transformed into a Last Frontier destination attracting locals and visitors from across the world.
“They come from everywhere for it. It definitely is our number one seller,” Rochelle noted.
And its flavor is a bit tough to describe.
“It is kinda vanilla-ey,” Maren Unwin from St. Louis, Missouri, said Tuesday afternoon after she let her first lick savor on her tongue for a bit.
The 14-year-old was with her parents, Don and Kathleen Unwin and her younger brother, James Unwin, “fueling” up for a kayak adventure on Eklutna Lake.
The family’s story of how their Alaska adventure included Rochelle’s is one Tena and Rochelle hears their customer tell all season long.
Twenty years ago, Don was stationed at JBER. He and Kathleen wanted to bring their children to Alaska to experience all of the adventure they did as newlyweds.
It makes Tena and Rochelle smile.
The Alaska Supreme ice cream they serve is part of yet another happy memory.
And while the mother/daughter duo has been scooping up the fireweed and honey ice cream for decades and their taste buds are beyond familiar with its ingredients, the pair too struggles to succinctly describe its flavor.
She pauses and contemplates her words as Tena is asked to describe the best seller.
“It has a light flowery flavor,” is her verbal settlement.
She and Rochelle are sitting in the back storage room chatting with this reporter and waiting for the early afternoon crowd they know is coming.
Rochelle is smiling and thinking.
“Ya know,” she said with a speech suspension indicating she wants to select just the right words for the product that is a regular choice of her clientele. “It is kind of a gentle vanilla flavor.”
Customers regularly ask for the firewood and honey sample. About half of them cannot provide a description, Rochelle said, but they like it and they buy it.
On Tuesday, Rochelle’s Ice Cream Stop had plenty of the firewood and honey in the freezer along with the Alaska wildberry, blueberry, mango, birch walnut and the Arctic winter nights – the favorite of Rochelle’s brother, Ryan Cheely, who works in the ice cream shop as well.
Ice cream is served in three choices: homemade waffle cones, a cup and of course, the traditional Joy cake cup that has been on the market since 1918.
There are couple specials: Rochelle’s Delite, which is a brownie heated for 15 seconds, five ounces of ice cream, hot fudge, whip cream, nuts and cherry. A two-scoop banana split is available for those that cannot polish off the larger three scoop version. And of course, being Alaskans, the Cheely’s offer up a Break Up Sundae with five ounces of ice cream, sliced banana, caramel, whip cream, nuts and a cherry.
While it might seem that the shop is all about ice cream, the Cheely’s see the tasty treat as just a vehicle for making friendships.
“The people keep coming back year after year because they know us, we chat with folks and share our knowledge of this mountain top and the beautiful lake with them,” Rochelle said.
For years, the Cheely family made their full-time home on the homestead that Rochelle’s grandparents established in the 1960s. Her father, Ray (Skip) Cheely grew up on the mountain, left to serve in the U.S. Navy Seabees with a two stints in Vietnam. He brought his bride, Tena, to the mountain homestead in 1972. She admits being slightly unsure of her new surroundings with no electricity, no running water, no telephone. But it didn’t take long before she embraced the lifestyle and fell in love with the area. It is part of why the decision to snowbird in the Lower 48 wasn’t the easiest one to make.
But in some respects it was.
In part, it was a decision made to again support Rochelle.
The daughter whom spent her teenage summer serving ice cream during the day and sneaking out of the house with friends for late night raids on the ice cream had married an underground miner she met while attending the University of Alaska-Anchorage and had moved to Nevada.
The marriage was a tough one; the divorce even rougher.
It made rocky road ice cream look like the smoothest vanilla.
There was a child involved and custodial issues meant Rochelle had to live away far away from her childhood home.
Fortunately, she was able to continue the summer ice cream tradition.
Every May, Rochelle and her parents re-open the ice cream stop at Mother’s Day. Her grown son helps her father cut and stack wood for sale at the adjacent general store. They stay on the mountain through the third week of September.
Then they shutter up the incredibly cutesy shop whose outside is decorated in wood cut-out ice cream cones and pretty pink borders around the windows at which customers place orders and staff delivers the yummy treats.
Customers sit at the picnic tables spread across the lawn.
“The setting is just perfect,” Tena said as Rochelle nods her head. The ice cream stop and general store is the last bit of civilization folks see on their way to the numerous hiking trails, camping spots and pristine lake for all sorts of adventures. “They come off the trails – sometimes dusty, sometimes muddy – and enjoy a treat. It doesn’t matter if they are dirty or not, they aren’t sitting in a fancy ice cream shop. They are here to escape the real world and they can sit and enjoy.”
Call Rochelle’s Ice Cream Stop directly to check on flavor availability at (907) 688-8903. Find the shop online at is namesake Facebook page or reserve cabins owned by the Cheely family online at www.goalaskan.com.
Reach Amy Armstrong via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org