What are the chances of history repeating itself…twice? Simultaneously?
This story begins in the summer of 1992 on Kupreanof Island, part of Tongass National Forest in southeastern Alaska. Officials there wanted to install a fish pass to make it easier for coho salmon to navigate Mitchell Creek. To assist with the project, they brought on a team of SCA interns including then 22-year old Lane Bagley of Utah. “I grew up in mountain country,” he says, “but that’s a different environment up there. So raw and unique. It was pretty exciting.”
Lane soon discovered, however, that the Tongass played by its own set of rules. “I’d done construction in high school and if we got any rain at all, we’d just pack up the truck and leave,” he notes. But that summer, nearly every day brought a deluge – as well as directives to labor through it. “That was a shock. I thought ‘We’re working in this? You can’t get your tape measure out in the rain! You can’t pour concrete in rain!’”
But they did.
“Back then, I didn’t know there were rain forests outside the tropics,” adds Chuck Najimy, another intern at the time. “Hard labor, 10-hour days, wet weather. It was very demanding work.”
Despite, or perhaps even because of the many challenges they faced, Lane and Chuck became fast friends. They both reveled in their responsibilities, shared common interests beyond the job, and fished together whenever their schedules allowed. Then, before they knew it, the project was over.
“I kept a journal while in Alaska,” Chuck says from his Massachusetts home. “Lane was my best buddy on the crew. He left before I did and the other day, I re-read what I wrote: ‘I went to the airport with Lane and I hated saying goodbye. It’s always so awkward, especially because I will probably never see him again.’”
At first, they exchanged a few post-Alaska letters. Then they traded their respective regrets in response to the other’s wedding invitation. And as their new lives set sail, their old ones drifted apart.
Early in 2017, exactly 25 years after Lane and Chuck helped build the Tongass fish pass (above), forest officials decided to replace the structure with something more modern. Again, they turned to SCA for support, posting six natural resource intern opportunities.
“We had 358 applications!” recalls Eric Castro, USFS district fish biologist and project supervisor. Alaska is routinely SCA candidates’ most sought-after destination, but Eric knew this project required a unique set of skills.
“And then I receive a phone call out of the blue: ‘Hello, this is Lane Bagley. I worked on the Mitchell Creek fish pass in 1992. My son Steven is graduating and is interested in working on it this year.’ I said ‘Wow! This is crazy! I didn’t even know it was possible.’”
Lane, who owns a small manufacturing company, makes it clear he was not trying to meddle in somebody else’s business. “I told Eric, ‘This isn’t a legacy kid situation. I’m not asking you to take him onto your project,’” he says. “’I’m just saying he is someone you’ll want to consider.’”
Eric hadn’t yet discovered Steve’s application but he quickly hunted it down. “I was looking for someone who understood the project,” he states. “The rain and the high flows, the concrete and the rebar.” One phone interview later and “I could tell Lane was able to impress upon Steve the difficulties involved, and Steve is also an EMT. It couldn’t have been a better fit.”
For his part, Steve says “I’ve been hearing about this project my entire life. My dad and I are really close, I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors, and the idea of paying homage to my father and being able to go on the same path as he did was pretty cool to me.”
So Steve loaded his backpack, eager to follow the very trail his dad had blazed a quarter century earlier.
The Tongass called in April to say the project had been delayed. The fish pass was off. But, they said, other SCA internships were available in and around Petersburg, and Steve signed on for a summer of trail work. No sooner had he arrived when a local merchant stopped him. “Hey, do you know Lane Bagley?” he asked. “You look just like him.”
Turns out the guy worked with Steve’s dad back in ’92. How many more connections could this town of 3,000 conjure? Well, one more. At least.
Fast forward to this spring. The fish pass was back on, and Tongass wanted Steve to be part of it. He accepted the offer on the spot. And that’s when Lane reached out to his old SCA mate, Chuck Najimy. They’d found each other through Facebook a few years earlier, so Lane knew that Chuck’s oldest son, Cal, had just started studying wildlife biology in college. Wouldn’t it be something, Lane mused, if Cal could join Steven in Alaska? It would be a summer sequel worthy of Hollywood!
Both Chuck and Cal were immediately intrigued. Had the fish pass been rebuilt the year before as originally planned, Cal wouldn’t have been eligible as he was only 17. But age wasn’t a factor now and Cal had the advantage of leaning on his father, a civil engineer, for professional insights.
Within days, Cal’s application was on Eric Castro’s desk. And shortly after that, Cal was on the crew. “I didn’t hire him for particular skill sets,” Eric notes. “He reached out to me and I appreciated his motivation and drive. He handled himself quite admirably and, again, once he shared his background, I knew he understood the project.”
Along with four other SCA interns, Steve and Cal arrived at the Tongass on Memorial Day weekend. “It didn’t take long for us to become friends,” Cal says. “The two of us have been hearing the same stories for as long as I can remember, and now when we call home we get to tell our dads our stories.”
The SCA crew will be working on the fish pass through August. The Forest Service plans a dedication ceremony and both Lane and Chuck plan to attend. It’ll be the first time they’ve been face-to-face since Chuck penned that journal entry about never seeing his friend again.
“And now our sons are working together, and we’re going to meet up after all this time!” Chuck exclaims. “I’m getting goosebumps just talking about it! I don’t know how to wrap my head around it. It’s providential!”
“It’s an alignment of things I didn’t expect to happen again,” adds Lane. “I’m just ecstatic.”
The men’s joy, of course, is not limited to their pending reunion. It has much more to do with a father’s love, the hopes one carries for their child, and the notion that young lives are filled with infinite promise.
“Steven had leukemia when he was eight years old,” Lane reveals. “He spent two and a half very ugly years fighting that demon. Because he faced his mortality at a very young age, he has some perspectives on world that I don’t think most people his age do. He plans to go to med school and become an oncologist. He’s very active in volunteerism. He wants to have an impact and change the world for the better.
“I don’t want to toot my horn because the kid is way beyond whatever I did, but we do see the world similarly. I couldn’t be any prouder of him.”
Before Cal boarded his flight to Alaska, Chuck pulled his son aside. “I told him this is really cool but this needs to be his experience, his adventure,” he says. “Following my footsteps is one thing but he’s not there to repeat my life. Nor am I trying to live vicariously through him.”
Still, Chuck feels the tug of that special bond between father and son, even from 3,700 miles away. “There’s a ‘oneness’ that a parent has with the next generation,” Chuck asserts. “I felt it with my father but not nearly as strongly as I do with my own son. It’s his life but everything he accomplishes, I feel, is like an accomplishment of mine, by extension.
“I had a lot of dreams and things I wanted to do in life but didn’t get to. But if I see him or my other kids do it…I told him, it’s almost like a relay race. If I pass the baton to you and you exceed what I did, I’m even happier than if I had done it myself.”
We will follow Steve and Cal – and Lane and Chuck – throughout the summer, including the culminating commemorative event at the Tongass in August, so look for further updates here.
And to Lane, Chuck, and all the dads out there: Happy Father’s Day.