All summer long, the SCA crew at Tongass National Forest worked an alternating schedule: one week of long, arduous days replacing a fading fish pass on Kupreanof Island, and the next in nearby Petersburg. Fortunately, they were in town when Chuck Najimy and Lane Bagley flew in on consecutive days from Massachusetts and Utah, respectively, so the entire crew greeted each man at the local airport.
Such welcomes are not routine, of course, but Chuck and Lane have history here: they both served on the SCA crew that built the original Mitchell Creek fish pass back in 1992. Their futures are here, too: Chuck’s son, Cal, and Lane’s son, Steve, are members of this summer’s Tongass team.
Chuck and Lane, close friends since working together in Alaska, often shared vivid recollections of their SCA experiences with their spouses and children, and that had everything to do with their sons’ desire to follow in the fathers’ footsteps when the opportunity arose.
“I’m excited about the legacy that will live here for the next 26 years…knowing that young lives have been changed this summer,” Lane said. “This crew will go home and tell their friends and families the great stories that we’ve been telling.”
“My experience here really shaped my life,” Chuck added amid welling tears. “My work here with SCA solidified my love of the outdoors. It influenced the raising of my kids, as I’ve encouraged them to lives their lives outdoors. ‘Legacy’ is a great word for it.”
Their return to Tongass, however, was not all celebratory. On August 16th, the Forest Service dedicated the new fish pass to John “Slim” Pickens, a near-mythical crew boss who mentored hundreds of young volunteers – including Chuck and Lane – before passing away three years ago. Lane, owner of a stainless steel company, created the plaque to be permanently affixed to the fish pass.
At the ceremony, Petersburg District Ranger Dave Zimmerman strained to be heard over the roaring waters of Mitchell Creek. “This is about partnerships, relationships, and friendships,” he told some 30 invited guests, including Pickens’ widow, Candace. Deputy Forest Supervisor Troy Heithecker talked about the importance of fostering the next generation of stewards. And Rob Miller, Tongass’ Bunyanesque crew chief, lauded the SCA team for meeting every challenge and exemplifying the late Pickens’ sense of generosity.
“This is special,” Chuck observed. “To be here together in Slim’s memory, through the collaboration of the Forest Service and SCA, and through the providence of our kids, with his friends and family with us, is just amazing.”
Despite their legacy status, Cal and Steve have insisted from the get-go that this project was a team effort and not about them. Still, their crew mates understood the unique circumstances in play. In fact, they embraced them.
“It made it way beyond just helping a bunch of fish get over a waterfall,” noted intern Nathan Dhuey. “It made it a sentimental thing as well, and we’ve all become such good friends it was sentimental for us, too.”
“It’s a friendship you can’t build anywhere else,” added crew mate Stephen Anthony. “We’ll carry it, and the impact the six of us had on this ecosystem, for the rest of our lives.”
“We’re like a family,” chimed in Rachael Stocker, who credited “working 15 hours a day and carrying a ton of heavy stuff” with cementing the team’s bonds. (Editor’s note: crew member Christie Stidham needed to leave early to return to school and missed he dedication.)
The themes of family and heritage loomed over the event like the many surrounding Sitka spruce. Chuck Najimy brought his wife, Lane Bagley was accompanied by both his wife and father, and Rachael Stocker’s parents also attended.
Cal Najimy called it a fitting close to a chapter that, to a great extent, shaped his life and those of his loved ones. “It’s critical for my mother to be here,” he said. “She’s been hearing about this fish pass longer than I have and she never got a chance to see it. Now she’s seen it with the both of us.”
Steve Bagley was similarly thrilled. “Having my mom and my grandpa here to see this fish pass we built, I couldn’t be happier,” he stated. “I remember our first week, when we were digging this pit out, thinking we’re never going to get this done. Now summer’s over, people are leaving…it’s kind of a happy/sad moment.”
After the speeches, the crew asked Chuck and Lane to join them as they hung the steel plaque. Then they locked in an emotional group hug, and Candace Pickens tucked the first of many flowers behind the commemorative panel.
Yes, as the Forest Service’s Dave Zimmerman declared, this was about “partnerships, relationships, and friendships.” But Lane Bagley insisted it was also about something else: love.
“Love from a mentor in John Pickens. The love of friends, the love of places. Chuck and I remained friends and we always will be. And this crew – when I met them at airport, their cohesive nature was immediately obvious. They have something really special.
“The fish pass was a labor of love. We cared about what we were doing. That love existed in everything we did, and it also impacted our hearts in a way that goes beyond the work. We were changed people because of it. And we all have the Forest Service and SCA to thank for that.”