Tongass Legacies, Pt. 2

Things sure have changed since their dads made this trek a quarter century ago.

Cal Najimy and Steve Bagley are part of an SCA team on the Alaska Panhandle, replacing an elaborate fish pass in Tongass National Forest. They are literally following in the footsteps (and airstreams) of their fathers, who were part of the SCA crew that constructed the original fish pass in 1992.

Nobody carried a cell phone back then but when we rang Steve and Cal on one of their off-days, we found them fishing along the Blind River Rapids, about 14 miles south of Petersburg on Kupreanof Island.

“This is the only place where the King salmon are running currently,” Cal noted. “There are eagles flying overhead, all around us are mountains, some snowcapped in the distance. This is what Alaska is all about.”

Cal is a 19-year old college student studying wildlife biology. Steve, 23, is planning a career in pediatric oncology after his own childhood bout with leukemia. They both grew up hearing their respective dad’s endless SCA stories – the incredible beauty, the arduous workdays, the perpetual precipitation. Now, in an almost absurd twist of fate, they are experiencing it on their own terms. “It’s amazing out here,” Steve marveled.

Fishing, however, is just a part-time pursuit. Their primary focus is the Mitchell Creek fish pass, a three-month project designed to boost the local coho population. The SCA crew of six and a handful of forest staffers and contractors have been on the job Memorial Day.

“So far, we’ve been doing preparation – clearing trees and stones out of the way,” Cal said.

“We’ve also worked on some cofferdams (watertight enclosures that allow them to work within the creek) and placed nine pieces of rebar on the top box of the fish ladder,” Steve added. “We have a kind of zipline that helps us carry concrete from the top of the hill to the bottom, about a quarter mile, to where we are working, so I definitely think we’ve had it easier than our fathers.”

Both interns made it clear, however, that there is far more to this than echoing the efforts of their dads. “Conservation work is something I’d like to pursue a career in,” Cal noted. “This is an important step in that education.” And while Steve intends to take a different professional path, “I want to make conservation applicable to everybody in their everyday lives. We have to protect what we have.”

Still, despite the distance – Cal is from Massachusetts, Steve hails from Utah – the sons are never far from their fathers.

“My dad and I are on the phone almost every day, and it’s not just a quick call,” Cal stated. “We talk about our progress on the fish pass, what I’ve been doing for fun, what’s going on back home.” In the weeks leading up to this project, Chuck Najimy devoted hours to telling his son what to expect in Alaska, and Cal says his father was spot-on. With one exception.

“The only thing that’s not been true is the rain. We got super lucky last week and got sunshine almost every day. Other than that, everything has been true. The hikes, the fishing spots – it’s kind of like we’re living in a dream from 1992.”

Steve’s dad, Lane, also painted an accurate picture of the Tongass for his son. “There’s a mountain on the mainland you can see from here, Devil’s Thumb,” Steve said. “He always mentioned taking pictures of it and watching sunsets, and we did that just last night. It was like ‘wow, that’s exactly as he described!’

When Cal and Steve’s fathers served together back in ’92, they quickly became the best of friends and that’s another thing the sons seem to have in common. “Yeah, we’re getting along really well,” Steve said. “Well, I can’t speak for Cal…” he added with a smirk, prompting a rapid-fire cackle from his fishing buddy.

The two young men are quick to point out, however, that they are part of a team of six SCAs including Stephen Anthony of western Pennsylvania, Nathan Dhuey of Wisconsin, Christie Stidham from outside Philadelphia, and Massachusetts resident Rachel Stocker.

“We’ve made sure to say this is not about me or Cal,” Steve stated. “They appreciate our unique history, but I’ve stressed that we’re a team and things only get done by us working together.”

“We don’t want to take away from their experience just because we had fathers on the [first] crew,” Cal added. “Like us, they are up here in Alaska building a fish pass, a story they’ll be telling the rest of their lives, and we don’t want to take away from that.”

A week or so after we spoke on the phone, Steve and Cal emailed with an update on the second hitch of the project. “We were able start pouring columns and forms for the upper cells of the fish ladder!” they wrote. “A lot of work was put into the forming and preparation for this crucial step. What was even cooler, though, was incorporating pieces of the old ladder into our new one. Things such as old rebar in the rock and old walls. We both feel we are making our dads proud.”

In our next chapter from the Tongass, we’ll reveal the one individual who looms largest over the Petersburg project and all its participants, even though he now lives only in memories…