Tongass Legacies, Pt. 3

The thing you hear most often from SCA alumni is “those X weeks changed my life.”

Nature’s marvels, self-discovery, and a strong sense of accomplishment are all factors in these transformations, but the influence of conservation professionals is also paramount. Those who invest the time to mentor, instruct, advise, encourage, test, nurture, and inspire are the figures our interns strive to emulate throughout their lives. There’s a reason why SCA refers to park rangers, trail foremen, and others as “partners.”

One such individual was John Pickens, who worked in fisheries and construction for the U.S. Forest Service but whose expertise spanned disciplines the way the Golden Gate Bridge spans San Francisco Bay: with presence, strength, and color.

John was the Tongass National Forest crew boss in 1992 when an SCA team including Lane Bagley and Chuck Najimy assisted in constructing a fish pass on Mitchell Creek. And he’ll be memorialized next month when a replacement fish pass, this one built by another SCA crew – which remarkably includes Lane’s son, Steve, and Chuck’s son, Cal – is dedicated in a formal ceremony drawing people from throughout the region.

John Pickens passed away three years ago of Non-Hodgins lymphoma. He was just 60. The Petersburg Pilot obituary stated he would be remembered “for his deep affection and kindness, his community service, and wonderful sense of humor. John's funny, sometimes bawdy, stories and sayings will live on among those who loved him.”

Count Lane Bagley among those who loved him. “He was with us at all times out there,” recalls Lane Bagley, “and he was incredibly impactful on all our lives.” John not only led the fish pass project, he led the SCA team through countless trainings, off-day fishing trips and, through his example and counsel, toward the people they are today. And, yes, those bawdy sayings also endure.

“Not to be crude,” Lane says, “but if I lost my tape measure, for example, he’d say ‘If it was up your butt, you’d know it!’ I use that line with my kids on a daily basis.”

The Pilot obit described John, who inevitably went by the nickname, "Slim," as “like a big brother or a father to young Forest Service volunteers and others whom he helped introduce to the beauty of Southeast Alaska.” Chuck Najimy, now a civil engineer, says “He had an interest in everyone on the crew, caring for them and helping them. He mentored me in construction techniques.

“John Pickens was one of most selfless people I ever met.”

Chuck remembers one day in particular that epitomizes John’s ability to impact those around him. “He and his friend, Sandy, and I agreed to paint the outside of a woman’s house on our day off. She worked for the Forest Service and was going to pay us, but John suggested we do it for free ‘because she’s such a nice lady.’

“I have never seen someone so grateful. It made me realize that the $100 or whatever I was going to get couldn’t have bought the feeling I got seeing her happiness. What a lesson in volunteerism and loving your neighbor.”

Chuck was in his office in the spring of 2015 when he got word that John had died. “I’d just written him a note and he’d written back saying ‘I hope this card finds you well I and would love to see you one day.’ I shed a tear because I knew it wasn’t going to happen.”

Chuck, Lane, and others from that ’92 SCA crew will return to the Tongass for the August 16th fish pass dedication, as will dozens of other former volunteers, colleagues, friends, and family.

If you’ve read the previous installments of this blog, you know how many dots have astoundingly been connected over time and space to place two sons on the same Alaskan path as their fathers a quarter century later. Well, here’s another dot.

Lane Bagley runs a metals shop in his hometown of American Fork, UT. And he’s the one who created the plaque that’ll be installed on the new fish pass in memory of a man who will never be forgotten.

There are many Tongass legacies. But there was only one John Pickens.