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How Activist Sam Weis Fought for Alaska’s Wilderness While Battling Cancer

Paul Moinester  /  May 25, 2017  /  6 Min Read  /  Activism

As the high tide recedes back into Cook Inlet, the sun sets on the Chuitna River, and Sam Weis casts for rising salmon in the fading pink light. Photo: Dave McCoy

The stakes were high and the odds were long. A wild Alaskan paradise, a frontier community and a tribe of Alaska Natives hung in the balance, their fates inextricably linked to the colossal coalfield beneath the headwaters of the Chuitna River and the coal barons who owned it. Unfortunately, for Sam Weis, the fight to save the Chuitna wasn’t the biggest battle he was facing.

In 2006, when the Chuitna’s residents discovered the devastating impact of PacRim’s proposed Chuitna Coal Mine, they ignited a grassroots movement that has spread like wildfire across Alaska and the Lower 48. At the time, it was hard to believe that a small band of Alaskans with no resources or advocacy experience could defeat a Goliath coal company’s plan to build one of the nation’s largest open-pit coal mines. But they had no other option. Either they could fight, or they could stand idly by and watch PacRim Coal lay waste to their Alaskan Eden.

For the last four years, Sam played an indelible role stoking the flames of this fiery movement as a communications director in the Alaska conservation community. What began as an intriguing professional adventure in the wilds of Alaska soon morphed into his life’s most challenging and personal work. Sam went to Alaska to fight for a river, but his resolve was fueled by the Chuitna’s handful of residents who welcomed him into their homes, stuffed his belly with moose and his freezer with salmon, and taught him how their ancestors lived off the Chuitna’s wild bounty for millennia.

Photo: Paul Moinester

In front of his home in Anchorage, Sam Weis fillets a Chuitna silver salmon caught by commercial fishermen Terry Jorgensen. Photo: Paul Moinester

Photo: Paul Moinester

The 40-minute bush plane flight from Anchorage to the Chuitna watershed feels like a journey into a lost world. You emerge from a concrete city and are thrust into a wild frontier brimming with life but devoid of human fingerprints. Photo: Paul Moinester

A pernicious bout with leukemia is what inspired Sam to leave his lifelong home in Wisconsin and migrate north to Alaska. Wide-eyed and fresh out of college, Sam thought he had his whole life in front of him, until, all of a sudden, leukemia showed him he might not. After months of excruciating nights and insufferable days spent in fluorescent-lit hospital rooms, Sam emerged cancer-free and yearning to fulfill the dreams of adventure that sustained him during in his darkest hours.

In a cruel twist of fate, leukemia reared its malignant head again—this time even more viciously—and forced Sam to leave Alaska. For months, he was holed up in the hospital undergoing a tsunami of procedures that flooded his body with rivers of chemicals, incited volcanic bouts of nausea and generated hurricanes of pain. But whenever Sam landed in the eye of the storm, his focus was not on the leukemia destroying his body, but the potential destruction of the people and place that pervaded his soul.

From hospital beds in Anchorage, Wisconsin and Washington, Sam waged two wars—one for his life, and one for the Chuitna’s. For both, the stakes were high, the odds were long and the paths to victory were narrow and fleeting. The 11-year battle for the Chuitna dragged on with no end in sight. Years of delays and unmet deadlines continued to hold the Chuitna’s fate in a distressing suspended animation. But the fate of Sam’s battle grew worse as his body weakened, the leukemia strengthened and the world’s foremost oncologists ran out of potential solutions.

On March 15, I received the message from Sam I had feared. The last ditch chemo effort had failed. He was officially out of options. He was done trying to cheat death. Now he was focused on living life, however much he had left.

Sam returned to his adopted Alaskan home and spent his remaining days reveling in the wondrous places that consumed his dreams during his insufferable struggles. He kept fighting for the things he loved most, surrounded by the people closest to his heart. And he celebrated the 17 most thrilling and gratifying words he’d ever read: “The partners at PacRim Coal, LP have decided to suspend permitting efforts on the Chuitna Coal Project.”

Photo: Dave McCoy

Sam (left) chats with Al Goozmer, president of the Native Village of Tyonek, and Judy Heilman, a.k.a. Grammy Beluga, during the filming of Chuitna: More Than Salmon on the Line. Al and Judy were both instrumental in the grassroots fight to save the Chuitna. Photo: Dave McCoy

On April 4, 2017, “Save the Chuitna” became “Saved the Chuitna” when PacRim announced it has suspended all permitting efforts for the Chuitna Coal Mine. For the grassroots army that fought PacRim for a decade, it is a monumental victory and a huge sigh of relief.

For Sam, the announcement was an earth-shaking surprise that gave him unexpected solace about the future of the paradise he gave his life and would soon give his remains. He could die a more peaceful man, comforted by the knowledge that long after his ashes are washed into the sea, salmon will return to the Chuitna and breathe life into the river that captivated his. But for me, it is a bittersweet victory—the confluence of a major win and a bigger loss converging into a Class V river of emotion too overwhelming to navigate.

Photo: Paul Moinester

The author (right), on his first trip to the Chuitna, takes a break from photographing the wild Alaskan landscape to shoot a Cessna selfie with Sam. Photo: Paul Moinester

Sometime soon Sam’s family and friends will gather in the sacred waters of the Chuitna River. We will string up our rods, throw on our waders and plunge waist-deep into its pristine waters. We will build campfires, grill salmon and toss back a few beers. We will tell hilarious stories that make our sides ache with pain. We will shed tears as salty as the sea surrounding us. We will say goodbye to a husband, son, brother and friend who left us far too soon. And we will scatter his ashes in the waters that once cleansed and reinvigorated his soul.

It will be a fitting end for a man whose life mirrored that of the salmon he fought to protect. Like salmon, Sam spent the last days of his life battling upstream against forces far more powerful than himself—their withered bodies exhibited the punishment they’ve endured, but their perseverance never faltered. For both Sam and his beloved salmon, their journeys end in death. But in their final and greatest act, they renewed life.

Sam’s Dying Wish

When this stubborn old body reaches the mouth of the river of time, I want my family and friends to divide my ashes, take me on adventures and set me free in places I loved in life or places I never got to see but would love. I figure why should the adventure end with life?

I hope someone will spread some of my ashes in the Chuitna River. And when you do, don’t forget to bring a fishing rod, a snack, some extra water and a good friend, but feel free to leave your watch behind.

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