Sam met his friend Paul at a salmon bbq in Anchorage. Paul was on a cross-country journey fly fishing and writing - Anchorage was the last stop of his year-long tour. They connected immediately over their love of fishing and even realized they had a friend in common that Sam knew from high school in Rhinelander and Paul knew from his D.C. days. Sam later hired Paul to help during the effort to protect the Chuitna, and they quickly became the type of friends where it seemed as if they'd had a decade-long history, even though they'd only met months ago.
Paul remained close throughout the Chuitna effort and made frequent visits and calls to Sam throughout his treatment. Below is the original version of an essay he submitted to Patagonia about his friendship with Sam and their role in the effort to save the Chuitna.
A Bittersweet Victory
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 fate inextricably linked to the colossal coalfield beneath them and the coal barons who owned it. But unfortunately for Sam, these Texas tycoons weren’t the most powerful foe he was facing.
Sam Weis knew little about the Chuitna Watershed before he committed his future to fighting for this obscure Alaskan wilderness. Full of piss and vinegar, he left his lifelong Wisconsin home and migrated north. Sam said he made this decision based on whether he would regret it on his deathbed. Now that his thirty-one-year-old, Leukemia-laden body is nearing that unwelcome mattress, he’s asked his family and friends to scatter his ashes in the river he has already given his heart and soul.
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 and devoid of fingerprints. The experience is both an exhilarating escape and a harsh reminder of what’s at stake for the Chuitna and the litany of threatened wild places across the United States.
We are living in scary times. If you love to run wild on public lands, experience the raw power of nature, and cleanse your soul in frigid mountain streams, you have an avalanche of threats to fear. From efforts to steal our public lands to the gutting of paramount environmental protections, the foundation of outdoor recreation is under attack in Washington DC and states across this country.
In these bleak times, hope can be scarce and inspiration can be wanting. But for those fortunate to know Sam or rotate in his orbit, the confluence of the Chuitna’s bright future and Sam’s life is a beacon of light in an otherwise dark sky.
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 frontier Alaskans with no resources or advocacy experience could defeat a Goliath coal company’s plan to build one of the nation’s largest 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 has 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.
A pernicious bout with Leukemia inspired Sam’s move 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 his fight for life in his darkest hours.
In a cruel twist of fate, Leukemia reared its malignant head again – this time even more vicious – and forced Sam to leave Alaska three years later. For months, Sam 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 eleven-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 15th, I received the message from Sam I had feared. The last ditch chemo effort had failed. He is officially out of options. He is done trying to cheat death. Now he is focused on living life, however much he has left.
A few weeks ago, Sam returned to his adopted Alaskan home to die. Before he meets his inevitable end, he plans to squeeze out every drop of life. He wants to spend his remaining days reveling in the wondrous places that consumed his dreams during his insufferable struggles. He wants to keep fighting for the things he loves most, surrounded by the people closest to his heart. And he wants to return to the banks of the Chuitna River to celebrate the seventeen most thrilling and gratifying words he’s ever read:
“The partners at PacRim Coal, LP have decided to suspend permitting efforts
on the Chuitna Coal Project.”
On April 4th, “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 has given him unexpected solace about the future of the paradise he gave his life and will soon give his remains. He can now 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.
Sometime far too 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 is spending the last days of his life battling upstream against forces far more powerful than himself. Their withered bodies exhibit the punishment they’ve endured, but their perseverance never falters. For both Sam and his beloved salmon, their journeys end in death. But in their final and greatest act, they renew 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?
And when you do, 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.