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.
The celebration of life will be tomorrow, May 22 at the Majestic Theater (115 King Street) in Madison, WI or online. The family will be present at 9:00 a.m. for greeting and the service will begin at 10:00 a.m.
Facebook Live Streaming:
If you are watching online and have questions about Facebook live, click here for instructions. In short, if you are my "friend" on Facebook, when you login on Monday morning, the live stream will show up at the top of your newsfeed. Or you can go to my profile page to find it by searching "jenny weis" in the top bar. If you have more questions, click below:
If you are attending in person:
The family will be present at the theater starting at 9:00 am to greet everyone. The service will begin at 10:00 am. Parking in Madison on a weekday is a bit of a challenge, so please carpool and plan plenty of time to get to the theater.
Looking forward to seeing everyone and celebrating Sam together tomorrow.
A lot of you will ask me at Sam’s celebration on Monday how I am doing. Since we might only have time for a quick exchange, I might say that I am “doing ok.”
If you don’t mind me changing the order of things, I’d like to give you a better answer than that in advance.
In many ways, I am doing very, very badly. I am sad in a way that is so encompassing it feels physical - like a broken limb. I’m limping and on crutches, but in sadness. I’m sad for your loss of a friend, for justice’s loss of an advocate, and for my loss of my most special person. I am also, selfishly, quite upset. Not at you, but just at the fact that our lives are all going on. It seems so upsettingly unfair that people (including me!) get to do normal, even trivial, things though Sam is gone. I’m also really scared. I’m scared that I don’t know how to do life without Sam helping me at it. There are a mind boggling number of categories to what “doing life” means, so I’ll just leave the scared category at that. But it’s a biggie and a lot of responsibility. I expect many of you might share these feelings of "doing bad"-ness with me.
However, many beautiful things have happened in the last 10 days that have made my grief easier. These are harder to talk about, which is too bad. If I just say I am “bad” or “sad” then I get to put that sticker on my forehead in your memory, and reserve my feelings of grief for later when they are overwhelming me and I can’t remember anything happy to talk about. Yep, it’s just easier to say, “I am sad.” That wouldn’t be wrong, but I am other things too. I know Sam wanted Monday to be a celebration of his life. Given this, I’d be remiss not to share all the beautiful stuff I’ve experienced in the last week in case it helps you be more in a celebratory mood along with me.
First. Yes, there are moments in every day that I feel lonely. I expect him to be home every time I walk in the door and then feel devastated all over again when he isn’t, and worse, won’t ever be. But I don’t think I could say accurately that I am lonely. I got an incredible second family (if you know any of the Weises, you know what I mean here) and many, many friends thanks to Sam, which I cherish daily. Additionally, my family and my community have wrapped me in their love and support so thoughtfully and thoroughly that being ‘wrapped in love’ is barely even a metaphor. Yesterday morning, Sam’s obituary was printed in the Alaska Dispatch News and seeing it in print shattered me. (Yes, even though I wrote it and 100% knew it was coming.) Because of that and other things, I didn’t have the energy to get out of bed and do normal things with my Sammy’s face looking at me from the obituary page of a real, actual newspaper. Knowing this, a friend drove across town to bring me coffee, lay in bed with me, and then take our dog for a walk. I have at least 35 stories like this. So, I’m lonely for Sam, but there is no way I can say I am lonely.
Second, I feel overwhelmingly grateful. Today someone asked me if I’d ever go to Seattle again. I expected to say what I’ve been saying for the past few months (“hell no”), but instead I surprised myself when I instead thought Seattle sounded a little comforting because it is a place I was really, really close with Sam. It made me realize one really beautiful thing about his awful leukemia: it brought us closer together than we had ever, or could ever have been. I know the downsides overwhelmingly outweigh the positives and still, #fuckcancer all day every day, but hear me out. When we were in Madison, and then Seattle, and then while caring for him here at home, we were close on an almost spiritual level. We checked in with one another in the most beautifully gaping, wide open way - regularly, multiple times a day. Our lows were terrifying and awful and unjust, but our highs were the highest because we appreciated every single thing about anything resembling “good.” That is beautiful and rare. We spent quality time together. A lot of it. More than we ever would have if we were just living normal life. That time was valuable and precious, and we knew it was and treated it that way. It was so hard then, but it is so beautiful now and I’m so grateful for the closeness that his disease, and our fear, curated.
Third, I feel prepared. I know I said I was scared of “doing life” above, and I am. But in reviewing nearly every photo, hearing and rehearing so many stories, and turning over every metaphorical rock in regards to our time together, it has become so clear to me how much he gave me that I get to keep. Yep, his death painfully stole away many things, but I kept more than I originally realized, and I keep it very close. Sam gave me the skills to enjoy and explore the outdoors that I had never experienced or really considered before we met. This is the world’s greatest gift. He also gave me confidence in myself (Well, I won’t give him full credit, but we worked at it hard together.) In so many events - personally, athletically, professionally, emotionally - he told me he ‘knew I could do it’ again and again. I knew I had to prove him right, and I did. His confidence in me changed me at my core. Death doesn’t take that away. Not even a little bit. He also gave us all courage and conviction and joy. We get to keep that.
Fourth, I feel positive. Sad, yes. Overwhelmed, yes. Heartbroken, yes. [Long, long list of every emotion here, including whatever the one is that causes you to have incessant diarrhea], yes. But every time I feel one of those, I know he wouldn’t want it. I know he wouldn’t want his death to be a part of causing anyone pain. Trust me, I know there is a lot to mourn and lots of pain to be felt, so I won’t tell myself or you how to feel. But I will remind myself and you that there is so. much. more. to. celebrate. You all have been so helpful in joining me in this. Sam did amazing things for his friends, his family, and this world. He was a good human, through and through. Better yet, he was a good human who acted on his goodness. He was also wacky and clumsy and slow and had ears that were three sizes too big for his head. The stories of his life have so much richness, joy, and humor that they’re where I want to spend my mental energy - as much as I can possibly make myself - focusing on. When I do that, I feel genuinely happy. Since my community and my family have not let me feel lonely, they have also, handily, been available to tell a good ‘ole Sam story or two that makes us belly laugh and then shake our heads. That feels genuinely good. These stories and memories bring me a joy that is so immensely unexpected that I can only imagine that Sam’s incessant demands about how he wanted his life to be celebrated instead of mourned after he died were plotted and meticulously designed as part of an elaborate and mysteriously successful plan to ensure we were all going to be OK. Sam Weis strikes again.
Fifth, I feel loved. In the early days, Sam and I would lay on the couch together and talk about how lucky we were to have found each other, and how so few people had a great love like we did. We were so humble about our love. (Not). In the middle days, we’d lay on the couch together and talk about our lives while feeling contentment and pride that we’d molded our days into something meaningful and happy, earnestly looking forward to continuing to live them. Toward the end, we’d hold hands and look back on it all with no regrets and a continued gratitude for a mutual love that carried us through hard times. What a gift. We knew that we had made the most of almost every day and we experienced a love so deep that my soul can’t and won’t ever shake it off just by the physical loss of him.
Sooooo … how ‘bout that for an answer?
Yes, I am doing very bad, as you expect me to be. But I am also really good - and really grateful, prepared, positive and loved, too. That’s what I’ll want to say on Monday. “Doing OK” seems to be a decent summary and middle ground. And really, I think I am OK, thanks to Sam. So I’ll probably just say that.
The following will be published in the Alaska Dispatch News, Wisconsin State Journal, and The Northwoods River News of Rhinelander, WI:
Samuel Giles Weis loved wooden boats, slow breakfasts, a celebratory beer after catching his first fish of the season, riding his bike up hills (yes, up the hills), gliding on snow through the woods, and telling stories in an overly detailed fashion. Sam died on May 9 in his home in Anchorage, Alaska of leukemia. Sam fought cancer courageously and with immense determination for four of his 31 years. Though he would have been entitled to, he never complained. While his struggle and insights because of his disease shaped him and many around him, he was much more than a cancer fighter. Sam was an individual dearly loved by his family and friends, as well as an inspiration to countless more as he openly shared his experiences with cancer and leading a “carpe the effin’ diem” lifestyle. He was a fisherman, conservationist, adventurer, and lover of the underdog. Sam spent his career fighting to protect rivers in his home state of Wisconsin, and later in Alaska. Sam was influential in halting the Gogebic Taconite mining proposal in northern Wisconsin, as well as the proposed Chuitna Coal Strip Mine in southcentral Alaska, both of which would have harmed pristine waterways, local indigenous culture, and treasured wilderness. Sam showed us how to lead a full and meaningful life; ceaselessly prioritizing what is important and not sweating the small stuff. Sam is survived by his wife, Jenny; parents, Debi and Jim; sisters, Kate and Sarah; grandparents, Duane and Carolyn Giles, and Jim Weis; dog, Birkebeiner; and many others. In lieu of flowers, please consider donations to the charities listed on this page: www.bit.ly/sgw-celebration A celebration of life will be held at at the Majestic Theater in Madison, WI on May 22, and on Facebook Live at that time. Doors will open at 9:00 a.m. central, and the family will be present. The service will start at 10:00 a.m. central. Lunch and fellowship will follow the service. Sam requested no one wear black.
This is a community focused event and we need your help* to bring Sam's vision to life. Click here to read more and participate. Thank you!
*5/19/17 edit: we've received enough stories now for the 5/22 celebration. Thank you! You are still welcome to submit stories for the family using the hyperlink above if you'd like, but we won't have time to share any more onstage at the event. We WILL have plenty of time to continue telling stories over lunch after the event - so keep brainstorming and plan to join us at Lucille's for lunch.
**5/19 edit: we we've received enough stories now for the 5/22 celebration. Thank you to everyone who submitted a story! You are still welcome to submit stories for the family using the hyperlink below if you'd like, but we won't have time to share any more onstage at the event.
We WILL have plenty of time to continue telling stories over lunch after the 10:00 am event - so keep brainstorming and plan to join us at Lucille's for lunch.
Sam wanted his celebration of life to be lighthearted - happy even - and community focused. (He even specifically said no one should wear black!!) To make this vision come to life, we're going to need your help. YES YOU - even if you might not consider yourself to be in the "inner circle." You can still contribute, and I hope you do. Please read on!
Sam was on the board of directors for a community storytelling event series in Anchorage called Arctic Entries. Similar to This American Life, The Moth, and other storytelling events, Arctic Entries brings Alaskans to a local stage to share their personal stories: funny, sad and sweet. At every performance, seven people each tell a seven-minute long true story about themselves relating to the show’s theme.
Sam told a story on stage back in 2014 before he was on the "storyboard." Later as a storyboard member, he helped develop the mission which became, "building community one story at a time." He came to love the strong community focus, coaching storytellers on their stories beforehand, meeting many new faces around town and of course, hearing the tales of wild and crazy Alaskans living life to the fullest.
A storyteller at heart, Sam and I planned to structure his celebration of life like an Arctic Entries storytelling event. To make this vision come to life we're going to need your help!
Please send your favorite Sam story. Here are the guidelines per the Arctic Entries format:
PLEASE don't be shy about at least submitting stories even if speaking isn't your thing. We'll review the submissions and reach out to ask you if you want to tell one at the celebration of life. But even if you don't want to tell yours, Sam's family and I would absolutely love to have them to read and laugh, cry and ponder how wonderful and silly of a guy Sam was.
The celebration of life will be in Madison, Wisconsin at the Majestic Theater on May 22 at 9 am, so please submit your story by Wednesday, May 17th. Thank you so much in advance - I cannot wait to read your stories.
Hi, fellow Sam Weis life-celebrators. I have so many thoughts that I cannot yet type. Will get to that later.
However, I wanted to log in quickly to make one request: If you were thinking of sending flowers to any member of the family, would you consider a donation to one of the following charities instead?
If you do make a donation in his memory, would you please indicate it on the form as you donate or comment on this post so we can keep track of the impact?
Here are a few causes near and dear to Sam's heart:
Thanks everyone for all the love you shared today. It is powerful beyond words... and if you know me, that's really saying something.
Yesterday evening, surrounded by his Mom, Dad and me, my beloved Sam died peacefully in our bedroom. We got to tell him we love him at least a hundred times throughout the day and that it was OK to finally let go. He wasn't able to respond, but I know he heard and knew. I spent yesterday morning reading him some of your letters and messages, so he heard your love too. We won't see or touch him physically anymore but I know he has more to tell us all. I know that it was time for him to be set free from his tired body but I also know his spirit is still so strong. Because he told me so, I know I will find him when I walk through the woods, stand in a river, or hike up a mountain. You can too. I will never stop searching for him in those places. He wouldn't want us all to be sad for too long and I plan to try to knit my heart back together by sharing stories and celebrating his incredible life alongside all of you soon. But right now my sadness is physical and overwhelming. Learning from him, loving him, and caring for him is the great honor of my life and I will now spend every day missing him and trying to become as much the woman he thought me to be. Start thinking of your best Sam stories ok? They are my treasure.
After a trip to the ER last night due to uncontrolled bleeding and the discovery of initial stages of kidney failure, Sam entered into hospice care today.
The plus side of hospice is improved pain management and not needing to make so many painful trips to the clinic for treatment. Also there are doctors and nurses available 24/7 who are able to administer any medication that can make Sam more comfortable. That means no more trips to the ER - they can just come to us. The downside is that while on hospice Sam can no longer receive "life prolonging treatment." It's all about comfort and retaining quality of life at this point. Terrifyingly, Sam can't receive blood or platelet transfusions on hospice, which are currently keeping him alive. We have been told all along his time would be short without his transfusions.
To say that is a difficult trade off is an understatement. It has been an agonizing decision and an awful day. But, at the urging of multiple doctors and in seeing his quality of life diminish so quickly and dramatically, we decided it is time for him to stay home and as comfortable as possible.
We have been told we could always take him off hospice and back into treatment if we see any sign of improvement, though that is unlikely. It still makes me feel a little better knowing the option exists.
Heartbreakingly, the pain medications he's on have made him very, very sleepy and largely unresponsive beyond grunts or jumbled up half sentences.
However, even if he's sleeping, if you lean in really close and whisper in his ear, "I love you Sammy," he'll mumble, "iloveyoutoo" back before drifting off to sleep again. This is keeping me going.