Salmon fishing in Alaska is Pietron family affair
Pietrons anticipate thrill of summers in Alaska for more than three decades
By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Roger and Sue Pietron of Cushing made their first trip to Alaska in 1970, after Sue’s sister and brother-in-law moved there.
“After that, we went back almost every summer,” Sue said.
Roger completed his degree in biology and wildlife management at the University of Minnesota in 1974 and then got a job with the Kenai National Moose Range (now called Kenai National Wildlife Refuge), headquartered in Soldotna, Alaska.
“We went back and forth for a few years. We looked at land up there but prices were so high,” said Roger. “We rented land here and liked the area, so we bought 80 acres and built this house.”
Roger started fishing in 1979, working on boats owned by other people for three summers.
“In 1982 we switched our residency to Alaska, bought our own fishing license, our first son, Eddie, was born and we fished from mid-May to mid-September,” he said.
After their second son, Andy, was born in 1984, Roger found a job with health benefits. After that he used his summer vacation to fish.
From 1982 to 1995, when they lived in Alaska all year, Sue worked for an attorney for a number of years. Roger worked for FedEx for 27 years.
They took a sabbatical of sorts in 1988, spending a year back in Minnesota so their older sons could spend time with their grandparents. Luke was born in 1990.
In 1995, the family moved back to Minnesota for the boys’ high school years.
“We planned to do that so that we would still have the fishing experience, but be here the rest of the year,” said Roger. “Our boys like the family time fishing. They still like spending those weeks all together as they get older, even if they can only come for part of the time.”
Eddie graduated from Little Falls Community High School in 2001, Andy in 2002 and Luke in 2009.
During the six weeks of fishing in Alaska, the Pietron family lives in a rustic cabin in a critical habitat area on land leased from the Natives.
“There is just one radio station and no television, so the focus was always on the kids,” Sue said.
“There were no distractions and lots of wildlife,” said Roger. “Looking back on it now, raising children in the midst of all those bears, we always had to be mindful of where they were and what they were doing. When they were little and running around they could only go out when everyone was in camp and there was a lot of noise and activity in camp.”
Summers are filled with sightings of bears, seals, sea lions, walruses and whales. Shorebirds and waterfowl nest nearby.
“We can see whales spouting while just standing on the beach,” Sue said. “The tide is a big deal.”
Some of the largest tides in the world happen at the Pietrons’ camp. There is an 18-foot change in water level twice a day, with a quarter-mile distance between high tide and low tide. The camp is on a flat, sandy beach along a river, with a strong current.
During their 30 years in Alaska, no one has ever shot a bear at the Pietron camp, although they see bear tracks regularly. One summer they watched as a bear weaved its way through them along a quarter-mile stretch of beach as they were pulling in a net.
“They come right through camp at night, so we just never step outside without looking around first,” Roger said. “One summer, a village nearby shot five bears just during the six weeks we were there, but we’ve never had to.”
“Sea life is all around; there is a novelty to it. We’re exposed to a whole different world than in Minnesota. The trade-off has been that there is no infrastructure there, and the logistics are tough,” he said.
The trek to the Pietrons’ fishing camp starts with a one-hour jet flight from Anchorage to King Salmon. Then comes a 45-minute flight on a six-passenger plane to Pilot Point, where the plane lands on a dirt runway. The next leg of the journey is a boat to camp and then comes the task of opening camp for the season.
Sue has driven the Alaska Highway eight times and Roger, 21 times. Roger has flown a single-engine plane up to Alaska three times.
“There are no services at Pilot Point,” he said. “All food and supplies must be mailed in or brought from Seattle by ship.”
At first, they flew everything in. After they became well-establishing with fishing, arrangements were made with fish buyers to bring in supplies for them.
“As we expanded and built more buildings at camp, each two-by-four was probably handled 15 times with all the loading and unloading from plane to skiff to ship to skiff again,” said Roger.
During the first two years the fishing operation was set up, they flew the fish from the beach to Pilot Point. After that, the fish were sold to a cannery ship. Sometimes the fish were transported hundreds of miles before being used for canned salmon.
The Pietrons use set-netting, where their nets are anchored within 1,000 feet of shore. In 2007, the Pietrons incorporated as the Alaska Wild Fish Company, in order to bring salmon fillets back to Minnesota.
In 2010, they formed a co-op with nine other fishing families in the district, named Ugashik Bay Salmon LLC. They wanted to secure a market and hopefully improve their price per pound of fish.
Ugashik Bay Salmon then entered into a joint venture with Seattle-based seafood processors to form Cape Greig LLC, purchasing a 182-foot floating processor and naming it the Cape Greig. The ship is a floating grocery store, and it brings fuel to camp. It also provides the fishermen with ice to maintain the quality of fish. Instead of having to sell them in the canning market, the fish can now be sold as fillets.
“We are paid more as a result,” Roger said. “Sometimes the fish had been transported hundreds of miles before being processed. Now it’s processed right on the ship straight from the icy waters of the Bering Sea.”
“We are working with like-minded people as far as quality goes,” Sue said.
The Pietrons have boat service right up to where they fish, unloading ice for them to ice their new catch immediately, and taking what has been caught directly to the Cape Grieg for processing.
The Whole Food Co-op in Long Prairie is one of the first co-ops the Pietrons began selling their fish to in the early 2000s, in addition to co-ops in the Minneapolis area. Their salmon and other products can be found in River Falls and Hudson, Wis., in Iowa, and at a number of other locations around Minnesota including the Good Earth Co-op in St. Cloud.
“It’s brought to Seattle by ship and trucked to the area,” Roger said. “Our smoked salmon cream cheese spread is sold in Lund’s and Byerly’s stores.”
The cream cheese is hormone-free and antibiotic-free. “We’ve always been interested in natural food products,” she aid.
The Pietrons used to make all the product deliveries themselves, but now work with three distributors in the Metro area.
Once salmon season has finished and the Pietrons return to Minnesota for the winter, they take three to four weeks to harvest wild rice by hand.
“We’ve done this as a family for the last 15 years,” said Roger, “and I’ve been doing it for about 40 years.”
They harvest in many locations between Cushing and Walker and in an area about 50 miles either side of that line. The rice is packaged as “Pietron Family Wild Rice” and can be found at Thielen Meats in Little Falls and at the co-op in Long Prairie.
The Pietrons are pleased to provide products locally that customers know where they came from and how it got to their door.
Their unique way of life has been a positive influence for the Pietron family.
“We’ve developed lifelong friends in the crew members who work with us year after year and in relationships with neighbors,” Roger said.
“The most important thing for me has been family time, having the boys out there,” said Sue. “Hopefully the grandkids will come too. It is nice working as a family, traveling — to get away and do something different.”