By Jennie Zeitler, Staff Writer
Roger and Sue Pietron of Cushing made their first trip to Alaska in 1970. “After that, we went back almost every summer,” Sue said.
“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 other peoples’ boats.
“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.
From 1982 to 1995, Roger used summer vacation time to fish, while they lived in Alaska all year. Sue worked for an attorney for a number of years. Roger worked for FedEx for 27 years. In 1995, the family moved back to Minnesota for the boys’ high school years, continuing to fish in Alaska every summer.
Eddie graduated from high school in Little Falls in 2001, Andy in 2002 and Luke in 2009.
During their six weeks of fishing in Alaska every summer, the Pietron family lives in a rustic cabin. “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. “Raising children in the midst of those bears, we always had to be mindful of where they were and what they were doing. When they were little, they could only go out when everyone was in camp and there was a lot of noise and activity.”
During their 30 years in Alaska, no one has ever shot a bear at the Pietron camp, although they often see bear tracks. One summer they watched as a bear weaved its way through them along a stretch of beach as they were pulling in a net.
“They come right through camp at night, so we 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. We’re exposed to a whole different world than in Minnesota. The trade-off has been that there is no infrastructure, and the logistics are tough,” he said.
The trek to the Pietrons’ camp starts with a one-hour jet flight from Anchorage to King Salmon. Next is a 45-minute six-passenger plane flight to Pilot Point, where the plane lands on a dirt runway. Then a boat ride to camp is followed by the task of opening camp.
“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-established 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.
In 2007, they incorporated as the Alaska Wild Fish Company, in order to be able to bring salmon fillets back to Minnesota.
In 2010, they formed a co-op with nine other fishing families, named Ugashik Bay Salmon LLC, to secure a market and 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 renaming it the Cape Greig. It is a floating grocery store and also brings fuel to camp. It provides ice for the fishermen to maintain the quality of fish. Instead of having to sell fish in the canning market, they can now be sold as fillets.
“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, and taking what has been caught directly to the Cape Greig for processing.
The Whole Food Co-op in Long Prairie is one of the first co-ops where the Pietrons began selling their fish in the early 2000s. Their salmon and other products can be found at a number of other locations around
Minnesota and Wisconsin.
Once salmon season is done and the Pietrons return to Minnesota, they take three to four weeks to harvest wild rice by hand.
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.”
The Pietrons are pleased to provide products locally that customers know where they came from and how they 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.”