Examine the forces that would drive a young man from the suburbs of Pittsburg to the far-flung reaches of western Alaska, and you begin to understand the motivations behind this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Jack Schultheis, who for 46 years has devoted his life to Emmonak, a windswept fishing village at the mouth of the Yukon River.

The year was 1971 when the restless Schultheis staked his all and came to the far north.

“I just wanted something different,” he says. “I knew I wanted out of the Lower 48.”

Schultheis, 68, drove to Alaska and hurled himself headlong into adventures that included dog mushing and commercial fishing. In the early 1970s, a community of dog mushers ran dogs by winter and set their salmon gillnets in the Yukon River in summer to earn enough income to repeat the cycle. Schultheis fell into the rhythm and fished the river in 1974, but his pursuits quickly turned to processing.

“I was working for a salmon company owned by the Japanese,” Schultheis recalls. “This was before the United States imposed the 200-mile limit.”

When Congress established the 200- mile EEZ, some of the foreign processors reacted by purchasing U.S. companies, among them one the largest, Whitney Fidalgo Seafoods.

“They had buying stations in Emmonak and Kotlik, and a floater that would do the freezing,” he says.

Schultheis managed the small processing plant for Whitney in Emmonak until the early 1980s, then entered a trapeze act of employment among companies that sent him buying fish from the extreme southeast tip of Alaska at Kah Shakes all the way to Kotzebue, in the northwest arctic.

“I’ve bought fish in every part of the state except Kodiak,” he says. “Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound, Bristol Bay.”

Of all the places Schultheis could have settled, it was Emmonak that grabbed his heartstrings.

“The thing that got to me was the people,” he says. “They’re just different from everywhere else. I went out there, and some of them were still hunting with spears. I just always felt comfortable there.”

Dig deeper, and you’ll find a strong parallel between Schultheis and the people he loves. He tells stories of a hardscrabble existence where locals shoveled huge snowdrifts into the confines of underground pits so that they’d have ice to cool their meat and fish through the warm months of summer. They caught rainwater to drink and never knew the luxuries of toilets and running water until the 1980s. His own trajectory as general manager of Kwik’Pak Fisheries since 2005 has put Schultheis in the throes of floods, fires and other natural disasters that threatened the processing plant’s physical existence, not to mention its financial success.

By far, the most challenging factor through the years, he says, has been the lack of infrastructure. Every stud, every plank, every sheet of plywood or steel roofing must be loaded on a barge in spring so that it lands in Emmonak after the ice goes out of the river in early summer. And the costs of shipping drives construction and operating costs into the realm of the unthinkable.

“I pay more in shipping charges for a sheet of plywood than I pay for the actual sheet of plywood,” he says. Once the goods are landed, harsh weather and other setbacks stymie the projects.

“A building that would take a crew 90 days to construct in Anchorage or along Alaska’s meager road system winds up dragging on for two years or more,” he says. When Schultheis finally managed to make headway in increasing the plant’s production larger problems loomed. His efforts to expand the plant to put out more than 2 million pounds of chilled and frozen chum salmon fillets blew the village power transformers and ran its well out of water.

That precipitated the purchase and installation of two huge electrical generators at a half million dollars a pop and a water maker that can extract fresh water from the silt and salt-laden waters of the Yukon. Besides bringing Kwik’Pak’s salmon production to a peak of 8 million pounds a season, Schultheis put in the legwork that funnels chum fillets to premium markets domestically (Costco) and abroad.

“He knows so much about the worldwide market,” says Stephanie Quinn-Davidson, director of the Yukon Inter-Tribal Fish Commission. “He’s really taught me to think more globally when it comes to marketing Yukon River salmon,” she adds.

Schultheis’ savvy in marketing knowledge didn’t go unnoticed: In 2007, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin appointed him to the board of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, where he continues to serve as chairman.

Meanwhile, Quinn-Davidson’s respect for Schultheis as a steward of salmon conservation stems first from her years on the Yukon as a fisheries researcher, then as a regional fisheries manager for a year with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In her tenure with the tribal fish commission, Quinn-Davidson has come to regard Schultheis as a close friend and colleague for qualities that she says lie much deeper than driving Kwik’Pak to economic success.

“He could be involved and highly successful in any fishery within the state,” she says. “But he chooses to live and work in a little old fishery at the mouth of the Yukon.” That too goes back to his love for the people and the region.

“It’s his dedication to community,” says Tomi Marsh of Schultheis’s strongest attributes in a text as she ties up the 78-foot Savage after a fishing trip in Wrangell. Marsh, a harvester and writer, serves as a fellow ASMI board member with Schultheis, and like Quinn-Davidson notes that he knows no end in creating employment opportunities among residents in the Yukon delta.

At last count, Kwik’ Pak and Yukon Marine Manufacturing, a subsidiary company that builds up to 35 aluminum skiffs each year for local fishermen, tallied up to around 500 employees. When it comes to the demographics of the workers, he says he hired from more than 20 regional villages last year.

As for Schultheis, he’s hitting his stride at a time in life when some folks might choose to retire. And it’s the land, the people and the salmon that drive him on.

“I’ve always had such respect for the people out there,” he says. “You know, to live there and to stay there for thousands of years. There’s nothing that could make them leave that place. I’m like that, and I intend to keep going out there every year until I croak.”

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Charlie Ess is the North Pacific Bureau Chief for National Fisherman.

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