I met Roger Urbaniak playing pickleball at the YMCA off Bel-Red Road in Bellevue. I was languishing during the pandemic: eating too much, not exercising and missing community. In November 2021, my wife persuaded me to accompany her to the Y for exercise. I wandered into the gym where people were playing pickleball. They invited me in and taught me the rules. Since then, I play as much as I am able. I’ve lost weight and feel great. Best of all, I have been embraced by the diverse community of people who play pickleball. Roger is one of them. He has been coming to that Y for three years, starting just before COVID hit. At some point we struck up a conversation and I learned about Roger’s passion for preserving salmon in our region. Here is what I learned about his history and his passion.
Roger grew up in the upper peninsula of Michigan. He went to school at Michigan Tech and graduated with a degree in applied tech. In 1966, he came to the Northwest to work for Boeing as an engineer. At that time engineers made 12K a year. “I thought that was big money,” Roger says. Three years later Boeing had the big lay off that inspired the famous billboard, “Will the last person leaving Seattle turn off the lights.” Roger was part of that lay off. He pivoted and went into real estate, quickly migrating to commercial real estate where he had a forty-year career, first with some small firms and then for the last twenty years as the owner of Eastside Commercial, Inc. Roger moved to Mercer Island in 1974. He bought his current house for fifty thousand. The last time he checked, assessed value was two million.
In 2001, Roger married Linda. They both love the outdoors. Her specialty is gardening and flowers, and they have turned their home into a garden wonderland. Roger has a mismatch of outdoor interests, including foraging. Together they teach adult classes on edible wild foods and basic fishing techniques for kids age five to twelve. Roger has also taught a class on shellfish gathering with several different city parks and recreation organizations.
Roger was introduced to the outdoors by his dad and extended family who grew up right after the depression on a farm in the middle of Michigan, near the Saginaw-Bay City area, next to a state forest. It was important for them to live off the land. They hunted, trapped and foraged for edibles. That heritage was passed on to Roger. Roger developed his fishing and hunting passion early. During the summer his parents took him to the farm. He and his sister would stay there all summer long, helping with the farming and harvesting food. In that way he came to appreciate for land and its produce.
Part of his attraction to the Northwest was the beauty of the outdoors. He learned that if it was cloudy weather in Seattle it was only an hour’s drive to sunshine in Eastern WA. He regularly would make that drive, acquiring hobbies along the way, like gathering mushrooms and wild asparagus, bird hunting, fishing and gathering rocks and minerals.
One of his great passions where much of his volunteer time is given, is salmon. He serves on several committees that look after the interests of continuing to propagate salmon, especially Sockeye salmon. These committees are advisory to Washington’s Fish and Wildlife. He is also a Master Docent at the Issaquah hatchery. In the fall he helps harvest the returning fish. He harvests the eggs (one fish has about 2,500 eggs) and starts the egg development process. Then in December he goes back and picks up 80,000 eggs and distributes them to remote incubator sites.
The Issaquah Hatchery is essential in nurturing the salmon run. It releases themselves between 500,000 and a million Coho salmon that are kept in ponds and raceways (where they pump water in one end of the pond and it flows out another, like an artificial stream with depth in it and screens to protect from predators). The salmon are genetically programmed to be in fresh water for 1 year. Then they spend two to three years in the salt water. Roger says, “We hope to have roughly 3% of the fish that we release from the hatchery return. That is all we need to keep the population stable.”
After the fish are raised for a year at the Issaquah Hatchery they are released into Issaquah creek. They travel to Lake Sammamish, then through the Sammamish Slough into Lake Washington, then into Lake Washington up the Mount Lake Cut to Lake Union and the Ballard Locks and finally out into Puget Sound. It only takes these one-year-old fish two weeks to make that journey.
Roger works with two remote salmon incubators (RSI) on creeks that flow into the Sammamish. One of those creeks is named “Gold Creek.” He also volunteers with RSIs at ten streams that empty into Lake Washington. There used to be an incubator at the entrance of Marymoor Park but the city of Redmond got a restoration grant for the stream. They never Roger or his Puget Sound Angler Volunteers use the site again even years after restoration was completed. Roger has not been successful in getting permission to put RSIs at other Redmond locations either including Idylewood Park. Still his hard work has paid off: “because of our work we have had Coho salmon fishing seasons for twenty-five years in Lake Washington that open every September 15th.” The Coho are bright, feisty, and tasty then usually weighing six to ten pounds.
Why he cares
Why does Roger care about the salmon? Roger belongs to the Nature Conservancy; their philosophy is to preserve the nature we now have for future generations. He uses this idea in his work with salmon: “My goal is to preserve the salmon species in the numbers that we have enjoyed for the next generation.” Roger shares the Native American reverence of salmon. The art exhibit at the Issaquah hatchery shows that reverence and the Native American recognition that without salmon they would have had a tough time living. With artificial food and less ties to the land we lose our appreciation of food sources. Roger points out that nature is woven together to let several species prosper. The current difficulty maintaining salmon numbers is taking a toll on the killer whale population. There will be other results if the salmon numbers aren’t kept at the current level. Roger hopes that enough people get concerned about the health and numbers of salmon to direct the funding necessary to maintain their numbers. There is an ancient Chinese saying, “We and nature are one.” Roger tries to live that out in his care for salmon.
Roger shares his passion with others. Esther, a pickleball friend, who loves nature too is going to help teach at two of Roger’s kids fishing classes at Burbank Park on Mercer Island. When kids catch their first fish they often scream and yell with excitement. The kids ages five to twelve years old will fish for perch off the dock using worms and jigs. They learn to tie knots, bait hooks, cast, untangle their line, and set hooks. The parent that accompanies the kids learns too. The class starts with a fifteen-minute lecture, then they fish for an hour and a half. For Esther being outdoors is healing. And helping the kids is fun.
When I asked Roger how does fishing work with his preservation of fish, he said, “I’m like a farmer that enjoys his crop. You find that hunters and fishermen that are most concerned with protecting the environment for future generations. They are out there; they enjoy nature and its harvest. It’s what gets them excited about life.”
Roger’s favorite is fishing for perch in Lake Washington. “Perch are my favorite eating fish. They are delicious.” There is also no size or quantity limit. Officials estimate that there are ten million perch in Lake Washington and a similar abundant number in Lake Sammamish. Roger points out that perch are one of the main predators of sockeye salmon smolt (smolt are young salmon after the parr stage, when it becomes silvery and migrates to the sea for the first time). He says that of the millions of smolt that are released as soon as they hatch out of the egg most (95%) don’t survive their one year in fresh water. In contrast, 90% of the smolt raised at the Issaquah Hatchery make it to salt water. The perch are big predators of the smolt as are bass, cutthroat trout, northern Pike minnow and crappie. “When I fish for perch, have that in mind that I’m removing predators from the lake as well as getting something tasty for dinner,” Roger says.
Salmon travel the Sammamish River corridor first to and then back from the salt waters of Puget Sound. Without this corridor we wouldn’t have the salmon or salmon fishing. Every fall I watch for the salmon coming through the Sammamish. Since I grew up fishing for salmon with my dad and fish any chance I get, my heart beats fast when I see their fins break the water and the swirls of water when packs of salmon come through. Now I have a name for one of the caretakers who nurtures these salmon migrations for the generations to come: Roger Urbaniak.
The Bridges of Redmond
The Bridges of Redmond is a project by presbyterian pastor and artist Jason Dorsey they tells the stories of the Sammamish River that flows through Redmond and the people who love it. Read more here.
Read the story of Jason’s Redmond Roots here
Read the story of past Redmond mayor Christine Himes here
Read the story of past Redmond mayor Rosemarie Ives here
Read the story of river poet Ken Osborne here
Read the story of culture weaver and community builder Laura Lee Bennett here