What you can learn from a first-hand look at pending doom.
Sometimes you get lucky. So when Scott Hed of Sportsman’s Alliance for Alaska talked to me at the recent ICAST/IFTD show about joining him for a trip to Alaska in support of their efforts to defeat the dreaded Pebble Mine, it was a no-brainer. Plus, somehow I had never been to Alaska on a fishing trip. Time to kill two birds with one stone.
The goal of the trip was to get acquainted with the Bristol Bay region – home to the most vibrant salmon populations on the planet – and to get a peek with my own eyes of the the proposed Pebble Mine project. You likely have heard a lot about this project (here in the Wading Room) and perhaps have your own thoughts. I did as well.
Our guests for 5 nights was Rapid Camps Lodge, an exquisite fly-out lodge on the banks of the Naknek River near King Salmon, AK. The lodge is on the front-lines of the fight against the Pebble Mine as they are worried about the livelihood of a lodge business that has spanned decades. Why? Because if Pebble Mine becomes a reality and – as is widely feared – something goes awry at the mine and contaminates the headwaters of the area’s best breeding grounds for salmon – the Nushagak and Kvichak Rivers – the salmon of the Neknak River and all of Bristol Bay will be affected. There is one thing that fishing lodge owners know – their existence is wholly contingent on the existence of fish for visitors to catch.
There are a lot of stories to tell about this trip with Scott Hed, Ben Bulis of AFFTA, and Wyatt Abernathy of the Dallas Safari Club. A lot of funny stories and bear stories that still baffle this first-time visitor. We had some great fishing and some frustrating fishing. All memorable experiences. However, the most memorable portion of the trip was when we decided not to go fishing one afternoon and, instead, fly the area of the Pebble Mine project.
I was curious whether getting an aerial viewpoint of the proposed mine would resonate. There was likely to be very little development there. We weren’t going to be able to land and feel the earth that was bound to be disturbed forever. What we did get, however, is a sense of the area on a grander scale. The lay of the land so-to-speak.
As we flew over the grand Lake Iliamna (the largest lake in Alaska) we followed Lower Talarik Creek for a few miles. Replete with wild sockeye salmon, Lower Talarik looked like some of the rivers we had already fished in Alaska. A few miles ahead of us we came into view of the mine site. A slurry of outbuildings and ground-level markings (apparently to indicate test wells) dot the landscape. It is, even by Alaska standards, really remote. My first thought was “Here! How did they even decide to search for anything here?”
The 3 or 4 fly bys of the mine site gave us a lay of the land as best as we could ascertain. We pointed out the extent of the mine and the massive footprint of the proposed settling “pond” on the property. After wearing out our welcome we decided to leave. The silence of the cabin was broken when our pilot, T-Bird (an avid opponent of the Pebble Mine and proponent of a safe and wild Alaska), spoke into our headsets “Here is the Koktuli River, headwaters of the Mulchatna that feeds into the Nushagak.” It was a matter of seconds after we left the mine site. I thought, “this thing is that close to these rivers.” Yes, this thing is that close. We flew the Koktuli River for a while and then headed back to Lake Iliamna, which seems about 5 miles as the crow flies. It might be longer, but it is close.
As we fly over the spectacular Lake Iliamna, we see the Kvichak River. Along with the Nushagak River, the Kvichak River is the other major salmon fishery (1/4 of Bristol Bay’s major feeders). It isn’t hard to see why this beautiful river that exits Lake Iliamna is such a good fishery. Or why it is under such threat from the Pebble Mine. All of these watersheds are right there.
The flight back to the lodge was a quiet one. None of us visitors knew when we would see this part of the world again. And if we did see it again, would we see it like we saw it this trip – wild, remote, virtually untouched and full of wonder? We hope so, but we will have to see.
To learn more about the campaign to save Bristol Bay, visit savebristolbay.org.