Archive for the ‘Bristol Bay’ Category

Top Images for 2013

Monday, December 16th, 2013
Top Images for 2013

One of the treats of looking back at the year is realizing the diversity of what you captured, and recognizing that each year, something new comes along. This year saw three principal areas of photographic exploration for me: the American Southwest (in winter), the Bristol Bay region and the aurora borealis. And while my aurora borealis prints are definitely my top selling category of print right now, I would be remiss if I did not give the other areas equal weight.  This is especially true for my Bristol Bay images.

In January, Michelle and I were in the American Southwest, starting in Las Vegas (the best place to fly into from Alaska for a visit to the Southwest). We went to Death Valley National Park, Mono Lake, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, and the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Unfortunately for us, for the first part of the trip, it was actually colder than our home in Alaska, where we found unseasonably cold weather in Mono Lake and the Moab area. But, for me, it reiterated that winter can be a fantastic time to visit national parks – far fewer people and the opportunity to take some more unique images.

The year’s fieldwork for the book started out in the village of Nondalton, a small community of Dena’ina Athabascans on the edge of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, and situated only about 11 air miles away from the proposed Pebble Mine site. I photographed some winter scenics, spent some time with a trapper as he checked his trap lines, and went for a snow machine visit to some friends near the mouth of the Chulitna River. Next, in May, I flew out to Dillingham where I met up with Frank Woods and joined him and his crew to head out to the Togiak herring fishery.  Five days on the boat during incredibly clear and gorgeous weather produced a lot of fantastic images of hard work in amazing scenery. In June, I joined a group of Alaska Alpine Adventure clients for a guided backcountry trip into the Twin Lakes area of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve. Next month would find me visiting fish camps on the Newhalen River and out on the Cook Inlet coast visiting the Silver Salmon Creek Lodge to document brown bear viewing and flyfishing. Finally, in September, I flew out and spent a few days with the team at the No See Um Lodge, documenting sport fishing and the incredible scenery of the Kvichak River.

And then, there was the aurora chasing. In March, I was joined by Hawaii photographers CJ Kale and Nick Selway, owners of the Lava Light Galleries in Kona, and Eastern Sierras photographer Nolan Nitschke. After they did a mad-dash run up to Prudhoe Bay, I joined them in photographing the Broad Pass area of the Parks Highway one evening, and then we happened to be in Portage Valley of Chugach National Forest for the incredibly epic St. Patrick’s Day display. And then, this August, September and November, I was out again capturing more images in the vicinity of Anchorage to build up my aurora borealis image collection.

And then, there were a few things here and there that rounded out the year.  Countless incredible Cook Inlet sunsets photographed from the deck of my new home on the Anchorage hillside. A jaunt out to Prince William Sound for a reality TV show episode. A flight to do some aerial photography of properties in the Knik Arm area for Great Land Trust. Exploring fall colors in Southcentral Alaska.

You can view the totality of my “Best Of” selection in my 2013 Year in Review gallery, but here are my some highlights from my favorite images from the year.

The Making of a Photo: “First Toss”

Friday, September 27th, 2013
The Making of a Photo:

It was a curious chain of events that found me on a drift commercial fishing boat in the Ugashik District of Bristol Bay, at the height of the sockeye salmon fishery in 2011.  As I prepared to launch into my Bristol Bay photography project, I was searching for that first connection to introduce me to people in the region.  I was looking to get my foot in the door of Bristol Bay, so to speak. Fortunately, my wife Michelle worked with someone who was the grand daughter of a matriarch of a commercial fishing family – four generations of commercial fishermen going back to before Statehood. In short time, I was on a flight to King Salmon, where a ride awaited to take me to Naknek to meet up with the matriarch herself, Violet Willson. That evening I was out photographing one of her other grand daughters, Rhonda, working her set net with her husband and son.

The next afternoon, I was on the tender Westward on a 13-hour ride down to the Ugashik Bay. As the sun rose just under a band of clouds on the horizon, I caught my first glimpse of the commercial fishing fleet, scattered about on the horizon.  They were in the midst of a sockeye salmon opener, often a limited period of time around six hours where they can catch as much as they can before the opener is done and they move into the river to deliver their catch to a waiting tender.  The Westward was on its way down to relieve another Ocean Beauty tender, which would take its haul of fish back to Naknek and deliver to the cannery.

My purpose in riding the Westward down to Ugashik was to hook up with another one of Violet’s grandchildren, Everett Thompson.  He was the skipper of the F/V Chulyen.  After several boats had delivered their catch to the Westward, I finally caught my first glimpse of the Chulyen as she approached to make her delivery; the tell-tale “No Pebble” flag was flying from her mast, and Everett was at the helm on the pilot house waving to me as he approached. When the Chulyen pulled alongside to deliver her catch, I tossed my personal bag over and jumped over with my camera bag on my back. The next opener was not until 6:00 a.m. the next day, so after the Chulyen delivered her catch, we anchored out in a small bay sheltered from the wind and caught some rest before the next day’s work was upon us.

As the opener approached, the two crewmen got the nets and the buoy ready to go.  Everett maneuvered the Chulyen around to a location where he was confident would bring in a good catch.  He suggested I join him on the pilot house for a higher perspective of the crew and the net drum. So, I pulled out my Nikon D700 and selected my Nikon 12-24 f/4.0 AFS-DX lens.  Given the brightness of the sky compared to the color of the water, I selected a Lee graduated neutral density filter (.09) to balance the exposure.  Then, it was just a matter of waiting for the crewmember to toss out the buoy at the beginning of the opener.  Everett was both driving the boat around to get it in the right position (constantly changing the scene as the sun was coming up about then) and keeping an eye on the clock to make sure his crew did not start setting the net before they legally could.

So, I waited.  All the while, the boat was constantly changing orientation, the swell of the ocean constantly forcing me to readjust my camera to match the ever-changing horizon. And, I had to make sure that the dark line of my GND hard filter matched that of the shifting horizon.  Then, the moment came.  Everett gave the signal to toss the buoy and start casting out the net. The crewman tossed the buoy, and my finger pressed down on the shutter button, while simultaneously making sure that my camera was as level as it could be with the shifting sea and all.

This was the first trip on my fieldwork for the book, my first time out on a drift commercial fishing boat, and my first drift commercial fishing opener.  So in more ways than one, this picture truly is “First Toss.”

Twin Lakes trip

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013
Twin Lakes trip

It’s been too long since I have been on a multi-day backcountry trip in Alaska. I’ve been on river floats, backpacking trips, and a kayaking trip.  A couple of decades ago, I was actually a canoe guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northern Minnesota. But I have never in my life ever been on the client end of a guided backcountry trip.  And I could not have imagined a better first step in being a guiding client than to head out for a trip into the Twin Lakes area of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve with Alaska Alpine Adventures.

The purpose of this particular trip was to highlight backcountry recreation in the Bristol Bay region for fieldwork on my upcoming book, “Where Water is Gold: Life and Livelihood in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.” While Alaska Alpine Adventures, or AAA as they call themselves, operates several trips in Lake Clark and Katmai National Parks, I selected their “Twin Lakes Paddle” trip as a good option for my fieldwork. Paddling is always a good thing when you are carrying camera gear into the backcountry, and the itinerary would include options for day hikes in order to explore the landscape.  Finally, the trip would culminate in a visit to the historic Dick Proenneke cabin on Upper Twin Lake.

I joined eleven other clients – people ranging from a pair of carpenters from New Jersey to a couple from Singapore – and one of the company’s founders, Dan Oberlatz, at the Lake & Pen Air office at Merrill Field in Anchorage. After brief introductions, we were split up into two groups and flown out to Port Alsworth, where AAA bases its operations in the Bristol Bay region. On our flight out, we had the chance to see a bull moose moving through the grassy area of the mudflats near the mouth of the Susitna River and a pod of Beluga whales. We met up with the rest of the group in Port Alsworth, headed over to The Farm Lodge, which is where our personal gear was staged to get ready for the flight out to our first base camp.

Getting thirteen people out into the backcountry using small aircraft takes some time, especially if that aircraft is a Cessna 185, which can only take 3-4 passengers plus, gear (plus one plane was dedicated exclusively to gear) at a time.  We flew out with Lake Clark Air, which had dedicated two planes to the effort to get us all out there.  With a half-hour flight one way to our drop off site, it took about three hours to complete the ferrying of people and gear.  We all found our own equipment, spread out across the peninsula we had chosen for a base camp, and selected spots to set up our tents.  While there is always opportunity on trips like this to find some alone time, this is one of the times where you have to be alone – setting up your own personal space out on the trail.  The primary considerations are comfort and view.  You look for ground that is level and free of rocks, padded if possible or otherwise on a level bed of gravel that still provides a somewhat comfortable ground.  The other part of the comfort is finding a spot that catches a good breeze, to drive away the bugs as much as possible. And, if you can, it’s always great to select a spot with a view.  Nothing like opening up the inner zipper and rain fly in the morning and looking out onto a scenic vista.

I find being out in the backcountry to be incredibly relaxing, rewarding, mind-clearing, inspiring – even with all of the work that has to be done in traveling, setting up and striking camp, preparing meals, cleaning up, and collecting water.  Take away all of the work, and you have even more time to take in the experience of being out in the wilderness.  For me, that is truly the wonder of going out into the backcountry on a guided trip.  Sure, it’s great to have someone else do the trip planning and handle the logistics, but taking away the work of cooking and cleaning up; that is really where the magic is. With Alaska Alpine Adventures, not only do they prepare incredible meals on the trip, they prepare their own product line of meals.  Called Adventure Appetites, this gourmet backcontry cuisine is pretty much unlike anything you have ever eaten in the backcountry before.  And when even the worst food can sometimes taste amazing in the backcountry, you can only imagine how great food can taste.

With five days out in the Twin Lakes area, we spent our days moving our way through the Twin Lakes areas on inflatable kayaks, taking day hikes to explore the area and get up high for incredible views, and spending some time alone to take in the wilderness to ourselves. It was right in the middle of an unusually hot summer for Alaska, and for most of the trip, it was sunny and hot.  The timing was perfect to see scores of wildflowers blooming from the lake shore all the way up to 4,500 feet on the alpine slopes above, where even the tiniest flowers towered over and dwarfed our base camp miles below. After one hike, I dragged myself back into camp, hot and sweaty, sore from the hike, and switched into a swimsuit to go take a dip in the lake.  It was a short dip, but I submerged completely into the icy waters and felt completely refreshed.

The diversity of elements to photograph were beyond what I could hope for.  The clear skies made for incredibly rich morning and evening light, casting warm tones on the Chigmit Mountains and the blooming flowers. There was also a surprise abundance of birds around us, from a nesting pair of Arctic terns near our camp to a Bonaparte’s gull to some plovers and a pair of lesser yellow legs. One morning, before the sun came up, I was sitting on the ground, capturing some wildflowers, when I looked up an saw a plover darting about on the ground, circling around me, getting closer and backing off, then getting closer again.  It was clear to me that the plover was guarding a nearby nest, but I couldn’t see it anywhere. I managed to get some tight shots of him as he came really close, then moved away in order to give him some space and reduce his anxiety. And the weather did not stay sunny and clear the whole time, which is good.  One evening, shortly after we had set up a new camp near a creek on the far end of Lower Twin Lakes, a thunderstorm rolled through, adding dramatic clouds and patterns of sunlight to the scene.  Another day, after a full day of clouds, wind and rain, the skies opened up at just the right point in the evening to cast dramatic red and pink hues on the clouds for a brilliant sunset.

After being delayed at one camp site for an extra day, the winds eased up enough for us to make the final paddle across Upper Twin Lake in order to visit Dick Proenneke’s cabin. For the carpenters from New Jersey, this was the ultimate purpose of the trip.  Dick Proenneke was dropped off on this site in 1967 with a handful of tools and supplies.  Over the next year, he would build the cabin by hand, cutting, carving and forging every piece himself using basic tools.  He would live alone in the cabin for the next 32 years, hiking extensively in the area, trapping, hunting and fishing, and through it all, taking copious notes of this daily routines and observations. Visiting the site can be very inspiring, and can instill a desire for what may appear to be a simpler life, but, I am sure that Dick’s life in the area was anything but simple.  At the very least, it was a pure life, a life dedicated to developing a relationship with the land, and understanding of the natural world that increasingly becomes impossible to attain in our modern world.

But, trips like this and others in the backcountry can be a good step toward at least maintaining a connection with the natural world, or developing at least some of an understanding of it. As a photographer, trips like this can be incredibly rewarding and rejuvenating.


“You’re Not Pro-Pebble, Are Ya?”

Wednesday, September 25th, 2013

I was out in Dillingham in early May to hop on a bow picker and head out to photograph the Togiak herring fishery.  When met by my host, Frank Woods, at the airport, he introduced me to a woman, saying I was working on a book about Bristol Bay.  She was friendly and enthusiastic, but when I handed her my project business card, her expression soured just a little bit and she asked, “You’re not pro-Pebble, are ya?” I was taken back a bit by this inquiry, but she explained that my project website URL made her wonder: I explained to her that no, I was not pro-Pebble, it’s just that I included “Pebble” in the name of the URL in order to note that the story would include a little information about the Pebble conflict.

I was told recently by a friend, also from Dillingham, that she had been trying to get the word out about fundraising for my project, but that people were weary to support it because they were concerned that I leaned in favor of Pebble.  Another person told me last week that the fundraising video on my Kickstarter campaign page was too neutral.

It is true, my project fundraising video is very neutral in tone.  But there is a reason.

Primary above all things, I do not want the focus of the book to be on the potential development of the Pebble Mine. I want to tell three stories about Bristol Bay: commercial fishing, the subsistence way of life, and recreational activities in the region.  But it would be dishonest to tell a story about this region without including some discussion on the thing that is the topic of so much discussion and controversy in the area.  Sure, there are other mineral exploration projects that could produce mines and there is the potential for offshore oil and gas development when the temporary moratorium for the region expires in a few years, but people out here are not talking about those things.  Those other projects are not pitting neighbors and family members against one another.  Those other topics don’t produce community meetings where people are told to leave the kids at home because of the heated, and often profane, arguments that ensue about Pebble.  And none of those other projects seem to really put in the spotlight at center stage a controversy that goes right to the heart of Alaska – the tension between conservation and development of its abundant resources.

In order to tell the story about Bristol Bay in a way that has the most impact, I have to leave my personal opinion about the development of the mine in the background.  Why? Because, to use the “preaching to the choir” analogy, my audience is not the choir, but the people who have come into the church for the first time. The people who live in Bristol Bay and rely on its abundant fish and wildlife to survive already know it’s a wonderful place that must be sustained.  In all my travels, the only people I have met who are either in favor of the mine development are those who currently benefit economically from the mine exploration – that is, they have a job or their spouse has a job, or their company is hired by Pebble to perform services. So my message is not to the people of Bristol Bay, it is to that person from Tennessee who has never been to Alaska or Bristol Bay, or probably has not even heard of Bristol Bay.  I need to introduce that person to a new world, using only true stories, facts and photos to help them appreciate what a wonderful, amazing place it is.

It is also important to me to have as much access to the people of the region that I can in order to tell an honest, comprehensive story about Bristol Bay.  If I only speak to one side, I don’t get the whole story. It is my experience that there is a solid reason why people are for or against the mine, and it often relates directly to their way of life.  Thus, I can miss out on significant aspects of the way of life in the region if I leave out whole segments of the population. And people in certain villages are vary weary of anyone who is rabidly anti- or pro-Pebble.  They have been visited again and again by outsiders who want to know how they feel about Pebble. In the area of Iliamna, Newhalen and Nondalton, there is a lot of politics and posturing related to the mine.  As one Dena’ina Athabascan elder told me, the mine issue has turned people against each other, and in a way that is contrary to their traditions and beliefs.  When I contacted the Newhalen Tribal Council about coming to the area for a visit, they were pleased to see that I presented my project in a neutral, objective way.

In addition to that, people who are new to a subject are generally turned off by negativity.  They don’t want to hear gloom and doom and rants about evil foreign corporations running amok in Alaska.  They want puppies and bunnies, rainbows and blue skies. Well, not quite, but you get the point.  In an increasingly polarized world, people are increasingly tuning out the advocacy pieces. Generally, the only people who read a “hit” piece are people who already agree with the issue.

So, in my travels, I have tried to seek out as many people as I can to learn about their way of life.  That is my primary goal, to answer the question, “What is your life like out here?” Sometimes I don’t even ask people how they feel about Pebble, but invariably it comes up in conversation.  For one gentleman at fish camp near Nondalton, all I had to do was say my name and that I was a photographer, to which he asked, “Who do you work for?”  I said I worked for no one, and told him that I was doing a book about Bristol Bay.  He proceeded to go on a diatribe against people where were anti-Pebble, saying it was not fair to be against the mine if there is no mine plan.  I refrained from contradicting him and telling him that there was, in fact, a mine plan; rather, I kept trying to ask questions like “So how has your summer been? Have you caught a lot of fish? How have the fish been?” But, to no avail.  I wanted to tell him how my book would touch on the Pebble issue, but he really was not interested in having a discussion. Fortunately, my ride came and told me it was time to go, and I was glad to leave. For the most part, those who are opposed to the mine are the ones who have been willing to talk to me.  I have spoken to the Pebble Partnership on several occasions, and there have been promises of interest and access, but in the end, they have never delivered. In my writings, I have explored various aspects of the region by telling stories about people and ways of life, or exploring various controversies related to the Pebble development.  Again, it is really difficult just to have a conversation out here without it eventually leading to Pebble.

As I have said on more than one occasion, my goal is not to tell an anti-Pebble or pro-Pebble story, but a pro-Bristol Bay story.  Telling a slanted story in favor of or against isn’t interesting; but telling about the way of life and talking about the controversy of the issue and how it is shaping the region; that is interesting to me.  I am not there to argue, debate, or impose my views.  No, I am there to learn. I can’t learn if I impose my will.  And along the way, I have learned many wonderful things and met incredibly generous people.  And it is that learning that I want to keep on doing. To those who are defensive about Pebble and have been hostile to me, I’d still love to talk to you to learn about how your uncle taught you to hunt, how you learned about processing fish from your grandmother, or how you learned what plants are edible and how to prepare them.

At the Coray Homestead

Thursday, August 15th, 2013
At the Coray Homestead

It’s a windy but relatively hot Saturday afternoon, and I am resting in a small lounge area in the dining hall at The Farm Lodge in Port Alsworth, Alaska.  The lodge consists of a main building with dining hall and several cabins of lovely wood construction. I am relaxing after yet another delicious meal. As the ladies in the commercial kitchen prepare for the evening meal, the constant drone of Christian music can be heard coming from the radio (presumably an iPod). While Port Alsworth is a generally religious, small community on the shores of Lake Clark in the preserve unit of Lake Clark National Park & Preserve, this part of the community is particularly religious. After spending a day here following a weeklong backcountry trip in the Twin Lakes area of the park, I have come to get a taste of what a religious commune must feel like. Every meal is prefaced by a prayer. Everyone is really friendly in that mildly something’s-not-right kind of way, and everyone looks related to one another.  The largest building in the community is the church (except for the airplane hangar at one of the community’s two airstrips). Lake Clark Air, owned and operated by the same family that owns the lodge, discourages its customers from using their aircraft to transport alcohol.  And no alcohol is allowed in the dining hall.

I am waiting for the arrival of Steve Kahn, who is on his way via boat from the homestead he shares with his wife, Anne Coray. Steve is the author of “The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship and the Hunt.” Anne is a poet, and has published a few collections of her works, including “Bone Strings.” Together, they wrote the text for Alaska Geographic’s “Lake Clark National Park & Preserve.” While a float plane ride with Lake Clark Air would be the faster way to the homestead, they are not flying due to high winds on the lake. As the afternoon progresses, the winds die down quite a bit but Lake Clark Air still refuses to fly.  At one point, I hear a knock and a “Hello?” coming from inside the kitchen.  The ladies have long since finished their kitchen tasks and left the dining hall. I get up, go to the kitchen, and meet Steve face-to-face for the first time. Wearing a leather hat, bushy mustache and gear designed to protect the body from wind and rain, Steve is the kind of person you instantly feel comfortable around, like you have known him for years.  We gather up my gear and head down to his 18-foot Lund to load up and head out onto the lake.

Normally about a half hour ride, the stiff winds and frequent gusts, along with rolling, shifting swells, makes for a nearly hour long boat ride, interrupted frequently by jaw-jarring slamming of the boat’s keel against rising swells. Despite the nature of the ride, it is hard to avoid or miss the stark, raw beauty of the Lake Clark shoreline and surrounding mountains. We eventually make it to the shelter of the bay where Steve and Anne’s homestead is located.

Built in the early 1950s, the homestead sits on the western shore of Lake Clark, a short boat ride from the top of the lake, a frequent rally point for small aircraft traveling from Anchorage into the region. The youngest of four children when she was born, Anne joined this world in a small, one-room log cabin on the property in 1958.  I would have the pleasure of sleeping in that cabin during my three-night visit. That cabin has been joined by three other structures: Ann and Steve’s cabin, another cabin belonging to Anne’s brother Craig and his wife, who spend their summers at the cabin, and a third cabin in progress belonging to Anne’s brother David.

As the Van Halen song says, “I found the simple life ain’t so simple.” During my visit, Anne and Steve note that people who think that living off the grid in a wilderness homestead is something to do in their retirement years simply don’t understand the amount of work necessary to make it happen. After spending a few days with them and getting a taste of the lifestyle, I come to get a sense of how time consuming and physically tasking the lifestyle can be.

In order to build their cabin, Ann and Steve had to have the lumber shipped in from Anchorage.  While it was originally supposed to come by barge, due to a series of events shaped by weather and incompetence, they had to cart the wood from Port Alsworth to their homestead via dozens of trips back and forth in the Lund boat. Their cabin is heated by wood burning stove, which requires an abundant supply of firewood – firewood that must be cut, split, hauled, and stacked. For electricity, they use solar panels to generate power, but use it sparingly, only powering a marine radio (that is rarely used), a computer and the Internet (which are fired up only a couple of times a day), and the occasional bouts of music.  One evening we listened to a variety of Tom Waits selections while drinking their marvelous home-brewed beer. They do not use a washer or dryer (all laundry is done by hand), refrigerator (they use the nearby creek), or freezer for food (everything that is perishable that needs to be stored longterm is canned).  For ice, they have constructed a large wooden box filled with sawdust, harvesting ice from the lake in the winter using a chainsaw to cut large blocks for burial in the sawdust.  Then, to enjoy a G&T in the summer, you just push aside the sawdust, chip off some ice, and toss it in your glass.

In order to get fresh produce, Steve and Anne grow their own in an open garden and a greenhouse.  Strawberries, lettuce, spinach, bok choy, brocolli, bell peppers, and tomatoes are among the crops they grow, protected by fencing, webbing, and electrified wiring in order to keep out snowshoe hares, moose and bears.  For a garden fertilizer, they collect the carcasses of spawned-out salmon on the shores of Lake Clark in October and bury them whole in the rows where seeds will be planted in the following season. They also harvest wild edible plants, like “beach onion” or “wild chive,” which they preserve by soaking in olive oil and canning it, as well as an assortment of roots and berries that grow nearby.

Most of their protein also comes from the land. Lake Clark is fed by one of the richest sockeye salmon runs in the world.  Starting out in Bristol Bay, the sockeye swim up the Kvichak River into Lake Iliamna, then up the Newhalen River into Sixmile Lake, and then a short stream connecting to Lake Clark. By mid-July, their beaches will feature set nets extended out from shore anchors down the beach away from the cabin. Sockeye, already starting to undergo the metamorphasis of shining, silver ocean fish to reddish with green head spawning fish, will be slamming into gill nets, cutting short their thousands of miles of travel to spawn. These salmon will become the primary protein source for Anne and Steve, and dozens of other homestead residents on the lake, for most of the coming year. It is their concerns over adverse impacts to this primary food source that leads their opposition to the development of the proposed Pebble Mine.

But that is not all of the bounty that this wild land has to offer for Anne and Steve.  During my visit, they catch lunch and dinner using rod and reel for Arctic char and a floating hook and line “set” for lake trout.  In the winter, they can fish for those and other fish.  And then, about once every three years or so, they will hunt for moose – an animal large enough to provide them sufficient red meat to last for several years.

Not being familiar with this way of life, one may wonder, “What do you guys do out there?” This is a common question for Anne and Steve, who see their remote, wilderness home as a source of constant inspiration for their writing. But the daily tasks of simply providing for food and fuel can dominate the day and sometimes take away from time for writing. And then there are construction and rennovation projects. Dave’s cabin is slowly being built over the years. Steve and Anne have been working on restoring old, nearby cabins belonging to prior homesteaders. Nearby homesteaders, like their closest neighbor Bella Hammond, sometimes need some assistance.  Bella is, after all, in her 80s and still living mostly by herself at the homestead she built with her husband, former (and beloved) Alaska Governor Jay Hammond.

While the homestead life may not be for everyone, it is hard to not be inspired by their ingenuity, the products of their labor, and their connection with a land that so many have forgotten. After visiting with them for a few days, I vowed to come back for another visit; then not as a photographer documenting a book, but just as a visitor. I also became inspired to make more of my own 1.26 acres on the Anchorage hillside, envisioning how to turn a large patch of alder into a garden someday, expanding what Michelle and I have already begun doing with our greenhouse.

Togiak herring: the Other Bristol Bay Fishery

Wednesday, July 17th, 2013
Togiak herring: the Other Bristol Bay Fishery

If you read newspaper or magazine articles discussing commercial fishing in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska (or even watch the documentaries that are out there), all they ever cover is the sockeye salmon commercial fishery.  There’s a good reason for that.  The fishery provides 50% of the entire worldwide sockeye salmon supply. It brings in $1.5 billion in revenue a year and provides 12,000 jobs. But it’s not the only fishery, and not the first, either.

Well over a month before any fisherman puts his boat in the water to catch sockeye salmon, a small fleet of boats heads out from Naknek and Dillingham to the far western reaches of Bristol Bay to Kulukak Bay and the waters near the coastal village of Togiak.  Their goal: to capture herring as they are heading to their spawning grounds along the coast.  The herring are caught, frozen solid, and shipped primarily to Japan for harvesting of the herring roe.  The Togiak herring fishery is the second of three commercial herring fisheries in Alaska each year.  The first, and most well-known, is the Sitka fishery.  But as one Peter Pan employee I spoke to noted, the value of the Togiak herring fishery depends on the success of the Sitka herring fishery.  And this year it was not a good year for the Sitka fishery, opening up the possibility that the Togiak fishery, if successful, could be very profitable this year.

Commercial herring fishing is vastly different from commercial sockeye fishing, even though the exact same boat is often used in both fisheries.  The boat I was on, the F/V Megan Dee owned by Frank Woods of Dillingham, also operates during the sockeye fishery.  With sockeye fishing, the net is pulled up using a hydraulic “drum” and then the crew carefully picks salmon off the net and tosses it into the boat’s cargo hold. Quality and care of each individual fish is crucial for obtaining quality bonuses with the cannery.  With herring fishing, the main concern is volume, not quality. Rather than the crew picking the net of fish, a device called a “tumbler” that is attached to the front of the drum violently shakes the net as it is being pulled in in order to force the herring (and numerous bycatch species like yellowtail and flounder) out of the net and onto the deck.  The crew primarily ensure the net comes in straight and untangles any knots that may occur along the way, pushing the fish from the deck into the cargo hold using a wide metal broom-like device with a long handle.

Another difference between sockeye and herring fishing is the periods when fishing is allowed.  Commercial sockeye fishing is subject to periodic openings and closings, based on the amount of escapement (fish making it up the river) that the Alaska Department of Fish & Game monitors constantly.  Open periods are typically six hours long.  The length of time between openers can be hours, or days.  But with herring fishing, it is open until closed – a period that last several weeks. The only limits set during that time are those typically set by the processors, who start to lose the ability to keep up with the volume of herring being delivered.  With this year’s Togiak herring fishery, the processors started putting limits on daily catches as early as four days into the season.  One of the earlier limitations put in place was of only accepting 20 tons of delivery a day.

In the end, this year’s Togiak herring fishery turned out to be a profitable one for the commercial fishermen involved.  Both the seine and drift gillnet fleets harvested around 95% of their quota, for a total of approximately 29,000 tons of herring harvested.  By local media accounts, this was a near-record year.  Here is the full ADF&G summary for the season.


Judge Ye Not, Mr. Vitter

Tuesday, July 2nd, 2013

There are several lessons in the Bible that advise us about being judgmental, and lying. In John, we are told that Jesus stops an angry crowd from stoning to death an adulterous woman by exclaiming, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” John 8:7. In other points in the New Testament, we receive additional counseling on being judgmental: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged.” Matthew 7:1. “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Luke 6:37. “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.” Romans 2:1.  And then there’s the classic from Exodus 20:16: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” I like to think of these things when supposedly religious folk get judgmental.

Today, U.S. Senator David Vitter accused Trout Unlimited of engaging in bribery by offering the chance to win a free trip to those people who commented on the EPA revised draft watershed assessment.

There are a few things noteworthy about this otherwise short news piece that probably won’t get much attention.  First, bribery is a term of art; namely, it is a criminal act. Every state has its own criminal code and defines it differently.  Under Alaska Statute 11.55.100, bribery occurs when a “person confers, offers to confer, or agrees to confer a benefit upon a public servant with the intent to influence the public servant’s vote, opinion, judgment, action, decision, or exercise of official discretion.” It is also a Class B Felony under Alaska law. The definition of “bribery” under Louisiana law is similar, as found in Revised Statute 14:118.

Second, a U.S. Senator has now publicly accused a nationwide non-profit organization of engaging in a criminal act, perhaps even a pattern of criminal conduct as the “bribe” was offered to several people.  (Let’s set aside the fact that, under Alaska’s definition of “bribery” and likely that of all other states, you can’t commit a bribe unless you are offering some sort of benefit to a “public servant” or “public official.” It doesn’t count if the “benefit” is offered to the public.  No official.) When you orally make a false statement about someone else, that’s what they call slander. Lawyers make whole careers over suing people for that stuff.  And when your slanderous statement is an accusation of a crime, that’s what is called “slander per se” – meaning, it is defamatory on its face without any explanatory matter.  Now, of course, Senator Vitter could just claim it’s hyperbole as a defense, but that leads me to my third point.

Third, let’s go back to what the New Testament teaches us about judging others. Senator Vitter is an “outspoken Catholic,” having been raised in and still practicing in the Roman Catholic faith.  Catholics proudly declare they were the first Christian church, tracing their papal roots right back to Apostle Peter, the most beloved of all Jesus’ disciples. According to news reports, he is on record for admitting that he engaged in prostitution. In Alaska, that’s a Class C Felony (AS 11.66.100(c)(1)). 

So, I offer some unsolicited (and would totally be ignored if it ever got to him) advice to Senator Vitter: Don’t run around accusing people of committing crimes when you know it’s not true because you are smart enough to know that bribes only involve public officials and you yourself are an admitted criminal. Try actually governing if you really need some attention.  You bet your ass that it would receive a lot of coverage because that would really be a rare event worthy of at least one 24-hour news cycle.

Provide Meaningful Comments to EPA

Thursday, June 27th, 2013
Provide Meaningful Comments to EPA

In the upcoming days, you will see a frantic flurry of e-blasts, Tweets and Facebook posts urging you to tell the EPA to stop the Pebble Mine, to “help save jobs” in the commercial fishing industry.  But these calls for action are not what the EPA is looking for right now.  Unfortunately, it has been a common problem during this process.

Last summer, the EPA conducted its first round of public hearings on the initial draft Bristol Bay watershed assessment, from Anchorage to villages along the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds. At each hearing, the EPA started with a presentation. First, the EPA explained why it was even involved in the issue. It was petitioned by a  group of Alaska Tribes to consider using its authority under the Clean Water Act, Section 404(c), to stop the development of the Pebble Mine.  Given the EPA’s ultimate permitting authority over all “waters of the United States,” this law would empower the EPA to make decisions over lands that were otherwise under State control. That section of the CWA gets at the heart of a crucial element of design of any sulphuric, hard rock mine that employs open pits – a “disposal site” commonly referred to as a talings pond or talings impoundment (Pebble’s would be massive).  It provides:

The Administrator is authorized to prohibit the specification (including the withdrawal of specification) of any defined area as a disposal site, and he is authorized to deny or restrict the use of any defined area for specification (including the withdrawal of specification) as a disposal site, whenever he determines, after notice and opportunity for public hearings, that the discharge of such materials into such area will have an unacceptable adverse effect on municipal water supplies, shellfish beds and fishery areas (including spawning and breeding areas), wildlife, or recreational areas. Before making such determination, the Administrator shall consult with the Secretary. The Administrator shall set forth in writing and make public his findings and his reasons for making any determination under this subsection.

Thus, under this authority, the EPA could decree that a fish spawning and breeding area could not be used as a disposal site for any waste rock from a mining operation if it would have an “unacceptable adverse effect” on that habitat.  But the EPA could only do so after a notice and opportunity for hearing, and after consultation with the Secretary of the Army (yes, the Army, because of the role of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in wetlands management.)

Second, the EPA identified at these hearings the data it had relied upon in producing the draft watershed assessment.  It stated that it had relied on the environmental baseline information produced by the Pebble Partnership, and its predecessors, which had been conducting baseline environmental studies since at least 2006 (some 18 years after initial exploration began – hardly “baseline”). Similarly, the EPA relied on mine plans filed by Northern Dynasty with the Canadian government, giving a rough outline as to the type, nature and size of mine Pebble would be. It also included scientific data gathered by the State of Alaska, peer-reviewed research, and numerous interviews with Tribal elders.

Finally, it asked the public to provide input on anything that it may have missed.  Are there any studies or data out there that the agency missed? Are there any scenarios that were not considered? What sort of flaws were there with the agency’s methodology?

In response, the EPA mostly received comments at these hearings that were outside of the scope of what it was looking for.  “Why are you here? This is State land!” came one comment.  “Pebble has been out there studying the area for six years, you’ve only been here for one year, what do you know?” was another.  Clearly, these people had not listened to the presentation.  Many other comments centered around how the Pebble Mine would be good for jobs or would harm the fishery or subsistence.  Clearly, these people had not listened to the sort of feedback the EPA was soliciting.  This problem seems to be persisting today.

With post after post, and email after Tweet, I am seeing this pattern repeat itself.  A cadre of chefs have sent a letter to the EPA urging the Acting Administrator to stop the Pebble Mine. Trout Unlimited’s “Save Bristol Bay” Facebook page has been urging people to “Tell EPA to Protect Bristol Bay!” Earthworks, one of the more vocal nationwide organizations on mining issues, has been urging its members and newsletter subscribers to “Tell the EPA to use its Clean Water Act power and prohibit mining in the Bristol Bay watershed!” But these calls, while well-intentioned, are premature and simply not what the EPA is looking for at this time.

The EPA’s own page established for this watershed assessment clearly states the limited purpose of the assessment, noting, “The assessment will provide a better understanding of the Bristol Bay Watershed and will inform consideration of development in the area.” The revised draft assessment itself clearly states what it is NOT intended to do:  “As a scientific assessment, it does not discuss or recommend policy, legal, or regulatory decisions, nor does it outline or analyze options for future decisions.” So the purpose of the assessment is to outline the science that may guide a future decision; it is not designed to be a mechanism for making a decision in and of itself.

As to what the EPA is looking for, it clearly sets that out as well: “We’re accepting comments on the revised draft assessment until June 30, 2013.  We want to ensure that we’re using the best available science and that we’ve heard and considered all comments received in response to the May 2012 draft assessment.” So, to reiterate, has the EPA considered all the relevant science and has it considered the comments received during last summer’s public process. That’s it.  The EPA is not looking for your opinion as to whether the Pebble Mine should be allowed to proceed.  If you recall the language of Section 404(c), it can only refuse to authorize a discharge into important fish habitat after notice and opportunity for a hearing – such notice will not come until after it has completed its final assessment.  (There would be no public process if the EPA chooses not to assert its Section 404(c) authority.) And when the EPA engages in that public process, THAT would be a good time to opine about whether Pebble is a good idea. But that would not come until after the EPA has issued a final watershed assessment, and after it has announced a decision and scheduled a process for public input.

So, if you want to provide meaningful input to the EPA, not the kind of input that would go into the “Not Applicable” file, then go back to what the EPA is asking for.  First, the science.  Are there data, studies, research (preferably peer-reviewed) related to the fish spawning and rearing habitats of the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers that the EPA has not considered?  For example, has Dr. Carol Ann Woody been out in the field lately and is her data included? Then, are there any potential impacts to that habitat the EPA has not considered?  For example, is the assessment’s focus on a catastrophic event – rather than the surface water and ground water pollution likely to result from normal, permitted operations – adequate? Or, has the EPA considered the impact of the use of mixing zones on salmon habitat? Second, go back and review the comments you submitted or that your organization submitted, and then review whether the EPA has addressed those concerns.  If it has not, then reiterate those comments and state how or why the EPA has not responded to them.

These public processes are important, and the unusual nature of this process has understandably left people confused as to what they should say, or where we are in the process.  It is a power that has been rarely used and lacks the predictability and certainly of any process conducted under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). Thus, the best way to take advantage of this unusual public process involving the Pebble Prospect (it has undergone virtually no public process in 25 years of exploration) is to give the agency what it is looking for.  Any comments outside of that scope will simply be ignored.

Go here to read instructions on how to comment on the EPA’s revised draft watershed assessment for Bristol Bay.

Kickstarter Campaign, Media Coverage

Thursday, May 30th, 2013
Kickstarter Campaign, Media Coverage

I recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to collect the funds needed to complete the fieldwork for my Bristol Bay book.  The funds raised will cover approximately eight trips out to the Bristol Bay region as well as some necessary equipment purchases.  Shortly after my return from covering the Togiak herring sac roe fishery, I was contacted by a reporter from KDLG, the public radio station for Dillingham, to talk about my project and the Kickstarter effort.  Listen to the story.

Perks start for donations as small s $5, so please take the time to visit the Kickstarter campaign page and make a contribution today.  Time is running out – the deadline on the campaign is June 19, 2013.  I only receive the pledged funds if I meet my minimum goal of $20,000 by that date.  Any excess funds raised will be applied to the design and production of the book.  Thank you for your help!

On the air with Shannyn Moore

Thursday, March 21st, 2013
On the air with Shannyn Moore

It’s hard to believe that I have been listening to The Shannyn Moore Show since it first aired on KUDO 1080 in Anchorage.  Over the years, I have had occasional email, Facebook or even telephone conversations with Shannyn about everything from the aurora borealis to judicial selection in Anchorage.  But what brought me to my first face-to-face conversation with her, in her studio at KOAN 1020, a local Fox Radio affiliate, was nothing less than the greatest conservation challenge facing Alaska today – the proposed development of the Pebble Mine at the headwaters of two of the main five watersheds that contribute to the amazing Bristol Bay fishery.  I was the guest during her second hour on December 20, 2012 (you can download the Podcast for free on iTunes.)

One of the problems with the jury system is that our minds tend to fill in the blanks when we want to visualize something but don’t have all of the information.  During a mock jury experience, in a case where a driver’s speed could have been a contributing factor to the accident, the jurors assumed a speed limit based on how the streets were described – mixed residential and commercial.  No one had told them what the speed limit was.  Unfortunately for the plaintiffs in that case, the jury assumed wrong.

But some things you can get right.  Shannyn always refers to her show producer as “Chris in the Box,” which lead me to visualize that he was in a very small control room.  I got that much right.  How I pictured Chris, however, was all wrong.  How I pictured his system and how he called up bumper music or other sound materials was also all wrong – I was thinking old school to some degree, but instead, everything is pulled up on the Internet, typically through YouTube.

I also incorrectly pictured the actual studio setup, thinking more of a side-by-side orientation between host and guest; rather, I sat across a rather wide table.  It felt like a bit of a barrier so I did my best to lean in on the desk to interact more with Shannyn during the show.  The discussion was rather free-flowing, and I thought I did fairly well … until I listened to myself on the Podcast.  Oye.  Early on, a thought started to scream through my head as I listened, “State your thesis, dammit, and make a point soon!” I realized as I listened that I did not state at the outset what my photo project was, exactly, that I had come to talk about.  I got there in a rather roundabout way.  I also missed an early opportunity when Shannyn mentioned how she follows my aurora chasing on Twitter.  It would have been a great time to discuss a recent blog post I did on how social media has changed the aurora experience.  But instead, I brought it to people contacting me to see where and when I was going to watch the aurora and if they could come along.

But, Shannyn was very gracious and never let on that I was having a logorrhea problem.  She even invited me to come back again to discuss my Bristol Bay project.  With a pending trip for my last chance at winter fieldwork and the impending launch of the project website, I think it may be time to go back again soon.

Chris-in-the-Box in his box