Archive for February, 2012

A great honor in cedar

Tuesday, February 28th, 2012

Michio’s totem

Strolling along a rocky beach in the Halibut Point area of Sitka, Michelle and I walked toward the setting sun, the warm glow breaking some of the winter chill in the air.  As we moved along, the sound of smoothed slate rocks and clam shells beneath our feet, we came upon an unexpected sight: a tall totem pole, looking out at the western sky.  Not that totems are unexpected in Sitka, but they are typically concentrated at the Sitka National Historic Park, also known as Totem Park, on the Indian River near downtown Sitka.  Michelle had read about a totem that was carved in honor of Japanese nature photographer Michio Hoshino, who was slain by a brown bear on Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula in 1996.  She had shown me an article featuring a photo of the totem artist creating the totem, and I recognized the long black hair of the bottom character in this totem pole as the rendition of Michio Hoshino.  What the character held in his hands confirmed it for me: a depiction of the overlapping layers of an aperture on a lens.

The totem was carved by Tlingit totem artist Tommy Joseph of Sitka, Alaska.  In an interview with KCAW radio, Joseph notes the unusual combination of animals on the totem: a raven, a caribou, a humpback whale, and a bear.  The first three animals represent common subjects of Michio’s work, which went back and forth between Alaska’s arctic and Interior regions and the islands of the Southeast.  But the bear on the top of the totem is not any bear, but a Glacier Bear, also known as the Blue Bear.  Joseph notes that while Michio strived to capture an image of a Blue Bear, he was never successful; thus, the bear remains out of reach after life as well.

The totem is a crucial element of the culture of the Native people of Southeast Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.  The carving of a totem is meant to tell a family’s history, identify key moments in a clan’s existence, even to mark important occasions.  They are rarely created to honor a single individual.  I would guess that this particular totem is likely the only one in existence dedicated to a photographer and his body of work.  But people were inspired not only by Michio’s starkly artistic renderings of Alaska’s great wildness, but by Michio himself.  He was renowned for being warm and generous, and having a deep connection with nature, being able to stay in the same location for hours if not days, waiting for the right conditions to capture the photo he envisioned.  He once spent an entire month by himself on a glacier in Denali National Park & Preserve to capture an image of an auror over Denali itself.  He was not successful.

It was his drive to capture signature images of the wild that led to his relationship with Juneau writer and photographer, and sometimes wilderness guide, Lynn Schooler.  I never had the pleasure or honor of ever meeting Michio Hoshino – I moved to Alaska three years after his death.  But I feel that I got to know him a little through Schooler’s The Blue Bear, now also a theatrical adaptation produced by Perseverance Theatre of Juneau.  Through the story of The Blue Bear, you learn about Michio the person and the photographer, and gain a little understanding of his drive as a photographer through his desire to photograph the elusive Glacier Bear.

It is fitting that the totem honoring Michio and his work resides where it does.  The totem sits within a stone’s throw of what locals call “Magic Island” on the outer part of Halibut Point.  It gazes upon the ocean that provides a home to the humpback whales Michio photographed.  It watches the sun move across the sky, bathing the land with the golden light that Michio relied upon as a photographer.  It receives the last warm grace of sunlight as the sun sets behind Mt. Edgecombe.  The sounds of cawing ravens, lapping surf, and squawking gulls keep it company when the beach is empty of the many Sitka residents who go out to enjoy the Halibut Point Recreation Area.  I can only hope that, as the years advance, those who visit Halibut Point will notice the totem and wonder who the man on the bottom of the totem is.

Walking into Pebble Mine

Monday, February 27th, 2012
in the tundra at the Pebble site – 2005

Text and photos by Erin Mckittrick of Ground Truth Trekking

August, 2005: I lay my camera carefully in the tundra, then ran back and flopped on my belly, smiling in a frame of reindeer moss and berries. A helicopter roared past, dangling something from a cable beneath it. It had been three days since I talked to another human, but I was surrounded by the sound of their machines: the constant thwack of rotors, the rumbling of drill rigs, and the roar of small planes.

I tucked the camera into the dry bag that hung around my neck, and headed out into the swampy flat that marked a proposed tailings lake, snapping photos between the squalls of rain. For dozens of square miles around me, the rolling wet tundra had been engulfed by an idea bigger than anything this part of the state had ever seen: the Pebble Mine proposal

I wasn’t really a photographer. The digital SLR camera was brand-new to me only a few months earlier. I took pages of detailed notes in a waterproof journal, but I wasn’t yet a writer. I wasn’t an activist. At the time, I wasn’t even an Alaskan. I was just an ex-grad student – a newly-minted Master of Molecular and Cellular Biology looking for a new path in life.

Caribou near the Pebble site – 2005

The New York Times introduced me to Pebble Mine, in a 2005 article that shocked me mostly with what I didn’t know. A giant mine proposal, at the headwaters of a giant salmon fishery – how had I missed such a big issue?

Type “Pebble Mine” into Google today and you’ll be inundated with protest pages and mine company pages, a Wikipedia article, magazine spreads, and news pieces from across the world. There are photos of the prospect, maps galore, photos of people standing with anti-mine banners, photos of drill rigs and photos of salmon… There are movies to watch, a National Geographic piece to read, and a dozen different organizations to join.

In 2005, there was none of that. Pebble Mine’s backers were planning to move to permitting in less than two years. But it seemed like no one had even heard of their plan. Information was difficult to come by. Talking to a director of a prominent conservation group focused on Alaska, I had a hard time convincing him that Pebble actually existed. People cared, but they were few, scattered, and no one was paying them much attention. I couldn’t even find a picture of the place.

So I thought I’d better go take a few.

Three days earlier, I’d walked here alone from Nondalton Village, not sure what I might find. As I walked into the rolling flats of the proposed tailings lake, the wind and rain picked up, whipping the tiny plants into photographic blurs, and spattering water across my lens. The plants hugged the ground in a close-knit mat, surviving by being low and crowded. I followed caribou trails around the brushy tangles, circling Frying Pan Lake, and hiking into the hills on either side of the valley.

Cranberries and reindeer moss – 2005

I’d just spent the whole day hiking in what could become a giant tailings lake. How could everything around me – literally everything I could see, and everything I walked through all day, disappear into a toxic muck pond?

Becoming an Expert

At the end of 2005, typing “Pebble Mine” into Google would bring you straight to me. I had exactly zero funding, and only crude web skills. Yet somehow, my on-the-ground expedition, photographs, research and writing had turned my page into the dominant source of Pebble Mine info on the web. Requests started flooding in. I heard from people who wanted to use my photos, for everything from posters to magazines to college projects. From people who had questions, who wanted to know what they could do, who wanted to know more…

Who was I to be in this position? I tried to live up to it, painstakingly compiling facts and news articles, attending Northern Dynasty’s meetings in Seattle, and reading long papers about mining issues.

Where Threatened Waters Flow

Last of the snow melting from the banks of the upper Koktuli River – 2006

June, 2006: I walked out of Nondalton Village, this time with Hig and my friend Tom in tow. The tundra was painted with the pastel yellows and pinks of tiny wildflowers and tinged with the dull, muted tones of ground that has only recently emerged from the snow.

Even from this closest village, the Pebble valley was still a day and a half’s walk away. As we approached the first of the exploration drill rigs, a trio of caribou trotted past gracefully. A helicopter roared across the dark grey sky, tilting and bouncing in the punishing wind. Trash littered the ground near the trampled and muddy pits of old drill rig sites. I crouched in the grass with my telephoto lens, shooting drill rigs and hoses, and the sludge of rock slurry spilling out over the tundra.

Our mission on this journey was to follow the water. As salmon swim, and as toxins might flow, we spent a month traveling almost 500 miles under our own power, hiking and packrafting the length of both watersheds that connect the Pebble site to Bristol Bay.

My natural shyness had been countered by my bolder companions. As we passed through villages, we began to talk to the locals – about the area, about our trip, about the mine. Each person we spoke to seemed keen to tell us that their entire village was against the mine. They were concerned about the fish, and skeptical of the mining company’s promises.

Here in the Bristol Bay watersheds, everyone knew about Pebble. Everyone had strong opinions. But the rest of the state and the country was just starting to hear of it.

Drill rig at the Pebble Prospect – 2008.

Familiar Ground

March, 2008: A wind swept our skis down the frozen surface of Sixmile Lake. As we approached Nondalton Village a cluster of low, colorful buildings emerged from the bare birch and shaggy spruce on its shores. The small forms of people appeared on the edge of the ice, approaching to greet us.

“Come in! There’s moose stew and all kinds of food.”

By now, we were returning to familiar ground. We dumped our snowy backpacks in a corner of the Nondalton community center, underneath a poster of my photographs from 2005, and lined up for styrofoam bowls of moose stew.

Anti-mine symbols graced buttons and baseball caps around the room—a neat red slash through the words “Pebble Mine.” “No Pebble Mine” posters covered the walls, the professional work of an Anchorage environmental group intermingled with the colorful hand-drawn efforts of local children. Nunamta Aulukestai, a multi-village organization firrmly against the mining proposal, had invited a panel of scientists and a state official to talk about the potential impacts of a mine.

Somewhere in the past few years, things had changed. Not just here in the villages, but across the state. More and more, Pebble was even popping up in national and international media. Pebble Mine wasn’t the issue no one had heard of anymore. It was the issue everyone had an opinion on. It was the issue that dominated commercials and ballot initiatives, and seemed better known than any other resource issue in the state.


Elders outlining subsistence resources near the Pebble site – 2008

Tom Crafford (state DNR large mine coordinator), stood up in front of the small crowd in the Nondalton community center, explaining the setup at Red Dog Mine, where a water-treatment plant sits at the outlet of the tailings storage lake, perpetually deacidifying and detoxifying the water before it is released, making it safe for downstream life. When the mine closes, the treatment plant will still be there, treating the water in perpetuity. Other maintenance will need to be performed perpetually as well, keeping the toxic tailings stored in a dammed-off lake, forever sequestered away from water and air. This is what the future of Pebble Mine might look like

Hig broke in with a question: “What exactly do you mean by ‘in perpetuity?'”

“Forever,” Crafford responded.

“Actually forever?”


“When the United States no longer exists, when glaciers roll over the landscape in another ten thousand years, some guy is going to be out there with a bulldozer maintaining the dams around the tailings storage lake? To a geologist, forever doesn’t even make sense!”

Forever is impossible. Whether it happened in one year, ten years, a hundred years, or a thousand, those tailings would eventually pollute the downstream watersheds. Failure was a given. We were just taking bets on when it might happen, and how rapid a failure it might be.

What’s Next?

A thunderstorm approaches the Pebble site – 2006

In some ways, we’ve moved away from Pebble Mine in the last few years, broadening our focus to encompass issues that haven’t yet reached everyone’s attention. Against the backdrop of air-supported National Geographic photo trips and constant television ads, my home-grown efforts seemed paltry. The world may not need my photos of Pebble any longer. But there are questions that no one else is asking.

I haven’t been back to Pebble since 2008. But Hig’s visited the area every summer, digging trenches, doing high-resolution GPS surveys, searching for evidence of faults and earthquakes. Even in the 30,000 page baseline data document Pebble Mine recently released, there is only a paltry 3 pages covering seismic risk. And in those 3 pages, there’s not much worth looking at. For other industrial projects in seismically active areas, companies pay for detailed surveys that identify faults and quantify risk. Here, Hig has spent yeas doing the only original science on seismic hazard risk in the Pebble Mine region.

In the last seven years, I’ve watched awareness and outreach on the Pebble Mine issue blossom far beyond what I could have possibly imagined. But that question Hig asked in Nondalton still hangs unanswered. It’s an issue that comes up in large mine projects across the state and the world. As far as I know, there is no solution to the problem of permanent tailings storage other than what we were told by the PR rep for Red Dog mine.

What will we do about forever?

Where Water is Gold, Part Four

Sunday, February 26th, 2012
Where Water is Gold, Part Four

A project to tell the Bristol Bay story

Part four of a four-part blog post entitled “Where Water is Gold: Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine”

What is it about the Bristol Bay region, its history and its people that has led to such an opposition to development of the Pebble Mine?  For most people, though, the answer to this question is spread out among a tangling web of websites, articles, opinion pieces, editorials, and smothered by the drowning deluge of angry, bitter commercials.  I want to answer it in a way that is accessible, meaningful, and comprehensive.   As an Alaskan, I want that story to highlight the many amazing aspects of Alaskan rural life that this issue represents.  The end result will be a book published by The Mountaineers Books/Braided Rivers, scheduled for release in the fall of 2013.

I am currently conducting fieldwork to photograph the scenery, the wildlife and the people and to conduct interviews.  From aerial photography to visiting villages, from pack rafting the Nushagak watershed to visiting sport fishing lodges, I am covering the region in a way that comprehensively gets to the heart of the Bristol Bay/Pebble Mine controversy.  Photos and essays will cover commercial fishing, sport fishing and hunting, the subsistence way of life through all seasons, the history of the Pebble exploration, a glimpse of what sort of mine it will likely be, and an examination of the fears at the heart of the issue.

So with my book, tentatively titled “Where Water is Gold: Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine,” I, along with other writers, will craft essays to explore the many issues behind the tension of conservation and development present in the Bristol Bay region and the development of the Pebble Mine.  Through stories about individuals, families, scientists, these essays, along with my photography, will help create a vision of the Bristol Bay region and the people who live there.  And, along the way, you will come to understand why they hold this land, and its amazing waters, sacred.

I have tremendous partners working with me on messaging and providing me valuable resources such as material support and connections to people in the area; partners such as Ground Truth Trekking, Trout Unlimited, and the Alaska Wilderness League.  I also have a media sponsor, BuzzBizz Studios, which is making in-kind donations of videography, video editing and web design services.  And who knows, I may even get some material support from the Pebble Partnership directly; at least, it seems possible after a productive meeting with PR staff from Pebble and Anglo American back in December (I am still waiting to hear from them).

To learn the specific details on how I plan to approach this project and its current budget, read my Project Proposal.  You will find links to various aspects of this project on the Projects page on my website.  This project is being funded purely through grassroots efforts, so please visit my USA Projects page to see an introductory video about the project and make a tax deductible contribution.

Where Water is Gold, Part Three

Saturday, February 25th, 2012
Where Water is Gold, Part Three

An overview of the issues

Part three of a four-part blog post entitled “Where Water is Gold: Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine”

The Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the regional corporation formed under the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to serve the Native residents of the region, has adopted a proposal in opposition to the mine.  In addition, 81% of its shareholders are against development of the mine.  BBNC emphasizes “responsible development” as part of its mission, and is convinced that the Pebble Mine could not be developed responsibly, that is, in a way that does not harm other resources and users.  And BBNC is not alone – a 2009 survey showed that 71% of the area residents are opposed to developing the mine.  A separate recent poll revealed that 66% of Alaskans and 66% of Americans are against development of the mine.  Opposition to the mine is so strong, Anglo-American issued an investment advisory to its constituents, noting, “The Pebble project is opposed by a politically powerful coalition of diverse interests who have the support of a large segment of the Alaskan electorate.”

The Pebble Partnership steadfastly maintains that it can responsibly develop the mine, that it can produce its metals products without harming the salmon fishery.  Jason Brune, public affairs manager for Anglo-American (US), notes that Anglo-American’s specific record of responsible practices and recent improvements in mining technology show that Pebble can be developed responsibly.  Many question whether Pebble can responsibly develop the mine given that it has already been caught violating permit conditions at the exploration phase.  Hard rock mining by its very nature is a boom-and-bust industry, wreaking havoc on regional economies and leaving behind a scarred, tainted landscape.  The impact on water quality is typically much worse than that predicted by the mine developer.  But knowing about the history of mining and the nature of metal sulfide hard rock mining is not the way to understand why people are against the Pebble Mine.  You can only learn that from the people themselves.

Vic Fischer, one of only two surviving delegates to the Alaska Constitutional Convention, opposes the Pebble development because he believes it stands contrary to the dictates of the Alaska Constitution itself.  Noting he was “acutely aware of [his] responsibility to future generations with respect to Alaska’s resources,” the State’s current policy of allowing mineral development without question “is contrary to the framers’ intent” when they drafted Article VIII.

The most important thing to know about the Bristol Bay regional economy is that it is a mixed-cash economy.  There are approximately 7,500 people living in the Bristol Bay region, among whom 66% are Alaska Native.  Unlike what most people may be accustomed to, where you rely exclusively on a cash income in order to survive, most of the residents of Bristol Bay live what the State and Federal government refer to as a “subsistence” lifestyle.  However, actual residents of the area dislike the term as it focuses exclusively on obtaining food for consumption.  Rather, they see it as a way of life.  Residents spend their entire year heading out into the waters and lands of the Bristol Bay region, hunting, gathering and fishing to bring in food, to bring in materials for crafts for trade and sale, to provide materials for important cultural events like dances (costumes) and potlatches or other celebrations.  People in the region eat wild plants, berries, bird eggs, migratory birds, caribou, moose, bear, salmon, and a variety of resident fish.  Salmon make up the largest share of the food and account for over half of all harvest (on a basis of usable pounds). And this way of life goes far beyond what the land can provide.  It connects people through activities, lessons, stories, journeys, language with a land that has gone mostly undisturbed through time, providing a rich bounty.

Many who oppose the development of the Pebble Mine speak of how its development will impact this way of life.  Bella Hammond, widow of one of Alaska’s most revered governors, Jay Hammond, stresses the importance of fish as a renewable resource and that while the fish may come back decade after decade and provide a reliable food source and revenue, “we do not know how long mining will last.”  Violet Willson, a longtime resident of Naknek, has examined the historical impacts of large scale hard rock mines and is greatly concerned that the chemicals discharged into the soil and waters of the region will impact the subsistence fishing of her 22 grandchildren and 16 great-grandchildren, as well as generations to come.  Luki Akelkok, Sr. of Ekwok, who has hunted caribou, moose and ducks on the Nushagak watershed, has already noticed impacts to wildlife from the Pebble exploration and fears increased impacts if a mine is developed.  Such stories are virtually countless in a region where so many people rely so much on the land and waters for their way of life.

Commercial fishing, tourism and recreational fishing proponents in the region also vastly oppose the mine.  Commercial fishing is a principle engine of the regional economy, providing 75% of the seasonal jobs (commercial fishing is by its very nature a seasonal venture) and steady income to area residents, bringing in $234 million in revenue to the region.  Everett Thompson of the F/V Chulyen is one of many commercial fishing skippers who is steadfastly opposed to the mine, even though he was neutral about it earlier.  Additionally, another $100 million floods into the region through remote sport fishing lodges serving high-end clients with angling adventures involving world-class Rainbow Trout and a variety of salmon, wildlife viewing, and sport hunting.

Yes, as the polls tell, not everyone is against the mine.  One of the reasons why people in the region support it, and one of the things the Pebble Partnership touts about the mine development, is the potential for long-term, year-round jobs in the region.  Residents in the village of Iliamna typically favor the development, as Iliamna Natives Limited, the village Native corporation, has enjoyed lucrative contracts during the exploration phase of the mine for providing logistical support to the Pebble Partnership.  Owners of lodges and other businesses in the Iliamna area, who have provided many services over the years to the Pebble effort, also greatly support the project, seeing it is an opportunity for an economic boom in the region.

In addition to exploring the way of life enjoyed by residents of the Bristol Bay region and how they fear the development of the mine, my book will explore why they fear the development of the mine.  Are the fears about poor water quality and its adverse impacts on the relationship between the people and the land well-founded?  This lies at the heart of the controversy.  Salmon are highly susceptible to changes in their environment, especially acidification, and salmon are a key part of both the subsistence and commercial livelihood of the Bristol Bay region.  Yet, the very nature of metal sulfide hard rock mining guarantees that the water chemistry of the region will be altered in some way.  From the constant discharge downstream of treated tailings pond water to the likely seeping of acid rock drainage from the surface to ground water, to where it will likely mix with surface waters, there are plenty of opportunities for the water chemistry to be altered short of a catastrophic event like tailings dam failure, often cited as a concern in this actively seismic region.  Research conducted in the region during the exploration phase suggests that certain changes are already certainly underway.

Coming next: A project to tell the Bristol Bay story

Where Water is Gold, Part Two

Friday, February 24th, 2012
Where Water is Gold, Part Two

Along came a Pebble

Part two of a four-part blog post entitled “Where Water is Gold: Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine”

Thirty-two years after the Alaska Constitutional Convention concluded, Teck Cominco, a Canadian mining company, using the name Cominco Alaska Exploration, filed its first Alaska Placer Mining Application, a document filed with the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to receive permission to, among other things, conduct exploratory drilling on mineral claims in order to identify the nature and quality of the mineral deposit.    Teck Cominco was seeking to explore the area near the headwaters of the Upper Talarik Creek and the North Fork of the Koktuli River. Aerial surveys of the area revealed discoloration of the ground that was indicative of rich mineral deposits.   Once it started, Teck Cominco proceeded relatively unnoticed by the public for over a decade, while drilling 20-30 holes a season.  In 2001, Canadian firm Northern Dynasty acquired Teck Cominco’s claims and greatly increased exploration.  In 2004, Northern Dynasty announced its discovery of a “behemoth” gold and copper deposit.  Then, in 2007, the British firm of Anglo-American joined forces with Northern Dynasty to form the Pebble Partnership.  By the end of 2010, the exploration of the Pebble deposit had created approximately 1,300 drill holes in the area, along with associated helicopter and drill rig usage, and sump pits for the dumping of exploration waste at each bore hole, all scattered over several square miles of otherwise virgin public land.

In 2012, the Pebble Partnership stands on the verge of finally submitting its application to State officials to develop the Pebble Mine.  The mine will, by Northern Dynasty’s draft designs, become one of the largest gold and copper mines in the world; certainly the largest in North America.  One portion of the development (the Pebble West deposit) would be a large open pit mine while the rest (the Pebble East deposit) would be underground.  Mining operations would consume massive amounts of water from the headwaters of two of the seven main river systems in the Bristol Bay region and the scattered deposits and low-grade ore would generate billions of tons of waste rock and  tailings, which when mixed with water and oxygen create the conditions for acid-rock drainage.  The Pebble Partnership estimates it would operate the mine for 50-80 years.  During that time, the mine would utilize a tailings pond to handle waste rock, constantly releasing treated tailings water downstream under a permit authorized by the Environmental Protection Agency.  And under typical mine closure plans, mines that use tailings ponds are designed to leave a permanent impact on the land – tailings ponds by their very nature can never be fully remediated.

Yet, twenty-three years after the first hole was drilled by Teck Cominco, no Alaska state official has ever made any determination, called a Best Interest Finding, as to whether this was a good idea for the State given other resources and other users in the area.  A “Best Interest Finding” is a statutorily-required determination made by State officials that a proposed project is in the best interests of the residents of Alaska, and for their maximum benefit.  It is derived from Article VIII of the Alaska Constitution, which provides for development of natural resources “by making them available for maximum use consistent with the public interest,” and that such development should be for the “maximum benefit” of Alaskans. While such a finding is required for oil and gas exploration, it is not for mining.  Why?  Because Alaska law has evolved to specifically not require such a determination until the company is ready to actually construct, develop and operate the mine.  And in all of the history of large-scale upland hard rock mining in Alaska, the State Department of Natural Resources has never denied an application for mine development.  Every large-scale upland hard rock mine that wants to get developed has been developed.

But no mine in the history of Alaska has even been proposed that is as large as the Pebble Mine, and no mine has ever encountered such universal opposition from regional residents, from Alaskans and from all over the United States.  Why people are against the mine lies at the heart of my project, “Where Water is Gold: Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine.”

Coming next: An overview of the issues  

Where Water is Gold: Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine (Part I)

Wednesday, February 22nd, 2012
Where Water is Gold: Bristol Bay and the Pebble Mine (Part I)

As you may know, I am delving into a book project exploring the Bristol Bay and Pebble Mine controversy.  This is a four-part blog post exploring the issues and this project.

Part I: Setting the Stage

The Bristol Bay region of southwest Alaska is rich with seven river systems that provide incredible habitat to a variety of wildlife and fish, notably salmon.  But people in the region fear the development of a massive gold and copper mine at the headwaters of two of those rivers, a development known as the Pebble Mine.  So much of the discussion about the Bristol Bay region and the proposed development of the Pebble Mine focuses on the future.  In order to understand the issues, however, you need to first look to the past.

It is a cold November day in 1955 on the banks of the North Fork of the Koktuli River, the headwaters of the Nushagak watershed, one of the major steam systems feeding into Bristol Bay in southwestern Alaska.  Snow has been building for over a month, forcing caribou to migrate, bears to den, and the last of migratory fowl to take off for warmer habitats to the south.

Below the surface, deep in the hyporheic zone, where groundwater and surface water mix, salmon eggs take advantage of the protective reaches of gravel and sand for protection from the onslaught of winter.  They are yet another generation of sockeye salmon, part of a race that has become genetically-adapted to the rich, pure waters that have provided them a stable environment for thousands of years.  On the surface, an artesian spring flows over the ground, creating a rare dark mark in this vast, white land.  The seep is one of dozens in the area, highlighting the intense connectivity between the surface and ground waters in the area.

Several hills and low valleys to the southeast, a Dena’ina Athabascan elder is taking his grandson out to hunt for caribou near the Upper Talarik Creek, passing on traditions that have been part of the Native heritage for thousands of years.  It is not yet time to set the trap lines.  Downstream to the south, in Lake Iliamna, the only population of freshwater harbor seals in the world are waiting for the ice to form so they can give birth to their pups.

Almost a hundred miles downstream to the southwest, on the edge of Bristol Bay, Violet Groat (see blog post “A fishing family”) is beginning her 50+ year career in the commercial fishing industry, working as a winter watchman at the Bumblebee Cannery in South Naknek.  The commercial fishing industry has just suffered through another devastating year of losses due to mismanagement by Outside salmon packers who still had powerful sway over federal fishery managers, and the resulting collapse of the commercial fishery. For that decade, the Alaska salmon runs were declared a federal disaster.

At the same time, a man stands before a gathering of delegates at the University of Alaska campus in Fairbanks to present his opening remarks to the Alaska Constitutional Convention.  E.L. “Bob” Bartlett rises to speak to the gathered delegates, determined to form a new state, join the partnership of the Union, and create a framework for protecting Alaska’s resources.  During his speech, he addresses the value of Alaska’s resources and vows to ensure that Alaska’s resources will be used to the benefit of all Alaskan, not just to enrich the Robber Barons. He and others work to ensure that the days of the decimation of Alaska’s great fisheries and extraction of minerals by Outside interests – interests that left behind the abandoned Kennecott Copper Mine – will not happen again:

Alaska’s tradition of “boom and bust” communities is due in no small measure to the hard, cold fact that mineral development was solely for the purpose of exploitation with no concern for permanent and legitimate growth. Alaska’s once great fisheries industry is traceable in great degree to this same attitude with its concept of ruthless plundering of a great natural resource without regard to the welfare of the mass of average citizens who make their living from the sea … 

Constitutional delegate Vic Fischer sits, listening with rapt attention, taking to heart the call to protect Alaska’s resources.  He would later serve on the committee that drafted the final language of the Alaska Constitution.  Most important among its provisions, Article VIII of that constitution would command future leaders to “provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of its people.”  Little did he or the other delegates know that Bob Bartlett’s prediction that in fifty years these bold principles would be so put to the test as they are today in the Bristol Bay region.

Coming next: Along came a Pebble

Operation Aurora Phail

Monday, February 20th, 2012
Operation Aurora Phail

It has been a frustrating winter for me as a photographer.  A week before Christmas, I had surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff, and since then, nine weeks and counting, I have had my right arm in a sling.  That’s made it challenging to do most things I enjoy to do in the winter, such as Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, and photography.  And it will still be another four months or so before I have a useful percentage of mobility again in my arm.

I had a rare opportunity to actually get out there and take some photos on Saturday evening, flying up to join some other photographers up in Talkeetna who had already had some good results.  So, after finishing a nice dinner at the Kincaid Grill, I headed home, gathered up the cold weather and camera gear, and made my way over to Merrill Field,where I met up with a plane and pilot.

We took off by about 10:30 p.m. or so and headed on up to Talkeetna.  We saw a glimmer of aurora over the Mat-Su area, but by the time we got to Talkeetna, the clouds had rolled in and the northern lights had died out.  We stayed on the ground for about a half hour or so and came back.  While I was not able to capture the aurora, I did have an unusual chance to do some nighttime aerial photography of Anchorage.


The dark side of nature photography

Monday, February 20th, 2012
The dark side of nature photography

Not all good nature photography is pretty.  If you believe, like I do, that nature photography should be used to highlight issues of environmental or conservation concern, then it cannot always be pretty.  There are a variety of things, from toxic waste dumping to deforestation, that need to be captured in photos so that people can see the consequences of those actions.  The aggressive predator control measures currently underway in the Lower 48 is a prime example.

I captured this image of a poached coyote during a visit to Montana in 2006.  I was with my friend Nick Fucci at the time, and we were on our way back to his home in Big Fork after visiting the eastern part of Glacier National Park.  We saw this fence on the edge of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and thought it would provide a nice leading line to the sunset and mountains in the background.  We got out to capture some images, and I saw this coyote on the ground.  Seeing the rope around its neck, I instantly thought of the aggressive predator control measures of the West.

Predator control has been around for centuries.  It was transplanted to North America with the colonization of this land by western Europeans.  Predators, especially wolves and coyotes, have long been seen as competition for food by humans.  But there has also always been a primal, irrational fear of these animals that has been a driving force behind efforts to eradicate them.  Wolves have always been depicted as cunning, blood thirsty savage animals – even with an enlightened knowledge that this is not the case, they are still depicted as much, as the new Liam Neeson movie “The Grey” shows.

So, despite scientific study after scientific study showing that wolves or coyotes will not deplete a prey population, and that they have minimal impact on livestock populations, western states have dramatically increased predator control measures.  Alaska is among them, as I noted in a previous blog post.

And while people discuss and argue about predator control, waging media campaign wars and exchanging barbs on editorial pages across the western United States, it’s easy to talk about the consequences of predator control programs when they are in the abstract.  It’s much harder to actually to favor predator control when you can see the impact of such vehemence.  A campaign of hatred only breeds hatred.  Here, a coyote that once bounded about in western Montana, spending its days hunting for voles or hare or whatever it could find, met an untimely end because it was unfortunate enough to live in a place where the wanton killing of others like its kind was not only allowed, but encouraged.

A daunting challenge

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012
A daunting challenge

Perhaps the greatest challenge to any photography project is not the technical aspects, not the weather, not dealing with unsympathetic TSA agents; it’s the funding.  Book publishers could tell you stories about self-financed photographic projects that ended with divorces, mortgaged or sold homes, lost employment, and all sorts of hardship.  Well, I love Michelle, love the home that we are building together, and really enjoy my day job.  But, I still have a Bristol Bay project that I am working on, and I have to get the fundraising done right now so I can get the fieldwork done this year.  Why the rush?  The project will produce a book that fully addresses the Bristol Bay – Pebble Mine controversy, and, in order for the book to be useful as an advocacy tool, it needs to be published during the public process that will result from the Pebble Partnership filing its mining development permit applications later this year.  So, my publisher, The Mountaineers Books/Braided River, and I have agreed that the best time for releasing the book is the fall of 2013.

That means that pretty much all of the fieldwork must be done by early October of this year.  In addition, during that time, selected authors will be writing many of the essays and working with the publisher’s development editor to complete those pieces at around the same time.  Then, next winter and summer I will be working with the publisher on completing the layout.

So far, fundraising has not gone so well.  My first trip out to Naknek last summer in connection with the project was funded through the sale of a lens.  I have been reaching out to organizations to assist with funding since June of last year, and so far I have received rejections from the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, Bob Gillam, and the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.  I am still waiting to hear from two other organizations regarding funding proposals.

And while I wait for these organizations to decide what they are going to do, my project moves ahead.  I have aerial photography scheduled for mid-February, a trip out to Bristol Bay in early March, and a trip to Seattle in mid-April.  I am also doing what I can to raise funds on my own.  I held a fundraiser at my house in December to fund winter fieldwork, and set up a fundraising site on USA Projects for my winter fieldwork.  The USA Projects page has a video explaining the project and provides the opportunity for individuals to make tax deductible donations directly to the project.

And while the fundraising has gone slowly so far, I have tremendous partners working with me on messaging and providing me valuable resources such as material support and connections to people in the area; partners such as Ground Truth Trekking, Trout Unlimited, and the Alaska Wilderness League.  I also have a media sponsor, BuzzBizz Studios, that is making in-kind donations of videography, video editing and web design services.  And who knows, I may even get some material support from the Pebble Partnership directly; at least, it seems possible after a productive meeting with PR staff from Pebble and Anglo American back in December (I am still waiting to hear from them as well).

To read up on and follow the project, visit my Projects page on my website, where you will find links to my Bristol Bay gallery, dedicated Facebook page for the project, and blog entries.  To obtain a copy of my 5-page project proposal, including budget, contact me.

And if I was not clear enough, I could really use your financial support of this project.  The deadline for my winter fundraising effort on the USA Projects page is March 1, 2012.  And not only are the donations tax deductible, there are some really great perks associated with different levels of donation.  And please, spread the word about this project!

The Making of a Photo: “Mushing the Koyukuk, Evening”

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012
The Making of a Photo:

In the winter of 2010, I had the pleasure of spending a few days out at a base camp on a sheet of aufeis on the North Fork of the Koyukuk River in Gates of the Arctic National Park & Preserve with Park Ranger Zak Richter and his dog team.  To get there, I drove to Fairbanks, caught a small plane (Cessna 185) flight out to the town of Bettles, and then another ride on that same plane (once the winds died down) out to the camp site.

One evening, we took a trail we had broke earlier in the day upriver to further explore the area near the Gates of the Arctic: Mount Boreal and Frigid Crags.  Once we reached a nice view point for the Gates, we stopped and gave the dogs an extended rest.  I spent a few minutes capturing images of the scene, including Zak and his team, and we continued back down the river back to camp.

Riding in the sled of a dog team is quite an experience.  The position is rather compromising; you only have a canvas sled and some wooden runners between you and ice, snow, tree roots, rocks, and whatever else may come along.  I found myself rattled on more than one occasion, and once in a while slightly freaked out by the sound of cracking ice beneath us as we moved along.  The smells are also quite interesting; you are essentially downwind from nine dog butts.  I’ll let your imagination fill in the spaces on that one.  But the view is incredible, leading to a whole new appreciation of how to travel across the backcountry in winter.

Along the way, I was thinking how cool it was to be so close to the ground and to see all that ice and snow go speeding by beside me.  Then Zak said something about how cool of a shot it would be.  My camera was already on my lap, cradled close to me for safety and warmth, so I held it up and framed what I thought would be an interesting view.  But the composition was only part of the equation.  I wanted to capture the wide scene and the sense of speed.  I fortunately had my 12-24mm lens already on my camera (a Nikon D300), so that gave me the wide view I wanted.  But, in order to get the speed, I set the aperture to f/22 and the ISO to 100 to ensure a slow shutter speed.

This image was selected as a finalist in the “People in Nature” category in the 2010 Windland Smith Rice International Awards (but not selected as a winning image).  My greatest praise for this image came from none other than Jeff Schultz, the official photographer of the Iditarod for over twenty years.  At the annual Alaska Stock meeting that year, during the photographers’ New Images slide show, this image came up and Jeff (who owns the company) said almost immediately “Do we have this one yet?”  When someone who has been photographing dog mushing as long as he has been gets excited by a dog mushing photo, you know you have accomplished something.

You can view and purchase this image in my Gates of the Arctic gallery.