Partnering with Lighthawk

Partnering with Lighthawk

In 1998, I attended a conference about forest management issues in northern Minnesota. As the co-chair of the Environmental Law Society at the University of Minnesota Law School, I was interested in learning more about legal, policy and management issues related to timber harvesting on our public lands. The conference was a classic gathering of environmentalists, with participants sleeping in tents in a field, listening to presentations and panel discussions in large canvas tents. To further illustrate the tone of the conference, I met a bunch of people affiliated with Earth First!

I also encountered an organization I had not heard of before – Lighthawk. It is a nationwide network of pilots who lend their planes, skills and time to assist in covering environmental issues. Lighthawk’s mission is “to champion environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight.” While a pilot is responsible for his or her own expenses – fuel, maintenance, and other costs related to the aircraft and certifications – Lighthawk provides support in the way of connecting the pilot with conservation partners and  flight planning and related logistics.  Lighthawk’s mission at the conference was to highlight clearcutting that was going on in the Superior National Forest. It’s almost impossible to see such cutting from the ground as the industry leaves “beauty strips” – buffers of untouched forest that hide the areas where cutting occurs.

Seven years later, I was living in Alaska, working as the official photographer for the 8th World Wilderness Congress in Anchorage. Lighthawk was in town for the conference to highlight the oil operations along the Swanson River, right outside of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. An editor from National Geographic was also along for the flight to view the Swanson River operations as a parallel to the potential for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.  But at the time, this was a special trip for Lighthawk – there were no Lighthawk pilots based in Alaska.

Fast forward another seven years, and I was having an email exchange with the editor for my Bristol Bay book about potential project partners, particularly with regard to aerial photography. She asked if I had heard of Lighthawk, and I said yes, but did not believe that they operated in Alaska. So, I sent an email to Lighthawk and learned that they did. After a little bit of paperwork and some scheduling, along with a very favorable and lucky weather window, I was ready to go on an aerial excursion into the Bristol Bay region with Lighthawk.

My pilot, Tim Hendricks, flew a Cessna 206 Stationair. Based out of Colorado, Tim spends his summers in Alaska flying guided day and overnight bear tours over to Katmai and Lake Clark for Sasquatch Alaska Adventures Co. out of Homer. I met Tim over near the public fuel pump at Lake Hood – the first time I had ever flown a plane on wheels out of that location. I have flown many times with Rust’s Flying Service out of Lake Hood – in DeHavilland Beavers on floats. Tim was in his cockpit working on his log when I approached, and he came out to shake my hand, towering over me in a lean, tanned frame that stood at least 6’6” – I don’t know how he fits into the cockpit, I thought to myself. Instantly friendly and confident, with a broad smile, I knew we were going to have a great flight.

After a short taxi on the runway, we were headed south across Anchorage for a Turnagain Arm crossing.  Once over the Kenai Peninsula, we crossed west over Nikiski – in sight of its massive port and liquid natural gas (LNG) facility – and then over the Cook Inlet toward the Alaska Range.  Since this particular plane had turbo engines, which provided for more efficiency and power at higher altitudes, we simply crossed over the Alaska Range rather than following the typical route through Lake Clark Pass that most small aircraft follow from Anchorage to Iliamna.

I wanted to see if there were any salmon gathering at the mouth of the Pile River, which empties into Lake Iliamna, so I asked Tim to bring us on a low approach straight over that river.  I was also interested in the river because the proposed haul road for the Pebble Mine would result in a bridge being built over the river.  Michelle had on many occasions told me it was a beautiful river; she was right.  A combination of varying channel depths created by steady flows and flood highs, along with coloration from minerals naturally occurring in the soils and waters of the area created a luscious mixture of colors and silky textures that spread out away from the mouth of the river and well out into the lake.  We circled around a few times so I could capture the images I wanted.  During our second circle, I spotted one of Lake Iliamna’s most rare of residents – a fresh water harbor seal.  Lake Iliamna boasts the only such population in North America, and one of only two or three in the entire world.

We headed across Lake Iliamna, following the western shoreline, spotting isolated islands and white sandy beaches with lagoons along the way, making the landscape look more like the tropics than the far north of Alaska.  We passed the villages of Iliamna and Newhalen along the way, heading for the mouth of Lower Talarik Creek.  My goal was to follow the creek from Lake Iliamna and then head over to the heart of the Pebble exploration area.  Shortly after heading upstream, we saw something I had only hoped for – a creek littered with salmon-sized red shapes in the water; the sockeye were red and running.  We made several passes over the creek, spotting at least six bears at various spots, including a sow with two spring cubs.  I was only able to photograph two boars that were fishing in the middle of the creek.

We continued on up the creek, and then cut over near Sharp Mountain and headed into the heart of the Pebble exploration area near Frying Pan Lake.  There was an equipment staging area (sometimes referred to as “the camp,” but it is actually not used to house personnel), a few operational rigs, and other rigs that were either being set up or torn down.  We also flew over several sites where remediation was underway, and we noticed several metal poles in the ground marking capped drill holes.  There are over 1,300 holes in the area as a result of the exploration of the vast deposit.  It was challenging to circle around and capture the images I wanted because there were three separate helicopters operating in the area, hauling sling loads of equipment from the cargo staging area to the drill sites.  And since the helos did not utilize the standard air traffic communications frequency, there was no way to talk to them and safely coordinate our flying with their activities.  We just had to keep an eye on them.

After a while, we flew into Iliamna to refuel and take a break.  We had already been flying for three and a half hours; and while that time can go quickly, it can also wear on passenger and pilot.  Tim refueled the plane and we pushed it back to the side to have a tail dinner of Sailor Boy Pilot Bread, apple and smoked & canned sockeye salmon from Naknek, courtesy of Aleut elder Violet Willson.  Before we knew it, we were rested and heading back out.

We did a few more circles around the Pebble exploration area – this time helicopter-free – and then proceeded down the South Fork of the Koktuli River.  It was my first time flying over the Koktuli.  Most of the aerial photos you see of the streams of the Bristol Bay region show rivers winding down with towering mountains behind them.  That is not how things look in this part of Bristol Bay.  Shortly after its headwaters, the Koktuli River sprawls out into a relatively flat plain between the hills and low mountains of the Pebble Prospect and the jutting mountains near the head of the Wood River and the area of Wood-Tikchik State Park to the distant west.  The other set of mountains in the area would be the Alaska Range in Lake Clark National Park and Katmai National Park to the east.

The Koktuli is in so many ways a classic Alaskan river.  It meanders across the tundra, working its way through patches of spruce.  It has numerous channels at some points and shows a history of changing course due to intense shifts in water flow.  It has several gravel bars that would make for great camping spots, and an assortment of debris – mostly stripped-bare spruce trees – littering channels and dry spots.  According to the Alaska Department of Fish & Game Anadromous Waters Catalog, it is home for all life stages of chinook, sockeye, coho and chum salmon as well as Arctic char.  We overflew a group of rafters a bit more than halfway down to the confluence of the Mulchatna River, which was where we turned around and started our way back to Anchorage.  A beautiful suprise of the flight was the confluence of the Swan and Koktuli Rivers, where we found two cabins and an incredible view to the north.

The visage of the Koktuli River would likely change with the development of the Pebble Mine.  It is estimated that Pebble would annually consume three times as much water as the city of Anchorage (population 265,000) in order to support its operations.  The Koktuli River would not only be a source of water for the mine’s operations, but the primary tailings pond would displace Frying Pan Lake, the headwaters of the South Fork of the Koktuli River, holding back its flows with a 700-foot high dam.   I could only wonder as I captured these images of the Koktuli River what it might look like after its flow volumes were impacted by the mine.

On our way back to Anchorage, we passed again over the Alaska Range and close to the summit of Mt. Redoubt, one of several active volcanoes in this stretch of the Alaska Range.  Behind the steam rising from its crater I could see another active volcano in the chain, Mt. Iliamna.  I hated to leave behind the wonderous views that this region of Alaska have to offer.  But, Tim and I made tenative plans to come out again in September before he headed back to Colorado, and I looked forward to a landscape altered by the golds, oranges and reds that will be covering the land as autumn progresses.

One Response to “Partnering with Lighthawk”

  1. Mennan Özdemir Says:

    Very nice pictures,
    Hand your health
    Greetings from Turkey

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