Words By Mark Hutchinson, Co-Founder of WildArk.
The last strong-hold of the Grizzly Bear is undoubtedly Bristol Bay, Alaska. With one of the last epic salmon fisheries still intact, it sees millions of Pacific salmon species return to their spawning rivers each year, the bears, along with wolves, bald eagles, wolverines, otters, mink, fox and of course humans, gorge themselves along the running red rivers in late Spring to early Autumn. However, this thriving and relatively untouched, intact ecosystem has one major monkey on its back – the Pebble Mine.
One of the largest open pit gold and copper mines ever contemplated, Pebble is proposed to be built smack bang in the middle of the watershed above Lake Iliamna, the major freshwater lake of the region that feeds many of the spawning rivers. The dimensions are something out of a science fiction movie…
I first visited this area as a fisherman in 2000, staying at my now dear old mate Brian Kraft’s Alaska Sportsman Lodge. The Lodge is poised above the turquoise waters of the Kvichak River and sees 4-5 million salmon (who have spent years out in the Pacific ocean) travel up its gravel lined bottom on their last journey. I subsequently spent an entire season out there in 2005 and took hundreds of mad fisherfolk, bird watchers, bear nuts and adventure-seeking guests through the Lodge with my old travel business. ‘Krafty’ runs a tight ship- ecotourism at its finest- with catch and release, local economic development and a true sense of custodianship over the water and land that his business thrives off.
(Left Image) Brian Kraft and Mark Hutchinson flying over Bristol Bay. © Kirstin Scholtz/ Wildark (Right Image) Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge from the air. © Kirstin Scholtz/ WildArk
Some of the maddest crews I’ve had there over the years has been Mick Fanning, who surfs a little every now and then, and his mates. Ronnie Blakey, World Surf League commentator, joined Mick in 2016 on their first trip to experience Krafty’s lodge and get a sense of the place. Ronnie and Mick spent most of the time screaming when a fish hooked up, grinning madly at the rivers we found ourselves camping beside and reflecting on how beautiful this planet can be. The tagline of the trip was a deep, belly induced wailing “Liiiiife,” belted out at the top of one’s vocal capacity – an echo through the pages of history that many a human and non-human must have also felt as they viewed the immense landscapes that have made the word “Alaska” more of a myth than a place.
Mick then dragged Corey Wilson, his long-time mate and photographer, along with Taylor Steele, surfing’s greatest story-teller, in 2018, to do a deep dive into the Pebble threat and more importantly the opportunity to help in the permanent protection of this land. This time around, there was a more serious agenda with a defined purpose to handshake a partnership with Krafty and the local community, the Igiugig. Mind you, there were still many a laugh, based mainly around swimming in the 10-degree waters of the Kvichak wearing just Gold Coast inspired board shorts
(Left Top)Mick Fanning takes a dip in the icy waters of the Kvichak. (Top Right) Taylor Steele, Mick Fanning and Corey Wilson in Igiugig. (Bottom) Ronnie Blakey and Mick Fanning on the fishing trip of a lifetime. © Kirstin Scholtz/ WildArk
Since 2008, Krafty along with the local community, which resides a few miles up the river from the Lodge, have been fighting the Pebble Mine development. Together, they have inspired a lake-wide effort, even including many conservation groups from Alaska and the “lower 48” in the United States. Having spent time in the Igiugig Village with the leadership, they are some of the most impressive people I’ve ever known. The Salmon sisters, AlexAnna and Christina, along with Chairman of the Community Board Karl Hill, are representing a community that has existed in this area for well over 5,000 years. As the sisters put it to me on my last visit,
“We could sell out to Pebble and have a grand life for 20 years, but then it’s all gone and what would the future generations say to us!”
(Left Image) Salmon Sisters AlexAnna and Christina Salmon. (Right Image) AlexAnna Salmon. © Kirstin Scholtz/ WildArk
The Igiugig community are both a subsistence and modern society. A community with deep roots reaching back to their heritage coupled with a modern outlook, they use innovation in renewable energy, greenhouse cropping, low-impact construction and they have a keen eye for sustainable economic development whilst protecting their most precious assets: the water and the land. An example of living at one with nature, in a modern and traditional way, the Igiugig experience is inspiring.
Bottom line is- excuse all the fishing puns- if Pebble Mine is allowed to proceed, as Brian Kraft would say “where else on the planet is safe?” If we can’t protect one of the last true wilderness areas under custodians such as the Igiugig community, a group that has successfully lived in symbiosis for thousands of years, then nowhere is sacred. The myth that is Alaska and the stories of old that permeate from every corner of the state, a place where the wild still dominates, must carry weight against short-term development.
Read more from our Stories from Bristol Bay series here
Visit our conservancy page to learn more about the work WildArk is doing in Bristol Bay here