From Dilly to Illi

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Walking the plank at drill site #4 | Photo by Lauren Oakes

I could see Ben and Travis were falling apart with me back in Juneau. I mean, really guys, I take off for a few, and you just stop working?! What is this, vacation? No worries, that mystery TU girl (please, I would really one day prefer “Producer”) is back to make sure bush pilots still open their doors to us and all the gear, Ben gets his steady flow of sugar, and the saga of telling the Bristol Bay story from so many perspectives continues. The car rental place in Dillingham already knows us as the team that sleeps in the rentals as well so we’re all set up with for our return, a van this time with the seats even removed. Oh joy. Have we mentioned that we could use some more sponsors? Thanks to Northern Dynasty (yes, I am truly and honestly 100% thanking Northern Dynasty) for the hospitality… the most beautiful flight of my life flying from Anchorage to Iliamna through the astounding Lake Clark pass (so narrow, so striking, rich and mountainous, glaciers extending far, deep, illuminating the world blue), a day at the “Project Site” (Correction, Mine site) and a lovely lakeside place to eat and sleep.

Iliamna is still deep with me, so intense for so many reasons. It hit me hard to be there, constantly intellectually questioning, listening to many stories and different perspectives, wondering what we can do when I see so much in motion at Pebble, a tremendous project already — well managed, well staffed, growing every day. I found myself thinking of how many people in the world dream of visiting Lake Iliamna, how many people perhaps save for years for a trip to these waters — and the irony that the company that provided me my opportunity is the very one threatening it. For a moment I wished I could just look at that lake and not wonder about its future, and I guess I was envious of all those who have that experience, who don’t know about the track record of mining and that one is moving right along right there in the heart of this magical place.

I’ll censor myself a bit on this chapter and let Ben and Travis unveil the reality in time. Besides I know Ben gets the laughs. I will say, however, that I think Peter Pan Seafoods mess hall (Yum, Wild Bristol Bay Salmon) has the Northern Dynasty mess hall WAY beat (although Ben really appreciated the unlimited amount of packaged candies and processed snacks). And I also think that if the “Project Site” is really just a “science research center” right now, we (TU, The Department of Fish and Game, heck the public) should all get to see that information, not later but now. I’ll also say that most interviews in Iliamna I witnessed felt like canned promotion dictated by very very careful phrasing, not the free-speaking, from the heart core values and lifestyles unveiled by so many others interviewed along the way thus far. I wish we could capture so much of what is said off camera, even by locals employed by the mining company, clearly questioning what is already changing.

I am grateful to the passionate geologists in the core room (where they box up core samples to be analyzed for mineral content) for clarifying this is a gold mine too. NDM now speaks of it as a copper mine, with a gold bi-product. I presume that way they can try really hard to quiet the public debate about gold watches vs. salmon forever and instead talk about strategic metals and the growing technology demand vs. salmon forever. Neither one sounds much better to me.

Thanks to Tom at Rainbow King Lodge for helping us coordinate some flying time. And for opposing the mine next door. He wittingly notes it’s either run a premier fishing lodge on the shores of Lake Iliamna or start up the Iliamna Bush Company to entertain the mine workers, hard choice. Ben and Travis mounted the camera to a super cub with duct tape and we set it free. Ben watched in terror as the plane returned an hour later “can you see the camera? Is it still there? I’m not sure if they put it on my insurance before I left…” Travis came back with gorgeous footage of the Mulchatna caribou herd, hundreds and hundreds of caribou, migrating at the headwaters of the Koktuli across the “Project Site.” This and the 300 sockeye salmon we will help gut, clean, smoke, dry and can, for just one family next week on the Kvichak reminds me what we are fighting for here in the last great salmon fishery.

I am listening to your story, NDM, but I’m sorry, I cannot just wait and see. The history of mining pollution speaks too loud, and the loss here is too great. I walked around a drilling site, acknowledging its careful construction and protocols for minimal impact. But ultimately in black and white, in tattered archived photographs and yellowing newspapers, I still see the results of all the other mines that have said “this one will be different.”

Tommorrow we head back to Dillingham. The fish are in and there’s work to be done. Off to visit the Alaska Miner’s Association today, Ben says, “Do we look like we’re ready to go film some shit?” Yes, Ben, always. If anyone at NDM would ever like a tour of Trout Unlimited, we would be happy to host you and cook up some of Lindsey’s Bristol Bay Salmon. Please come visit anytime.

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