Ben packin’ heat on bear patrol with a pipe full of slugs at camp on the Mulchatna river. It doesn’t take long in Alaska to get the feeling that you are the prey. Everything around you will do whatever it takes to survive. The salmon will swim until they literally rot and when the bears get tired of salmon and berries they’ll take down an animal three times their size. Whatever it takes. Long story short: big guns are cool and they make [Ben] happy. Screw the bear spray. Photo by Travis Rummel
Up until the past couple of weeks, our experiences in Bristol Bay were limited to small villages and towns that make up what little infrastructure there is in Bristol Bay. We had not had the true wilderness experience that was always surrounding us but just out of reach. This all changed with a drop off at the headwaters of the Nushagak River on the Koktuli River in the shadow of the proposed Pebble Mine Site. The Koktuli is one of two creeks (the other being Upper Talarik Creek) that would disappear if the mine were to go through. The water will be needed to quench the thirst of the mining activities.
The Koktuli is truly wild, especially once you get out of ear shot of the near continuous helicopter noise near the mine site. The river starts as a literal trickle barely wide enough to allow passage of our 14-foot raft, with each passing mile the creek slowly grew into a full-blown river. Starting high on the tundra before descending into a birch forest, we spent 6 days traveling 53 river miles from the mine site to the confluence with the Mulchatna River. Encountering brown bears on a daily basis and floating over spawning chum, sockeye and king salmon, the river teems with life. There were rainbows, grayling and dollies too.
This was my first experience in a true wilderness environment. After living in the west for close to 10 years, I like to think of myself as an experienced outdoorsman. The wild nature of this float dwarfed my prior outdoor experience. It felt intoxicatingly good to be awestruck by the size and scale of my surroundings. The float was epic even with the presence of near constant rain.
The sun finally made an appearance as we were waiting for our pick up along the bank of the Mulchatna River by Dave Egdorf. Dave has one of the original camps on the upper Nushagak. His operation hasn’t changed much in its 18-year history. It is old school in the finest sense. If I were ever going to throw down some coin to hit up a destination this is what I would be looking for – raw wilderness and just enough amenities to keep it comfortable. The camp is amazing and was matched only by the Egdorf’s and their guides’ hospitality. Oh the fishing was pretty good too. Big healthy wild native bows sucking down mice on top and eating dead drifted flesh down below.
Travis, shivering as usual, waits for for the sun to dodge a cloud on the Kvichak river. Lauren declared that Ben’s ass, while rounder and more robust in the wetsuit, didn’t compare to Travis’s sleek, super tight, for business only ass. Photo by Ben Knight
It was a trip to be wading across the mighty Nushagak, 240 river miles from where we had previously been knee deep in the harvest of sockeyes just weeks before. Now, we were in the midst of thousands of brightly colored red sockeye getting ready to spawn. There were also tons of spawning kings, magnificently large in comparison to all the other fish in the river. There were no other people for 100 miles in any direction. It felt as if it was our river.
Thanks Dave, Camille, Kim, Kris, Ben and Tom for putting us up and sharing your camp with some hungry worn out filmmakers.
Also I wanted to give Lauren a shout out. Ben and I are now back to mono a mono as Lauren has made the decision that she has had enough of our “film” project and with us. She is back in Juneau enjoying greens from her garden and a mound of paper work on her desk. Thanks for all of your help Lauren; we couldn’t have done it without you.
…”TU Girl…” Reporting In and Out…
While watching another disco-tech download at Egdorf’s camp, Travis asked me “Are you sad it’s over?” And I pretty much replied —- Heck no, because we did it all, you’re set for the last pieces you need, and it just feels like a job well done. Back in October when we started mapping out our logistics, this was the dream, all of this. We’ve seen more and learned more and talked to more people in region than I ever could have imagined. I have so much to process and reflect on and consider for how our work moves forward. So many more people wanting to support our efforts… And I know you’ve got the footage and editing skills now to make the best damn film ever.” And well, I was ready for a new pair of clothes and a day without the never-ending despair of extreme shooting conditions.
Really people (holy geez 10,000 of them watching now!), I don’t hate Ben, I just really didn’t want to be that woman who barely made her 26th birthday found mauled beside a box of snickers, out in depths of the last great frontier state.
Travis and Ben, thank you for all that you are doing, for all that you are, for stepping forward and asking TU to join forces with you to make this happen. You guys are amazing. And back in civilization with a break from swatting and itching flies, I can clearly see we have already made a difference…. But these past 7 weeks were just the start of all that is to come…
Some highlights from my Journal on the Koktuli:
….My seasons of guiding rivers in the lower 48 allows me to deeply appreciate the push-off moment again — when boat leaves bank and adventure begins– those feelings of freedom and the unknown when all logistics and plans mean nothing anymore. What we have is what we have, and what we become are guests in wild territory. Those feelings intensify when the float planes takes off and our team of three is committed to the winding path ahead – to make it from headwaters in the heart of the proposed mine site to the confluence with the Mulchatna river. Koktuli to Mulchatna to Nushagak, the water we touch will eventually meet Ole and Dylan and Sarah and little Finn too at Nushagak point…
…Day 1: There’s a part of me that wants to float completely silent, quietly move with the girgling rio through the narrow green canopies of leaning spruce, eyes peeled in the thick grass for any wildlife that might appear, unaware of our presence. That’s the ever-curious piece of me, always searching and inquiring, wanting to fully experience… the let’s appreciate it all and do not disturb mindset. Then there’s the other side, okay let’s be honest, the much more dominant one that is hollering hello or offering a round of applause around every 180 oxbow turn. I’m a bit frustrated with this urge to warn the wild, as I’d really just like some quiet. But I deeply appreciate how in tune I am to the surroundings, the breeze through the trees, the sounds of current, the flap or a the wing of an arctic tern to the swoop of an eagle, to the unique slow clop of four grizzly paws, making way from bush to sand to water…
…Day 6: Silent appreciation prevails at last and I move quietly downriver simply looking and listening in the lead. I am floating around a big bend, unable to see much of anything at all, admiring the terns that squak above. (It seems as though they still cannot forgive us for our previous camping site. We appear to be continually disturbing their nesting grounds, and I feel bad about that.) The boys float behind me, Travis still on his unrelenting mission for rainbows. I hear an enormous clatter, the sound of something, big, really really big, charging up river at me. I have absolutely no visibility around the corner.. I just know it – what?- is coming right at me… I’m hollering “wooaaa woooaaaaaaaaaaa.” And standing tall, thinking I’m pretty damn sure bears don’t charge in herds. But after sleeping in a puddle of prints three times the size of my hands night after night after night, 10 encounters already, in this moment I am vividly picturing a wall of bears at full speed ahead….
…The clatter, to my relief and immediate, pure joy, is a herd of the Mulchatna Caribou, row after row of brown bodies stretching from one bank to another. It is the sound of hooves upon river bed, clogging their way straight for little me and little red. And to my amazement, in a split second they all come to a screeching halt, hooves settle still on rock and Koktuli water settles. And it’s at this point that I laugh, actually laugh out loud. I slowly pull back into sight of the boys, who are no longer fishing, but standing and looking intensely, surely wondering perhaps slightly fearing what raucous I’d run into around the bend. I beckon Travis and Ben downriver, hoping the herd remains for the cameras to run. And we simply watch and listen…
There are so many people to thank from these past few weeks. But I’m working on the credit list instead; it will be a massive. How can we truly thank you all? By making an amazing film, by making a difference, by keeping in touch and strengthening the fight for permanent protection of this magical place we have so deeply experienced. Dave, I will forever remember our flight back to the Dillingham big city, me trusting you and the plane and the fate of nature at some 200 feet in the fog, the first leg of my trip back home. It was a ride I will never forget, a realization that we had, indeed followed the fish all the way up into the watershed, and experienced the communities, the fishing, the wild all along the way. It was a moment of seeing we had come full circle as we soared above the Nushagak and moved downriver. Dave pointed out the camp where Tech Cominco first camped when exploring in the 80’s, and we talked of what is to come of this ever-developing, overpopulating world. I soaked in the miles and miles of the pristine land and water that sustains that last great salmon fishery remaining, and all these incredible people and lifestyles and wonders it supports.
B & T, I am thinking of you guys. Say hi to the Salmon for me. Over and out, Lauren