(Lake Clark National Park, Bristol Bay, Alaska)
In August 2005, shortly after enduring the misery of the bar exam, I hopped on a plane to Anchorage, Alaska, to fly-fish for ten days. A friend I had met earlier in the year on a fly-fishing excursion to Belize, Chris Terry, lives in Anchorage, and when I told him I’d never fished Alaska, he was horrified. Chris immediately extended a generous invitation to the 49th state to remedy the unfortunate situation.
Like all visitors to The Last Frontier, its beauty and sheer massiveness awed me. If you appreciate wildness, Alaska is a dream. Over the course of the trip, Chris and I fished some amazing rivers on the Kenai Peninsula and some spectacular creeks up towards Denali.
(Me with a dolly varden shortly before it was released)
But the highlight of the trip, by far, was our visit to the pristine Bristol Bay watershed. A huge system of lakes, rivers, and streams that connect to the ocean, Bristol Bay is home to some of the world's largest wild salmon runs. Brown bears, wolves, caribou, freshwater seals and countless birds also inhabit this legendary roadless wilderness.
Chris, his friend Walt, and I flew to Bristol Bay from Anchorage in Walt’s small floatplane (floatplanes are like bikes in Alaska) and stayed multiple nights in Lake Clark National Park. One day we flew over to Lake Iliamna, the largest lake in Alaska and a hallowed name in the angling world.
Massive runs of salmon swim through Lake Iliamna and up the lake’s tributaries to spawn. Huge rainbow trout then follow the salmon up the tributaries and feed on salmon eggs and the flesh of dead salmon. (All five species of Pacific salmon die after spawning, and their nutrient-rich carcasses nourish the entire ecosystem – from the bears to the birds to the bushes.)
(Red sockeye salmon swimming the waters of Lake Iliamna)
We cruised the shoreline of Iliamna low in the floatplane, searching the clear water of the tributaries for bright red sockeye salmon. After spotting a creek teeming with sockeye (and a big brown bear fishing at the creek’s mouth), we landed the floatplane on the water, jumped out in our waders, pulled it as close to the shore as we could, and then tied it to some bushes with a long rope. (There were many firsts for me on that trip, and tying an airplane to a bush to go fishing was one of them.)
With the plane secured (theoretically), we walked down the rugged beach of Lake Iliamna towards the mouth of the creek. Though our landing had flushed the feeding brown bear from the creek’s mouth, the image of that enormous bear filled my thoughts. (Obviously.)
We waded upstream to find the first pool of salmon. Though the abundant sockeye had convinced us to fish the creek, it wasn’t sockeye we were after; our quarry were the monstrous rainbow trout that had followed the salmon.
(Chris wading up the creek)
While wading upstream, I noticed what appeared to be a clearly defined hiking trail in the tall grass on the creek’s bank. Knowing full well it could not be a hiking trail, I asked Chris and Walt what it was. Walt answered matter-of-factly, “Bears.”
Walt then proceeded to explain that there were brown bears all over the place and under no circumstances should we leave the creek over the course of the day. “Uhhh, okay,” I mumbled, trying to think about big rainbow trout, not us being surrounded and outnumbered by huge brown bears on a not-so-big creek.
The reality, of course, was that the bears were fat, happy, and borderline intoxicated on salmon and thus posed little to no threat. But, still, they were brown bears, and my mind, unfortunately, is one that tends to wander in such situations.
We worked our way upstream and proceeded to catch (and release) shockingly large and stunningly beautiful rainbow trout all day. It was insane, and I didn’t want the insanity to end, but when I rounded a bend and saw a bear walking down the middle of creek towards me, I realized it was probably time to turn around.
I considered yelling, “Hey bear, I thought we agreed that we had the creek and you the trail. What’s up with you in the creek?” But I came to my senses and hurriedly waded downstream towards Chris and Walt.
On our walk down the creek to the lake, we encountered another big bear. He was fishing one of the pools we had fished earlier in the day. Unable to leave the creek to walk around him, we stood in the creek and watched him fish. Needless to say, it was mesmerizing.
(The brown bear on the bank of the creek)
After a few failed attempts, the bear’s dripping head emerged from the water with a big salmon in his mouth. His angling success was a relief, as we assumed he’d exit the creek and wander off with his dinner. But he merely climbed on to the bank and sat down to eat his supper.
We watched him eat. It was somewhat surreal watching this bear eat a salmon from a mere 40 yards away, but it was also getting late and we had to make our way to the plane. We needed the bear to leave the creek.
Following his “wild Alaskan salmon sashimi” dinner, instead of leaving, he stretched his front paws out in front of him and went to sleep on the edge of the creek. He looked like a big sleeping dog, and we couldn’t help but laugh; this bear was quite a character.
While the bear counted salmon in his dreams, we decided we couldn’t wait any longer. We had to walk downstream past him. We tiptoed downstream, my heart racing. While our downstream slithering was tense for us, the bear, in a food coma, could’ve cared less. He merely lifted his head and shot us a look that said, “You inconsiderate jerks, can’t you see I’m trying to sleep here?”
We made it to the floatplane and were greeted by a howling onshore wind. We waded out and pumped water out of the plane’s pontoons. With the plane ready to go, Walt instructed Chris and me how we were going to take off. Because the wind would blow the plane off course if we tried for a regular water takeoff, Chris and I needed to guide the plane forward while Walt gained speed. Chris and I were to wade out on each side of the pontoons while Walt accelerated. When Walt felt he had enough speed to beat the wind, he would yell for Chris and me to jump in.
For a variety of reasons, the plan seemed nuts to me, but I wasn’t about to question Walt. With Chris on his side and me on mine, Walt began to gain speed. The wind tried to turn the plane, and Chris and I fought it. We walked, and then we started jogging with the plane through knee-deep water. With the wind ripping, water spraying us, and the propeller screaming, Walt hollered, “Now!”
Chris and I pulled ourselves on to the pontoons, stood up, and dove through the open doors of the plane. Walt kept accelerating, and the wind began prematurely lifting the plane into the air. Each time the plane went up, Walt shot it back down into the waves.
While I thought Walt was trying to kill us, he later told me that if he tried to go with the wind and pull up too soon (something a rookie pilot might try), we’d climb for a while and then crash into the lake, as we didn’t have enough speed. So he kept forcing the plane back down to the lake, waiting for the right amount of speed to pull up.
When we finally took off, Walt, the king of understatement, quipped, “That was a close one.”
We arrived safely back at camp that evening, and I enjoyed quite possibly the greatest beer of my life. It was simply an epic day, one that I’ll savor for all my remaining years on Mother Earth.
(Brown bear tracks and a dead sockeye salmon)
Six years later, my memory of that day has taken on a whole new meaning. Little did I know at the time, but while I cast to colossal rainbow trout and my imagination fended off marauding brown bears, a consortium of multinational mining corporations were conspiring to dig one of the world’s largest open-pit mines on the northern end of Lake Iliamna in the heart of the Bristol Bay watershed.
If this nightmare known as the Pebble Mine is allowed to go forward, it will be – take a deep breath – a 2,000-foot-deep, two-mile-long gold and copper mine with gigantic earthen dams built to hold back some 10 billion tons of mining waste. Roads will be built, and the mine will be smack dab in the middle of a known earthquake zone.
Pebble Mine will inflict irreversible damage on Bristol Bay, including the permanent destruction of dozens of miles of wild salmon habitat. That’s why NRDC has joined Alaskan Natives, anglers, hunters and other conservation organizations to fight this wretched proposal.
Just a couple of weeks ago, for Earth Day, NRDC and our tireless board member Robert Redford ran a full-page ad in the New York Times demanding that the mining companies keep their paws off Bristol Bay. In the past two years, our incredible members and activists have helped us deliver over 300,000 letters of protest to the major investors in the Pebble Mine abyss.
Some good news arrived recently, as one of the investors, Mitsubishi Corporation, withdrew from the Pebble project in February of this year.
We need your help.
For if there’s one thing I know in every fiber of my body, it’s that Bristol Bay and the fish and wildlife that inhabit it are way more precious than any quantity of gold.