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The Orvis Commitment
Bristol Bay Story
By John Van Vleet, Outdoor Copywriter, The Orvis Company
The sun never dies in the Alaskan summer. Every night, jagged silhouettes stretch across the horizon and reach into the sky, backlit by the warm glow of perpetual dusk. Stunted spruce and rocky peaks transform into shadowy monsters, ephemeral beasts that move slowly through the twilight and disappear with the sunrise. Broad rivers wind their way through this pure landscape and pour into the rich waters of Bristol Bay, connecting their delicate headwaters with the untamed power of the sea.
Life tries to continue unabated, as it has forever.
From the air, the Bristol Bay region is a labyrinth of braided channels, glacier-capped peaks, and unbridled wilderness. It tells the tales of hundreds of species and cultures—speaking in hushed tones about brown bears, moose, and caribou—yet screams in flashes of silver and red the story of the salmon and its people. Every culture can derive some meaning and purpose from its surroundings, and for natives to southwest Alaska, that meaning and purpose revolves entirely around salmon.
As life continues for these fish and these people, a menacing roadblock looms large and daunting.
Having visited the state once when I was younger, Alaska became a recurring vision for me, a hallowed place I knew I needed to visit again, both from an angling and cultural perspective. I often contemplated moving there in order to become a guide, but as the years passed and my responsibilities tied me to other places, that aspiration fell the way young dreams often do, as a victim of time and circumstance.
The story of these fish, and the people who depend upon them, is what actually brought me back to Alaska in June of 2012. Through Orvis partnerships with Trout Unlimited and the Alaskan Conservation Foundation, an opportunity arose for me to serve as a guest instructor at the Bristol Bay River Academy, a grassroots program designed to educate young adults from throughout the Bristol Bay region on everything from fly-fishing basics and river ecology to salmon conservation issues, with the ultimate goal of helping these students secure employment in and around the salmon fishing industry.
Many rural Alaskan communities depend upon the salmon industry for income, and an alarming number of individuals within these communities cannot secure jobs due to lack of training, transient workers taking the positions, and a host of other factors. For the organizers of the River Academy, the weeklong school serves as the perfect platform to not only improve the students’ chances of securing jobs within the fishing industry, but also to educate them on the prescient conservation issues of the day.
Each day, we tutored these students on the basics of fly fishing, and in return, they taught us about their lives. Growing up in Alaska is similar to growing up anywhere, with the same teenage challenges and frustrations, but life around Bristol Bay is unique in that each and every student grew up relying on the waters and the fish of Bristol Bay for survival. Some helped family members on commercial fishing fleets. Others simply fished for their own food and smoked salmon in hand-built family smokehouses. No matter the scenario, one thing was abundantly clear: their lives were touched by salmon in ways I couldn’t comprehend. While some will certainly leave their towns to attend college or find work elsewhere, the vast majority of the students will more than likely stay in their village for the rest of their lives. What they understand is that life in Bristol Bay goes as the salmon go.
With that being the case, much of our conservation discussion focused on the proposed Pebble Mine. Yet this issue isn’t simply a parochial one. The proposed open-pit mine would sit in between the Kvichak and Nushagak Rivers, two of the world’s most fertile salmon rearing grounds, and would require the world’s largest earthen dam to be built in order to contain the mine waste. In an area well-known for its seismic activity, the plan is to build a massive structure meant to last forever —and for that structure to be the only line of defense against the contamination of one of the world’s last pristine bodies of water.
To me, it’s like trying to patch up the Titanic with paper towels and duct tape. It might last for a little bit, but in the long run, the disaster is unavoidable.
A simple red and white circle seems ever present. Attached to the bumpers of trucks and flying on flags above buildings, it’s a symbol that contains only two words, but speaks volumes about the hearts and minds of Bristol Bay communities. On this white circular background, the words “PEBBLE MINE” are spelled out in all capital letters, crossed through with a vivid red line, reminiscent of no smoking signs. It’s a small gesture—albeit a powerful one—that brings together not only the residents of Bristol Bay, but also anyone that cares about the region. This logo serves as a constant reminder and an unflinching voice against the Pebble Mine.
At the heart of the issue is this: does the value of the copper, gold, and molybdenum that would be extracted outweigh the potential devastation of wild salmon and the communities built around them? Who better to ask than the residents of the land itself? While some agencies and groups around Alaska support Pebble and the jobs it would create, a vast majority of Bristol Bay residents can answer that question with one resounding word.
For more information, visit savebristolbay.org