Kindly contributed by author and photographer Carl Johnson. In his new book Where Water is Gold, Johnson brings to light the struggle between developers and ecologists in southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay. A key habitat for millions of seabirds, salmon, otters, seals, walruses and endangered whale species, Bristol Bay also contains fine particles of precious metals (gold, copper and molybdenum) that industrialists wish to extract.
When hiking 2,500 feet up the side of a mountain, the view often consists of just the details in the tundra below, from the vibrant pink blooms of moss campion to the bristly, crunchy details of caribou lichen. The hike can almost be worth that vision of the small world that is normally invisible from below. The chance to explore such a detailed, networked ecosystem is an absolute treat.
But macro flower-viewing is not the goal. Rather, it is the expansive views that such heights offer in the midst of the Chigmit Mountains in the Aleutian Range within Lake Clark National Park, Alaska. At our destination, standing with strained muscles and sweaty brows, we were able to look down below at the deep turquoise waters of the Twin Lakes – two long, oval-shaped lakes, connected by a tether of a stream.
The Twin Lakes are one piece of a network of lakes and streams flowing into the Kvichak River, the conduit for the largest single Sockeye run in the world at the heart of the Bristol Bay region. As I look down on them from our summit on an un-named mountain, I am with a group of clients on a backcountry guided trip. We are exploring the area through inflated kayaks, moving camp every couple of days to explore the water and take time for day hikes such as this one. We are taking in the scenery, enjoying the occasional visit from a Bonaparte’s gull or semipalmated plover, and the thick swarms of evening mosquitoes. At the end of our visit, we stop in for a look at the cabin of Dick Proenneke who, starting in 1968, built a log cabin with stone chimney from hand tools and materials on site. National Park Service volunteers who knew him tell about his way of life and help us to understand him better. In the end, we depart the way we came, via float planes launched from the nearby village of Port Alsworth. For a pair of carpenters from New Jersey, a couple from Singapore, and a cadet from the Coast Guard Academy, it is a chance to see a world they could only imagine. It is an unspoiled wilderness where clocks, cell phones, calendars and schedules don’t matter – only your determination, sense of adventure, and spirit.
For the unskilled backcountry traveler, this sort of trip in the Lake Clark wilderness is a perfect way to sample the wild Alaskan landscape. And while I had been traveling in the wilderness off and on for two decades, the raw beauty of the landscape and the quiet of the Twin Lakes offered even for me a fresh look at the land I call home.