Storm clouds gather over Nushagak Bay, where a tempest is raging over the proposed Pebble mine. Fishermen say it could ruin salmon runs. Mine owners promise jobs and an infusion of money.
All that the American West once was, Alaska still is. Abounding with natural marvels and largely untouched by human ambition, it strikes the newcomer as a land of endless prospect, an impression vividly reinforced from the passenger seat of a low-flying Cessna 180. Rick Halford, a bush pilot and former Republican state legislator, is showing me a piece of Alaska tucked between national parks and other protected lands about 250 miles southwest of Anchorage: the heart of the Bristol Bay watershed. Never was the term more meaningful. In every direction the dominant feature of the landscape, the element that binds everything together, is water. Within this 40,000-square-mile area are nine major rivers fed by dozens of tributaries that sometimes resemble stiff tree branches, sometimes sinuous arteries. Here are ponds so great in number and whimsical of shape they call to mind a crowded Joan Miró canvas stretching to the horizon. In more places than not, the water table lies near the surface, producing seeps and springs, continually recharging the spongelike tundra. This is a wet place indeed.
We fly upstream, following the Nushagak River toward its source, passing braided stretches where it is joined by the Wood, Iowithla, and Kokwok. Far to the right, the west end of Iliamna Lake, Alaska's largest, comes into view. Aside from a few scattered villages and the plane's fleeting shadow, no human signs are visible. No dams, no deforestation, no highways, housing divisions, or power plants. That this place is mostly undeveloped helps explain why it is home to the world's largest sockeye salmon runs and one of North America's largest chinook, or king, salmon runs, to say nothing of the trophy rainbow trout and grayling and other species that flourish here.
We near our destination, the locus of the toughest dilemma this uncommonly pristine and biologically productive region has ever faced. "Here it is," Halford says, "the spot where streams drain in three directions." From this hilly expanse north of Iliamna Lake, the Chulitna River flows east into Lake Clark, heart of the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. The South and North Forks of the Koktuli River meander northwest into the Mulchatna River, which feeds the Nushagak, and Upper Talarik Creek tumbles south into Iliamna Lake, which empties into the Kvichak River, which, like the Nushagak, eventually reaches Bristol Bay. Every summer, during a period lasting a few weeks, 30 to 40 million adult sockeye return to the bay. Driven by an ancient and unforgiving imperative, they swim against the shallow currents of these rivers up to their headwaters to spawn and die so that their kind may endure.