Where Water is Gold: Life and Livelihood in Alaska's Bristol Bay
By Carl Johnson; Braided River; 2016. 174 pages; $24.95
Anchorage photographer Carl Johnson is no ordinary photographer intent on capturing artful images. His quest, to which he devoted five years, was to explore the Bristol Bay region and present it — both its natural environment and people — as a unique and highly valuable place that needs our concern and protection.
The resulting book makes the case that the most valuable resource in the Bristol Bay area is its clean, free-flowing water. The wetlands, streams and rivers support fish and wildlife — and the communities that depend on them for their well-being. Development of resources, particularly large-scale mining, is presented as a threat that would trade long-term economic and cultural values for short-term benefits in jobs and corporate profits. The proposed Pebble mine is squarely in the crosshairs here.
A couple hundred beautiful photographs are the book's treasure. They cover every season and a wide range of geography, from aerial shots of rivers and mountains to close-ups of fossils, hoarfrost and tundra plants. There are, of course, the requisite bears, seals, foxes and other wildlife.
People and their activities are central. We see individuals and families fishing, mending nets, gardening, trapping, kayaking, eating traditional foods and crafting art. Johnson's feeling for his subjects and his skill depicting them are apparent.
The text includes short, interspersed essays by Johnson, mostly portraits of local people. Longer chapters, each with a particular focus, are by some of Alaska's best-known writers. Bill Sherwonit provides an overview of the region, Anne Coray and Steve Kahn write of living on Lake Clark with the seasonal cycles, Dave Atcheson focuses primarily on commercial fisheries, Nick Jans covers recreation, and Erin McKittrick writes with passion about the Pebble prospect and the region's geology and hydrology. While there's considerable repetition among the chapters, each is informative. McKittrick, who hiked through the Pebble prospect as part of her Ground Truth Trekking nonprofit and is a scientist herself, does a particularly good job explaining the acid-generating potential of the area.
Salmon are, not surprisingly, given major emphasis both in the photos and the text. Alaskans likely know and appreciate how significant the Bristol Bay fisheries are. But readers elsewhere may be impressed by their magnitude: runs sometimes reaching more than 30 million sockeye salmon, nearly half the world's total, supporting 12,000 seasonal workers in a commercial fishery that represents a sales value of $1.5 billion. The subsistence, cultural and recreational values of salmon, less quantifiable, are shown here as the lifeblood of the region.
Curiously, Johnson's photos are not restricted to what we commonly think of as the Bristol Bay region — the watersheds that feed into the bay. They range to the Cook Inlet side of the Alaska Peninsula, including many images from the Katmai coast and ranging as far north as Chisik Island and Tuxedni Bay opposite the Kenai Peninsula. A clearer focus on the actual Bristol Bay side would have created less confusion about what's being represented. A different title, reflecting the larger geography, would similarly have helped. The maps in the book emphasize the location of the proposed mining area and lack details that would help place the photographs.
As a reader pages through the book, its advocacy purpose becomes clear. Many of the images include the popular anti-Pebble mine symbol (the name in a white circle, with a red slash through it), and Johnson's part of the text mainly portrays anti-Pebble activists. In her foreword, former U. S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor says explicitly, "I believe that there are places that are too environmentally sensitive for mining or other unsustainable development to occur. One of these special places is Bristol Bay."
Photos of the closed Berkeley Pit in Butte, Montana, now an ugly and toxic Superfund site, provide a jarring contrast — and seem more in your face than necessary in a book celebrating Bristol Bay's "life and livelihood."
Most Alaskans will already be familiar with the Pebble mine controversy (now on hold while the Pebble Partnership litigates against the Environmental Protection Agency) and likely don't need the passionate reminder they'll find in "Where Water is Gold." Readers elsewhere may have more to discover, both in the dramatic beauty and productivity of the region and from the information about what's at risk. They may be moved to stake out their own ground on the issue of whether some places are, indeed, too sensitive and valuable to develop.
Braided River, the conservation imprint of Mountaineers Books and publisher of "Where Water is Gold," was founded to combine photography and writing "to bring a fresh perspective to key environmental issues facing western North America's wildest places." Their award-winning Alaska-related books include "Salmon in the Trees: Life in Alaska's Tongass Rain Forest" (photography by Amy Gulick) and "The Last Polar Bear: Facing the Truth of a Warming World" (photography by Steven Kazlowski). "Where Water is Gold" joins an esteemed list of beautifully produced (and affordable) volumes that educate as they delight us with their images.
Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming."