The Bears of Brooks Falls: The Book

I first traveled to Brooks River within Katmai National Park in early May 2007, and today it’s hard for me to imagine my life without it.

On the morning of my first flight to Brooks Camp (which is only accessible by boat, plane, or a very long, boggy, buggy, and rough cross-country hike), fellow rangers and I hauled our clothing, equipment, and months of food to the floatplane docks along Naknek River in the small town of King Salmon, a sprawling community surrounding an airport and mothballed U.S. Air Force base. We were excited and enthusiastic to begin the adventure, but few of us, I believe, truly understood what we were getting ourselves into. I certainly didn’t. Not quite a greenhorn when it came to wild areas, I had never experienced a landscape like this.

Immediately after takeoff, I gazed out the window of our small plane, my eyes transfixed on what many people would describe as nothing. King Salmon’s few houses, roads, and infrastructure quickly yielded to tundra and scattered spruce trees. This was land devoid of permanent human habitation. Cross hatching animal trails led to unknown destinations. I saw wildly meandering creeks, too many ponds and lakes to count, and a horizon bounded by unnamed mountains.

After twenty-five minutes of flying, the pilot landed smoothly on Naknek Lake’s calm surface, and we taxied to an empty beach in front of the few scattered buildings marking Brooks Camp. With the help of fellow staff, I hurriedly unloaded and stashed my gear inside a nearby tent frame cabin and began to settle in.

Later that evening, Jeanne, my then girlfriend and now wife, and I returned to the beach. I had just finished a winter job at Death Valley National Park, where daily temperatures had already risen above 100˚F, but Brooks Camp looked like winter couldn’t decide to stay or go. Leaves had not broken bud, thick blankets of snow clung to the mountains, and the underground water pipes to our cabin remained frozen. I walked wide-eyed, trying to take in the totality of the scene—the turquoise color of Naknek Lake, the snow-capped mountains, the pumice-strewn beach, a set of bear prints in the sand—when Jeanne waved her arm toward the horizon and remarked, “This is spectacular.”

I don’t recall if I responded or not. Doesn’t matter, because she was right. I had never looked upon land so empty yet so full.

Katmai and Brooks River are unlike any other place. But relatively little has been published about the bears, salmon, and humanity that intertwine at the river. In 2014, I first imagined an idea of writing a book about Brooks River and its inhabitants. In 2016, I began to work on it in earnest and this year I finished the manuscript. I’m pleased to announce my book, The Bears of Brooks Falls: Wildlife and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River, is available for pre-order. It ships out in March 2021 via Countryman Press. In eighteen chapters, the book strives to explore the ecology of the river’s famed brown bears and salmon as well as the complex relationship people have with the place.

Part one focuses on the colossal eruption of Novarupta Volcano in 1912 and the discovery of the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes. This event reshaped the area’s history and led to the establishment of Katmai National Monument in 1918, a time when the national park idea was still fledging.

Today, Katmai is most famous for its brown bears. Part two is devoted to their lives and the salmon the bears depend on to survive. I explore the marvel of the hibernating bear from a den on Dumpling Mountain, discover the river from a cub’s perspective, and follow the tribulations and growth of young bears recently separated from their mother. The brown bear mating season provides the chance to learn how bears compete during one of the most important times in their lives. Writing about the bear hierarchy, I consider how this social structure provides advantages to bears who live in an unfair world. Katmai’s brown bears experience hunger in a profoundly different way than people. They must eat a year’s worth of food in fewer than six months to survive hibernation. Their feeding choices and habits reflect highly tuned adaptations to take advantage of summer’s ephemeral bounty. And, the poignancy of a cub’s death, one witnessed by thousands of people on the park’s webcams, provides the chance to reflect on the end of a bear’s life.

Few organisms are as important to an ecosystem as salmon are to Katmai. Leading Odyssean lives, sockeye salmon face tremendous obstacles and challenges. From fresh water to the ocean and back again, they travel thousands of miles, running a gauntlet of predators to fulfill their destiny. Weakened by their freshwater migration and subsisting without food for weeks, the journey of Brooks River’s sockeye ends when they sacrifice their lives to reproduce. They are the ecosystem’s keystone, driving the river’s abundance and significance.

In part three, I examine modern humanity’s influence over Brooks River. Humans may be the river’s biggest ecological wildcard. Climate change looms large over the land and seascapes, and people alter the behavior of the bears that make the scene so special. The infrastructure needed to support thousands of visitors and their recreational activities invite conflict with bears. Managing bears and people in such a small area is especially challenging, provoking a decades-long and often emotional debate about the river’s future.

The Bears of Brooks Falls: Wildlife and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River is an exploration of brown bears and salmon in one of the Earth’s last fully intact ecosystems. It’s an honest and deep dive into issues surrounding the role people play in the riverscape and Katmai National Park. And, I’m so excited for you to read it, and I hope you’ll consider adding it to your bookshelf.

2020 Fat Bear Week Endorsement

In a year of heightened political polarization, there’s one candidate that rises above the rest. He’s a candidate for greatness. A candidate for change. He campaigns on a platform of success, skill, efficiency, and hard work. He is known simply as 747 and he deserves your vote for Fat Bear Week.

Large brown bear seated in shallow water.

Seven-four-seven is a titan, a tank, and a giant among bears. Holly might pledge a “salmon in every paw,” but 747 pledges just to eat salmon.

Seven-four-seven’s size is legend. At the Brooks River, few bears approach his size class, and as a result he has consistently ranked among the river’s most dominant bears. His measured size even surprised me, however. Through a novel use of terrestrial laser scanning technology, he was estimated to weigh more than 1,400 pounds in September 2019. This summer he appears to be at least as large, but I suspect he’s even bigger.

A bear can’t get this big without eating a lot of food, and Brooks River provides 747 with ample opportunity to get fat. Brooks River is part of the Bristol Bay watershed, an area that supports the last great salmon run on Earth. While salmon runs throughout much of North America struggle to cope with the combined impacts of impassible dams, incompatible land-use changes, and climate change, Bristol Bay continues to support tens of millions of salmon each year. Almost 58 million fish collectively returned to Bristol Bay in 2020, and the salmon run in the Naknek River watershed was exceptional. More than four million sockeye swam up the Naknek River between mid June and late July. The Naknek drainage may have supported the largest single salmon run on Earth this year. About twenty percent of those salmon–maybe 800,000 fish–entered Brooks River.

At Brooks Falls, 747 sat or stood waiting for his meals to come to him. He consistently capitalized on the vulnerability of salmon in the shallow, bubble-filled water. For a winter hibernator like 747, an individual who must eat a year’s worth of food in fewer than six months to survive, efficiency is a valuable trait to express.

Some pundits have called my support for 747 unwavering. Yet, I’m always on the lookout for a better candidate. This year, however, I’ve failed to find evidence of another Fat Bear Week contender that is fatter than 747. Whether you look at fatness as a proportional measure of body size or just through overall size, 747 has both bases covered.

A police department in Colorado even mistook 747 for a large boulder the size of a small boulder.

One person [who I am married to but will go unnamed] has maybe jokingly called me the “worst campaign manager ever,” because my candidate never wins. She might be correct. Despite my prior lobbying efforts, 747 has yet to win Fat Bear Week. Over the last several years, 747 has been snubbed by the voting public who viewed competitors like Otis, Lefty, Beadnose, and Holly as proportionally fatter.

But mark my words, dear readers. This is 747’s year. Cast your Fat Bear Week vote for the bear who shares an identification number with a jet airplane.

GIF of Hulk Hogan and other wrestlers signaling "for life" with hand signals.
Fat Bear Week 2020 bracket. It lists six bears on the left and six on the right. The logos at the bottom represent explore.org, Katmai National Park, and the Katmai Conservancy.
Here are my 2020 Fat Bear Week bracket predictions. Download your own 2020 Fat Bear Week bracket on fatbearweek.org and vote in the tournament from September 30 through October 6. Watch the bears on explore.org.

Early September Bearcam Questions and Answers

This blog has been relatively dark over the last year, not because I hadn’t intended to write for it but because I frequently had other writing duties to fulfill. Afterward completing one task, it was often easier to space out at the end of the day than concentrate on writing something that approaches partial intelligence.

I want to share a little of what I have been writing though. Each Tuesday, I cohost a question and answer session in the comments on explore.org’s Brooks Live Chat channel. It’s an AMA about anything related to Katmai National Park’s bears and salmon. Many people submit your questions in advance, which allows me to answer them with greater detail than a question asked on the spot. Below are my answers to those questions during the Q&As for early September.

Be sure to join the Q&A every Tuesday from 5 -7 p.m. Eastern in the Brooks Live Chat channel, and if you prefer to chat in sentences limited to 200 characters, then join the bearcam conversation on explore.org’s Brooks Falls YouTube feed.

September 1, 2020

I’d like to talk about the “Beaver Pond,” which Kathryn asked about via the Ask Your Bearcam Question form. “I’ve often looked at photos of the [Beaver Pond] and wonder if any salmon can make it to the pond and if any of you have seen bears fishing or hunting around the pond?”

The “Beaver Pond” is located about fourth-tenths of a mile south of the outlet of Brooks River. A road provides an avenue to get near there although there is no developed trail to the pond’s edge. Bears use the area but mostly as part of their efforts to get to and from Brooks River because the pond is inaccessible to salmon.

The Beaver Pond in relation to Brooks River
A beaver at the Beaver Pond

Beavers maintain a lodge on the pond’s north side and a grass-covered dike (an old beaver dam) lines much of that area. But, the Beaver Pond isn’t a true beaver pond in the sense that its formation was the direct result of beavers. It was once part of Naknek Lake and has since been cut off by the sediments deposited by wind driven waves.

The beaver pond was once a cove on the edge of Naknek Lake. Strong easterly winds create waves that erode the gravel shoreline to the southeast of Brooks River. The waves carry gravel and sand northwest toward Brooks River. Over time, a horsetail shaped beach began to encircle the cove.  This image below is from an unpublished geologic report about the Brooks River area. Note the concentric ridges along the lakeshore near the beaver pond. These are the beach ridges that cut off the beaver pond from Naknek Lake.

This process is similar to what we see at the river mouth, especially in the “spit” area that partly encloses a lagoon-like area rangers call the boat cove. The boat cove may be destined to become a small pond or marsh like the wetlands between the river mouth and the beaver pond today, although the mouth of Brooks River is more exposed to direct blows from wind-driven waves than the beaver pond area. Strong storms can quickly rework and reshape the gravel at the river mouth.

In the above image, the parallel lines farther inland are old beaches as well, although they weren’t formed by longshore currents. Instead, they mark the former levels of Naknek Lake and Lake Brooks. Naknek Lake has been slowly lowering in elevation as Naknek River cuts through the glacial sediments that dam the lake.

Although we don’t know exactly what the Brooks River mouth area will look like in the future, we definitely know it will not look the same.

Jen wrote in wondering about the line-up of salmon we sometimes see below the river watch cam and asks, “Has that behavior been noted before?” And, “What criteria initiate egg-laying?”

This is the formation that Jen refers to.

Parallel lines of sockeye salmon in Brooks River. The fish are facing upstream and in this image the current flows from right to left.

Sockeye salmon line up in fairly parallel rows frequently in late summer in the lower Brooks River. Until this year, however, with more salmon using the channel below the river watch cam, we haven’t been able to see this on the cams very well. Although this is not a new phenomenon at the river, I haven’t been able to find an explanation for it. We know the salmon are staging (waiting for the right time to spawn) but I don’t know if lining up in rows gives them any sort of advantage. It may be the most efficient way to sort themselves or there could be some social cue among the fish that prompts the formation. It’s a beautiful feature of the lower river in late summer.

Regarding Jen’s second question, a female salmon lays her eggs in nests she constructs by fanning the gravel with her tail. This action winnows away fine sediments that might hinder water flow (and hence dissolved oxygen) around her eggs. She’s looking for gravel of the right size and in areas of the river with consistent water flow. Males will fan the gravel occasionally too but they play no role in nest construction. Once the female determines her nest is suitable and she’s accompanied by a suitable male, she’ll release her eggs directly into the nest while the male releases his milt. In this way, it is the female who determines when to lay eggs.

LoveTheBears writes, “I understand that there is an area designated for cleaning any caught and kept fish.  What happens with the discarded fish parts?”

There used to be a public fish-cleaning building at Brooks Camp. The first iteration wasn’t much more than screened-in shelter with a bucket on the floor where people disposed fish entrails. It was later replaced by a more substantial log cabin style building where people could clean their fish. Today though, there is no public fish cleaning facilities at Brooks Camp and the public is prohibited from cleaning fish within 1.5 miles of Brooks Falls. People can keep one fish per person per day downstream of the bridge, but they must take it immediately to the Fish Freezing Building (the old fish cleaning building) and place it in a freezer. It must remain there until you depart Brooks Camp.

Although no bears at Brooks River are currently conditioned to seek human food, it hasn’t always been this way. In the 1960s and 1970s, many bears learned to associate people with food and sought opportunities to get at human foods at Brooks Camp. The fish cleaning buildings were part of the issue along with open dumps, outdoor burn barrels for garbage, and overall lack of awareness and regulations about proper food storage in bear country. As part of the effort to reduce the risk of bears becoming food conditioned, the NPS got rid of the public fish cleaning facility.

Bears easily learn and remember any trick that allows them to find food. Therefore, we must remain constantly vigilant to ensure that bears don’t learn to associate us with fish. The NPS and the State of Alaska implemented somewhat strict fishing regulations in the 1990s, which has greatly reduced the number of incidents when bears have learned to associate people with fish. Eliminating public fish cleaning facilities and prohibiting fish cleaning within 1.5 miles of Brooks Falls inconveniences some people but it is a big step toward protecting bears.

September 8

Angela writes, “We were talking about hibernation in the chat thread and wondered if it is necessary for bears to hibernate. We understand that bears at Katmai hibernate, but were wondering if bears in captivity also hibernate or if because there is a regular food source, the need to hibernate isn’t triggered?”

Hibernation exists along a spectrum rather than being an either/or behavior. Some mammals such as arctic ground squirrels are obligate hibernators, meaning they hibernate regardless of ambient temperatures or access to food. Bears experience a type of facultative hibernation. Given the right circumstances, bears needn’t hibernate to survive winter.

Each year, at least some black bears in mild climates (Sierra Nevada foothills, coastal plain of the southeast U.S., and Big Bend National Park to name a few) remain active all year. These are generally adult males. Similarly, a few adult male brown bears are active on Kodiak all year. Mild temperatures and at least some food allow these bears to remain out and about.

In North America, only pregnant female bears must enter a den and it isn’t because they must hibernate. Bear cubs are born so small and physically immature that they need many weeks of additional development before they are mobile enough to travel with mom. This is even true of polar bears who utilize the winter season to hunt seals on sea ice. Instead of heading out on to sea ice in early winter, pregnant female polar bears, just like all other pregnant North American bears, head to dens to give birth.

Although a handful of bears remain active all year, especially in more southerly populations compared to Katmai, hibernation is a bear’s best energy conservation strategy. It makes sense for nearly all bears to hibernate during winter when food is either very limited or non-existent. For those bears who stay active (other than polar bears), their metabolism and activity rates are much lower than summer. Winter activity, therefore, doesn’t mean that bears are as active as they would be in summer. So even captive bears may ignore food and water provided to them, relying more on their hibernative physiology to survive.

Erin asks, “747 is a huge bear. Is he the biggest bear seen at Brooks River? Have there been bigger bears in the past?”

As I’ve said and written many times, 747 is a giant of a bear. He is the most massive bear I’ve ever seen and we should not take his presence for granted. If 747 were to disappear from the river, it may be a long while before we see another as big as he. Last year, 747’s was estimated to weigh more than 1,400 pounds.

747 from Fat Bear Week 2019

Each year, there are comparably sized bears in Katmai and at Brooks River. I’ll start by listing three of the currently seen bears who approach 747’s size class and then highlight two who might have approached it in the past. Only the largest adult males are comparable.

Right now 32 Chunk, 151 Walker, and 856 are close to 747’s size (at least within 300 pounds or so). They certainly rival him when measured by height and length. Each of these bears seem smaller to me than 747, but looks can be deceiving. Size is also an important determinate of dominance in the bear world. It is not absolute though. While 747 is more dominant than Chunk and Walker, 747 consistently yields to 856.

32 Chunk from Fat Bear Week 2019
151 Walker from Fat Bear Week 2019
856 from Fat Bear Week 2018

In the past, Brooks River has hosted some very big bears. While I never had the opportunity to see Diver in person, he was reportedly extremely fat and large in his heyday during the 1980s and 1990s. Look at this photo as an example.

In 2007, the most dominant bear I saw at the river was 24 BB. He was very tall and long–so a massively framed bear. He didn’t use Brooks River in late summer though so we never got to see BB at his peak size for the year. BB behaved much like 856. He asserted his dominance frequently and spent less time fishing than 747 does today, so he might not have been as heavy as 747 but the potential was there.

BB in July 2007

Marlene writes, “856 is getting older. I am wondering if he will know when he no longer can hold the top spot or do you think there will have to be a confrontation?”

856 has been the river’s most consistently dominant bear since 2011. Like all bears, 856 is great at weighing risk versus reward. For him, the overall risk of confronting other bears is low and provides great reward in the form of access to food, fishing spots, and mating opportunities, because other bears recognize his dominance. 856 will use that to his advantage as long as he can.

His high level of dominance is tied to his health and fitness. He’s a large bodied bear so will remain relatively dominant no matter what but he needs to maintain his good health and fitness in case another bear challenges him or is unwilling to yield. 856 might fall from the top of the hierarchy if he is defeated in a fight by another comparably sized bear.

His reign as the river’s most dominant bear could end in another way though. He might not feel up to the challenge.

In July 2017, 856 was an infrequent visitor in July and when he did show up, he yielded easily to 32 Chunk, perhaps because he suffered from a leg injury that hindered his ability to compete with other comparably sized males. At the time, already after many years of dominance, I thought this was the end of 856’s reign at the top. I was wrong. 856 returned to the return to the river in September 2017 looking as healthy as ever and acting as dominant as ever. He hasn’t taken a step back since.

The chances of a repeat of July 2017 could be in 856’s future just as much as his defeat in an intense fight at the paws of another bears. If 856 continues to return to the river as he ages into his early and mid 20s, I think we’ll see at least one of those scenarios play out.

Mount Katmai Caldera

We found ourselves hanging over the brink of an abyss of such immensity that, as the event proved, we were powerless even to guess its size. Down, down, down, we looked until the cliff shelved off and we could follow it no further.

–Robert Griggs in The Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes describing the moment he first peered into Mount Katmai’s caldera

Standing on the rim of the Mount Katmai caldera, staring at the gaping hole where a mountain once stood, elicits a profound awe. At the caldera and across the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, the Earth’s power and ability to foment change is laid bare.

About a year ago, I disappeared into one of the most unique landscapes on Earth, the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes in Katmai National Park, a trip I partly chronicled in a blog post for explore.org. I hadn’t specifically planned on ascending to the caldera rim on that trip, knowing that the weather along the crest of the Aleutian Range is fickle at best and an inviting window of opportunity may never materialize. When I woke at daybreak on June 10, 2019 to see a cloudless sky though, I left my base camp eager to reach one of Katmai National Park’s most spectacular features.

I slept the previous night at Novarupta, the lava dome that marks the eruptive center of the 1912 Novarupta-Katmai eruption, the largest eruption of the twentieth century and one of the five largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history. The lava dome represents the eruption’s last gasp, forming anywhere from days to months after the 60 hour eruption waned on June 9, 1912.

view of pumice-covered flats and snow fields dark-colored lava dome at center

Novarupta lava dome

I began walking not long after the first light of dawn cast a pink alpenglow on the surrounding volcanoes. The rivulets of snowmelt where I gathered drinking water the prior evening had run dry as overnight temperatures dropped below freezing. Thankful for the firm footing, however, I traveled quickly across frozen snowfields to the base of the Knife Creek Glaciers, a badlands of pumice-covered ice attached to the north faces on Trident and Katmai volcanoes.

view of snowfields and mountain peaks

Early morning light on Trident Volcano

Not one, but many meltwater streams pour from the snout of these glaciers, and the permanent channels have eroded deeply into the pyroclastic deposits that form the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes proper. Finding places to hop over or ford these streams is straightforward, although tedious work as you climb in and out of their past and present floodplains. They can be crossed most safely within a few hundred yards or less of the base of the ice. Farther downstream, they create impassible gorges, akin to southern Utah’s famed slot canyons only filled with a torrent of glacially cold water.

view of pumice flat and small stream with ash and pumice covered glaciers in background

Lower sections of the Knife Creek Glaciers are a badlands of ice covered with as much as six feet of ash and pumice.

Compared to the scale of geologic time, Katmai’s volcanoes forced their way to the surface relatively recently. Over the last several hundred thousand years, upwelling magma buckled and fractured its way through thousands of feet of Jurassic-aged rocks, although these sedimentary layers have deformed little since they were deposited. The rock of “Whiskey Cleaver” a wedge of 150 million year-old marine sediments buttressing the north flank of Mount Katmai, are nearly as level as when they accumulated on the bottom of the seafloor.

The first time I reached the caldera in 2011, I stuck to the base of the cleaver, following the margin of the glacier to the west while hugging the exposed rock and glacial till until I needed to step onto the glacier leading to the caldera rim. This time while looking to avoid glacial travel as much as possible—dying alone, trapped in a crevasse seems like a horrible way to go—I chose a slightly more direct route up a steep ash and snow-covered slope slightly east of the main glacier. The sun had yet to soften the frozen snow as I ascended. I couldn’t kick sufficient steps into the crust, which forced me to avoid the steepest snowfields where I felt the risk of falling was too great. This turned into the diciest part of the route and was the one place that I wished I carried an ice axe.

View of hummocky landscape created by ash and pumice covered glaciers at the foot of mountains hidden in clouds. Blue line near center represents route.

I explored the termini of the Knife Creek Glaciers the day before my ascent to the caldera, partly to scout a way through the badlands. My approximate route through a corner of the Knife Creek Glaciers is shown in blue. The view looks east toward the caldera.

At the top of this slope, I reached a bench where the gradient lessened in steepness, kept me temporarily off the glacier, and away from areas prone to rock fall. From here, it was a simple task of avoiding the steep sidewalls prone to sodden late spring avalanches and the center of the glacier where crevasses are more likely to open in June. Not a single cloud hung in the sky, the air was dead calm, and the caldera was only two miles away.

view of mountains with vast snowfields with some small pumice-covered areas in fore and middle ground

The final two miles leading to the caldera

When the 1912 eruption began, Mount Katmai was a triple-peaked and glacially clad 7,600-foot tall volcano. Around midnight on June 7, 1912—in the midst of eruption’s most violent outbursts—Mount Katmai began to collapse. Over the next twenty-four hours, the summit fell inward, generating fourteen earthquakes between magnitudes 6 and 7.

No one witnessed the collapse. Thick ash replaced daylight with an inky blackness across the region. Not until the eruption ceased and skies cleared on June 9 could anyone see that the mountain had lost its top. Because Mount Katmai collapsed, for decades people considered it to be the source of the eruption. In a sense it is, but not from the perspective of explosiveness. Careful study of the eruption’s fallout and pyroclastic flow deposits in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes revealed relatively little originated from Mount Katmai. Instead, the vent that opened at Novarupta siphoned away its magma. Perhaps not coincidentally, the elevation of the caldera floor and Novarupta are nearly the same.

Human eyes would not look into the caldera until Robert Griggs and his expedition team slogged their way to the rim from the Pacific coast in 1916. While I enjoyed the advantage of ascending on clear snow with stable footing along with the fore-knowledge of how to get to the rim, Griggs clawed up the volcano’s still muddied and pumice-covered southern slopes, all-the-while pioneering his route, not quite knowing what he’d see or what challenges he’d face until he got there.

When Griggs reached the unstable and knife-edge caldera rim caldera, he found glaciers cleaved flush with the precipitous walls where several thousand feet of mountain once stood. Peering into the gaping earth, Griggs had difficulty comprehending the caldera’s scale, and he stared amazed at a horseshoe-shaped island of lava in a milky, robin-egg-blue lake deep within the bowels of the volcano.

panoramic black and white photo of volcanic caldera.

Jasper Sayer took this remarkable photograph of the Mount Katmai caldera in 1919. It had been seen for the first time only three years prior. I reached the caldera on the opposite side from this photo, near the low point in the rim at left.

From the sight lines along my route, the terrain provides no hint the caldera exists. Although the route’s gradient lessened the closer I got to the rim, the caldera appeared in sudden and spectacular fashion.

panorama view of Mount Katmai caldera on clear sunny day

During a 2011 ascent here, I was forced to retreat within 15 minutes by howling winds, a cloud ceiling which allowed on the scantest of peeks into the bowl, and the threat of snow. On this day though, I sat on the rim for more than two hours, attempting to embed the scene into memory. I couldn’t help but consider how ephemeral it was. The shallow lake first witnessed by Griggs has grown more than 800 feet deep and continues to rise. New glaciers hug the interior walls and calve small icebergs into the water. I watched avalanches of rock and snow tumble more than a thousand feet from the rim to the lake. Water discharged from hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the lake creates greenish-brown swirls with the deep blue of the lake’s surface.

Like the dozen-plus other volcanoes in Katmai, the mountain will churn with unrest again. Its next eruption is unlikely to be as large and landscape changing as the 1912 event, but Mount Katmai’s potential to unleash the power of the Earth remains ever-present. As I sat on the rim, looking at the hole where a several thousand feet of rock once stood, I enjoyed the long moments of calm, wonderfully alone with a mountain only temporarily at rest.

view of mount katmai caldera with steep snow covered cliffs at right and center
view of mount katmai caldera with steep snow covered cliffs at left and center

To learn more about the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, read Robert Grigg’s 1922 book about its discovery and exploration. Volcanologists Wes Hildreth and Judy Fierstein authored the authoritative text on the eruption’s geology in The Novarupta-Katmai Eruption of 1912—Largest Eruption Eruption of the 20th Century Centennial Perspectives. Lastly, I devote two chapters in my forthcoming book, The Bears of Brooks Falls: Life and Survival on Alaska’s Brooks River, on the 1912 Novarupta-Katmai eruption’s significance to the region and the creation of Katmai National Park. Look for The Bears of Brooks Falls late this year via Countryman Press.

A Step to Protect Brooks River’s Bears

Each year, the National Park Service in Alaska reviews compendiums for park areas and provides the public with an opportunity to comment on proposed changes or suggest changes. This year, Katmai National Park is proposing a change to its compendium that will give staff greater flexibility when managing the Brooks River area. If you value the river’s wildlife and the bear-watching experience at Brooks River, whether in person or through explore.org’s bearcams, then please support this change.

Visitation at Brooks Camp has skyrocketed to unprecedented levels during the last several years. In 2015, the last full summer I spent as a ranger at Brooks Camp, approximately 9,300 people attended the NPS bear orientation. In 2016, the number of orientations climbed to 10,900. By 2018, the number had grown to 12,500 and in 2019 it reached over 14,000, the highest visitation every recorded at Brooks River. This change may not seem like much (Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Visitor Center often receives over 10,000 people per day in summer). However, the Brooks River corridor is quite small. The river itself is only 1.5 miles long and during the busiest days in July over 500 people and a few dozen brown bears attempt to share its space. The increase in visitation and unrestricted access to the river has created an untenable situation that taxes park staff, facilities, the experience, and the bears’ ability to tolerate and adapt.

graph showing number of people attending bear orientations (y axis) by year (x axis). The number of orientations has doubled since the 2000s.

Attendance to mandatory bear safety orientations can be used as a proxy for overall visitation to Brooks Camp. In the last ten years, the number of people attending the orientations has doubled.

Related: Bears and Humans at Brooks River

Brooks River is a unique place within America’s national parks. In a landscape home to more bears than people, it is Katmai National Park’s most famous bear watching destination. However, it is perhaps the only area in Alaska that is actively managed as a bear-viewing destination yet has no restrictions on access. No permits or guides are required to visit. There is no limit to how many people can visit each day and almost no restrictions on where you can go when you get there. Arriving visitors are required to attend a mandatory bear safety talk that outlines the proper and expected behavior. After that though, you are largely free do go about your business. To help manage the situation, the National Park Service has proposed this change to Katmai’s compendium.

The Superintendent may prohibit activities, impose restrictions or require permits within the Brooks Camp Developed Area. Information on closures and restrictions will be available in the park visitor center. Violating [Brooks Camp Developed Area] closures or restrictions is prohibited.

The NPS lists several reasons for the proposed change.

  • High visitation and improper behavior by people has negatively impacted bears along the river corridor.
  • The park has received more complaints and concerns from the public regarding bear-human interactions.
  • Bears are changing how they use the river, so current closures are becoming increasingly inadequate.
  • Visitation has increased dramatically over the last several years.
  • To better manage the river corridor, the park needs more flexible management tools.

While the proposed change is no panacea for the challenges facing park staff at Brooks River, it can provide an important tool to manage changing situations. For example, it hypothetically allows the NPS to extend the closure around Brooks Falls beyond August 15 or even restrict human access in the lower river area when bear activity is high.

Quite often, proposals for greater restrictions and regulations in national parks attract more opposition than support, especially if the change has the potential to impact public access or business interests. Now though, we have the opportunity to let the NPS know this change is worthwhile and necessary.

Portions of Katmai’s bear population are equally sensitive to human disturbance as the grizzlies in Yellowstone, yet the only area in Katmai where people cannot venture is the immediate area surrounding Brooks Falls, and then only from June 15 to August 15. Since I came to discover Brooks River for myself in 2007, protections for bears have slowly eroded. In the face of skyrocketing visitation, the NPS has proposed a positive step to protect bears and the bear-watching experience. So please send the park a comment expressing your support for the change. Here’s an example to get you started (feel free to customize it as you see fit). You can download a copy of the proposed changes and submit comments on the NPS’s project website. The comment period is open through February 15, 2020.

PS: If you plan to visit Brooks Camp this summer or in the future, please consider subscribing to the Brooks River Pledge. It’s a personal pledge between yourself and Brooks River with the goal to emphasize respect for the bears’ space as well as ways to continue to have a high quality bear viewing experience.

Fat Bear Week 2019 Endorsement

Avoiding the news when your job is internet-based is like avoiding the flu when your entire household is infected. So, try as I might, I keep stumbling upon headlines about upcoming presidential primary elections. The big question on the minds of pundits seems to be, “Will people choose the candidate who best represents their values or the one who they think is most electable?”

As a certified bearcam aficionado and well-known Katmai National Park pundit, I am pleased to announce that I have do not have that issue, at least not for the upcoming “election” called Fat Bear Week. My candidate isn’t a compromise between values and electability. He’s the real deal, the one, the only, the titanic bear known as 747. He deserves your vote.

silhouette of fat bear sitting in river

Don’t you call me pudgy, portly, or stout. Just now tell me once again, who’s fat? (NPS photo of bear 747 by N. Boak)

Seven-four-seven is a giant among bears, an adult male in the prime of his life who uses his size to dominate access to his preferred fishing spots in the jacuzzi and the far pool. His experience and skill pay off each fall, supplying 747 with the substantial fat reserves necessary to survive winter hibernation without eating or drinking.

To get this fat, you need to catch and eat a lot of salmon. Adult brown bears on Kodiak Island consume can consume an incredible 6,146 pounds (2,788 kg) of salmon per bear per year! Given 747’s excellent fishing skills and ability to routinely access the most productive fishing locations at Brooks Falls, I have no doubt his salmon consumption is on par with the biggest Kodiak bears. Stuck in his own version of “feed”-back loop, 747 gets fatter and fatter until it’s time to enter the den. (And, no bears probably can’t get too fat.)

If you don’t believe me about 747’s qualifications, believe the Internet, always an impartial repository of truth and honesty. In 2017, I recorded a video of 747 in all his epic fatness. If anything can be gleaned from viewer comments (and of course we know that YouTube comments represent the highest form of public discourse), 747 is an extra THICC absolute unit who is ready to hibernate through two winters.

The people have spoken.

At Brooks Falls, 747 remains quite dominant and can often access any fishing spot he chooses, which is not surprising given his size. Adult males typically rank at the top of the bear hierarchy. Even so, 747 still faces competition, in real life and in Fat Bear Week. This summer, I was awestruck watching 747 clash with another adult male, 68, in an intense fight.

 

Sixty-eight emerged victorious in the battle, not only securing access to a preferred fishing spot at Brooks Falls but also assuring his dominance over 747. Bloodied from the fight, 747 left the falls area almost immediately and I thought I might not see him for the rest of the evening.

bear standing in water with some blood dripping from his lower lip

747 bleeds from the mouth after his fight with 68 on July 2, 2019.

Within an hour or so, he returned and began fishing like nothing happened. When you only have a few months to prepare for winter hibernation, there’s little time to waste.

Like so many things in life, 747’s Fat Bear Week victory is not guaranteed. My 2017 and 2018 endorsements for 747 were followed by his sound defeat. This year, his competition is just as fat if not fatter.

GIF of bear sitting upright and scratching an itch with her left front paw

Dear Holly,

Game on. See you in the Fat Bear Week finale!

Sincerely,
747’s Campaign Manager

Your Fat Bear Week vote can be based on any number of factors. You can consider a bear’s annual overall growth like that experienced by cubs and subadult bears. Perhaps you want to weight your vote toward bears with extenuating circumstances such as a mother’s cost of raising cubs or the additional challenges older bears face as they age. No matter what though, 747 once again offers you, the astute Fat Bear Week voter, the opportunity to support a bear who is both the fattest and the largest, two traits that are not mutually exclusive.

Complete your civic duty and vote for Brooks River’s fattest bear from October 2 – 8 on Katmai National Park and Preserve’s Facebook page. Look for the head-to-head Fat Bear Week matchups. The bear whose photo receives the most “likes” advances to the next round, until one bear is crowned fattest bear on Fat Bear Tuesday, October 8. Don’t forget to watch Katmai’s fattest bears every day on explore.org.

Fat Bear Week 2019 Bracket.jpg

My Pebble Mine Draft EIS Comments

As I’ve written before (here, here, and here) and commented on (here and here), Pebble Mine represents an unacceptable threat to Bristol Bay, home to the last great salmon run left on Earth. Through June 29, you can submit comments on the Army Corps of Engineers draft Pebble Mine environmental impact statement. I encourage everyone who cares about wildlife and wild places to comment. Tell the Army Corps of Engineers that this mine is unacceptable.

I also realize that not everyone has the time to read the draft EIS, which is huge, containing about 1,400 pages. So, I’ve copied my comments on the draft EIS verbatim below. You can also download a rich text file of the comments. I hope they inform your comments about Pebble Mine, the development of which would be a grievous mistake.

red salmon swimming in shallow water

Draft Pebble Mine Environmental Impact Statement Comments

I firmly oppose the development of Pebble Mine. The draft EIS (DEIS) fails to adequately address the mine’s short-term and long-term impacts. Additionally, its development would create several permanent hazards to the watershed, and the mine merely represents the first of many potential large-scale developments that will continually degrade salmon habitat in Bristol Bay. After reviewing the DEIS, I urge the Army Corps of Engineers to reject the permit application for Pebble Mine and select the no action alternative.

Permanent Mine Hazards

The mine and its infrastructure create several permanent environmental hazards. Two of these hazards, the open pit lake and tailings storage areas, are particularly concerning, because the DEIS does not provide adequate or convincing information on how these hazards can be contained indefinitely. For example, page 8 of the executive summary states,

“Pyritic tailings and PAG waste rock would be placed into the open pit for long-term storage below the pit lake water level. Once the material has been transferred to the open pit, the pit lake (i.e., the water that would accumulate in the open pit as a lake at closure) would continue to fill, and would be allowed to rise to the pre-determined control elevation threshold (about 890 feet). Once the level of the open pit lake rises to the control elevation, water would be pumped from the open pit, treated as required to meet State water quality standards, and discharged to the environment.”

This final stage of the open pit requires indefinite water treatment and discharge of water from the open pit. This is neither acceptable nor feasible in perpetuity since treatment facilities must be funded and maintained forever. Even if Pebble Limited Partnership is required to establish a bond to fund treatment, government solvency cannot be guaranteed over time spans necessary to treat wastewater from the open pit. Additionally, if costs to treat wastewater exceed the money available in the bond, then the burden to prevent contamination to the watershed will fall to taxpayers.

Page 8 of the executive summary also states,

“The bulk TSF would be closed by grading its surface so that all drainage would be directed off the TSF, and then the tailings surface would be covered with soil and/or rock and possibly a geomembrane or other synthetic material. This would prevent water from ponding on the TSF surface, and is known as a dry closure. Once this surface runoff from the bulk TSF is demonstrated to meet water quality criteria, it would be directly discharged to the environment.”

Since geomembranes have only been in use for 30 to 40 years, we lack adequate information on how they perform over the time span (essentially forever) necessary to keep the bulk tailings storage facility dry and prevent groundwater from leaching in or out. Simply covering it with soil, rock, and a synthetic membrane only delays groundwater contamination. It will not prevent it. The impacts of a degraded geomembrane leading to groundwater contamination are reasonably foreseeable but are currently unevaluated in the DEIS. The EIS needs to evaluate the impacts and timeline of a degraded geomembrane, not just presume that it will protect groundwater forever. It won’t.

Importantly, it is also completely unethical for a private corporation to create permanent hazards of this type. The mine has the potential to become another superfund site. If the Corps is to evaluate whether this project is in the public’s best interest, then it cannot ethically allow the creation of these hazards.

Scope of DEIS

The DEIS repeatedly presents information on best-case scenarios or merely states that something is “expected to happen” in an ideal way. For example, page 39 of the executive summary states,

“Water extraction activities would be required to meet the requirements of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources for temporary water use authorizations, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) for fish habitat permits (if issued). The rate and volume of water withdrawals would be monitored at each source to ensure permit requirements are met (as per permit stipulations). Therefore, the magnitude of the impacts to surface water resources is generally expected to result in changes in water quantity likely within the limits of historic and seasonal variation. The duration of the impacts is likely to be the life of the road, and the geographic extent of the impacts is likely to be relatively close to the road.”

Page 41 of the executive summary states,

“Overall, downstream impacts from pit lake level management during post-closure would not be expected.”

For another example, page 43 of the executive summary states,

“Under Action Alternative 1, impacts to water quality would generally be limited to the mine site area, within the zone of contact water capture and treatment, with potential minor exceptions of temperature and turbidity effects. Potential effects of contact and runoff water during construction of downstream water and sediment quality would be minimized through treatment prior to discharge, and would be expected to be minor.”

Statements such as these presuppose nothing will go wrong, ever, not with water treatment, not with the tailings storage areas, not with the fuel or the natural gas pipeline, not with the water extraction sites along the road. It downplays potentially significant risks. The DEIS does not adequately evaluate cumulative, foreseeable, long-term impacts.

Problems maintaining water quality can be expected over the life of the mine and are likely to increase after the mine is decommissioned. The mine will result in a net loss of spawning and rearing areas for salmon, and the habitat cannot be reclaimed. Throughout the DIES, the text downplays the ultimate impacts of the project. To gloss over impacts to the watershed in this manner represents a lack of due diligence on the part of Army Corps of Engineers and Pebble Limited Partnership.

Potential for Catastrophic Mine Impacts

While a credible worst-case spill from the mine, such as a tailings dam failure, is not likely in 20 years, if it were to occur the environmental effects would be devastating. The DEIS, again, neglects to include the possibility of unlikely–but foreseeable–catastrophic events. The agency’s review does not analyze a full breach of the tailings dams. It instead looks at a much smaller partial breach suggesting, “Action Alternative 1 and variants would not be expected to result in a longterm change in the health of the commercial fisheries in Bristol Bay or Cook Inlet.” (DEIS Executive Summary, page 54)

The potential for a tailings dam failure might have been calculated to be small (DEIS K4.15-16) over the near term, for example, but the risk cannot be eliminated and it will increase over time without additional mitigation measures. What is the likelihood of dam failure (large or small) over the next several hundred years? How would a catastrophic tailings dam failure impact the watershed, salmon, other wildlife, and the people who rely on Bristol Bay? This must be evaluated in the EIS. It is a reasonably foreseeable impact for this type of development since tailings dams fail frequently in the United States.

Impacts to Fish and Wildlife

The DEIS does not adequately evaluate the direct or otherwise foreseeable impacts on waters accessible to anadromous fish. As an example,

“The magnitude and extent of impacts, when compared to the total mileage of currently documented anadromous waters in the three tributaries associated with the mine site (i.e., the NFK, SFK, and the UTC), the loss of Tributary 1.19 habitat would represent 4 percent and 3 percent of spawning and rearing habitat for coho salmon, respectively; and 3 percent of Chinook salmon rearing habitat in these tributaries. In the context of the entire Bristol Bay drainage, with its 9,816 miles of currently documented anadromous waters, the loss of Tributary 1.19 represents an 0.08 percent reduction of documented anadromous stream habitat.” (Executive Summary, pg. 49)

Fish populations fluctuate significantly over many years and Pacific salmon utilize different habitats during different life stages. Some places in a creek are good for spawning but not rearing, for example. These habitats do not necessarily occur along a stream’s entire distance, nor do streams support salmon at the same rates consistently. Productivity within a watershed can fluctuate greatly over annual and decadal scales. As recent research1 on the Nushagak watershed demonstrated, entire landscapes stabilize biological production. Patterns of high and low production shift among locations throughout time. Simply acknowledging a stream supports anadromous fish does not adequately acknowledge the complexity of salmon habitat. Subsequent chapters in the DEIS do not present information on the type and relative importance of the habitat that will be lost. Therefore, the DEIS’ conclusions may not reflect the true importance of the stream miles impacted by the mine.

The quoted text is also written in a manner that minimizes the mine’s impact on fish (“In the context of the entire Bristol Bay drainage…the loss of Tributary 1.19 represents an 0.08 percent reduction of documented anadromous stream habitat.”). A more ecologically accurate measure would be to calculate this statistic as a percentage of the North Fork Koktuli River watershed. As I note above, not all anadromous streams are created equal. The North Fork Koktuli River watershed likely supports unique stocks of anadromous fish. Sacrificing .08% of Bristol Bay is not inconsequential and should not be written in a manner that suggests as much.

Regarding the transportation corridor, each of the DEIS alternatives are flawed due to the lack of information on the infrastructure impacts on fish and wildlife. For example, the DEIS does not address whether shipping across Lake Iliamna will impact harbor seals. The seals who live in Lake Iliamna are a unique population2. They live their entire lives in freshwater and have never experienced consistent shipping traffic on the scale proposed. The DEIS, therefore, needs to evaluate the impacts of shipping on wildlife in Lake Iliamna.

Water Extraction

At the mine and along the proposed transportation corridor, dozens of “water extraction sites” are proposed, pumping hundreds of millions of gallons of combined from surface features such as ponds, lakes, and streams (DEIS 2-58, 2-59, 2-96, 2-111). The pumping will continue year-round for the lifespan of the mine, and potentially longer as long as the infrastructure exists. However, I was unable to locate information in the DEIS on the impact of water extraction. Text on water extraction cites Appendix K2, which only includes a table about the estimated extraction rate per year.

There is no analysis of the impact of removing 500-1000 gallons per minute from dozens of surface water features. Are the streams identified for water extraction included in Alaska’s anadromous fish catalog? How will each stream react to that level of water removal? Flow rates in Bristol Bay streams vary greatly across seasons. Can the proposed extraction rates be maintained during years of drought or during winter when flow rates are low with no significant impact on aquatic habitat?

Each water feature is hydrologically unique and should be evaluated separately. A lack of evaluation on water extraction on fisheries and wildlife is a major flaw in the DEIS.

Long-term infrastructure use by communities

The DEIS states in several places that mine infrastructure will improve the quality of life for some communities.

“As described in Section 4.12, Transportation and Navigation, Alternative 1 would result in the construction of roads and ports. Although the road and port would have limited access, PLP has stated that they would work with all local communities to identify the best solutions for controlled-access use of the road and ferry for community transportation. Communities adjacent to the natural gas pipeline (Kokhanok, Newhalen, and Iliamna) would have the opportunity to connect to the pipeline. During operations, PLP would work with local communities to identify safe, practicable ways for residents to use the access roads, such as scheduled, escorted convoys for private vehicle transport.” (4.4)

“Communities adjacent to the natural gas pipeline (Kokhanok, Newhalen, and Iliamna) would have the opportunity to connect to the pipeline. Natural gas would likely be less expensive than diesel heating oil, which could lower the cost of living once equipment (e.g., furnace, water heater) is converted to natural gas” (4.4-5)

However, the DEIS repeatedly states that infrastructure will be abandoned or removed after 20 years.

“If no longer required at closure, the pipeline would be cleaned and either abandoned in place or removed, subject to state and federal regulatory review and approval at the decommissioning stage of the project. Surface utilities associated with the pipeline would be removed and reclaimed.” (Executive Summary, pg. 13)

Due to the high cost of living in the area, communities along the infrastructure corridor are likely to use the access road and the natural gas pipeline as soon as they are permitted to do so. These same communities wouldn’t want to give it up that access after 20 years. Therefore, the likely impacts of a natural gas pipeline and roads are not limited to 20 years. Impacts extend indefinitely. The DEIS should be revised so that it evaluates the impacts of a potentially permanent pipeline and road corridor.

Potential for Larger Mine

The DEIS is a rough evaluation of a mine with a 20-year lifespan, but that is one of the least likely development scenarios. If Pebble Mine is permitted to be developed, then it will open the door for an expanded and much larger mine that will operate for nearly 80 years as well as several other large-scale mineral prospects. The DEIS acknowledges this on page 4.1-8 when it states the Pebble Project Expansion is “reasonably foreseeable” and “would develop an additional 58% of mineral deposits”. The impacts of a much larger Pebble mine and a mining district in the headwaters of Bristol Bay are potentially exponentially greater compared to the mine proposed in the DEIS. This will cause irreparable harm to Bristol Bay’s fishery.

The potential for an expanded mine also increases the likelihood that the Pebble’s supporting infrastructure will remain in place indefinitely. The infrastructure is unlikely to be reclaimed as outlined in the DEIS. It will be used to service not only the larger Pebble Mine but others as well. This will lead to a cumulative degradation of salmon habitat, greater impacts to other species of wildlife, and greater risk for Bristol Bay’s fishing industry and culture. Although it’s not possible for the DEIS to evaluate the impacts of all foreseeable project expansions and other mines, the likelihood of this should at least be acknowledged more prominently, ideally in the executive summary. As currently written it is buried in Chapter 4 and easy to overlook.

In support of the No Action Alternative

Large scale development, especially open-pit mining, is incompatible with salmon habitat. We know this because large scale development has significantly degraded salmon runs and salmon habitat across much of the North Pacific and North Atlantic. Bristol Bay harbors the last great salmon run on Earth. If Pebble Mine is developed, then we will have acknowledged we have learned nothing from the collapse of salmon runs in New England, California, Oregon, or Washington.

The DEIS is largely based on Pebble Limited Partnership’s data. With so many flaws in the DEIS, it’s clear that the applicant’s plan is inadequate and has not met the burden of information necessary to justify their plans.

The cheapest, most feasible, and most environmentally ethical decision is to conclude this mine poses unacceptable risks to Bristol Bay—specifically the Nushagak and Kvichak watersheds—reject the mine alternatives, and choose the no action alternative for the final EIS. This is well within the Corps’ legal authority: “No Action Alternative could be selected if USACE determines during its Public Interest Review (33 CFR Part 320.4[A]) that it is in the best interest of the public, based on an evaluation of the probable impacts of the proposed activity and its intended use on the public interest.” (Ch. 2-8)

Although modern society uses rare earth minerals like gold and copper in many ways, civilization will not collapse if Pebble Mine is not developed. We won’t even be inconvenienced. If developed though, Pebble Mine represents the beginning of the end of Bristol Bay’s salmon. Mining impacts won’t cease after 20 years, and the hazards cannot be mitigated in perpetuity. The infrastructure is a beachhead for a larger scale Pebble Mine as well as many others in the region. The cumulative impacts of each mine will result in the net loss of larger and larger percentages of available anadromous fish habitat. On no metric does the value ore at Pebble exceed the value a healthy Bristol Bay watershed, its tens of millions of spawning salmon, and the economy and culture based on it.

There is no doubt the no action alternative is in the best interest to the public. We have so little to lose by leaving the ore at Pebble Mine in the ground and so much to gain by protecting it for current and future generations. The decision is clear.

The only acceptable alternative proposed in the DEIS is the no-action alternative. Do not permit this mine to be developed. If you do, it will become one of the greatest environmental tragedies of the 21st century, representative of our failure to do what is right by the land, the fish, and the people of Bristol Bay. It will become a monument to human greed and hubris.

Sincerely,
Michael Fitz
Concrete, WA
May 24, 2019

  1. Brennan, S. R., et al. Shifting habitat mosaics and fish production across river basins. Science. Vol. 364. Issue 6442. 24 May 2019
  2. Brennan, S. R., et al. Isotopes in teeth and a cryptic population of coastal freshwater seals. Conservation Biology. Accepted Author Manuscript. 2019. https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13303

 

 

 

A Plant with Teeth

My neck of the woods isn’t like the Chihuahuan Desert, where nearly everything that photosynthesizes seems like it evolved to grab, shred, tear, puncture, and stab you (just try an off trail hike at Carlsbad Caverns National Park if you want the experience and say hello to the lechuguilla while you do). Nor is my habitat like the poison-oak dominated slopes found in coastal California where a careless walk through brush can leave you itchy for weeks. No, not like that. Heck, I don’t even need to worry about ticks.

Along the Skagit River, devil’s club and a couple of species of invasive blackberry will stop you in your tracks with their numerous, stout thorns. Besides those few, the list of plants to avoid drops off fairly quickly, with a notable exception. One of the most ecologically interesting and menacing members of my plant community is a nondescript perennial that’s easy to ignore until it’s too late.

Lots of plants are fuzzy with fine hair. Some plants, like common mullein (Verbascum thapsus), utilize hairs on their leaves and stem like sunscreen and to make grazing just a little uncomfortable for herbivores. Some hair is just there, perhaps not serving a specific adaptive purpose, or not one that we know currently. But one plant in my forest, Urtica dioica or stinging nettle, has turned their hairs up to 11.

Nettle is rather inconspicuous. It has oppositely-arranged, coarsely-toothed, and heart shaped leaves. Its flowers grow in small, string-like clusters from the leaf axils and lack petals, typical for a wind pollinated plant, but what it lacks in showiness it makes up in its ability to inflict pain.

group of densely growing plants with toothed, heart-shaped leaves

Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

I learned about stinging nettle as a young teenager scrambling up a creek bank in Pennsylvania. The bank was steep and muddy. I needed just a little extra support to prevent me from sliding down. Lacking a tree to hold, I grabbed a group of herbaceous stems and immediately realized I had made a mistake. I made it up the bank, but the palms of my hands burned for the rest of the day. I was just introduced to nettle’s defense against mammalian herbivores.

Stinging nettle is equipped with tiny, but potent, stinging hairs. On the plants in my area, the hairs are particularly concentrated on the stems, flowers, petioles, and leaf undersides. Each hair is tipped with a small, fragile bulb that breaks off when contacted to expose a needle-like tip that, hardened by calcium carbonate and silica, readily injects a cocktail of chemicals into your skin. The stinging sensation is immediate and long lasting.

close-up view of underside of stinging nettle leaf showing stinging hairs, petiole, and leaf veinsclose-up view of young stinging nettle stem with many stinging hairs

Among other chemicals, the juice inside a hair contains histamine, which is an inflammatory compound (we take antihistamines to inhibit the affects of allergic reactions), and serotonin, which constricts blood vessels and acts as a neurotransmitter. In sum, it is designed to irritate.

Why the need for this defense? Nettle leaves are nutritious and high in vitamins A and C as well as protein. They would likely be a sought after commodity by deer and other browsing mammals if it weren’t for their stinging hairs.

We can neutralize the sting by drying or steaming the leaves. Steamed, the leaves taste as mild as spinach and they make a decent pesto.

 

The rash you get from poison ivy is an accident of evolution. The oily liquid, urushiol, which causes the itchy dermatitis on us doesn’t affect other North American mammals or birds. Your dog won’t get it. Deer eat the leaves. Many bird species relish poison ivy fruits for food. The stinging hairs on nettles tell a different story. They are purposefully indiscriminate against all mammals.

Plants, like all life forms, experience a wide variety of limiting factors. Stinging nettle may have evolved one way to dissuade herbivorous mammals, but the same defense doesn’t deter insects or snails. The stinging hairs don’t work on parasitic fungus or microorganisms either, nor on anything that attacks and eats its perennial rhizome. But, its stinging hairs work, quite well in fact for their evolved purpose—discouraging mammals from eating it.

Despite the pain nettle can inflict, I look forward to seeing it sprout each spring. It gives me an opportunity to reflect upon why it needs to evoke such discomfort in mammals. Stinging nettle is a plant with teeth. It fights back.

Bristol Bay at Risk

Imagine a place where the watershed is un-engineered, where the ecosystem’s productivity and potential is fully realized. It produces half the world’s wild sockeye salmon and is home to more brown bears than people. Then imagine that greed for minerals, driven by mass consumption, threatens it.

Alaska’s Bristol Bay is that place.

GIF of underwater footage of adult coho salmon

Bristol Bay is a 42,000 square mile (1.87 million hectare) watershed that encompasses the southeast corner of the Bering Sea. Ringed by the Kuskokwim Mountains to the north and the Aleutian Range to the south and east, the area is almost wholly undeveloped. The watershed includes two of the nation’s largest national parks (Katmai and Lake Clark), three giant national wildlife refuges (Alaska Peninsula, Becharof, and Togiak), the nation’s largest state park (Wood-Tikchik), as well as millions of acres of undeveloped lands and waters. In short, it is one of the most spectacular and wildest landscapes on the continent.

Wildness, however, doesn’t equate unpeopled. Humans have lived in the Bristol Bay region for at least 9,000 years and likely longer (the oldest human habitation sites were probably flooded by rising sea levels at the end of the last ice age).  Bristol Bay’s Yupik, Alutiiq, and Dena’ina developed a complex relationship with the resources they used to survive, especially salmon. Today, salmon remain the cultural, economic, ecological heartbeat of the region.

Born in freshwater and grown large in the sea, salmon are a conveyor of energy and nutrients. Their upriver migration feeds everything from mink, otter, eagles, and brown bears to 30 inch-long rainbow trout and 10-pound char. After spawning, they die and their decomposing bodies distribute millions of pounds of fertilizer, substantially increasing the productivity of an otherwise nutrient poor freshwater system. Salmon even help plants grow faster.

The area’s abundance isn’t fantasy either. Bristol Bay’s 2018 salmon run was the largest on record, with over 62 million wild salmon returning. Of that run, 21 million sockeye went uncaught and escaped upstream to spawn. 2018 was the fourth consecutive year that sockeye salmon runs exceeded 50 million fish. Exvessel value, the activities that occur when a commercial fishing boat lands or unloads a catch, was worth $281 million dollars. In 2010, during a much smaller run compared to 2018, harvesting, processing, and retailing Bristol Bay salmon created $1.5 billion in sales across the U.S. The value of salmon is even higher when all salmon related jobs—fishing, processing, tourism, supplies, services, and government—are taken into account.

Pebble Mine puts all that at risk.

GIF of underwater footage of sockeye salmon

Pebble Mine is a proposed open pit copper and gold mine at the northern headwaters of Bristol Bay. The fully developed mine site would encompass over 8,000 acres. Tailings ponds and an open pit would straddle two incredibly productive salmon producing watersheds—the Kvichak and Nushagak. Supporting infrastructure would include a 270-megawatt power generating plant, a 188-mile natural gas pipeline, dozens of miles of roads, and up to three new ports where no development currently exists.

As part of the required permitting process, the Army Corps of Engineers is currently soliciting comments on its draft Pebble Mine Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS). Comments will be accepted until May 30. I’m working on my comments now and plan to share them in another post, but the draft is huge, over a thousand pages long, so it’s taking me some time to read. However, my initial evaluation of the document has revealed major concerns.

  • The DEIS evaluates the mine’s active phase (20 years), but pays little attention to the true lifespan of the mine’s footprint, which will extend for hundreds, even thousands of years and create a permanent hazard to the watershed. After the mine’s proposed 20-year operation phase is complete, the landscape is supposed to be reclaimed. Tailings and waste rock will be stored underground or underwater in the former open pit. The open pit will be allowed to fill with water. Once the open pit lake rises high enough, water would be pumped from it, treated to meet water quality standards, and discharged into the watershed. This must happen forever to prevent groundwater contamination.
  • The DEIS does not evaluate the effects of a catastrophic tailings dam failure, which would release a toxic slurry of material into the Kvickchak and Nushagak watersheds. The risk of this is low, but that’s beside the point. The risk still exists and cannot be eliminated.
  • The DEIS does not evaluate who will pay for and maintain permanent water treatment in the open pit.* There is currently no financial plan to fund wastewater treatment after the 20-year operational phase when the mine is to be “reclaimed.” Who’s to pick up the tab when the Pebble Partnership, the mining consortium owned by Northern Dynasty Minerals, decides to walk away? The partnership claims financial assurance for site closure and monitoring is required before construction, but this does not assure funding for perpetual waste-water treatment. Since the corporation cannot guarantee financial solvency forever, it should not be allowed to create hazards that last forever.
  • The DEIS does not sufficiently evaluate the cultural impact the loss of salmon would represent to local residents, especially Native Alaskans. I’ve never been to any place where a single group of animals means as much to a regional culture as salmon do for the residents of Bristol Bay. For them, loss of salmon would be equivalent to the loss of bison for American Indians across the Great Plains.
  • Supporting roads, ports, and other infrastructure have the potential to disrupt some the best, untrammeled bear habitat in the region, especially for bears that use the McNeil River area just north of Katmai National Park.

Pebble’s proponents argue that the mine and salmon can coexist, but the two are at fundamental odds and always will be. Mike Heatwole, president of Public Affairs at the Pebble Partnership, told Mashable that the mine will cause no “population-level challenges to fish and wildlife resources.”

Screen shot from Pebble Partnership website. Text says, "Where is Pebble? Despite what you may have heard, Pebble is not at the headwaters of Bristol Bay. It is located at the upper reaches of three small tributaries — out of more than 50,000 in the Kvichak and Nushagak watersheds."

Pebble Partnership also claims the mine isn’t at the headwaters of Bristol Bay, which is blatantly false. This screen shot is taken directly from their website.

Despite talk that the salmon “population” won’t be affected, the mine reduces spawning and rearing habitat no matter what. Even under a best-case scenario where Pebble Partnership keeps its word, this is still precisely how we begin to lose salmon—one impassible culvert, one dam, one mine at a time. A few yards of stream here, a little more there. Does that matter? It sure does, as the story of salmon in the contiguous 48 states illustrates.

When Lewis and Clark explored the lower Columbia, they found the riverbanks lined with people, and a regional subsistence and trade economy based on the river’s salmon. In less than 150 years, it was gone. Farther upstream at Spokane Falls, people once gathered for thousands of years to catch 60 – 80 pound chinook. Those runs too are nothing more than memory.

In Washington State today, we bicker over the last of the wild salmon, considering whether to cull sea lions to help save an endangered population of starving orcas. Not far from where I live, Baker River sockeye are completely dependent on human intervention for their survival, because dams now completely block access to their spawning grounds. The outlook for salmon isn’t good on the rest of the west coast either. By 1999, wild salmon had disappeared from about 40 percent of their historic range in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and California. Across the continent in Maine, where people have taken great strides to clean up rivers and remove some barriers to salmon migration, almost no wild Atlantic salmon remain. Twelve Atlantic salmon returned to Maine’s second and third largest rivers, the Androscoggin and Kennebec, respectively, in 2018. Twelve.

No single factor caused the collapse of salmon runs in New England or the west coast. It was death by a thousand cuts. They were treated as an afterthought at best, undervalued and willingly sacrificed for “progress.” Similarly, if developed, Pebble Mine probably won’t be the end to salmon in Bristol Bay, but it could certainly be the beginning of the end. As Van Victor, president of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corporation, rhetorically asked, “At the end of the day, do we really want to risk what is truly one of mother nature’s wonders of the world for copper and gold?”

GIF of underwater footage of salmon fry

Young salmon fry feed in one of Bristol Bay untarnished rivers.

If you haven’t seen Bristol Bay, if you haven’t experienced what a truly wild and healthy ecosystem is like, then it might be easy to dismiss my concerns. It can be hard to imagine rivers and streams flooded with fish, where wildlife and people flourish on the seasonal treasure. That dynamic simply no longer exists in most of the rest of North America and we, unfortunately, consider it normal. In conservation biology, this generational amnesia is called shifting baseline syndrome: Every generation sees nature through a different lens and what we view as normal is actually degraded. Our threshold for acceptable environmental conditions is continually being lowered.

Thankfully, we don’t have imagine or scour history books to understand what Bristol Bay’s fishery and ecosystem was once like because it is what it has been since the last of the Ice Age glaciers melted from the landscape. We can still experience it at its full potential. It’s a treasure to savor and protect.

But we could lose it, quite easily in fact. Pebble Mine represents greed over sustainability. If developed, it provides clear evidence we won’t stop till the entire world is consumed. Future generations will judge us poorly if we take everything and leave nothing. It takes a special kind of naiveté to believe otherwise.

 

*I’d like to add a correction on this point. According to James Fueg of the Pebble Partnership, a closure bond would have to be in place before construction can begin, with the bond’s purpose to fund perpetual wastewater treatment by the state. This is good and something I didn’t know about. However, this is of little consolation. It is unethical for a private corporation to create a permanent hazard that the government then must forever ensure is contained. It’s not in the public’s best interest, and shouldn’t be allowed.

A (Sometimes) Overlooked Significance

Recently, I stumbled upon this question.

Honestly, it’s something that I think about regularly when I’m planning a trip to a national park. While people frequently visit parks and other protected areas to experience unique and special landscapes, sometimes we fail to see their forests for the trees, or even see their forests at all.

I think this is particularly true of North Cascades National Park and the adjacent recreation areas, Lake Chelan and Ross Lake. The region is most famous for its rugged mountain topography, which I must admit is quite pretty, but visiting here solely to see mountains risks missing some of the best, uncut forests left in the Pacific Northwest. I’m not implying that a visit to a park without admiring trees is somehow less worthy than my slow forest strolls. Far from it; national parks mean different things to different people. But, I find myself drawn to trees, no matter where I go, even among some of the Lower 48’s craggiest mountains.

view of forested valley with tall craggy mountains on horizon

The North Cascades are defined by their ruggedness, and the area’s vertical relief is impressively steep. Ridges and mountain peaks frequently rise above 7,000 feet while deep valleys incise the landscape to near sea level in some places. The Skagit River at Newhalem, for example, flows at 500 feet in elevation while several peaks ascend over 5,000 feet within a few miles. In Stehekin, Lake Chelan sits at a modest 1,100 feet above sea level, but within two and half horizontal miles of the lakeshore, Castle Rock reaches above 8,100 feet.

view of snowy mountains rising above lake

Castle Rock rises 7,000 feet above Lake Chelan.

The rugged topography slowed the march of industrial logging into the mountains, so by the time the North Cascades National Park Service Complex was established in the 1960s and 1970s, much of the forest within the newly protected area had never been logged. In the park today, nearly every low elevation valley holds wonderful examples of wild, unmanaged forests.

Some of the most spectacular and significant trees are found along Big Beaver Creek, which flows southeast into Ross Lake. A section of trail about five miles from Ross Lake passes through a grove of thousand year-old western redcedar.  Preservation of these trees was the catalyst that stopped the expansion of Ross Dam.

bole of large tree with two hiking poles leaning against it

Some western redcedar in the Big Beaver valley are over three meters in diameter at chest height.

hiking trail lined by large redcedar trees

Big Beaver Trail

Along their entire length, both the Big Beaver and Little Beaver valleys harbor incredible forests. The same goes for the Chilliwack River valley and Brush Creek area, so if you hike from Hannegan Pass to Ross Lake, you’re in for a spectacular forest hike.

trail winding through dense forest with large trees

Little Beaver Trail

person standing next to trunk of large Douglas-fir

Yours truly and a large Douglas-fir at Graybeal Camp in the Brush Creek valley.

Those places are remote, however, requiring most of a day’s hike just to get near them and several days of backpacking to traverse the valleys. Many other old-growth forests are more accessible. The Stetattle Creek Trail, which starts in the Seattle City Light company town Diablo, ends in a classic example of a climax forest on the west side of the Cascades. This trail is often overlooked and rarely busy. What it lacks in mountain vistas it makes up for in trees.

view of old growth forest with large coniferous trees

Forest near the end of Stetattle Creek Trail

Hiking south from the Colonial Creek Campground, an easy four-mile round trip along Thunder Creek brings you through stately Douglas-fir and western redcedar. People often march through this section, barely stopping to look, as they have their sights set on up-valley destinations, but if you go plan some extra time to stop and admire these trees.

tall trees with foot bridge at bottom

The forest along Thunder Creek

Disturbance—whether brought by fire, avalanche, landslides, or people—is a hallmark of this ecosystem as well. Many large trees stand as witnesses to past and current change.

person standing in front of large tree

Englemann spruce, McAlester Lake Trail

person standing next to large tree with smaller trees nearby

Western white pine, Old Wagon Road Trail

person standing next to large deciduous tree

Black cottonwood, Upper Stehekin Valley Trail

Those that didn’t survive allow us to explore how the ecosystem may cope with future disturbance. I find myself pausing frequently in burned areas and avalanche tracks to admire how quickly the landscape can change.

lightly burned forest with standing dead trees and some minor green vegetation on ground

A recently burned forest along the Park Creek Trail

broken trees in foreground with forests and mountain in background

Avalanches can sometimes devastate otherwise healthy stands of trees. This example comes from the upper Brush Creek valley.

Often overlooked and visited far less than the Highway 20 corridor, the Stehekin valley is the most diverse place in the park complex, both in terms of cultural and natural history. In Stehekin, you can find everything from a historic orchard to plants adapted to desert-like climates growing alongside old-growth groves.

trail through forest with bright yellow fall colors

Stehekin River Trail

red maple leaves in forest

Vine maple splashes the Stehekin valley with color each fall.

Trees persist and even thrive despite the forces constantly working against them. They create vertical habitat, greatly increasing the landscape’s capacity to support life. They tell tales survival and struggle, longevity and adaptability. They are living witnesses to history and catalysts for conservation. North Cascades provides a rare opportunity to explore unmanaged, old forests—habitats that are becoming increasingly rare. And, if you can’t get here, just go to your local park or maybe even your back yard where, I bet, there’s a tree worthy of your attention.