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Trek through the Pebble Mine watersheds - the Idea

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From June 7 through July 6, 2006, I spent a month hiking and packrafting through the lands downstream of the Pebble Mine. This 500-mile trip took us (myself, my husband, and a friend) on a loop of both watersheds draining from the Pebble site to Bristol Bay, the Nushagak and the Kvichak, and past many of the potentially affected villages. This page describes the rationale behind the trip.

The Pebble Mine project is a controversial proposal by Northern Dynasty Minerals to build one of the largest gold and copper mines in the world, in southwest Alaska, near Lake Iliamna. Northern Dynasty has not yet applied for permits, but their current proposal involves both a large open pit and an underground mine, as well as removal of the water from the headwaters of Upper Talarik Creek and the Koktuli River ( important fish habitats). The site sits at the headwaters of two major Bristol Bay drainages ( Nushagak and Kvichak), and potentially poses a large threat to the region's water and salmon. This proposal has become a major political issue in Alaska, pitting pro-mining forces against local native villages and commercial and sport fishermen.

I'm back now. Look at the updates from the Bristol Bay Times, my photo essay of the trip, and photos.

Pre-trip plan and concept for the Pebble Mine Watersheds Trek - June 1, 2006

Pebble Mine Watersheds Trek Route

The debate over the Pebble Mine proposal is crowded with numbers so large they boggle the mind. Millions of ounces of gold. Millions of spawning salmon. Billions of pounds of copper. Billions of tons of tailings waste. Miles of tailings pond. Billions of dollars. Hundreds of miles of downstream waterways. Two small streams begin at the site of this potential industrial giant. Over a hundred miles later they flow into Bristol Bay as two large rivers, the Nushagak and the Kvichak. Through the course of these rivers, the potentially impacted area stretches over hundreds of square miles, through small villages and remote wilderness. Almost no one has seen it all, and many have never set foot there. To really understand the scope of this mining project, and what is at stake, it needs to be brought to human scale. To accomplish this, I plan to hike and packraft along the entire length of both potentially affected watersheds, accompanied by my husband, Bretwood Higman, and our friend, Tom Evans. This 450 mile loop will take us from Nondalton, to the Pebble Mine site, down the Nushagak drainage, around the Bristol Bay coast, and up the Kvichak drainage to return to the mine site (see attached map and schedule).

Along the way we'll encounter streams full of spawning salmon, and stream banks full of the bears that are eating them. To complete the journey a month, we will be traveling 10-25 miles per day, both downstream and upstream, through remote and wild country. Along the course of this adventure I'll record the landscape in photos, and write daily to describe my experience.

Northern Dynasty Minerals won't apply for permits until at least 2008, so the fate of this landscape is still hanging in the balance. Much of the coverage of this issue has focused on the arguments and opinions of stakeholders. Sometimes it seems the landscape itself has been lost in the shuffle. By undertaking this journey, I hope to make the land itself into a character in this debate - as vibrant and important as the people who are a part of it.

When I return, I will be giving talks, writing articles, and distributing photos of the trip. Check back here for updates along the way, and a full account when I return.

-Erin McKittrick

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All content by Erin McKittrick, copyright 2006-2007. Contact me with comments or questions at mckittre at gmail dot com.
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Last modified: 2/11/2007