Photos: A Vision Worth Saving in Bristol Bay

Written by: Pat Clayton

The world’s largest runs of wild salmon, including sockeyes, spawn in the rivers of Bristol Bay.
All photos by Pat Clayton

[Editor’s note: Last April, we posted about photographer Pat Clayton‘s goal to spend the summer in Alaska to photograph the region threatened by the proposed Pebble Mine. Here are some of his images and thoughts on the experience.]

Every pastime has its crown jewel—the place we all dream to make it to one day, a spot so ridiculously blessed with overabundance that its image exists in the fringes of our subconscious. For fisherman of all stripes, that spot is Bristol Bay, Alaska. Here, shoals of salmon pour out of the ocean, leopard rainbows devour mice, and schools of ghostlike grayling are ever present. All of this is set in an untouched wilderness, with an eons-age culture subsisting off its very abundance, a throwback to a bygone era.

Native peoples of Alaska still depend on the bounty of the salmon runs.

For years, I searched disconnected headwaters regions for the remnant populations of native trout. Their splashy reds and yellows would appear like apparitions from the past, only existing in places remote enough to have protected them from the onslaught of man. There was always one place that danced in my mind. I wanted to see what used to be, and everything pointed to one massive and wild region: Bristol Bay.

Managed correctly, the salmon runs are a renewable resource that we can enjoy indefinitely.

I wanted to see all of it, from start to finish: the first silvery Kings of June motoring upstream with overwhelming power, the colorful riot of fall Dolly Varden, the headwaters lakes and the native villages at their river mouths, with the adventurous fishermen who travel from across the globe to fulfill their dreams, and the natives filling their smokehouses for the winter.

This stunning Dolly Varden also depends on the salmon runs for survival.

I found myself here for my first time well over a decade ago, as a deckhand on a small boat in a big ocean. This time, my eyes were set firmly on the headwaters with camera in hand. To see where this massive plug of ocean fish fulfilled their destiny and witness the last fully functioning mega salmon run left on earth. The fact this place still exists gives us hope and allows us to dream of a place. There can be no monetary value placed on it, and it is worth every last ounce of effort we can muster to preserve it just as it is. . .which is just as it has always been and was meant to be.

The untouched landscape of Bristol Bay deserves our protection.

6 thoughts on “Photos: A Vision Worth Saving in Bristol Bay”

  1. I shared the heck out of Pat’s photos all summer. I think they were instrumental in the mining corporation’s decision not to dig there. Thanks for showcasing these images. They are stunning and show us what we could lose by greed or indifference.

  2. Pat and I have had several conversations about his trip to Ak this past summer, while his photos are stunning many of them were not taken in any of the drainages that could be affected by the Pebble Project. I live in Ak and consider it my home. I have floated many of the rivers in the area of the Pebble Project and will again. The sad thing about the outside opinions on this project is they do not take into account the social status of many people in the area. Ak has the highest rate of domestic, alcohol and drug abuse in the nation. The commercial fishermen who do harvest the Bristol Bay salmon are mostly from out of state, as are most of the crew members. All the monies generated by the Bristol Bay fishing industry does nothing to help Alaskans. I would encourage people to learn about the challenges facing Ak to realize what is needed.

  3. Alaska does have great social problems, but it is not true that majority of the fishing permits are from out of state. The majority while just over 50% are held by Alaskans when talking drift net fishing, when talking set net that number is much higher. Currently a new investments in canneries and lodges are being made right in the Bay. It is true that many of Pat’s pictures are from rivers outside drainage downstream from Pebble, but the rivers that are downstream look very similar and drain into the same main stem salmon streams of the Nushagak. I am not sure the boom and bust economy of mining will provide a better life for the people of Bristol Bay, but it really is their choice. The people of Bristol Bay have voted, commented, been surveyed multiple times and they do not want this mine in their watershed.

  4. Half my pictures are from the Nush and Lake Illiamna which are directly downstream. But larger then that is the fact that every salmon run from the Peninsula to the Yukon Delta will be affected if the core salmon population is damaged. 60% of the salmon run into the Nush and Illiamna, this is the heart of the the whole Bay and the blood runs to distant extremities as any biologist will tell you. Strayers from the core population provide genetic diversity and a buffer to all the regions rivers.

  5. These are outstanding photos of a wild place. I think it is in the interest of all people to preserve the Bristol Bay watershed in its wildness and only in the interest of a few to extract the gold. No pebble mine!

  6. I watched the trailer for Red Gold and now I need to track down a full-length copy. I think it is on the Pebble Mine website (perhaps with a spin doctor behind it, or perhaps earnest), but the companies president was quoted with something along “if it’s the fish or the mine, the fish have to win”. I want to believe they would be good stewards of the environment, but they would also need to have stringent oversight and a plan vetted by the EPA. Just as with the rest of life, it’s all a balance (from native individuals that seek an economic boost, to individuals liking tradition, to avid fly fishers) in being responsible on many fronts.

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