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A Necklace of Nets

Posted by on 04 Sep 2013 | Tagged as: Expeditions, Fishing, Heart of Alaska, trip reports, Uncategorized

Katmai pokes the harvest of razor clams

(Redoubt Bay to Chisik Island)
The dog hunted clams. Nose and paws buried in muddy sand, pulling the shells with her teeth. She didn’t eat them, but left them for her owner to pick up and cook, like a truffle-hunting pig.

We hunted them too. Squelching towards the sea across a mile of flats, past glacier-dropped boulders, over the curlicue tracks of crawling isopods. I bent over with Lituya still on my back, elbow deep in the mud, fingers scraping as fast as I could go. The trick was to pinch the tip of the razor clam just right, not quite hard enough to break it, but hard enough to fight against the suction of its attempted escape, digging with my other hand as I slowly drew the clam out of its hole.

Weaving between glacial erratics on the sand and mud flats, searching for clams

Just one more, just one more, until the pot and cup were full and they were piled on the rock beside them, squirting jets of water towars the fascinated kids. Pulling food from the great wild world was exciting. And the muddy chase for a clam was more exciting than the nettles and fiddleheads and petrushki we usually caught.

We ate clams. We ate beach greens and noodles. And whenever we could, we ate fillets of gifted salmon. The clam-digging dog belonged to a family of salmon setnetters–the ninth such household we’d visited on our journey.

Setnetters encircle Cook Inlet, in a necklace of shacks and buoys and enthusiastic families. In winter, we sat on couches with east side setnetters, while they recounted their battles with drifters and dipnetters over disappearing kings. Battles the west side fishermen watched, but were grateful to be separated from. In spring we visited newly opened cabins. In summer, we ate their fish. And anything else they put in front of us.

Gifted salmon (from Cook Inlet setnetters) cooking over a fire

A setnetter processes a bit of the catch

We had cinnamon rolls and coffee at a cabin surrounded by Mount Redoubt’s mudflows, showing off the packrafts. We beachcombed with the clam-digging dog and her owners, pausing for a hot dog roast at the Harriet Point sand flats that they called “Hawaii.”

The necklace had gaps–wide stretches of coastline without buoys or boot tracks. In between the setnet camps, we spent half an hour trying to launch the rafts at the new mouth of the Drift River, knee deep in liquifying sand, plunging and pullging and floating and grounding on the way to an improbably distant ocean. We pulled rafts and kids and gear across a mile of sticky mud as the light dimmed past midnight, around yellow-orange worms which sucked in like uncurling tongues as our feet shook the ground. Hig walked it barefoot. Trying to avoid the clamshells. Unable to avoid the chill of the icy stream. Earlier that day, his shoe had torn so catastrophically that it would no longer hold on his foot.

It was a shoe, sort of, before the Drift River got it. After the Drift River, it was more repair than shoe

Hiding from the heat in a scented cottonwood bower

In between the setnet camps, we crunched through a drift line of wave-rounded pumice. We picnicked beneath cottonwood trees that arched over the beach, the smell of their resinous buds draping us in shady sweetness. The kids splashed and waded in the creeks, happily soaking. We followed lines of huge wolf prints at the top of the beach, and hunted for leaf fossils in the sandstone boulders. We nearly ran out of the sunblock we plastered on our red-headed child. The seemingly endless stretch of sun and heat erased the memory of April blizzards, of days pretending to be mammoths, and puffy clothing that was never quite enough to cut the chill.

All the struggles and all the idyllic days brought us to a Chisik Island setnet camp, where both my kids spent an hour engulfed by the hand-filled washing machine, plucking our swirling clothes from washer to spinner to rinser. I sequenced them carefully, cleanest to dirtiest, loading each armful in in turn. The more I put in, the more the swirling brown water looked like Cook Inlet itself.

A fishing skiff motors past a crowd of wheeling seabirds

We spent more than a day with this family of setnetters, Paula and Jon and their two kids, chatting and boating and baking. We cooked hot dogs on a beach as puffins and gulls launched themselves from the cliff above us. I smoothed a mound of clay being transformed into a pizza oven, and smoothed the fur of the voles tamed by the family’s 12 year old daughter. The whole day was one of our highlights.

Their life was like ours. Difficult and wonderful all rolled up into one transformative experience. An idyllic and struggle-filled family vacation.

Child labor is the best thing that I have to say about the setnetting industry. It was often the best thing they had to say about it themselves. How they’d grown up hauling fish, or how their children had, or sometimes both.

The kids scored snacks from a family of setnetters near the Drift River

It sounded like the stereotype of the way things used to be. Kids growing up “learning the value of hard work,” “contributing to the family,” and “building character.” But there was something very real there. The places were real. Wild and real and subjecting the people in them to real issues, depending on solutions that would work beyond a piece of paper. And the work was real. So many of us spend so much time immersed in environments designed by people, for people, that we may never know what real is. We, and they, try to give our kids something different. And they spoke of all of it so fondly. The fish slime, the waves, the work, the clean break from the rest of the year…

The overwhelming sentiment was one of joy and privilege–feeling lucky to have this life, and worried that the job and culture might disappear.

Bruce, Drift River: “I hope the fish resource will still be here…”

Setnet camp on Chisik Island

Don, Harriet Point: “The reason I came here is the spirit of Alaska–that homesteader mentality. And seeing that degrade… You expect it on the road system, but if it starts disappearing in the rural areas too, then we’ll be just like everywhere else. And I hope that doesn’t happen.”

Paula, Chisik Island: ” I think fossil fuels will change a lot. The prices. If the price keeps going up, eventually it won’t be worth it to send a tender out here anymore, and then there’s no way it would be profitable to run an operation like this out here. But with new technology…? Maybe there’s hope. Maybe someday I’ll be out here cruising around in an electric boat that can haul fish, instead of just people in Los Angeles.”

At the moment, the resource we were most concerned about was diapers. We were paddling all around Tuxedni Channel, searching for a resupply box gone awry, replacing (after our visit to the latest setnetters) moss-stuffed diapers with paper-towel stuffed ones, while we sought out the rest of our supplies–heading towards a world where cliffs and bears guarded every inch of shore, and nearly all human settlements disappeared.

Lituya emerges from a cave on Duck Island near Chisik Island

Puffins launching from a cliff on Duck Island

Leaf fossil in sandstone near Redoubt Point

Katmai balances on a log to cross one of Redoubt Bay’s many sloughs

New blades of grass spring through cracks in the mud on the edge of a slough

Erin ties a shoe on the glassy mudflats, covered with only an inch or two of water

Wolf tracks going into a sandstone cave

Web traffic! Who are you?

Posted by on 02 Dec 2012 | Tagged as: Uncategorized

This is a post by Hig – about the sprawling parts of this website beyond the blog, and how we figure out what’s going on over there.

Running a web site is kind of odd… it’s a medium for talking to people, but often it’s hard to know exactly who we’re talking to. Sometimes, we do hear from you directly. You post comments on Facebook. Or you send emails with comments or questions. Sometimes you run into us on the street and exchange a few words with us. But these individual interactions are infrequent and not entirely representative of our readership. For example, we never hear from the folks who stop by briefly for a snippet of information and then go on their way.

There are tools for tracking who the “silent majority” of website visitors are. We use Google Analytics, which amounts to having a silent monitor running on our site that records tidbits of information. It answers a variety of questions: What pages are people visiting? How did they get there? What city is their internet connection in? How long did they spend on particular pages? Were they on a conventional computer, or on some sort of mobile device? Where did they go next? If you want to know which pages you need to improve, this is great data.

Figure 1: Organic search traffic for two sites since January 1, 2007. GroundTruthTrekking.org (GTT), in blue, has been actively maintained and updated since its inception in early 2007, while AKTrekking.com has been nearly unchanged in that time (it was launched in 2003 I think). In both 2011 and 2012, traffic doubled during a period of about 2 months in the fall. In previous years, this same period likewise marked a similar increase in traffic. This fall increase, a dramatic holiday lull, a broad but distinct drop in traffic in the summer, and strong weekly cycles – all match the schedule of a typical student, suggesting that a major driver of our traffic may be students researching issues that we cover. Note the vertical axis is a log-axis; see my sidebar on reading log axes if you want to know more.

But there’s more to be known. In the mission of knowing our audience better (to try and provide more useful content) sometimes I try to figure it out. Recently I found myself digging around in our site’s Google Analytics data , and I came across something quite intriguing. I thought I’d share it here, partly out of enthusiastic data-geekery, and partly because this sort of detailed traffic information – proprietary data owned by website operators – is actually fairly scarce on the Web. (An exception: Family on Bikes reports on a traffic spike and then on longer term impact).

Figure 2: Variation in traffic through the week. The variation Monday through Friday is very similar for both sites, each showing a similar drop on Friday, but Saturday and Sunday both show much lower traffic on groundtruthtrekking.org than on aktrekking.com.

On our site, the majority of traffic (right now nearly 70%) comes from what’s called “organic searches.” This consists of people going to Google, doing a search, and clicking on our site. By comparing the traffic on our current site (groundtruthtrekking.org) to that of our old unmaintained site (aktrekking.com) we can get a sense of what the “normal” variation is in traffic for the sort of trekking and resource issue content we create, and what is unique to our current site (Fig. 1).

When we first looked at this data, the strong increase in traffic each fall seemed a striking pattern. In combination with a summer lull, a strong drop-off in traffic at holidays, and dramatic variation between the week and weekends, it seems like a big chunk of those visiting our site are doing so on the schedule of a student. Of these patterns, only the weekly cycle is repeated on aktrekking.com, so I looked in more detail at that pattern (Fig. 2).

Sidebar: Why use a log scale?

In data visualization, anyone who plots values on a log scale, which stretches the small end of a scale while compressing the big end, is viewed with deep suspicion. Why use a scale that distorts normal numbers? Why risk confusing your readers? Are you trying to hide something?

It turns out that there is a specific situation where you “should” use a log scale. It’s when you care not about the absolute difference between numbers (e.g., whether a number is one more or less than some other number) but instead about the relative difference between them(e.g., whether a number is twice as large or half as large as another.) Log scales are commonly used for the strength of earthquakes (magnitude) and for sound (decibels).

In Figure 1, we are looking at how traffic on our site varies through the year. In fall of 2009 our traffic climbed from around 20 hits per day to around 40. In 2012, over a similar time period, it climbed from 200 to around 400. Is it the best description to say that we saw a growth of just 20 in 2009, while in 2012 we saw ten times that growth? Or is it better to say that in each case traffic doubled? By plotting on a log scale, I chose to focus on doubling rather than the amount of absolute growth. The same difference in height on the graph implies the same change in proportional terms (note the bar indicating traffic doubling in 2011 and 2012.) If I’d used a linear scale, then the change in 2009 would hardly be visible, since in absolute terms it was very small.

Edit: This article presents an interesting overview of scientific evidence that log scales are in some ways more intuitive for humans.

The pattern is similar for both sites – steady traffic Monday to Wednesday, a slight drop Thursday, a big drop Friday, bottoming out Saturday, and recovering somewhat Sunday. However, the magnitude of the drop for groundtruthtrekking.com is much greater, consistent with a bias toward students who do research on our site during the week, rather than during their free time on the weekend.

So this is where we are. It looks like a lot of students find our site by doing searches. Further digging in Google Analytics reveals that our readers read pages in many key places on our site – some of the most popular are our articles on Acid Mine Drainage, on Pebble Mine, the True Costs of Coal, and on the Benefits of Coal. Additionally, they visit our map of mine prospects, our blog, and our homepage. A large portion of our readers are from Alaska, BC, and the Pacific Northwest, but we have growing audiences in some surprising places like Texas, Wyoming, Italy, South Africa, and the Phillipines. Plenty of mysteries remain, but I guess we’re doing something you’re interested in.

We’d love to hear from you – who are you? How do you use our site? What don’t we know about how you use our site, and what changes could we make to welcome more visitors?

Now back to work, improving content…

Season of the Tides

Posted by on 14 May 2012 | Tagged as: home, Uncategorized, wilderness kids

“Waak in da wada!” (walk in the water)

Sunflower star (Pycnopodia helianthoides):

Even the tides have a season. In spring, the tides switch with the tilt of the earth, bringing the lowest lows not in the middle of the night, but at a much more manageable 10AM. Punchy slushy snow still covers the high country in April and May. Plants are only beginning to unfurl. The world at the yurt is an interfingering of brown and white, mud and slush, the dry stalks of last years grass and the hopeful dirt of a too-early garden, melted and snowed on and melted again.

Hermit crab

But the beach? Fuzzy purple sunflower stars, rose-colored anemones, bright orange sponges, and shimmering green algae… Chitons in leathery-black or mossy grey, or sporting gaudy pink stripes. The red tufts of tubeworms protruding cautiously from their curled white lairs. Nearly translucent anemones visible only in the bright white stripes that grace their delicate tentacles. Red-clawed hermit crabs tucking themselves within the hairy shells discarded by whelks. Sucker fish in hues of granite and siltsone, tails curled around their body in a perfect mimic of a pebble. Pink worms twisting themselves in knots in our white plastic bucket, beside tussling limpets and crabs.

This tiny crustacean is held by surface tension to the top of the water

Sitka Periwinkles (Littorina sitkana):

Low tide is intricate, bizarre, with a new discovery under every rock, and a new assemblage of creatures on every stretch of beach. My 10th grade marine science class imprinted at least two things firmly in my brain: the scientific name of the green sea urchin (Strongylocentrotus drobachiensis), and an enduring love of tidepooling. My kids are merely an excuse.

5/6/12, -5.0 feet, 9:12 AM

At Outside Beach, I flitted between seaweed-covered boulders, seeing nothing but Christmas anemones, barnacles, and bidarkis (black katy chitons). But there are always Christmas anemones, and unlike most of the other Seldovians at the beach that morning, I wasn’t out collecting for a meal of bidarkis. I hurried over the slippery seaweed, looking for something different, wondering why the sandbar wasn’t out despite the -5.5 predicted tide.

Christmas anemone (Urticina crassicornis) drooping

Shells upon shells

Katmai was thrilled with the Christmas anemones, pointing them out in his high-pitched ear-splitting squeal, insisting I examine each discovery. I picked a ribbon of purple-brown seaweed (young dulse) from the rock and passed it to Lituya over my shoulder, then leaned down to feel the tacky surface of the anemone’s pink tentacles as they retreated away from my touch. Some were just mottled lumps of red and green, with tentacles neatly away into their cylindrical bodies. Others hung from the rocks wide open, improbably stretched, pendulous and colorful blobs melting down towards a missing ocean. And there were actually five kinds of anemones. High tidepools full of delicate rose anemones, the squat yellow cousin of the Christmas anemone, the nearly-transparent one with zebra-like stripes, and one stray soul in bright green… And a sea star missing three legs, and a purple urchin hiding in a crevice by the radiant fans of tube worms, and delicate hermit crabs with striped white and grey legs inhabiting opalescent snail shells. And then they were gone.

A few of the sand dollars were lodged upright in the sand, as if they’d failed to take their cues from gravity this day.

Katmai and Dad looking for tidepool critters at Naskowak Point

A few months each year, a few days each month, a few hours each day… The excitement of the tidepool world is whipped up by the briefness of the moment, by the water lapping at the ankles of my rubber boots, pulling back up to obscure the world nearly as fast as we could discover it.

A rising tide carried us – kids and life vests and camping gear and a pair of bright colored packrafts – into a muddy lagoon of periwinkle snails and washed-up algae, to explore a wind-twisted forest rising on cliffs above the ocean.

5/7/12, -6.0 feet, 10:00 AM

As the dancing shadows of sunlit spruce branches hit the edge of the grey tent, it was impossible to be annoyed at Lituya’s crack-of-dawn awakening. Eating oatmeal by the campfire, I watched the ocean slowly pulling back to reveal the rocks of the Naskowak Reef. This tide was even lower.

Ribbon kelp

As the tide shrinks away, this fish burrows into the sand to wait it out.

The sun hit a boulder as I listened to the hiss and pop of a hundred barnacles, rotating their beaks in their castle-like shells. The macro lens on our camera magnified the cells of the green algae, the translucent bodies of shrimp-like plankton, the tube feet of sea stars… The red arms of blood stars peeked out through the gaps in thick curtains of ribbon kelp. Worms and isopods and squiggling fish lurked beneath cobbles carpeted in a blanket of young dulse. With May’s long sunlight, the rocks were lush with algae of all kinds, slipping under our boots, shading a menagerie of creatures beneath their damp fronds.

The kids alternated between enchantment and frustration with the typical ping-pong rapiditity of the very young. The sunflower star is awesome! But the seaweed is too slippery! And I’m so incredibly excited to see the little fish you caught in the bucket! But I wanted to walk with daddy and now I’m going to scream and cry for 20 minutes about a decision we can’t undo!

Green algae

Clam worm. The kids call these “fang worms” for the fang-like protrusions that stick out from their head.

We moved to the simpler terrain of the sand flat, where half-buried sand dollars littered the surface, impossible not to step on. A bright orange and purple sunflower star waved its many arms in the inch or two of water that remained it it’s small depression, while another one sat motionless and sad-looking on dry sand. We walked through the eelgrass, nearly kicking up fish, while the tide flowed in around us.

5/8/12, -5.3 feet, 10:50 AM

With Katmai at preschool and Hig waylaid by more productive work, Lituya was my only companion. She squawked from the wrap on my back as I bent over, nose nearly to the sand, eyes and camera lens trained on tiny crabs and fish that appeared from beneath the cobbles on the beach. In her growing catalogue of words, I picked out an excited refrain of “rock”, “water”, and “ocean”. Visiting students from other towns crowded the beach beside us, squealing at their finds, a fleet of rubber boots leaving tracks on the spit of sand and eelgrass at Inside Beach.

Wosnesenskii’s Isopod

I set her wiggly form down, watching her run over the sand with a toddler’s bowlegged gait, beelining for the water. I turned over a few more rocks.

The water began to rise. It was all over – until next month.

Walking into Pebble Mine – from Obscurity to Ubiquity

Posted by on 29 Feb 2012 | Tagged as: Uncategorized

I posted this originally on Carl Johnson’s blog – a photographer working on a book about Pebble. Check out his 4-part series on Pebble Mine: Where Water is Gold.

in the tundra at the Pebble site – 2005

Walking into Pebble Mine

August, 2005: I lay my camera carefully in the tundra, then ran back and flopped on my belly, smiling in a frame of reindeer moss and berries. A helicopter roared past, dangling something from a cable beneath it. It had been three days since I talked to another human, but I was surrounded by the sound of their machines: the constant thwack of rotors, the rumbling of drill rigs, and the roar of small planes.

I tucked the camera into the dry bag that hung around my neck, and headed out into the swampy flat that marked a proposed tailings lake, snapping photos between the squalls of rain. For dozens of square miles around me, the rolling wet tundra had been engulfed by an idea bigger than anything this part of the state had ever seen: the Pebble Mine proposal

I wasn’t really a photographer. The digital SLR camera was brand-new to me only a few months earlier. I took pages of detailed notes in a waterproof journal, but I wasn’t yet a writer. I wasn’t an activist. At the time, I wasn’t even an Alaskan. I was just an ex-grad student – a newly-minted Master of Molecular and Cellular Biology looking for a new path in life.

Caribou near the Pebble site – 2005

The New York Times introduced me to Pebble Mine, in a 2005 article that shocked me mostly with what I didn’t know. A giant mine proposal, at the headwaters of a giant salmon fishery – how had I missed such a big issue?

Type “Pebble Mine” into Google today and you’ll be inundated with protest pages and mine company pages, a Wikipedia article, magazine spreads, and news pieces from across the world. There are photos of the prospect, maps galore, photos of people standing with anti-mine banners, photos of drill rigs and photos of salmon… There are movies to watch, a National Geographic piece to read, and a dozen different organizations to join.

In 2005, there was none of that. Pebble Mine’s backers were planning to move to permitting in less than two years. But it seemed like no one had even heard of their plan. Information was difficult to come by. Talking to a director of a prominent conservation group focused on Alaska, I had a hard time convincing him that Pebble actually existed. People cared, but they were few, scattered, and no one was paying them much attention. I couldn’t even find a picture of the place.

So I thought I’d better go take a few.

Three days earlier, I’d walked here alone from Nondalton Village, not sure what I might find. As I walked into the rolling flats of the proposed tailings lake, the wind and rain picked up, whipping the tiny plants into photographic blurs, and spattering water across my lens. The plants hugged the ground in a close-knit mat, surviving by being low and crowded. I followed caribou trails around the brushy tangles, circling Frying Pan Lake, and hiking into the hills on either side of the valley.

Cranberries and reindeer moss – 2005

I’d just spent the whole day hiking in what could become a giant tailings lake. How could everything around me – literally everything I could see, and everything I walked through all day, disappear into a toxic muck pond?

Becoming an Expert

At the end of 2005, typing “Pebble Mine” into Google would bring you straight to me. I had exactly zero funding, and only crude web skills. Yet somehow, my on-the-ground expedition, photographs, research and writing had turned my page into the dominant source of Pebble Mine info on the web. Requests started flooding in. I heard from people who wanted to use my photos, for everything from posters to magazines to college projects. From people who had questions, who wanted to know what they could do, who wanted to know more…

Who was I to be in this position? I tried to live up to it, painstakingly compiling facts and news articles, attending Northern Dynasty’s meetings in Seattle, and reading long papers about mining issues.

Where Threatened Waters Flow

Last of the snow melting from the banks of the upper Koktuli River – 2006

June, 2006: I walked out of Nondalton Village, this time with Hig and my friend Tom in tow. The tundra was painted with the pastel yellows and pinks of tiny wildflowers and tinged with the dull, muted tones of ground that has only recently emerged from the snow.

Even from this closest village, the Pebble valley was still a day and a half’s walk away. As we approached the first of the exploration drill rigs, a trio of caribou trotted past gracefully. A helicopter roared across the dark grey sky, tilting and bouncing in the punishing wind. Trash littered the ground near the trampled and muddy pits of old drill rig sites. I crouched in the grass with my telephoto lens, shooting drill rigs and hoses, and the sludge of rock slurry spilling out over the tundra.

Our mission on this journey was to follow the water. As salmon swim, and as toxins might flow, we spent a month traveling almost 500 miles under our own power, hiking and packrafting the length of both watersheds that connect the Pebble site to Bristol Bay.

My natural shyness had been countered by my bolder companions. As we passed through villages, we began to talk to the locals – about the area, about our trip, about the mine. Each person we spoke to seemed keen to tell us that their entire village was against the mine. They were concerned about the fish, and skeptical of the mining company’s promises.

Here in the Bristol Bay watersheds, everyone knew about Pebble. Everyone had strong opinions. But the rest of the state and the country was just starting to hear of it.

Drill rig at the Pebble Prospect – 2008.

Familiar Ground

March, 2008: A wind swept our skis down the frozen surface of Sixmile Lake. As we approached Nondalton Village a cluster of low, colorful buildings emerged from the bare birch and shaggy spruce on its shores. The small forms of people appeared on the edge of the ice, approaching to greet us.

“Come in! There’s moose stew and all kinds of food.”

By now, we were returning to familiar ground. We dumped our snowy backpacks in a corner of the Nondalton community center, underneath a poster of my photographs from 2005, and lined up for styrofoam bowls of moose stew.

Anti-mine symbols graced buttons and baseball caps around the room—a neat red slash through the words “Pebble Mine.” “No Pebble Mine” posters covered the walls, the professional work of an Anchorage environmental group intermingled with the colorful hand-drawn efforts of local children. Nunamta Aulukestai, a multi-village organization ?rmly against the mining proposal, had invited a panel of scientists and a state official to talk about the potential impacts of a mine.

Somewhere in the past few years, things had changed. Not just here in the villages, but across the state. More and more, Pebble was even popping up in national and international media. Pebble Mine wasn’t the issue no one had heard of anymore. It was the issue everyone had an opinion on. It was the issue that dominated commercials and ballot initiatives, and seemed better known than any other resource issue in the state.


Elders outlining subsistence resources near the Pebble site – 2008

Tom Crafford (state DNR large mine coordinator), stood up in front of the small crowd in the Nondalton community center, explaining the setup at Red Dog Mine, where a water-treatment plant sits at the outlet of the tailings storage lake, perpetually deacidifying and detoxifying the water before it is released, making it safe for downstream life. When the mine closes, the treatment plant will still be there, treating the water in perpetuity. Other maintenance will need to be performed perpetually as well, keeping the toxic tailings stored in a dammed-off lake, forever sequestered away from water and air. This is what the future of Pebble Mine might look like

Hig broke in with a question: “What exactly do you mean by ‘in perpetuity?’”

“Forever,” Crafford responded.

“Actually forever?”


“When the United States no longer exists, when glaciers roll over the landscape in another ten thousand years, some guy is going to be out there with a bulldozer maintaining the dams around the tailings storage lake? To a geologist, forever doesn’t even make sense!”

Forever is impossible. Whether it happened in one year, ten years, a hundred years, or a thousand, those tailings would eventually pollute the downstream watersheds. Failure was a given. We were just taking bets on when it might happen, and how rapid a failure it might be.

What’s Next?

A thunderstorm approaches the Pebble site – 2006

In some ways, we’ve moved away from Pebble Mine in the last few years, broadening our focus to encompass issues that haven’t yet reached everyone’s attention. Against the backdrop of air-supported National Geographic photo trips and constant television ads, my home-grown efforts seemed paltry. The world may not need my photos of Pebble any longer. But there are questions that no one else is asking.

I haven’t been back to Pebble since 2008. But Hig’s visited the area every summer, digging trenches, doing high-resolution GPS surveys, searching for evidence of faults and earthquakes. Even in the 30,000 page baseline data document Pebble Mine recently released, there is only a paltry 3 pages covering seismic risk. And in those 3 pages, there’s not much worth looking at. For other industrial projects in seismically active areas, companies pay for detailed surveys that identify faults and quantify risk. Here, Hig has spent yeas doing the only original science on seismic hazard risk in the Pebble Mine region.

In the last seven years, I’ve watched awareness and outreach on the Pebble Mine issue blossom far beyond what I could have possibly imagined. But that question Hig asked in Nondalton still hangs unanswered. It’s an issue that comes up in large mine projects across the state and the world. As far as I know, there is no solution to the problem of permanent tailings storage other than what we were told by the PR rep for Red Dog mine.

What will we do about forever?

Visiting trees and neighbors

Posted by on 06 Aug 2011 | Tagged as: food, subsistence, trip reports, Uncategorized, wilderness kids, Zooming Out

Mixing blueberry muffins and currant scones for guests

An old hand at baking by now, Katmai cracked eggs into the bowl, as I tried to talk him out of eating the berries out of the batter. The smell of baking muffins and scones filled the yurt along with a bit of burning crud from the bottom of the oven. I opened the vent, and our guests started trickling in. This morning, we were joined for breakfast by Hig’s mother, a couch-surfer from California traveling Alaska for a month, and a pair of Yale college students making a cultural geography map of Alaska and researching yurts. I might have thought that never leaving the “backyard” would mean a rather socially isolated week. It’s been the opposite.

Katmai finding every last berry

On one side of the yurt, the slope drops of steeply into the clearcut. On the other side, we wander through islands of spruce among the alders – a snapshot of what this whole area used to be.

The blueberry bushes under the trees have only a few blue gems each. But despite the sparse pickings, the forest somehow seems a little more enticing – a little more magical than the bushes and stumps of the open hillside. Waist deep devil’s club and salmonberry bushes invites you to pick the berries. The forest invites you to linger.

We’ve been working to foster a patch of nettles in a nearby gully. They make excellent greens for pesto and quiche.

Katmai marveled at the nettle patch he helped me plant in the gully – now taller than he is. I marveled at a spruce tree at the very edge of our land, a giant in a tiny island of forest.

And somehow, I ended up with another bucket full of blueberries I need to clean. Two other families live within our circle, and an impromptu visit turned into a joint berry picking expedition, and a communal dinner, where we appreciated the help polishing off a giant broccoli head and berry souffle.

The largest tree on our land

Drawing a map of our explorations, I’m struck by how little of the area we’ve walked in – not just this week, but ever. There are so many places we’ve only been to under snow. So many gaps in even this tiny circle. In our mind’s map, the whole slope above us is unbroken alder, but that’s probably not true. Four days left to go…

Smallest Adventure Through Day 3

At the end of the third day, this map reflects some of our thoughts and experiences in our backyard. Still a lot out there to explore!

She made her best attempt to eat it, but it’s hard with no teeth

Venturing into the clearcut

Posted by on 06 Aug 2011 | Tagged as: subsistence, trip reports, Uncategorized, Zooming Out

the first two days…

Salmonberry breakfast

Charging through wind-whipped fireweed and grass, exploring the clearcut, and picking my way gingerly through the devil’s club that hid the best blueberries… These last few years, we’ve been missing berry bushes literally 10 yards from the driveway. We made time for berries, and time for exploring, and time for visiting with guests, but I haven’t made any time for writing. More soon.

And more bugs – click to see the slideshow

I followed this spider as it ran along the ground, getting a great many blurry shots.

The Smallest Adventure – 1/8 mile from home

Posted by on 04 Aug 2011 | Tagged as: home, subsistence, trip preparation, Uncategorized, Zooming Out

Our backyard

A week-long expedition, never venturing more than about 1/8 mile from home.

Does that even make sense? When we walked to the Aleutians, we began at our old front door. What would happen if we took that concept farther – beginning a set of journeys in our own backyard, expanding outward as we went?

To accomplish this project, we need to radically shift our thinking. It’s not about exploring the unknown. It’s about exploring the unnoticed.

We live at the edge of spruce forest and alder thickets. Our driveway morphs into a trail that extends along the powerline and heads up the mountain. Below us a clearcut covers a steep slope. Within 1/8 of a mile are two families of neighbors, two tiny creeks, our gardens, and an abundance of berry bushes.


Our mission is to immerse ourselves in this place both familiar and overlooked. As data geeks, we will record and map what we find. As naturalists, we will learn the names and habits of the plants and animals we still don’t know. As photographers, we will take photos of what we see. And as a writer, I’ll telll you how it’s going. But this is more than just an intellectual pursuit. Beginning the expedition at the height of berry season and while the gardens are overflowing, we will gather as much food as we can find – cooking and preserving it.

What will the project look like? In a week-long expedition, we could run hundreds of laps around that small area, dodging devils club and beating a trail through the salmonberries. We could forgo our own beds to camp in the alder thicket behind the yurt. Which would be a bit ridiculous. Or we could call it an expedition while sitting on our laptops, doing work and reading news from thousands of miles away. Which would be just as ridiculous.


Blueberries ripening

So, we’re planning to focus the effort around the berry harvest. And the time is now. Each morning, we will head outside with cameras and GPS, with berry buckets and field guides. Each day, we will explore. We’ll pick a year’s worth of berries to fill the freezer. We’ll learn about berries, read about berries, cook berries and preserve berries. We’ll make a map of our own little corner of the world. We’ll discover things I never knew were there, and notice things I never paid attention to. Each evening, we’ll eat and preserve what we gathered, record what we found, read up on what we learned, and update the rest of the world. And we won’t leave the circle.

We envision this project as the first of many — expanding circles farther and farther from our home.
What can we explore a quarter mile from the yurt? How about a mile? Four miles? A hundred miles? A thousand?


Posted by on 01 Aug 2011 | Tagged as: home, Uncategorized

Bug on a larch needle

Broccoli baron

Summer in Alaska is chaotic, hurried, and overstuffed. The long months of winter dormancy lead up to a short and furious burst of growth and activity — for wildlife and humans alike. It’s the time for fish, gardens, and berries. It’s the time for hikes and paddles and days at the beach. It’s the time for visitors and construction projects and camping trips, and well, pretty much everything.


Theoretically, I still have plenty of computer work to do. My task list piling up confirms that. But despite my best intentions, sunny afternoons draw me away from the table as soon as the light hits the yurt. Just outside, the garden beckons. The promises of spring’s seedlings have come true in an overflowing abundance of greens and vegetables. I worked hard to make my garden larger and more successful this year. But abundance means work!


Chomping broccoli

I battle the voles, pulling up a couple of half-chewed beets and sprinkling cayenne pepper on the remainder. I’m hoping they have a low tolerance for spicy food! I’ve given up on the battle of the weeds, trying to look past the horsetail, chickweed and grass growing beneath the leaves of broccoli plants and monster kohlrabi. Every day, there’s something that needs to be eaten. I make salads and stir-fries, kale chips and pesto and quiche. After dinner, I pick up the overflow of the harvest, blanching chopped veggies and blending pestos out of every kind of green in the garden, filling the maw of the chest freezer next to newly-frozen salmon fillets.


Like everybody else here, we eat salmon all year long. Unlike everybody else here, our system to acquire and store the fish is still a work-in-progress. One of the most common ways to get fish is to go snag them in the dead-end run at Tutka Lagoon. Around 30,000 red salmon return here each year, with nowhere to go but this dead-end lagoon. Gently sloping beaches of gravel and popweed lead down to a small lagoon where swirl around in shiny silver schools, making zigzags and circles around the small bay, waiting to be caught.

45 pounds of kid – not light, but still doable.

The excitement of kale

This makes Tutka Bay a meat fisherman’s dream – the easy way to fill your freezer or smokehouse. Each person who shows up is allowed to snag six fish a day. Even the babies qualify for a share.

Of course, that only works if you can actually catch enough fish. Last time we tried it, we only got 6. With a boat, Tutka is pretty easy to get to. Without a boat, you need to drive about 15 miles of road, bike about a mile of logging road, and hike about a half mile of trail. So I carried the two kids. And when we got there, I watched the kids. Which made me more or less useless otherwise, as Hig snagged our six fish from a bizarre platform of tied together packrafts. And then he lugged the fish back, as I coaxed Katmai down the trail, slapping mosquitoes and wondering what on earth I was doing here.

Even as we’re taking advantage of it, I have mixed feelings about hatcheries. In Washington, where I grew up, the hatcheries were responsible for further declines of the wild salmon they were supposed to be helping. The Tutka hatchery is planted in a dead-end lagoon away from any other wild red salmon, so I hope its impact is maller. But what are the costs of this salmon “enhancement”? In some parts of Alaska, like Bristol Bay, the entire salmon stock is wild. But here in lower Cook Inlet, there are more people, and more demands on the fish. Cook Inlet is full of wild salmon, but also full of human tinkering. The harvest of the more prized red salmon is nearly half composed of “enhanced” stocks.

Star gentian

Young spruce

We’ll try to get to Tutka again, hopefully this week, hopefully with better luck (if not easier logistics). Otherwise, we’re buying most of our fish from a local fisherman. And though every time we go on a picnic I envy our friends their jars and baggies of smoked fish, I’m not going to build a smokehouse this year. Our fish will stay in the freezer in leaky ziploc bags.


Each year, we get a little better at living here. We may not have a smokehouse, but we do at least have a fillet knife this year, and Hig knows how to use it. The strawberry and raspberry patches are a little bit bigger. The garden is more lush and a couple weeks ahead of last year. We have a washhouse with a shower, and a hose for watering. We’ve cleared out more storage space under the yurt.

from a hike to the “bumps” above town

blanched greens, pesto, and berries – from the garden to the freezer

The other night, we had a surprise visit from Jenny and Colter, who were our hosts in Kokhanok on our walk to the Aleutians. Back in Kokhanok, they’re thinking of putting up a yurt – just getting started on the same kind of settling in. We gave them our tour, showing all the pieces of our new life. I realized that the projects may be infinite, but that we’ve come a long way in 3 years.


Red cabbage

Garden and yurt

We have our tickets and schedule nailed down for Life on Ice now – getting to Yakutat on September 13, hopefully flying to Malaspina on the 15th. Return to Anchorage is set for November 18, though that one might change along the way.

Turning the lens on ourselves

Posted by on 05 Apr 2011 | Tagged as: Energy, events, Issues, Uncategorized

In and around the yurt

As Ground Truth Trekking, we spend a lot of time thinking about issues much bigger than ourselves. Large proposals to extract metals or coal, the true costs of this resource extraction, problems with storing waste forever, the impacts of a changing climate… But as people, we use resources, we burn fuels, and we contribute to climate change. What about our own lives? Given that we’re about to give a presentation for an initiative that seeks to reduce household carbon footprints, it seemed like a good time to figure out our own.

Carbon Footprint

Why look at carbon footprint? We have impacts in all sorts of ways, from our use of water to our consumption of metals. But climate change is a present, growing, and increasingly worrisome problem, fueled by our use of fossil fuels. Many people believe we need to stabilize the atmospheric CO2 levels at a point less than where they are now to head off potentially catastrophic consequences for people.

Once a glacier that stretched far down the fjord McCarty glacier has retreated many miles since it was first mapped.

Carbon footprint calculators are fashionable these days, and can be found nearly everywhere. And they all give different results. Some include food, some don’t. Some include stuff you buy, some don’t. They all ask their questions in a slightly different way – air miles or hours? monthly spending or specific stuff you own? And it’s not clear what to include. Do Hig’s fieldwork flights count, or should they be shunted over into “work” (which is generally not counted in any of the calculators)?

I played around with them – adding some numbers from one calculator (one that allowed me to enter small airplane flights) to the answers from a more comprehensive one (that included food and goods). I did include Hig’s fieldwork, and anything else I could think of. Which turned out to give me 16.8 metric tons of CO2/year for our household of 4 people (counting from April 2010 to April 2011).

What does 16.8 tons mean? It’s equivalent to 1900 gallons of gasoline. It’s about 2/5 as much carbon dioxide as the average U.S. household emits (42 tons/yr) but over twice as much as the average world household (8 tons/yr).

Near the edge of Malaspina Glacier, erosion is so rapid that even the bear trails can’t keep up, and forests wash into the sea.

What should the number be? This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. The target, really, is a level of climate change we’re willing to accept – the limit at which we think things might not be too catastrophic. Any warming (even the warming we already have) will have negative impacts, so this is a value judgment. Many people think that level is a warming of about 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). Then you have to figure out what the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere needs to stay below to keep us in that “safe zone.” This is a scientific question, dependent on climate models. The current scientific thinking is that this is somewhere close to 350 ppm (we’re at 391 ppm now). So, how do we get there? If you want to get to a stable or equilibrium concentration, you can’t emit any more CO2 than the planet (forests, oceans, etc…) can absorb each year. And to get an actual reduction in concentration, you have to go further. The ultimate answer is that global emissions probably need to end up pretty close to zero eventually. Or faster than that. There is no “right number”, but as a world, the trend needs to be towards dramatic reduction.

What can we do about it?

toddler gardening

To get that number anywhere near zero, we need technology, infrastructure, policy, and culture to come together to accomplish it. Lifestyle can’t do it alone (one study estimated the footprint of even a homeless American as 8.5 tons of CO2/yr). But the sum of all our individual lifestyles is still a big piece of that solution.

Eat differently. Food footprint is kind of a hard thing to calculate, since it depends so much on specifics. And I have only rough guesses how much we spend or eat per month of different types of food. But the calculator took a stab at it, and told me that our eating emitted 4.5 tons of CO2, or 27% of our total. The main thing we could do to improve this is to eat less dairy products. The methane produced by cows is a huge contributor to climate change, and animal foods are more energy intensive than plant foods, since it takes a lot of plants to feed an animal. Meat would be a big factor as well, but we never buy farmed meat, and usually only eat it when a hunting friend gives us some. Our fish is all wild salmon and halibut caught very close to home, so not a lot of fossil fuels go into that. But I do like my cheese and yogurt and butter…

Katmai was less interested in flightseeing than in the cool headphones.

Don’t leave town. Between Hig’s fieldwork, flights to Anchorage, Kotzebue, and Sitka, drives from Homer to Anchorage, and various other bits and pieces, leaving town makes up 42% of our emissions for the year. And since one of our kids now gets his own seat, and the other will follow in a couple years, emissions per trip will only get bigger.

In fact, leaving town dwarfs a lot of things I think of as more stereotypical footprint reducing habits. One person taking one roundtrip flight from Anchorage to Seattle (3000 air miles) is about 1.4 tons of CO2. My entire household electricity usage for our family of four for a year is about 1.5 tons of CO2. Which suggests to me, that despite everything I’ve heard about “electricity vampires”, whether or not I remember to unplug my laptop or turn off my porch light tonight is far smaller than travel choices.

Travel is by far the thorniest issue for us, as I suspect it is for many people. Expeditions are a huge part of our life and work. Hig’s aerial surveys were done to get important data relevant to earthquake risk at the Pebble Mine. One of the things we’re traveling for this month is to talk about climate change, and our next expedition is directed towards that issue as well. We live near some family, but also have family far away, and would like to see them too.

We already combine trips where we can. Fewer expeditions for longer chunks of time minimizes the flights required, and also the logistical chaos. But how to decide if a trip is worth it? If we visit family less, should we also discourage them from visiting us? Or should we encourage it, since it’s usually only one or two people flying, instead of 4?

What about driving, household energy use, etc?

In a land of melting glaciers, this lake, and the land around it, are too new to be marked on any maps.

Another person’s list of what they can do may well be very different than mine. A lot of the low-hanging fruits are things we’ve already done (which is the reason our footprint is smaller than average). We’ve replaced our lightbulbs with compact fluorescent ones, and since we live in a one-room 450 square foot yurt, we never need more than 3 lightbulbs on anyway. Living in a small space, we don’t use much electricity. We heat the yurt with wood (since it’s not a fossil fuel, sustainably harvested wood is carbon-neutral). We work at home, eliminating the commute problem, walk most of where we want to go, don’t own a car, live somewhere where there’s not really anywhere to drive, and carpool about 12 miles a week to get groceries and do errands.

Fall storms hit this coast with less protection from sea ice, leading to rapid erosion.

Why should we bother doing anything about it?

Because climate change is going to be a big problem for a lot of humanity. Droughts, floods, extinctions, erosion, storms, etc… Our whole civilization, from where we place our cities to where we grow our crops, is adapted to the climate as it used to be. Rapid change and unpredictability is going to be much more negative than positive. Here in Alaska, and in polar regions around the globe, it’s warming faster. Impacts on arctic communities are already significant. Rather than just being poster children for the problem, Alaskans should be leaders in solving it.

P.S. Come to our slideshow talk Wednesday in Anchorage, and reduce your own carbon footprint.

Largest Earthquakes since 1900

Posted by on 14 Mar 2011 | Tagged as: Uncategorized

This is largely a repeat of part of my post following the 2010 Chile Earthquake, with a few updates and clarifications.

Edit: I changed the earthquake magnitude from 8.9 to 9.0 reflecting the USGS’s catalog (as of 16 March 2011).

What are the chances? Global occurrence of large earthquakes

Does it seem like there are a lot of big earthquakes lately? Haiti, Chile, New Zealand, and Japan have all seen devastating earthquakes in the past 15 months. Some have speculated that this is more than a coincidence.

There is almost certainly no connection between the earthquakes in Haiti and New Zealand and other distant earthquakes. Both caused great human tragedy, but as far as seismic energy, they’re small in comparison to many earthquakes that have happened around the world lately. The USGS catalog records 16 earthquakes as large, or larger than the one in Haiti in the year preceding it. The Haiti and New Zealand earthquakes were large enough to increase the danger of other earthquakes on the same fault, but not large enough to influence tectonics a quarter of the way around the world in Chile or Japan.

However, the largest earthquakes – those over magnitude 8 – do seem to cluster in time. The three largest earthquakes in the 20th century, all magnitude 9 or more, occurred in 1952, 1960, and 1964. (Some catalogs list the 1957 Andreanof Islands earthquake as a 9.1, making four over 9 in that time range, but the USGS rates this one an 8.6.) After 1965, there were only two magnitude 8.3 earthquakes, and none higher until after the turn of the millennium. The statisticians have taken a look (Bufe and Perkins, 2005), and they don’t think that’s random. I plotted the data below, and you can judge for yourself.

Graph of the largest earthquakes in the instrumental record.

We’ve been measuring earthquakes since 1900, and the recurrence of the largest ones doesn’t seem random. There’s a clump of large earthquakes in the ’50s and ’60s, and then a lull through the turn of the Millenia. Things have been more active again in the past decade.

Click the graphic for data and vector graphic file.

And the past decade has been a big one for earthquakes. There have been five earthquakes above 8.3, including the 2004 magnitude 9.1 earthquake in the northeastern Indian Ocean. Each increase of 0.2 in magnitude corresponds to a doubling in energy released, so the 2004 magnitude 9.1 released as much energy as 16 magnitude 8.3 earthquakes.

What does this mean? We only have a short instrumental record (since 1900) and there’s a lot of variability, so it’s impossible to know whether we have another magnitude 9 just around the corner. But it seems likely that the period of tectonic quiescence starting in 1965 and ending with the gradual increase in seismicity in the late 90s is gone for the moment. It’s no time to dally on the science, both old-fashioned paleoseismic studies, and maybe some new methods that can help warn of impending earthquakes. Also, the earthquake in Japan will provide a powerful case-study on the successes and failures of earthquake and tsunami preparedness. This is particularly relevant for places that are expected to see large earthquakes in the future, but haven’t had one in the recent past, like the Pacific Northwest of the US.

Why do the biggest earthquakes come in clusters?

At this point we don’t really know.

For an earthquake on a fault to happen, there have to be two things in place: The fault has to be under stress so it can provide energy for an earthquake, and some point has to fail, triggering the fault to move and that energy to be released. Stress increases over time and eventual failure is inevitable, but exactly when it happens is dependent on that trigger, which can be very subtle. The point where failure begins is the hypocenter (directly beneath the epicenter on the surface of the earth) and the entire portion of the fault that moves is the rupture area.

One way to think of it is to imagine the fault as a large building. Perhaps it is an apartment building in Istanbul, and as new floors are illegally added the stress on the structure increases. This unstable structure has a lot of energy in it, all in the form of cement and other materials suspended high in the air by weak architecture. But when it finally collapses, that collapse starts somewhere. Perhaps a pillar designed for two stories and holding five collapses because someone uses it to tie up their dog. Now the nearby pillars and walls must suddenly bear more of the weight, and they collapse as well. The failure spreads from the original “epicenter” pillar, and consumes the entire building, analogous to the earthquake’s rupture area.

So was it the dog that caused the building to collapse, or the extra stories? I’d say the cause was the additional stress, while the trigger was the dog. Earthquakes are the same way… caused by gradually building stress, but triggered when some point gives way.

Bufe and Perkins, 2005, discuss how an earthquake in one area of the world might lead to another far away and years later. Their first possible explanation focuses on triggering, while the others suggest that stress might increase on distantly separated faults at the same time:

  • Perhaps the vibrations from a distant earthquake increase the pressure of water trapped in pores in rock, and that pressure leads to a gradual weakening of the rock, initiating an earthquake.
  • Maybe a slow pressure wave moves through the lower crust after a large earthquake, and this wave causes stress to increase on other faults that then fail.
  • Perhaps large “silent” earthquakes, rarely detected because the deformation they cause is so slow, drive the system by running along plate boundaries and triggering their more violent kin.
  • It could be that the changes in where and how much ice is in glaciers changes the stress on faults and leads to times of quiescence or greater activity.
  • Or my favorite: Maybe the largest earthquakes change the stress on tectonic plates. As this stress moves around the planet it triggers more large quakes, until the crust has settled into a lower state of stress.