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Talking about a Climate Change Adventure

Posted by on 12 Nov 2013 | Tagged as: book, events, global warming, Issues

Erin and Hig presenting in Homer to 150 people.

On our latest journey, my mouth has been doing a lot more work than my legs. Our speed has been disconcertingly fast, the traffic has been disconcertingly thick, and when I get a chance to step beyond the van or car or ferry, the pavement beneath my feet has been disoncertingly hard. But that’s OK. Because this journey is about connecting with people–old friends and new.

In the excited milling about that comes after every one of our slideshows, I hear a few new stories: From an 80 year old man who hiked across Malaspina Glacier in 1952, coming across the Duke of Abruzzi’s iron bedstand high in the icy passes. From a scientist who once spent three days on an Alaskan island with 80 pounds of smoked salmon and no other gear, high in a tree while bears circled below. And from dozens, and hundreds, of others.

A fire for warmth on a cold evening car-camping.

And they hear us. Over the past two months since Small Feet, Big Land came out, I’ve been talking to hundreds of people. By the time we’re done, it’ll probably be a thousand, each of whom has spent an hour or so in front of a screen flashing pictures of Alaska, surrounded by a packraft, tent, and scattered hiking gear, listening to us talk about the pull of adventure, about traversing the wilderness at a child’s pace, and about melting glaciers and eroding villages.

The stories of climate change’s impacts in Alaska are a big piece of our presentation. Amid the storms that batter and flood our flimsy tent are the storms that erode entire villages, and entire glaciers. They’re there because we can’t escape them. Because everywhere we’ve walked in Alaska, over a dozen years and 8,000 miles, is being reshaped by climate change.

On our way from Juneau to Sitka, we posed on the back deck of the Taku, as we wound through Peril Straits.

From the man who’d last seen the glacier in 1952, our pictures weren’t even recognizable–rocks and trees covering what he’d rememberd as smooth white ice.

At first, I was hesitant to say any of this. First in the writing, and then in designing the talk. I knew people would enjoy the stories and adventure and the cute muddy children, but were we expecting too much of people to listen to us talk about coal mine proposals and coastal erosion and melting permafrost too?

“Coming out of your talk, I was just beaming… Everyone was just beaming.”

This quote, from a host at one of our presentations, stands in stark contrast to an online comment on a newspaper book review: “Sounds really depressing.” Because in sound bite form, it’s easy to believe that anything that mentions climate change must be depressing.

The kids pose in just their diapers on an unusually warm day, standing on the graveled ice of Malaspina Glacier, Mt. St. Elias in the background.

Katmai follows the ice wall, heading into a cave.

But our audiences don’t seem depressed. They’ve thanked us for addressing climate change. Probably as often as they’ve thanked us for the inspiration. And I remember that the problem usually comes in expecting too little of people, not too much. Looking to the media, it’s easy to believe that humanity is hopeless. Looking to actual people, they generally surprise me with their awesomeness.

Climate change is often framed as something political. But in all of my book, and all of our talks, I’ve never once felt the need to mention the name of any politician or party. We’re just out there presenting reality–muddy, dramatic, harsh, crumbling, wild, gorgeous reality.

And we give them stories they can laugh at. When they scrape back their chairs and rise up at the end of our slideshow, the buzz of conversation and questions feels alive–not depressing. And as a ground truth trekker, I feel a little bit vindicated. Maybe people appreciate reality, after all.

P.S. We have events coming up in Olympia, Tacoma, Portland, Eugene, Berkeley, and Corte Madera

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

On the Anticline

Posted by on 12 Aug 2013 | Tagged as: Expeditions, Fossil fuels, Heart of Alaska, Issues, southcentral alaska, trip reports

Oil rigs in Trading Bay

We were standing on the anticline. An invisible fold in the rocks beneath Cook Inlet, cupped upwards to trap the seeping oil, and marked by a line of oil platforms. The oil was hundreds of millions of years old, the rock tens of millions of years old, and the platforms had stood only a few decades. At that spot in Trading Bay, midway between Shirleyville and the Kustatan Peninsula, four platforms obscured eachother in a line, each claiming a territory along the straight ridge of the anticline.

Then we squelched away across the mud, parallelling the shore. Shore was a fairly abstract concept. The solid line our map drew between white and blue–land and sea–was nothing but a gentle gradient from muddy grass, to grassy mud, slippery mud, sandy mud, and the mud beneath the waves.

Track left by the raft sledding across the mud

Lituya displays her new attire of Trading Bay mud

We watched the oil platforms as they slowly started to spread apart in our view, discussing their strange gothic aesthetic, charming variety of shapes, and how perfect they would look cast as fortresses in some post-apocalyptic movie. Monopod was the clear favorite, almost cute with its single ponderous foot and trio of cranes bristling from the top.

Unlike most of Anchorage, the platforms were on our map. The oldest of them have been here since the 1960s–before Prudhoe Bay–when Alaska had only a third as many people as it does today.

My packraft was a sled, tied by a string to my fanny pack, loaded with gear and mud and a napping Lituya. It dragged behind me in a few inches of water, sliding on mud the texture of softened butter, up and down through the narrow sloughs that dissected the flats. My shoes had traction. Katmai’s didn’t, and he perfected his skate-skiing technique as he walked, joyously sliding through the mud.

Ducks in shallow water at trading bay, near oil rigs.

Our life was full of mud. Our mud was full of life. The piles of worm poop the kids pointed out. A film of algae turning the flats gray-green. Endless bird tracks that blurred together across every square inch above the tide. Young arrowgrass shoots a few inches high, bright green beneath the dried stalks that served as Lituya’s toys. Seals left their clawed tracks along steep muddy banks they used as haulouts. We left one tiny wool sock–sucked into the mud off of Lituya’s foot–and (despite me fishing elbow-deep for a good ten minutes) utterly irretreivable.

Human life was mostly confined to either side of the mudflats. Between fish camps and net sites and oil facilities and well-trafficked roads, the West Forelands were nearly suburban–people seeking resources like oil, gas, and salmon. We coveted resources too–dry sand and the box of food we’d sent from Kenai to the Trading Bay Production Facility.

Eating in Hilcorp’s dining room, enjoying the hospitality along the way

Our kids were probably the smallest people ever to set foot in the lunchroom of the oil camp, decorated with complex computer outputs of the facility’s operations, and a trophy from the employees annual silver salmon derby. Katmai and Lituya dripped ice cream onto the tables, while the workers shared stories of their own families on the other side of the Inlet. Most of them had outlasted several owners, and were currently employees of Hilcorp, which was creating a mini oil and gas boom in Cook Inlet by reworking wells that others had abandoned.

Oil runs Alaska. Oil was a theme that flowed through the answers we heard about Alaska’s future.

“Oil came here first. And Kenai was developed on oil. Before that, it was just a wide spot in the road with a couple of homesteads. There weren’t that many people here, and they didn’t do much. Lived off the land and worked on the DEW line.”–Jim, Kenai

Packrafting down a Trading Bay slough, with an oil rig in the misty distance

“Maybe the oil companies will have chosen new leaders for us by then. Or maybe we’ll run out of oil and the Okies and Texans will leave and we’ll be back where we started. When we wrote a good consitiution. There won’t be so many people then. This state was a better place before oil.”–man on the beach, Kasilof

“…Oil is fungible. It’s a global market, with the same price wherever it comes from. So why should we drill ours (ANWR) now for others to sell it? And in my line of work, I’ve seen and cleaned a lot of oil sites. And 10 years ago is so much cleaner than 20 years ago and 50 years ago. How clean will it be in 50 more years?”–David, Kenai

A boat working salmon nets along the shore of the Kustatan Peninsula, near oil rigs.

“I’m not a big fan of the oil companies. I don’t like seeing that rig out there. If there’s an accident… The gas line goes right through here–right next to the house. And it’s been 10 years. And no one in town is hooked up. I remember when they held all those meetings and how everyone was going to have gas. And 10 years later the only buildings hooked up are the school and the post office and the government.”–Gary, Ninilchik

Even the news goes back and forth, with stories about gas shortages in Cook Inlet alternating with stories of new discoveries. No one seems sure about the future of oil and gas in Cook Inlet’s next ten years, much less the next few generations.

We stepped off the road at Trading Bay, back on the beach, where a worker stooped down with a paper cup, collecting pretty pebbles for his fish tank back home.

I wished I could collect them myself, somehow scooping enough pebbles to stretch a path across the tens of miles of Redoubt Bay mud that awaited us.

Kids play in the mudflats as they steam in the sun

Looking along the coast past Shirleyville and western Cook Inlet mountains

Hig and Katmai slide across the Trading Bay mud, packraft in tow with the gear

Hig pulling the raft across a slough in the Trading Bay mudflats

Redoubt Volcano rises over the misty mudflats

Seagulls fly on the Trading Bay flats, oil rig in background

Ignoring the Tide

Posted by on 20 Jul 2013 | Tagged as: Expeditions, Heart of Alaska, Issues, trip reports

Anchorage Hillside across Knik Arm.

Exit from Civilization

Anchorage to Tyonek – May 22 to May 28, 2013

Anchorage was cars and grit and a roar louder than the wind. It was an unseasonable snowstorm, walking sidewalks shrouded in a sleeping bag to protect a napping Lituya, turning the heads of cars as I fought back the last remnant of my mostly dead self-consciousness. It was relaxing indoors with new and old friends as we waited for Knik Arm to calm.

Since we had no access to internet for the last half of the trip on West Cook Inlet, I’m putting up a series of blog posts that will take you from Anchorage to the end. This is the first installment.

I don’t usually enter into battles with inanimate geography. But we have a history with Knik Arm. In the winter of 2008, that scant two miles of water shut us out–for two weeks–with a crush of swirling ice floes. It forced us back to our skis, where we retraced our tracks on the piles of plow-thrown snow next to the Glenn Highway.

Muddy slough

It sucked.

This time, mud sucked both shoes off of both kids feet as we readied to launch. We entered Knik Arm in the steep curves of a muddy slough barely wider than the boats. We plugged the creek in the narrowest spots, damming the water until it flowed up and over the sterns, pouring in, and drowning the cell phone in Hig’s pocket.

Katmai wades in the mud on the Susitna Flats

But Knik Arm itself was unreasonably easy. And I was still unreasonably proud of myself when we reached the other side. Not an accomplishment, but a turning point. Between east side civilization and the wilder west edge of the inlet. Heading out into mud flats that dwarfed Chickaloon Bay and Turnagain Arm.

Tide floods the sandcastle

The Middle of the Ocean

The tide hit the base of the sand castle first. It undermined the crumbling foundation, curled around the walls, and poured into the space behind them. It flooded up the steep banks, up to where the expanse of rippled sand steamed in the sun–up to the edge of our waiting rafts. Katmai wondered what would happen to the ‘sand mice’ that inhabited his castle. Had they learned how to swim?

At high tide, this was suddenly miles from shore

Then the island was gone, a stream of hissing bubbles ascending to the surface through the rising tide. A dozen belugas joined us at the edge of the current, whooshing and splashing as they fed in the eddy line. Mirages stretched the distant shore into a city of skyscrapers. Mt Susitna hovered like an island above a cushion of mirror-like water. Trees floated on nothing, some uncountable number of miles away.

We were in the middle of the ocean.

Flotsam in an eddyline

We were flotsam in the currents, tugged by the vast Susitna River and the even vaster Cook Inlet. We looked for specks on the horizon, lining them up against the flanks of Mt Susitna and watching how they moved–trying to get some clue as to our speed and direction. We didn’t know how far we were from shore, or what shore even consisted of.

Neither did the seal.

Baby seal following us

It left its sandbar to beeline for the packrafts with a plaintive “Raaaarh, raaaaarh!”, nosing first Hig’s yellow boat, then my red one. Clearly a baby. Clearly alone. The lost seal followed us to another sandbar, where it hauled itself out, shivering in the warm sun. And then as the tide caught up with us, it followed the boats.

It hadn’t mistaken us for its mother. It had mistaken us for land, desperately seeking a haulout on the slippery tubes of the rafts. The water was rising on the outer edge of the Susitna delta, and everything solid would soon be miles away. It followed us for a good 10 minutes, porpoising up and down as it swam–keeping track of us in the silty water. Its speed was an easy match for ours, hopefully a sign that it had the energy to survive the cold water a while longer. Its cries were awful to listen to, and I couldn’t help but feel relieved when it finally swam away for another sandbar. Even there, it had only one more minute of dry land.

Baby seal warming up on sandbar

We didn’t see the end of the story. So I’ll give you Katmai’s version.

“There’s this seal called the Perdonner Seal, and it finds baby seals that have been lost from their mothers, and it protects them. It protects them and brings them to the Showing Seal, that shows them how to fish and do everything. They go to this place called Baby Practice, that’s like the ocean but it has rock walls all around it, and fish get put in, and the Showing Seal shows the babies how to catch them, and then they practice until they know how to do everything seals need to do.”

We adults are rarely so optimistic. Not about baby seals. And not about the Inlet that surrounds them.

Sunset on the Susitna Flats

Failures seem irreversible. Lost seals die. Eroding coasts crumble. Climate changes. Shrinking stocks of fish, crabs, birds and whales dwindle further with every generation. And by believing in that inevitability, we help to make it true.

Just beyond the Susitna Delta, we ran into the only two communities on the west side of Cook Inlet; Beluga and Tyonek, where we asked them what we’ve been asking everyone; Their vision of Alaska’s future.

Picnicking with old friends Judy and Larry in Beluga

Larry, Beluga: “If we beat the coal mine, I think this area will degrade, rather than build up. This is the biggest power plant in the state. But it’s old. And the gas field is depleting. And they’ve built a brand new power plant in Anchorage. I think we’ll see soon, within 10 years, a gas line to Anchorage from the North slope. And then this plant will be obsolete. They won’t need the dams on the Susitna. Chackachamna will be obsolete, the coal gasification will be obsolete. One of these days I think we’ll see water as a resource here. Governor Hickel had the idea back in the day, and everybody laughed at him. But one day it’ll be like Seward’s Folly. Everywhere down in the lower 48 they’re polluting their water or its drying up, with the fracking and the runoff…”

Judy, Beluga: “Down in Yakima, I wouldn’t touch the sloughs I used to swim in as a kid. I wish they would just leave us alone. We’ve seen what they’ve done in the lower 48, and can’t we just leave one place not polluted and developed? Some place that people can go walking. That your kids and their kids will be able to.”

King salmon were in short supply in the Tyonek nets.

Frank, Tyonek: “It sucks. They talk about economic development. But we’ve been there and done that, and you see what happens… Our culture was the first to be impacted here. Our fish are depleted. We didn’t even catch one king today. The woodchip mill destroyed the silver run in the creek by putting gravel and birch bark over the wetlands, and brought in lots of new bugs on that ship. I don’t think it will turn around.”

Humans can think about the future. But sometimes I feel that we act more like the baby seal, swimming towards every new sandbar with a shortsighted hope that the world isn’t changing after all, weaving back and forth for an extra five minutes above the water.

Trying to ignore the tide.

Moon rises over the Fire Island wind farm

Hig and the kids redirect streams on an Upper Cook Inlet Delta

Startled birds erupt from a slough on the Susitna Delta

Hig and Katmai approach some cabins on the Susitna Flats, towing the packraft for slough crossings.

Miles from shore, as the tide rises over the Susitna Delta

Sandhill Cranes in spring migration over the Susitna Delta

Katmai insisted on going over the big logs strewn on this tidal wetland.

Alaska’s Future? — Walking around Cook Inlet to see what you think.

Posted by on 23 Mar 2013 | Tagged as: Expeditions, Issues, trip preparation

800 miles of coast – Preschooler speed

Cook Inlet

A hundred and seventy million years ago, sea-monster-like plesiosaurs swam between volcanoes. Lava flows poured into the warm sea, buried by mud and the carcasses of algae. As these volcanoes became part of Alaska, new mountains rose, flanked by a plain of winding rivers and lush swamps. The forces that thrust up the mountains also pulled the land down, burying the algae and plants, forming oil and coal.

Long after the plesiosaurs had disappeared, salmon evolved, swimming up those winding rivers. Ice rolled across the land, filling the lows between volcanoes and jagged peaks, pushing the living world far out beyond the current edge of the ocean. Ice pulsed in cycles; retreating, advancing, retreating… Caribou followed the tundra that replaced the ice. Moose followed the willow that replaced the tundra. Rising oceans filled Cook Inlet, mingling with waters still murky from the flow of glacial rivers.

As they had countless times before, the salmon returned to the new-again rivers. This time people followed them, the only true newcomers to this land. Thousands of years later, new faces and new technologies followed those first people, seeking trade routes, then otter pelts, gold, and oil.

Sunset over Cook Inlet

People transformed this land. There were motors. Roads, drill rigs, ships, airplanes, telephones, and computers. Beetle-killed forests, disappearing halibut and king salmon, abandoned industries and settlements, tourist towns rising, glaciers melting. Otters returning.

Still, there are rocks, mud, ice, fish, bears, and people.

This is Cook Inlet’s past and present. What of the future?

What is the future of Alaska? Not the one or five or ten years that we often tend to think in — driven by current power structures, politics, and leaders. But the future of 50 or 100 years from now, and beyond.

We’re walking around Cook Inlet (beginning in less than a week), to see both the wild areas and the human ones, and to hear the stories and dreams of people who live along the way.

And this is what we want to ask: What do you think the future holds? For our economy, communities, lifestyles, wildlife, landscape, and ocean?

How You can Contribute

Talk to us: We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments, and for anyone who lives on Cook Inlet – in person as well.

Walk with us: We’re also hoping to have people join us when we’re on beaches near towns for a walking conversation, or just to say hi (a 4-year-old’s pace is quite relaxed so we’ll be easy to catch/keep up with).

Jackup rig in Kachemak Bay…

Read More: on our Tracing the Heart of Alaska page

Get in touch: by email (, FB, or call 399-5530 (we’ll answer/check messages when we happen to be in a community). For info when we’re between towns and out of touch, contact Hig’s sister ( or 541-520-7331). See our rough schedule below for an expected itinerary.

(This is a rough guide, not an exhaustive list. We’re also excited to visit folks in the places in between these, and we’ll try to update the time frame as things get firmed up)
Start: 3/27
Nanwalek: 3/29
Port Graham: 3/30
Seldovia: 4/2
Vosnesenska: 4/9
Ninilchik: 4/19
Kasilof: 4/24
Kenai: 4/28
Nikiski: 5/1
Hope: 5/10
Girdwood: 5/11
Anchorage: 5/22
Tyonek: 6/4

Cook Inlet tidepooling

Tuxedni Bay: 6/20
Chinitna Bay: 6/29
Williamsport: 7/6
McNeil Bay: 7/15
Sukoi Bay: 7/24

Confessions of an Earthquake Detective

Posted by on 09 Feb 2013 | Tagged as: geology, Mining, southwest alaska

Eroding bluffs stand above the shoreline of Lake Iliamna.

2012 was a busy year for scientists working on issues related to Pebble Mine. I’m one of those scientists. I received my PhD studying tsunamis and learned a bit about earthquakes along the way. Given that PLP hopes to build giant dams that need to stand forever, earthquakes are a fairly important question. Between completing my own geologic fieldwork and critiquing the work of PLP and the EPA, there’s been plenty to keep me busy – so much so that I neglected to post anything on our blog about it all year, despite a number of interesting developments.

Backstory: Is Pebble Mine really safe from earthquakes?

If developed, Pebble Mine would tap the largest gold deposit on the planet, and the copper in that deposit would likely be worth even more than all that gold. Its footprint would sit on the headwaters of some of the world’s greatest salmon rivers. It would leave behind towering tailings dams that would pose catastrophic risk for millennia, long after the boom of the mine has been forgotten.

The mine company’s perspective is simple and hasn’t changed since at least 2006: The threat of earthquakes is low because there are no active faults nearby.

This optimistic view of seismic hazard is based on ignorance. Existing scientific studies tell us almost nothing about faults in the area.

How do you tell if a fault is active?

Faults are deeply penetrating fractures in the Earth’s crust. Faulting results when tectonic motion leads to the buildup of stress and causes the rock to shear. A fault is ‘active’ if that process of building stress is ongoing, and earthquakes are thus likely in the future. This differs from inactive faults, where stress is no longer concentrated and earthquakes no longer occur.

How do geologists assess whether a fault is active? They try to determine whether it has produced earthquakes in the geologically recent past (i.e., the past few hundred thousand years). If so, then stress is likely still building up and will lead to earthquakes in the future.

Even very active faults may only produce an earthquake every few hundred years, and we have only been measuring earthquakes for the last century. Therefore, it’s common to have no direct measurements or observations of earthquakes despite that fault being active. Instead, we must rely on geologic evidence – clues showing that an earthquake has occurred.

I wrote a letter of concern in early 2008 to Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR) about the uncertainty regarding seismic hazard near Pebble.

More importantly, I’ve tried to do something about that uncertainty – trying to locate and characterize earthquake faults in the area myself. In the years since, I have gone into the field to gather data as often as our meager funding would allow, frequently with my colleague Andrew Mattox. As 2012 dawned, we had a few promising leads.

Seven pages out of 30,800

In February 2012, PLP released a whopping 30,800-page “Environmental Baseline Document” (EBD) that included data and analyses from $120 million in scientific studies in the mine area. This document was meant to describe current conditions in the region around the mine – conditions that would both affect and be affected by mine development.

The seismic hazard analysis was only 7 pages long.

I had had high expectations for this document. In earlier statements, PLP hinted at carefully collected geophysical data that might reveal the location of the Lake Clark Fault, a fault that is of particular interest since it’s large and goes somewhere in the vicinity of the mine. It turned out that not one bit of new data was presented in the chapter’s four pages of text plus three figures.

The analysis also used scientific reasoning that was often bizarre or ridiculous. The rocks near the mine site are too strong for faults to break them? Faults follow glaciers? Both of these assertions can be easily disproven by example.

I lambasted PLP in the press and in a detailed report:

“The seismic hazard assessment presented in Pebble Limited Partnership’s Environmental Baseline Document is flawed. It draws strong, optimistic conclusions from weak evidence, and relies on geologic arguments inconsistent with observed evidence. It misrepresents existing research and fails to use key data sets that PLP has in-hand to inform the analysis. A major fault, the Lake Clark Fault, passes near the Pebble prospect. No published studies establish this fault’s location or seismic activity near the prospect, and the hazard assessment presents no effort to positively determine its location. The hazard assessment fails to consider minor faults or induced seismicity. Without further study, the hazard posed by earthquakes is impossible to determine. “

Hig presenting his critique of the EBD at a scientific conference.

It was satisfying to holler, “Your Science is WEAK!” but it left me wondering why it was so weak.

PLP must either be strategically holding back information, or else it lacks the expertise to do a real seismic hazard assessment. Put crudely: Either PLP is lying, or it’s incompetent.

Is PLP lying?

In February 2011, Northern Dynasty, half-owner of PLP, released a report announcing, “The location of [the Lake Clark] fault has been identified as part of a geophysical survey of the region.”

Between this report (which lacked both data and analysis) and an email conversation I had with Ken Taylor, PLP’s former “VP for the Environment,” it appears that this identification was based on studies that PLP had conducted. Yet, the EBD omits this work, which can hardly be an accident. Why rely on old assumptions about the location of the Lake Clark Fault when your own scientists have located it using geophysical data?

Maybe PLP didn’t like the results of its earlier work, so instead it published a false analysis that told a rosier story.

Is PLP incompetent?

Perhaps the poor quality of PLP’s seismic hazard assessment is unintentional. The bizarre assertions, lack of new scientific studies, and misinterpretation of existing literature are mistakes. Graham Greenaway, the main author of the seismic hazard assessment, isn’t even a geologist, so it’s understandable that he might not see the weaknesses. It’s frustrating to me that PLP has stood by its analysis despite my work to clearly lay out the problems (I’ve shared this with PLP on a number of occasions), but what more can you do?

Isolated chunks of sediment floated in a soup of sand, silt, and water presumably liquefied by shaking.

Tales from the dirt

I suppose one thing I could do is try to figure out what’s going on myself. Andrew and I flew out to Lake Iliamna last June in search of evidence of earthquakes. We aimed to check out a couple of leads: A possible telltale sag in ancient shorelines above the lake suggesting a buried fault, and swirled sediment resulting from liquefaction, a common effect of strong shaking from earthquakes.

We hit a geologist’s jackpot: We found where an ancient peat bog suddenly burst open, a great fountain of liquefied sand pouring out to cover the ground. This sort of dramatic liquefaction is rare, and nearly always occurs during strong earthquakes. Examples of this phenomenon can be seen in eyewitness videos during earthquakes in Japan and Christchurch, NZ.

In combination with evidence that we found of tectonic deformation in the old shorelines, this liquefaction is decent evidence for past earthquakes. For more details, you can read our preliminary report.

Who cares about ‘Science’ anyway?

Having publicized our work, I’d like to think that our job here is done. I have contacted scientists working for PLP and regulatory agencies, and ideally they will follow up on our findings, possibly confirming that the Lake Clark Fault is indeed active. Such a conclusion might warrant expensive changes to tailings dam engineering or abandonment of mine plans and prompt these organizations to inform local communities about risks such as strong shaking and lake tsunamis.

Honestly I don’t really understand how scientific results inform regulatory decisions, but what I’ve seen so far does not make me confident. It’s very easy to fail to find evidence. The mine company has financial incentives to overlook evidence of earthquake risk, just as I have financial motivation beyond merely curiosity to find that evidence – my funding comes from groups opposed to mine development. And regulators, ideally the impartial party here, have tight budgets and a broad mandate, thus little time to focus deeply on a difficult scientific problem like this. Tackling this problem would put government scientists into a political minefield that they may not wish to enter.

This year we’ve seen “the system” attempting to face the scientific challenges presented by the massive scale of Pebble Mine. The EPA, on the invitation of villages in the region, conducted a detailed “Watershed Assessment,” which is still under peer review. PLP criticized the EPA’s effort as premature and misguided, and pushed its own process, the PLP-funded Keystone Center dialogue. This in turn has been criticized for its biased exclusion of non-PLP science, among other things. Though I submitted my own work on seismic hazards, it was not considered even during the panel specifically on this topic. These efforts represent attempts to assemble expert assessments and critique PLP‘s science, but we’re a long way off from seeing concrete results from either. Though I’ve repeatedly pointed out unequivocal flaws in PLP‘s seismic hazard assessment, there was no acknowledgment of these issues as of the Keystone meeting in early October. If you want to see my testimony, you can go here, and skip to 17 minutes, 40 seconds.

So I’m going to stick to it. I have more data analysis, and a paper to write and submit for peer review. And hopefully I’ll have funding to get back into the field this summer.

Often it seems like marketers and politicians control the big issues. But I do believe that objective truth has a small edge in the game. It may not guarantee success, but it’s a nice ally to have. I think science is our best tool to uncover this objective truth.

Sedimentary layers show evidence of liquefaction – perhaps caused by strong earthquake shaking.

Questionable Economics of Port MacKenzie Rail Extension

Posted by on 22 Jan 2013 | Tagged as: infrastructure, Mining

Port MacKenzie

Alaska becoming a major cement exporter? Millions of tons of coal being shipped from Healy to Cook Inlet? I thought these purported benefits from the Port MacKenzie railroad extension seemed more than a little optimistic so I dug deeper.

It turns out that the misleading economic analysis in support of the project relies on vast amounts of theoretical and unlikely future development in the rail corridor. It proposes that Port Mac will create billions of dollars worth of new industries (which would not otherwise be created). Most egregiously, it proposes that several major mines (one on the scale of the Pebble Prospect, and dwarfing all current mineral production in Alaska) will spring into existence with little regard to the underlying geology — in an area where mining companies are not even exploring for significant minerals. Not even discussed is the possible negative impact of winter ice on Port Mac which is not a problem for the major competing ports.

The Controversy

Proponents of this project say that building the extension would spur economic development throughout the Railbelt. Opponents worry that this development will never materialize and the project will be a boondoggle, or simply turn out to be a very expensive way to subsidize the export of Usibelli coal.

Put another way, do the benefits exceed the costs or vice versa? This quote, from a report attempting to answer this question provides a good starting place for a conversation:

The primary analysis indicates that the net present value of rail freight savings
from the proposed rail link relative to the Ports of Whittier and Seward greatly exceeds
the capital cost of the proposed project. The net present value of the rail freight savings
for Port MacKenzie relative to the Port of Anchorage over a 30 year period equals 92%
of the capital cost of the project.

Basically, the argument is that building the rail spur is worth it, because transporting things to Port MacKenzie will cost much less than transporting them to Whittier and Seward. But how realistic are those savings? To answer this question I spent some time reading a number of reports that attempt to quantify the benefits of building the extension. And I was quite struck by how fanciful some of these benefits appeared. Discussed here are two reports by Paul Metz (here and here).

What will be Shipped?

What exports are currently transported to Seward and Whittier that would be cheaper to send to Port Mac instead? Currently, Usibelli coal is the only example I’m aware of. Shipping this coal probably would be cheaper from Port Mackenzie, though not creating nearly enough value to justify the port’s construction on its own. The rest of the savings come from postulated future industries.

To begin, Metz describes a 120-mile corridor around the existing railroad and then estimates all of the development that could materialize in this corridor if the Port Mac extension were built. He rightly points out that the cost of sending things from Port Mac would be lower than Anchorage, Seward, or particularly Whittier. However, it’s very hard to justify the claim that these developments he describes would not have occurred without the Port Mac spur. But to be part of the cost-benefit analysis, that needs to be the case. Here are the assumptions made by Metz along with my thoughts.


Annual production from natural resources along the existing railroad (attributable to the building of the extension). Savings are calculated relative to other AK ports.

2 million tons of mineral ore (20% of savings). This appears to be totally unrealistic, more detail below.

3.5 million tons of Portland cement for export (35% of savings). Right here I should state that I have no experience with this particular industry. However, everyone I have discussed this with feels that this seems wildly optimistic. It’s hard to imagine that with Alaskan logistics, labor costs, and transportation that making cement in Alaska could really be competitive with established global markets. Metz mentions exporting to the West Coast but presumably the Jones Act would make this an even more expensive option. The materials would come from a deposit north of Fairbanks (Globe Creek).

1 million tons of export coal (10% of savings): It seems totally reasonable to me that building the Port Mac spur would save Usibelli money. Though they would have to build an export terminal of some kind at Port Mac.

3.3 million additional tons of coal for gasification at Agrium (33% of savings): This is outdated, not only does Usibelli not have the capacity to produce this much coal without major capital improvements but Agrium is long-gone, and the gasification infrastructure was never built. Clearly these savings are not happening.

20,000 tons of timber (negligible savings): I have no idea if this is realistic or not, it’s too small to have much impact on the analysis either way.

200,000 tons of benzene (<2% of savings): This would come from Flint Hills, but assumes a petrochemical processing plant would be built at the port site. Since there’s no such plant, or plans for one that I’m aware of, this seems shaky.

Imaginary Mines – A deeper look at the mineral assumptions of Metz

While the minerals are only responsible for 20% of the cost savings relative to existing ports, they provide the lion’s share of the jobs discussed in a subsequent ISER analysis by Steve Colt. For this reason I looked in more detail at these assumptions.

From ISER 2010:

“Major new mines shipping concentrate via the rail extension would generate thousands of new jobs, and a significant fraction of these jobs would be held by Anchorage residents. Our detailed analysis of the potential employment from five specific mining projects indicates that more than 2,000 average annual jobs would be created in Anchorage or held by Anchorage residents once the mines are fully developed. Most of these jobs would be in mining and in professional sectors that pay good wages. Also, during initial mine development, many of the jobs would be in construction and fabrication.”

“Dr. Paul Metz, Professor of Geological Engineering and director of the Mining Industry
Research Lab at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, predicts that the rail extension will lower the cost of exporting mineral concentrate to the point that it will directly stimulate the development of three new mineral deposits within a 120-mile-wide corridor surrounding the existing railroad in Interior Alaska. Mat-Su Borough officials also assume that a cement and lime mining and production operation would be developed as a result of the railroad extension. We have used these five mining projects as a case study to calculate the resulting expected benefits to Anchorage from the rail extension.”

This is where the assumptions appear to most diverge from reality. Check out this chart from ISER 2010 (based on the Metz analyses):

The first three lines seem reasonable. The fourth line is where it starts to get funky. “Mine B” would produce 1.7 million tons of concentrate annually (all needing to be shipped by rail of course). Red Dog mine, currently the largest in Alaska and the largest zinc mine in the world, only ships ~1.4 million tons. Then the questions blossom with the metal values. “Mine B” would produce metal with a value of $5.1 billion per year. For reference the entire state of Alaska produced metals (all metals, placer and hardrock) worth $3 billion in 2010 (same year as the ISER report where I obtained this table) – less than half the amount that would supposedly be produced by these new mines Port Mac would create.

So basically for this to all pan out they need a mine bigger than Red Dog, as well as a couple of other mines, to commence operations as a direct result of the Port Mac spur… and be located near the railroad. There are two additional points worth noting here:

1) Mineral exploration in the state is occurring at an all-time high. It’s all over the state… wherever the geology is good, there are people drilling. Access to infrastructure is clearly important for the development of a mining prospect, but one could argue that since no one is even *looking* for a massive deposit near the railroad (see below) that the geology may not be as favorable as assumed.

2) Most of the currently active mineral exploration projects in the Fairbanks area and near the railroad are pursuing gold deposits. Gold mines do not typically ship significant quantities of ore, they ship out dore bars which would have a negligible impact on the railroad and are just as easily transported by truck or even air.

Therefore I took at look at mineral prospects being explored that are within the 120-mile corridor described by Metz. I ignored all the gold-only prospects, of which there are several including the large Livengood Prospect. There are only three possibilities (Golden Zone, Stone Boy, and Shorty Creek) and there certainly doesn’t appear to be anything like a “mine B” which is described as a “a Porphyry Cu- Mo-Au-Ag deposit of large size (ninetieth percentile [in the world] of tonnage and grade) located in the north flank of the Alaska Range.” The only mine prospect in the entire state that has enough ore to qualify as a “mine B” is probably Pebble (Porphyry Cu- Mo-Au-Ag), far from any connection to Port Mac.

Circular reasoning:

Just as an aside, there is some amusing circular logic in the ISER report as well. First, they argue that the rail extension would cause these five mines to spring into existence. Since they assure us that those operations would not otherwise have existed, they count all their benefits in the cost-benefit analysis for the extension. However, one of those benefits is the traffic avoidance if these facilities had to ship all that ore/cement by truck on existing roads.


I have no doubt that building the Port Mac extension would benefit some industries. However, it’s hard to imagine Alaska becoming a giant cement exporter (35% of savings), it seems unlikely that a massive mineral deposit worth more than all current production will be developed near the railroad (~20% of savings), and clearly there will not be millions of tons of coal going to a never-built gasification plant to service a now-defunct facility (33% of savings). Remove these putative benefits and the cost-benefit analysis for the spur suddenly looks a lot less rosy.

Predicting Alaska’s Climate?

Posted by on 13 Jan 2013 | Tagged as: global warming, Issues

global temperature graph
global temperature map

Globally, temperature has been rising as the CO2 from burning of fossil fuels insulates the earth. The most pronounced warming has occurred in the last several decades, especially in the arctic.

not at the same scale as graph above – AK has actually seen more warming than the global average

But that’s a global average. I also really want to know what’s happening right here. So, I had some fun staring at the more-local temperature graphs. Looking at Alaska specifically, temperature records only go back to 1949, and basically consist of a cold half (1949-1976) and a warm half (1977-today). So even Hig, who grew up here, never experienced that cold. During the cold half, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (a natural cycle of ocean temperatures with a time frame of 20-30 years) brought cold waters to the eastern North Pacific, and warm waters to the western North Pacific – making Alaska cooler. In the late 1970s, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation switched, and Alaska got warm.

No Ice Age for Us

A recent study has been interpreted by some to mean Alaska is headed for long-term cooling. Looking at temperatures only between 2000 and 2010, the study showed a cooling trend over that decade. While the temperatures from 2002 through 2005 were some of the highest on record, the temperatures in the late 2000s were less warm in most of the state (with the exception of the arctic). 2006 and 2008 were the only years with temperatures actually below the long term average. The authors of the study conclude: “In summary, the long term observed warming of Alaska of about twice the global value, as expected by the increasing CO2 and other trace gases, is sometimes temporarily modified or even reversed by natural decadal variations. “

What next? Well, the Pacific Decadal Oscillation appears to be dropping back into a persistently cold phase, and if that was the only big factor here, I’d expect to see Alaska dipping back down into those 1949-1976 temperatures along with it. Actually, I’d expect that to have happened already, given the PDO in the last few years has been as low as it was in the early 70s. But human-caused climate change introduces a consistent and increasing warming trend, which coexists with natural variation.

So, cool periods get less cool, and warm periods get even warmer. Average temperatures will continue to climb, more rapidly during natural warm cycles, and more rapidly as the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere continue to increase. We might never see temperatures as cold as the 1949-1979 average again – certainly not over any extended time frame. And next time the Pacific Decadal Oscillation shifts into a warm phase, we’ll probably see temperatures shoot well above the exceptionally warm years seen in the early 2000s. The latest report by the USGS shows predicted temperature increases across the state for the 21st century, against a reference frame of 1971 to 2000 temperatures (a period already dominated by warm). The degree of future change is predicted to be greatest in the northwestern regions of the state, and greatest during winter months, as has been true of the warming Alaska has already experienced.

future alaska temperatures

From this USGS report: left shows a higher emissions (A2) and right a lower emissions (B2) scenario for the years 2070-2099.

The narrow time frame of recorded temperatures and the high natural variability of Alaska climate makes local temperature trends difficult to pick out from measurements alone. Global data is much more robust, and shows warming trends more clearly. But temperature measurements aren’t our only signal. Alaska’s overall warming trend is clearly visible in its natural systems, including melting permafrost, shrinking glaciers, advancing trees and shrubs, disappearing sea ice, dramatic coastal erosion, and changing species distributions.

‘immaga’- maybe… (final update from Greenland)

Posted by on 18 Oct 2012 | Tagged as: Expeditions, guest post, Mining, trip reports

This is the final update from Josh and Brian’s Greenland journey: Unpeeling the Banana Coast

Josh sprawled out

Until tonight we had always slept under the tarp. The drum of mosquitoes and midges beating against the fabric would lull us to sleep. But tonight was a night for unusual circumstances. It was paying-for-ferry eve, a night of shame, regret, and sudden pangs of financial angst. The fjord between us and Narsarsuaq (aka the airport) was filled with ice blown in from the recent Foehn wind, making a paddle dubious. Local advice regarding our potential crossing ranged from overly reassuring to heavily skeptical; “Of course, a very doable paddle!” and “Do you value your life?!”

Home for the night, tucked into one of several aboretums along the Tunulliarfik Fjord.

We lay on opposite ends of a porch belonging to a derelict cabin looking out on the fjord. The red and yellow paint had been scoured away by winter winds. Icebergs flipped along the cobble beach a couple hundred meters away, their sound no longer startling. July was coming to an end, and the perpetual sun of June had been replaced by something like a normal day. The horizon to the west blazed orange as the mountains turned to silhouettes. We had come a long way. Across the water, we could see some of the sheep farms we had walked through in our first couple days, including our friend Kalista’s. The tussocks and willow looked docile, pastoral, predictable. The road we walked on the first day of the trip trickled down from the hills and meandered along the coast. The sun inched down further, its broad strokes of light painting wildflowers, bushes, and sandstone.


It’s weird, to be able to reflect in this way, to be able to look at whole days of your life instantaneously. Most of our route to Narsaq was visible from the comfort of our rotting porch. Beyond the physical, looking back becomes much more complicated. We have met sailors, hunters, fishermen, farmers, geologists, writers, musicians, teachers, artists, priests, politicians, kids. Greenlanders, Danes, Icelanders, Faroese, Germans, Spaniards, even Americans. Kvanefjeld Mine, our whole reason for going here, has changed from a yes or no, to something more elusive and harder to define.

Saying goodbye to our new friends Peter (right) and Ulrik (left)

We have been welcomed into more homes than we have Greenlandic words in our vocabulary. Invited inside on dirt roads, in the middle of towns, and in our tent. We have been offered endless cups of coffee: “Kaffe?” Given dinners, cookies, pastries, histories, stories, tours, and a sense of what true kindness is. I think because we were walking everywhere, we lost a bit of tourist scent, and were able to meet people on more honest terms- an experience that was as powerful as the wilderness we went looking for. It’s funny, the mythology of the American west has this notion of hospitality in rugged landscapes. The pioneer family feeds the weary traveler. “Papa, there’s a man at the door with a beard, a gun, and three beaver pelts, he said he’s walked all the way from Grand Junction,’ ‘Let him in son, and give him some whiskey, he’ll tell us his story.” To actually experience a shred of that, thousands of miles away, has been a priceless gift, a fulfillment of both a tradition and a basic social contract.

Sunset over Tunulliarfik Fjord and our very first days in Greenland.

Independence is the pervasive concern. For a sheep farmer independence is a 10,000 liter tank of diesel. For some Greenlanders it’s the jobs and revenue that could be brought by foreign mineral companies. For others it’s the right to a traditional way of life, and the preservation of the resources to make that possible. And for some more urban professionals it’s a pipe dream held up by native politicians as political fodder. The issues are relative and people are slow to have an opinion when they speak a language whose most famous word is ‘immaga’- maybe. There are dark places in Greenlandic society: alcoholism, corruption, ignorance, apathy, suicide. They add a somber weight to conversations about the future, a sense of doubt that confuses the optimism and beauty of the people and the place.

Josh walking down to meet the ferry back to Narsarsuaq.

The sun finally sets behind the mountains and the fog bank making its way up the fjord glows eerily as it gains momentum. The temperature drops, darkness falls, and for the first time since we left the US, we can see the stars.

Oil Walking

Posted by on 10 Sep 2012 | Tagged as: Expeditions, Fossil fuels, guest post, trip reports

 Behold, the non-oil hat!

This is a guest post from Andrew, one of our GTT collaborators, who walked from Lake Iliamna to the Revelation Mountains this summer.

Somewhere between the north shore of Lake Clark, Alaska, and the last human outpost before the bitter emptiness outside the Alaska Range, it dawns on me: 25 days and 200+ miles in the wilderness, dragging my entire life on my back…

I am a walking advertisement for the petroleum industry.

My entire expedition is built on fossil fuels. I am oil walking.

My pack is made of Dyneema, a.k.a. Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene. The strongest fiber in the world – made from oil. My clothing is made of nylon, capilene, polar fleece. Synthetic rubber shoe soles. Wool socks blended with acrylic. Oil.

The steel and titanium and aluminum I carry: mined, refined, and forged using coal, natural gas, and oil. Cigarette lighters… oil. Plastic-barreled mechanical pencil.  Oil.  Bicycle inner tube, duct tape, paraffin-coated sail thread, floss, glass bottle with a plastic lid. Sil-nylon stuff sacks. Half a down sleeping bag, sewn of nylon. A Megamid shelter: a thin film of woven polymer strands and plastic hardware, made of oil.

My knife, quenched in oil: double oil.

It’s all oil.  The food I carry was grown by an industrial food chain, powered by the green revolution, powered by fossil fuels – mostly oil. The nitrogen in the ammonia that fertilized the soil was extracted from the atmosphere via natural gas. The salt was mined, using oil.

Overnight paddling on the Big River  

Do I count the electricity in the camera batteries, charged in Alaska? Alaska’s power generation is 58% natural gas, 9% coal, and 12% oil.

I carry a satphone. I don’t much like it. It’s for sending texts, which GTT transforms into tweets. Plastic casing. Metal components. Battery. It talks to a satellite, built of tinfoil and lofted into space at tremendous energetic cost atop of a giant pillar of rocket fuel. It’s an ultimate triumph of the Age of Oil.

I search my gear for anything, somehow, not made of oil.

I have only one thing that isn’t functional, on this trek: tiny, pink paper heart. It was given to me by a spooky, raccoon-like girl. It is a prescription: it can be reimbursed for chocolate pudding.

The paper came from a tree that was cut by a gas-powered chainsaw. The wood was pulped in a mill. It was turned inoto paper in an electrified factory. It was dried in ovens and shipped on container ships and 18-wheelers, burning petrol. Chocolate pudding is made from cocoa, harvested and shipped overseas, and from milk. The milk comes from cows fed on grain, which is grown in the Midwest. Both derive their calories from photosynthesis, but are suffused and augmented with oil.

The fact that she gave me a tiny pink paper heart: not oil.

High passes and hardware store gloves

To preserve the heart, I laminated it in clear plastic packing tape. Oil.

The wool hat, my sister knit for me, in college, almost 20 years ago. Not oil.

I’ve worn this hat on virtually every serious trip I’ve done for two decades.  I have a critical need for this hat-not-of-oil, besides as a headwarmer. It’s made of sheep wool.  Keratin, a protein. Unlike every single scrap of hydrocarbon fabric I carry, it is heat-resistant.  It is not fuel.  I use it as a pot holder, for my titanium mug… precisely because it is not oil.

It’s not just my stuff that’s made of oil.

The satphone reminds me of this. It talks to a satellite.  That satellite and I have a lot in common. As a modern urban American, I am the coalescence of a massive spike of liberated fossil energy: a seething, scintillating star of ancient sunlight, transformed by alchemy from hydrocarbons that were stored for millions of years beneath the ground.

I am, in the big scheme of things, one of the most energy-intensive humans in the history of planet Earth.  I have been lofted, here – to the wilds of Alaska – on wings of petrol, and I am made of oil. As I march across the tundra, driving through squalls and smelling of urethane and curry, I am an ambassador from another world. I am a glowing scion of the hydrocarbon empire, carrying my torch through the barbarian lands. The bears, and sheep, the caribou: they all know I’m not one of their own. Because I smell of oil.

Lower Twin Lake, filled with liquid crystal 

I am not self-reliant, any more than the satellite, executing its first orbit around the Earth, can claim to have got there on its own.

Fifty miles downstream of me, where the Stony River plunges deep into the interior’s illimitable black spruce forests, is Lime Village, the closest human settlement.  Lime Village is a tiny Athabascan settlement of less than thirty people.  They live by largly traditional ways. They snare beaver, shoot ptarmigan, fish, hunt moose. They have snow machines, shotguns, and outboard motors. They are made, only partly, of oil.

As modern humans, we are intimately connected to the fossil biome.  The health and extent of ancient peat bogs and plankton is, strangely enough, one of our vital environmental concerns. Those bogs, and those plankton rafts, transformed sunlight into organic matter, which was then metamorphosed deep inside the Earth.  Their biological energy became our fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, and in particular the transportable, storable energy of liquid petroleum, is inextricably woven into our entire civilization’s infrastructure.  Geysers of fossil fuel provide the energy to lift the skyscrapers of the modern age. It’s a gigantic subsidy, passed forward through geological time.

A dignified portrait of the adventurering life

The way this trip is going, I’d find myself very naked, a long way out in the wilderness, if I suddenly ran out of oil.

So where do we go from here?  Deep in the jungles of the Amazon, there are small tribes who have no contact with the outside world.  They build fires by friction and hunt with hand-made arrows dipped in curare. They’re an energetic anomaly in the modern world: people who draw their energy and materials almost entirely from the living biome.  They have no books. No monuments. No antibiotics. No hot showers.  No car wrecks.  They have few of the amenities that most of us are happy to receive. Most of us don’t turn down energy.

Are they the future? Is this our vision of sustainability, if the pump runs dry? These are people who are not yet made of oil.

This is a guest post from Andrew, one of our GTT collaborators, who walked from Lake Iliamna to the Revelation Mountains this summer.

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