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