Along the Cook Inlet coast, this remote patch of country near Iliamna Bay could become a giant industrial port for Pebble Mine. McKittrick walked and paddled this coast in 2013, with her husband, mother, and two small children. Photo by Erin McKittrick.
The wind pushed us in a stumble-dance across the tundra, past ground-clutching alders and stubby ice-scoured spruce. Two friends and I followed the line that scrolled across our GPS, imagining a road. I imagined trucks rumbling along it in the winter, behind a parade of snowplows that fought the constant drifts.
Headlights in the whiteout, tired people making a living in wind and ice from ore. It was 2018, and the walk from Amakdedori to Kokhanok was the latest foray in more than 15 years and a thousand miles of my small footsteps in the footprint of a giant—the proposed Pebble Mine.
Human-powered wilderness expeditions are a passion of mine. Both intentionally and unintentionally, they thrust me into the issues that face those wild places. The Pebble Mine proposal is so immense, that I have walked into it over and over again, each time thinking it’s the last.
Pebble Mine over the years
Pebble Mine is 70 million tons of copper, gold, and molybdenum under a soggy valley of tundra and ptarmigan. It is engineers’ drawings of towering dams and a pit clawed thousands of feet into the earth. Pebble Mine is helicopters and drill cores, bear guards and TV ads, glossy handouts and packed meetings, documentaries and bumper stickers, dreams and nightmares, and thousands and thousands of official pages of paper that somehow say so little.
The prospect of Pebble Mine swallowed Alaska years ago. Its fortunes wash over us like the tide, pushed and pulled by the gravity of changing governments and metal prices and the riches of global mining companies. It has seemed, in the years I’ve been following the issue, alternately impossible and inevitable. On July 24, 2020, the final Environmental Impact Statement recommended that the mine be built. It turned the tide to a tsunami, leaving opponents racing for high ground.
The final EIS draws the mining road along the north side of Lake Iliamna. In 2001, I walked there. My feet sunk deep into the mossy forest. Neither I, nor the Pedro Bay residents who graciously hosted us knew anything about the metals at their doorstep. My not-yet-husband and I walked on to Chignik, following the divide that straddles Bristol Bay and the Gulf of Alaska, believing this place was as wild and remote as anywhere.
We didn’t know that Pebble’s copper and gold had been discovered in the 1980s. But once discovered, metals are not forgotten. Similarly, that “once-in-a-lifetime” adventure sparked something in my 21-year-old self that I couldn’t stuff back in. Neither I, nor the mining companies, were done with that piece of the world.
Maybe that’s why in 2005, as a science graduate student still living in Seattle, I noticed The New York Times article about Pebble Mine. It seemed a small warning for something so big. No one I knew had heard of it. Google had barely heard of it.
So I walked there.
The rattling helicopters made me nearly as nervous as they did the caribou, nearly as nervous as the bears made me. I camped alone beneath the roar, in dripping mist, in forest fire haze. Back and forth from Nondalton, I walked around 60 miles under Pebble’s shadow, taking pictures of berries and lichen that failed to capture the scale of the question.
The next summer, I brought my husband and a friend. We hiked back to the helicopters and drill rigs. Then for 450 miles, we floated down the Nushagak River and hiked up the Kvichak, following the salmon-pumping arteries that connect the Pebble site to Bristol Bay.
Arctic terns dived and swooped beside our packrafts. Moose splashed along the banks. As we floated, the first of the salmon swam up beneath us. We watched them fill nets and skiffs and drying racks and the trailers behind 4-wheelers. A world of rolling green hills blurred past with the ever-strengthening current, until we were spit out into Bristol Bay, turning back upstream in an abbreviated version of a salmon’s path. Upstream was harder. We walked, struggling with neck-deep sloughs, swamps and thickets, and mosquitoes that found every gap in our imperfectly-closed tarp. The salmons’ upstream struggle was much more elegant—each fish honed by generations to meet the particular challenge of its geography.
The landscape of the Pebble exploration site, and of the rolling hills and lakes that surround it, is undramatic. It has none of the craggy peaks and massive glaciers iconic to Alaska. Ecologically, it’s richer for that. Across an entire landscape of subtly different creeks, each run of salmon is subtly different to match. The sum of those varied adaptations adds up to resilience.
In 2006, I wasn’t yet a writer. But from those journeys, I wrote, researched, photographed, built a website, gave slide shows, and told everyone I could about Pebble. I thought I had done my part. But Pebble wasn’t done with me.
Pebble Mine forever
In the winter of 2008, a fox followed my husband and me through the scoured-white exploration site, hoping to add to the scraps it got from the drill rig workers. It was as curious and friendly as those same workers, and as the Nondalton villagers. The workers told us one of those helicopters cost more for a day than our trip cost for a year. The villagers served up moose stew and fry bread as we skied, serendipitously, into a Pebble Mine meeting in the village community center. Our journey took us from Seattle to False Pass, and Pebble swirled beside us through months of snowy winter, from Anchorage bumper stickers, to Kakhonak ice fishermen, to the tiny Bristol Bay villages thawing out and readying themselves for the summer’s rush of fish.
In that February meeting, a representative from Alaska’s Department of Natural Resources talked about perpetuity. Once the ore is unearthed and ground into tailings, it becomes toxic—in perpetuity. Our tailings dams, our water treatment plants—whatever it takes to keep that rock away from the streams—has to be there forever. Not just the walls and the pipes, but also the banks, the funding, the regulators, and the institutions and the governments behind them. Years, decades, and even centuries are not long enough. Literally forever.
My attention span was much shorter. By 2013, Pebble was a household name and an international issue. My early efforts were eclipsed by a hundred better-skilled and funded organizations. Pebble’s tide had ebbed, investment groups said it had “one foot in the grave,” and I moved on to other things. That summer, I circled Cook Inlet by foot and raft, this time with two small children in tow. We were barely thinking about Pebble, but we passed by every possible Pebble port site, walking wrack lines punctuated with debris from Japan’s 2011 tsunami. I wasn’t talking about Pebble, but when I asked people about the future, they still talked about salmon, and money.
A few years later, the tide turned again. Now in 2020, the EPA is poised to approve the mine. Local villages are poised to refuse access to build the road. The mining company still needs money to build it. Lawsuits hang over it all. Tides can still shift. But they can’t ever be stopped. Pebble is an issue that will be with us forever.
If Pebble isn’t built now, the metals will lurk, waiting for the tides of politics and fortune. If Pebble is built, piles of tailings will lurk in their place. All we can hope for is more years of nothing. Nothing leaking into the tundra, nothing poisoning the fish, nothing contaminating the waters flowing into Bristol Bay. We can hope for years and decades of nothing, until it’s someone else’s turn to watch over the world we’ve created, for hundreds and thousands of years to come. At Red Dog Mine—an Alaskan mine often cited as an example of mining done right—when I asked the spokesman what would happen when their containment overflows and their treatment fails, he said, “Society will have other problems by then.” The pilot that dropped us off for my 2018 foray into Pebble’s footprint said he thought Pebble was inevitable but hoped it would be his grandchildren’s problem, not his.
It will be. Maybe our grandchildren will be repeating this battle. Maybe they’ll be watching over water treatment plants, passing on tips for their smooth operation to the generations after them. Maybe they’ll be building hatcheries in a last-ditch attempt to bring back salmon whose rivers have been lost. One way or another, unless we figure out a way to drop the hubris of thinking we can build a perpetual technology, Pebble will be every generation’s problem. Forever.
It seems hopeless, and futile, and a little like the salmon themselves. They struggle against the currents, and all of them die, and many of them never lay eggs. But each one throws itself into the struggle, and year after year, they keep the ecosystem alive. Forever.