Happy Thanksgiving from Alaska Sporting Journal! Here’s a story from our Bjorn Dihle about a family that is likely thankful for the bounty that Alaska offers.
BY BJORN DIHLE
Hunting guide Tia Shoemaker is fighting tooth and nail to ensure future generations will have the
opportunity to experience the wilderness of Southwest Alaska.
“We have something incredible on the Alaska Peninsula and Bristol Bay. All we have to do is not mess it up. Millions acres of wilderness surrounded by millions acres of wilderness,” Tia said in September while taking a break from preparing for moose season. “John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt would be proud we still have a place like this. This place should be one of the seven wonders of the world.”
Tia grew up in the Becharof National Wildlife Refuge on the Alaska Peninsula.
The closest people to her family’s homestead were around 60 miles away in the communities of Egegik and King Salmon in Bristol Bay. To say she grew up remote is an understatement. Her parents, Phil and Rocky, who both have degrees in wildlife biology, instilled in Tia and her brother Taj a deep reverence of stewardship for their home.
“The place taught us that as much as our parents. I wouldn’t trade growing up here for anything,” said Tia, who calls her home the Serengeti of Alaska, and she’s not exaggerating.
This year more than 57 million sockeye salmon returned to Bristol Bay to spawn. This incredible pulse of life acts as the foundation for the densest concentrations of brown bears and one of the richest ecosystems on Earth.
“Salmon are everything. It’s been said so many times, but it’s true,” she said.
FISH AND BRUINS
Tia’s life is intimately tied to salmon and brown bears. Her family runs a small fishing and hunting guiding operation called Grizzly Skins of Alaska (grizzlyskinsofalaska.com; email: email@example.com). In summer they guide fishing trips and during the fall – and sometimes spring – they guide hunts.
Tia has been helping out on moose hunts since she was 10. When she was 12 or 13, she started helping on brown bear hunts. Around then, her parents, fearing Tia and Taj were becoming too “bushy,” moved the family to the tiny community of Circle Hot Springs for a couple months each year to help socialize their kids.
When Tia was 18, she got her assistant guide license. She’s been working as a wilderness guide in different capacities ever since.
Most hunters visiting Bristol Bay and the Alaska Peninsula come to pursue the region’s brown bears and moose. The paradoxical nature of brown bear and other forms of trophy hunting is difficult for many to come to terms with.
“There’s a magic to brown bear hunting,” Tia reflected.
She, along with many guides, find the act of killing a bear emotionally challenging, though. She grew up surrounded by brown bears and possesses a deep affinity and respect for the animals.
Thankfully, due in large part to efforts from guides like Tia who are deeply invested in bears and the wild country they need to thrive, there are more brown bears in Alaska than any time in the last century.
LIVELIHOOD IN PERIL
Still, there is a very real threat to the
brown bears of the Alaska Peninsula and Bristol Bay. It also endangers the region’s incredible runs of salmon, Tia’s family and others living in the region – not to mention hunters and fishermen across the world.
The crisis can be summed up in one word: Pebble.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently delayed the Pebble Mine, the massive open-pit mine and toxic waste dump proposed for the headwaters of Bristol Bay, from being permitted. But the mine is still very much alive and could receive federal permitting by the end of the year.
Hunting is not only how Tia makes a living, it’s how she provides for herself and her family. She likes to say that after her guiding season, she “switches from Boone and Crockett to spoon and Crock-Pot.”
OUTDOORS A FAMILY AFFAIR
During a recent caribou hunt, Tia, her mother, sister-in-law and 2-year- old niece harvested a bull that would become their food for the winter. The three women guided Tia’s niece to place foliage in the caribou’s mouth in a gesture
of thanks and an offering to the animal’s spirit. Hunters have practiced this simple act across the world for thousands of years. Tia reflected on the power of sharing this ritual with her niece.
“I was reminded of all the hours and years my brother and I spent hunting and how incredible it is to witness another generation doing the same,” Tia said. “I felt a glimmer of hope for the future. Perhaps with education and foresight, we might yet keep the Alaskan Peninsula and Bristol Bay – the last true wilderness we have in the U.S. – the way it ought to be: wild.” ASJ
Editor’s note: Follow Tia on Instagram .com/tia.shoemaker. Pride of Bristol Bay is a free column written by Bjorn Dihle and provided by its namesake, a fisherman- direct seafood marketer that specializes in delivering the highest quality of sustainably caught wild salmon from Bristol Bay to your doorstep. Go to prideofbristolbay.com for more information.