Editor’s note: Photographers have bucket lists just like anglers, sports fans, history buffs and foodies. The raw beauty of Alaskan landscapes would have to make at least a few shooters’ short lists of must-see destinations. South Dakota native and longtime photographer Carl Johnson moved to Anchorage in 1999 and started Arctic Light Gallery and Excursions, which, according to his website (arcticlight-ak.com), “seeks to celebrate a legacy of examining the dynamic quality of light in remote, wild locations.”
Few locales typify wild Alaska more than Bristol Bay’s 40 million of acres of land and water that Johnson chronicles in his new book, Where Water Is Gold. In addition to Johnson’s spectacular photos, the book features essays from several Last Frontier writers (including occasional ASJ correspondent Dave Atcheson). The following excerpt from Johnson’s book (published by Mountaineer Books) was written by award-winning Alaska writer Nick Jans, who himself has written 12 books. His latest, The Giant’s Hand, is available from nickjans.com.
BY NICK JANS
PHOTOS BY CARL JOHNSON
Photographer Carl Johnson leans into his Nikon. Twenty feet away, a lone gray wolf stands, surveying the tidal flat before him as if our small group did not exist. The wolf trots on with scarcely a glance our way.
Minutes later, without moving, we share a frame-filling encounter with a huge, fight-scarred male brown bear, so close that our guide, Dustin, has to take action. A calm wave of arms, a firm “Hey, bear,” and the 800-pound behemoth deflects past us and continues grazing on succulent sedges a few dozen paces away. With so much forage available, and decades of peaceable interaction, these resident bears tend to see humans as neither food source nor threat. We have become part of the landscape.
Not once but many times over our four-day stay, Carl turns to me, grins and shakes his head at the incredible opportunities that pass before us – from an eagle nest with chicks viewed from above to a fox teasing a young bear to a seal nursery and rafts of sea otters. And so many brown bears we can scarcely count them: foraging, playing, swimming, courting, mothers nursing cubs. The experience resounds beyond photography. We roam beaches with fossils and artifacts at our feet; glide past rocky pinnacles where clouds of nesting seabirds wheel; drift among feeding humpback whales; catch rod-bending halibut and cod; become filled with the whir of wind and water, and the land’s deep silence beyond.
WE ARE GUESTS AT Katmai Wilderness Lodge on the outer coast of Katmai National Park and Preserve, on the southeastern edge of the Bristol Bay region. Though by itself, Katmai is immense – nearly 5 million wilderness acres, including a spectacularly ragged, unpeopled 497-mile coast – it is a fraction of the almost unimaginable sweep of the expanse. All that Carl and I have seen are mere tokens of the riches and variety that Bristol Bay offers the recreational visitor: volcanic moonscapes; enormous freshwater lakes and sprawling river systems; high tundra, rolling forests, and vast wetlands; spectacular, glacier-draped mountain ranges; pristine, current-swirled ocean waters, fjords, and tidal flats – all of them brimming with life. This fertile merging of land and sea spills toward a seemingly limitless horizon, one valley and one bay to the next, each unique yet part of a larger untrammeled whole.
A 36-year resident of Alaska, I have traveled tens of thousands of wilderness miles in some of the state’s most remote and scenic landscapes – from the austere enormity of the Brooks Range to the fjord-incised rain forests of Southeast Alaska. I have frequently nudged outdoors-oriented visitors toward the Bristol Bay area as a remote yet accessible distillation of the best that wild Alaska has to offer.
The sheer volume and variety of protected wilderness areas bespeaks the region’s status as a world-class natural reserve. These include Lake Clark and Katmai National Park and Preserve; Togiak, Alaska Maritime, Alaska Peninsula/Becharof, and Izembek National Wildlife Refuges; the Wood Tikchik State Park and McNeil River State Game Sanctuary and Preserve – all told, a staggering 24-million-plus acres combined. Whether wildlife viewing and photography; wilderness backpacking and float trips; bird watching; sport fishing and hunting; mountaineering, flightseeing and coastal cruising or kayaking – Bristol Bay offers a kaleidoscope of recreational possibilities.
Neither planning a trip, nor the actual getting to Bristol Bay are nearly as daunting as one might suppose. Dozens of quality lodges, guides, flying services, and outfitters are poised online to answer questions or help you custom-craft your dream trip. Travel between modern airports, to within a jumping-off distance of your chosen destination, is no more complicated than in the Lower 48.
The final flight in, typically less than an hour, usually in a pontoon-equipped float plane landing on a lake or river, is an integral part of the journey, offering stunning bird’s-eye perspectives and a fitting transition into another world. The wild country scrolls below like a living map, then draws closer and closer as the plane noses downward and the floats make rushing contact with the water, signaling your arrival.
THE KEYSTONE OF BRISTOL Bay’s wealth can be summed up in one word: salmon. Thousands of waterways, from pouring, rapid-studded rivers to ankle-deep creeks, surge with overlapping runs of one, or all five Pacific species, great tide-like pulses that drive the region’s ecology and economy. They boil inland, providing a conveyor belt of energy from ocean to far inland that lasts from summer’s lush greens into the snows of late autumn.
A profusion of lakes provide vital nurseries for millions of juvenile salmon, as well as habitat for other fish and wildlife. Alaska’s iconic brown bears and moose, as well as tiny warblers, benefit from the massive infusion of sea-grown biomass. Analysis of practically every living thing, including plant life, shows signature chemical traces of energy that came from salmon. Without their gifts, the land simply would not be what it is.
The value of recreational tourism, much of it tied directly or indirectly to salmon, amounts to well over $100 million annually – a staggering sum, given the region’s modest population. The sport-hunting industry accounts for an estimated $12 million; wildlife viewing and other nonconsumptive tourism, $17 million. Sportfishing, mostly in freshwater, is calculated to be worth more than $60 million – a prodigious renewable resource on which many livelihoods depend, both within the region and far beyond. Dozens of lodges and outfitting services offer access to these riches in a land where the water is indeed gold.
Those who make their living from the land by sharing with others intend to keep it that way. “There’s a super-high interest in adventure-based tourism,” says David Coray, owner of Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, a private inholding in Lake Clark National Park and Preserve [David is the brother of Anne Coray, who co-wrote the essay “Moving with the Seasons” in this book]. A lifelong resident of the region, he says, “Our focus is a sustainable model with minimal impact on the land. We’re stewards and educators … We want to be agents of change for future preservation efforts, and to carry that battle forward.”
IF SALMON ARE THE land’s lifeblood, the waterways are its veins. Rivers with musical names twine across the land: Mulchatna, Kanektok, Aniakchak, Koktuli, Naknek, Goodnews, Kvichak, and more stretch over the horizon, enough to require not one but several lifetimes to know. Rising behind the salmon, trout, char and grayling grow huge, gorging on dislodged eggs and the husks of the spawned-out salmon.
In some situations three well-placed casts with either fly or spinning tackle might land as many different species. Often, the main difficulty is not coaxing fish to strike but getting past smaller individuals or less-desired species. Trophy catch-and-release fly fishing for rainbow trout in remote streams is a marquee draw – robust, deep-bodied fish commonly exceeding two feet in length, with much larger specimens possible on any given cast. Deep, glacier-incised lakes such as 100-mile-long Iliamna and mountain-framed, postcard-scenic Lake Clark hold not only rainbows and char but outsized lake trout and pike. In fact, the Bristol Bay area cradles four of Alaska’s five largest lakes and hundreds of smaller ones, the vast majority of them worth at least a few casts.
For nonfishers the region’s vast, varied, and scenic melding of water and land lends itself to wilderness journeys. Backcountry trips combining river and lake travel, hiking, photography, and fishing can be custom-shaped to a wide range of abilities, interests, trip lengths, and comfort levels.
IN THE COURSE OF photographing this book, Carl Johnson faced the not-so-onerous task of sampling a few options. Besides our shared experience at Katmai Wilderness Lodge, he spent several days at Silver Salmon Creek Lodge, which also specializes in bear and nature photography with all the comforts of home. He traveled to No See Um Lodge, owned by John Holman, a leader of the fight against the Pebble Mine. This latter establishment has long provided no-compromises, personalized fly-fishing experiences for discerning anglers from around the world.
Carl also joined a five-day guided kayak trip with Alaska Alpine Adventures, paddling and hiking in the heartbreakingly gorgeous Twin Lakes area of Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. “Paddling is my preferred method of travel,” he says. “My inspiration for being a nature photographer was born during two years working as a canoe guide. … [Paddling] provides an ongoing opportunity for exploring new photographic subjects, new compositions.”
No matter the reason for visiting the Bristol Bay region, the experience will amount to far more than the sum of its parts – not just a trout or salmon glistening like a living jewel in your hands; or a mountain peak awash in alpenglow, mirrored in a transparent lake; or a group of bears foraging in a mist-shrouded tidal flat. Guests of this place emerge with a sense of connection to a larger whole – a vast, complex world whose beauty is defined by its unbounded scale. There are no highways, no large-scale industrial development just over the horizon. Bristol Bay resonates in the collective imagination, cradling the intrinsic value of the unseen.
Inevitably your stay ends. The process of arriving reverses as the plane roars and lifts free; the country you have brushed against fades and that busy other world resumes. The experience, though, echoes through your being. If the Bristol Bay region remains protected and intact, it will be because we willed it so. ASJ
Editor’s note: For more on Where Water is Gold and where to buy it, please go to wherewaterisgold.com.