Keeping Bristol Bay’s Salmon ‘Wild’ Is Filmmaker’s Passion

 

Photo by Mark Titus/The Wild

The following appears in the March issue of Alaska Sporting Journal: 

BY CHRIS COCOLES 

Now finishing up his second documentary on salmon, Mark Titus is certain that these mystical fish will always have a special place in his heart. 

The Seattle-area resident is part of the fraternity of sport and subsistence anglers, commercial fishermen and -women, fish processing and cannery employees, conservationists and the like who vow to protect Pacific salmon from Northern California to the far north of Alaska. In his 2015 film The Breach, (Alaska Sporting Journal, May 2015) Titus called his directorial debut “a love story about salmon” and focused on conservation crusades in his native Washington and around Alaska’s venerable salmon runs in Bristol Bay.

 Titus made parallels between the catastrophic damming of the Elwha River, which blocked dozens of miles of pristine salmon habitat in the heart of Washington’s Olympic National Park, and Bristol Bay’s previously unaffected watershed that’s home to the world largest return of sockeye. 

“We compared (the plight of the Elwha), of course, with the perfect and pristine habitat in Bristol Bay and said, ‘Why would you mess with something like this?’” Titus says.

Titus also warned of the potential threat to Bristol Bay in the form of the proposed Pebble Mine and the tug-of-war between access to the area’s rich copper ore deposits and its salmon-filled rivers.

At the time, Bristol Bay’s salmon community felt at least a sense of security, even as many braced for a long struggle given the mineral value there. 

“Frankly, when we left that storyline, things looked pretty good in terms of protections for Bristol Bay, when the (Environmental Protection Agency) concluded that a mine the size of the scope of Pebble would, in fact, do harm to the water, the people, the landscape of the salmon in Bristol Bay,” Titus says. “And things looked kind of buttoned up, but I always had my doubts about that.”

“And then, of course, in November of 2016 we had a new election and a new president.”

With the Pebble Partnership remaining dogged in its pursuit of a mining permit, the President Trump-led EPA initially overturned the previous administration’s protections of Bristol Bay. And while the EPA recently backtracked on its decision to all but green light the project, it’s clear that it’s a battle that doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon.

Still, personal matters for Titus meant that he wasn’t in any hurry to follow up his passionate cinematic plea to save Pacific salmon. But with the urging of family and friends and his own admiration for the fish and his love of making films helped spawn The Wild, a sequel to The Breach but with a little bit different approach. 

Bristol Bay and its residents who depend on all those salmon returning from the sea offer a plea about how important the fish are to their livelihood and identity. 

“We’re coming at this from a place of compassion rather than a place of raising a hammer and saying that we must destroy our enemies,” Titus says. “We’re saying instead, how do we as individuals, and collectively as a body of human experience, save the things that are really precious that we love and ultimately would like to pass onto future generations? That’s the core of the movie.”

Seattle-area resident Mark Titus has a spiritual connection to salmon, so he’s close to completing his second documentary on the importance of these fish to so many in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The Wild focuses on the conservation of Alaska salmon in the Bristol Bay area. (MARK TITUS/THE WILD)

WHEN HE FILMED PORTIONS of The Breach in Bristol Bay, Titus, who as former deckhand and guide in Southeast Alaska was no stranger to the Last Frontier, was mesmerized by his experiences there. 

“Bristol Bay is a place of deep magic, and it is a place that’s reminiscent of what things were like in North America long ago,” he says. 

What hit home was the locals’ helpfulness in allowing his modest crew to get around in the isolated locations where they shot footage, including lugging around 12 cases of gear via floatplanes and fishing tenders to reach a 32-foot Egekik River fishing boat. 

As he planned his itinerary that first time, Titus wondered how the logistics would work. He wasn’t sure where he’d stay and what he’d do for meals. But somehow it all came together. 

“And that had to do with the generosity of the humans I met there,” Titus says, “and it had everything to do with everyone’s shared reverence for that place and the wild salmon – this biological force that is almost overwhelming.”

The Wild, which Titus has filmed and edited about halfway and should be ready for distribution this summer, focuses mostly on five Bristol Bay residents who all have salmon-centric occupations. They include Nanci Morris Lyon, who operates King Salmon-based Bear Trail Lodge; Nushagak River set-netter Ole Olsen; Steve Kurian, a commercial sockeye captain in Naknek; Amanda Wlaysewski, whose family owns a small fish-processing business, also in Naknek; and local Native community leader Alannah Hurley, executive director of United Tribes of Bristol Bay. 

 These are folks dependent on healthy numbers of salmon that regularly return from the sea on an annual basis. Titus called each member of the quintet the “one of the five fingers of the whole hand that is the salmon industry of Bristol Bay.” Their stories collectively represent the beating heart of The Wild. 

“So we kind of cover all the points of contact with the salmon industry in Bristol Bay through all our five characters,” Titus says. 

“It’s not overstating things to say that Bristol Bay is a place and wild salmon – as a force, a creature and as a way of life – literally represent everything to all the main characters who appear in The Wild. It is the center of their economic reality; it supports their families; it’s the center of their social world; it’s the center of – in Alannah’s case – their cultural heritage that goes back thousands of years.”

Photo by Mark Titus/The Wild

IN A TRAILER FOR The Wild, Titus self-narrates a montage of himself casting a line out in his boat, a childhood photo of him in a soccer uniform hoisting a pair of salmon and a breathtaking video of a migrating fish in the wild.

“They’re travelers, nurturers, survivors. And they’re food.”

Both of his films are just as much as about the director himself as those stories of triumph and tragedy
he chronicles. 

The Wild is a very personal journey for me,” Titus says. “Once that decision was made and I actually got on the ground and working in Bristol Bay, it was a roller coaster of emotions – intense trepidation and fear about not being up for this challenge, honestly. And that, coupled with absolute joy in discovery of the vastness and magic of this place … is impossible not to be touched by if you spend any time there.”

Both commercial and sport fishermen and -women have so much at stake if the proposed Pebble Mine is completed. An accident could be devastating to Bristol Bay’s salmon. (MARK TITUS/THE WILD)

And given his reluctance to tackle such a major project 1,650 miles from his Seattle home, it’s fair to say that the emotional reaction his first salmon love story received had as much to do with The Wild’s production as the desire to spread the message about Bristol Bay’s salmon. 

Titus recalls reactions he encountered while showing The Breach in 2015 on multiple continents. There was the screening in Dublin, Ireland – Atlantic salmon have been virtually wiped out on the Emerald Isle and the United Kingdom – when old-timers broke down into tears at the reality of what had been lost.

There was a moment during a Chicago performance when Titus connected with an Uber driver, who was invited to the theater and brought a older gentleman who was a retired lieutenant colonel from the South who’d grown up near no salmon rivers. But he was so moved he approached and thanked Titus for introducing him to a fish he had no connection to. 

“This guy was moved to tears and it was so completely out of the target audience compared to our usual preaching to the choir of salmon nerds from the Northwest,” Titus says. “This is somebody from a completely different walk of life but was moved by this animal. And that
was remarkable.”

And the filmmaker himself was choked up by a then 12-year-old girl who started a letter-writing campaign to Washington leaders and runs her own wild salmon/Bristol Bay podcast. She shares her story in The Wild, which also features cameo appearances by several supporting conservationists, including Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard, actor Mark Harmon and celebrity chef Tom Colicchio.

“I have been consistently humbled and overwhelmed with the amount of outpouring of support – both financially and emotionally,” Titus says. “It has been a complete revelation to see how this one thing and one animal that represents the best in living things in terms of its self-sacrifice so that other things can live
(is embraced).”

“It is, certainly in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, an iconic keystone species. But even beyond that, what’s been incredible is that other people from other parts of the country and around the world have identified with the plight of wild salmon and connected on an emotional level.”

“Bristol Bay is a place of deep magic and it is a place that’s reminiscent of what things were like in North America long ago in many different places that exist still in this very special place,” Titus says. (MARK TITUS/THE WILD)

 When he finishes this latest homage to salmon, Titus hopes The Wild will have a similar impact not just on those in Bristol Bay who can’t fathom the catastrophe that destroyed Atlantic salmon runs over the centuries, but for everyone else who either worships or admires an anadromous wunderkind that has struggled in Titus’s native Pacific Northwest, fallen in dramatic fashion in California and while still thriving in The Last Frontier, is at risk if the Pebble Mine idea becomes a reality. 

 “The goal that I have is that people are moved by this story and the inherent plight of wild salmon and (the hope they can) survive in the face of a really disastrous human history of interaction through human expansion and population growth,” Titus says. 

“And so I ultimately hope the audience that finds its way to The Wild will not despair in the face of troubled times and uncertain times, but rather look inward in what they can do in their own lives to express love and compassion for the things that are really sacred to them. And if that in turn becomes a shared passion for wild salmon and landscape of Bristol Bay, all the better.” ASJ

Editor’s note: Look for a review and more on The Wild this summer in Alaska Sporting Journal. Watch the film’s trailer at thewildfilm.com and like at business.facebook.com/thewildfilm.

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