Saving What’s ‘Wild’ In Bristol Bay
The following appears in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRIS COCOLES
I. THE DOUBTS
Mark Titus got off the plane in Dillingham with lots of jelly beans – “my little comfort go-to sugar fix,” he says – lots of camera equipment and lots of figurative baggage besides his own literal baggage.
It was July 2017 and Titus was headed to Bristol Bay to work on a follow-up film to his 2015 documentary The Breach(Alaska Sporting Journal, May2015). But he was also returning to Alaska less than two months removed from a stint in rehab from alcohol abuse. As he mentions in the film,Titus had fallen into despair from a string of family tragedies.
Now he was trying to keep himself together and make his newest film,this one focusing solely on the looming Pebble Mine Project,its potential impact on Bristol Bay’s people and salmon and the fight to stop its construction.
“I won’t lie; I was scared …MakingThe Wild was an exercise in listening to the universe, as I didn’t want to get on a plane and go to Bristol Bay in the first place,” Titus says. “And something outside of me kept pushing me to get on the plane, literally, to leave Seattle. I told my wife that morning that I didn’t think I could do it. ‘What if I relapse?’ ‘What if 1,000 things went wrong?’ And something just told me I had to go.”
II. THE PASSION
One of Titus’ first interviews was to be with local commercial set net fisherman Ole Olson. One problem with that? Titus wasn’t exactly sure how to contact him. He had a Montana area code cell number for him, but service can be spotty in isolated Bristol Bay. So finding the guy seemed problematic.
“I got out of the plane, turned to get my bag and ran headlong into this giant man’s chest. And it was Ole Olson. Like, no sh*t,” Titus says with a laugh. “So all the questions I had up until that point: How am I going to get where I need to go? What am I going to eat and where am I going to stay tonight? And where am I going to find Ole? All of a sudden there he is – as the bay magically does, it produced him out of thin air.”
Olson offered Titus a dinner invitation and the use of his Nushagak Point cabin. This was kind of the cathartic moment that someone as vulnerable as Titus was back then desperately needed. The passion for the waters he makes a living on made Olson one of several locals whom Titus collaborated with to make this film. 0thers ranged from fishing lodge owner Nanci Morris Lyon to Alaska Native subsistence setnetter Alannah Hurley, who offered a searchlight to Titus when he was coming off so many dark days.
“There is something that is driving these folks to do this. It’s not just a job, not just a means of an income, it’s not just something to tell tall tales around the campfire about,” Titus says. “There is a deep-seated love for this land, this water and this miraculous fish that brings life itself back when it returns to the ocean. It motivates everything they do. It motivates them to pass it on to the next generation.”
III. THE TRADITIONS
Hurley, executive director of the United Tribes of Bristol Bay and part of a multi-generational fishing family, provides some of The Wild’s most poignant moments.
“Some things do not have a price tag. Some things are not for sale … We draw strength from this amazing place that the creator has given us. So I think myself, like many people from here …,” Hurley says in the film before covering her face with her hands. “I just get super emotional, because when I think about what my grandmother went through, what her mom went through or her mom went through … to make sure that we continue to exist here.”
Titus did his best to keep a straight face himself during his face-to-face meetings with those who fear their livelihoods are at stake if they end up sharing Bristol Bay with a large copper and gold mine facility.
“You take a lot of that drama and that feeling of love and that feeling of what’s at stake, internally,” Titus says. “They made me more aware, awake and empathetic toward what’s at stake for the people who do live there year-round.”
IV. THE CELEBRITY ACTIVIST
For TV viewers, actor Adrian Grenier will forever be known as Vincent Chase in HBO’s iconic series Entourage, about four young New York friends who drive the fast lane together in Hollywood, where Grenier’s Chase becomes a sudden acting star.
But in real life Grenier is nothing like he and his cocky friends running amok in fictional Tinseltown. Instead, he’s become a dedicated environmental activist who has crusaded for protecting whales and eliminating plastic straw use. So when Titus was hired to help shoot a public service announcement for one of Grenier’s causes, he returned the favor by appearing in The Wild.
“He was incredibly thoughtful and generous with his time,” Titus says. “We’ve been in touch and working on getting him on one of our virtual panels during a screening.”
V. THE MINERS
The Wild not only provides a voice for those who feel the Pebble Mine is a potential threat to what’s considered the world’s last great wild sockeye salmon run. Pebble Partnership CEO Tom Collier and chairman of the board John Shively are also prominently featured after other mining supporters had declined to appear in The Breach. The director finds it ironic that Collier had more screen time
than anyone else in the final cut. And he had a lot to say, exuding confidence that his proposed mine won’t experience malfunctions of any kind.
“And we’re pretty confident in that,” Collier tells Titus in their meeting at the partnership’s Anchorage headquarters. “If there was a cataclysmic incident, it would have an impact on .02 of 1 percent of salmon. We don’t think there’s a risk, OK. This (calculation) is if there’s a catastrophic accident of some type. So I don’t want people to think that we’re going into this accepting this as a risk.”
In all fairness, Titus found both of the Pebble executives “incredibly hospitable.” (After their interview concluded, Shively helped carry Titus’s filming gear back to his car.)
“These are people talking to people, and in this time of bitter divisiveness, we can use a little bit more of that,” Titus says.
“At the end of the day, what it really boils down to is these are people – human beings just like me – who have very real objectives in their lives, and we have a very different viewpoint on the way Bristol Bay’s future should go. But I was very grateful to at least capture their thoughts and their perspective on what their vision of Bristol Bay’s future should be, even though I don’t agree with them.”
VI. THE FISHING ACTOR
Titus was grateful multiple celebrities lended their voices to his new film. Besides Grenier, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard and Top Chef personality Tom Colicchio, longtime movie and television actor Mark Harmon, currently starring on popular show NCIS, was interviewed by Titus in Los Angeles.
“I was particularly interested in working with Mark because of his apolitical appeal,” Titus says. “Across the United States everyone likes his show – red, blue, it doesn’t matter. And that’s what we’re looking for here.”
Harmon and some buddies once enjoyed an epic fishing trip in the Bristol Bay region, and now every year he offers up smoked wild salmon to friends and family around the holidays, a tradition that’s now more than a quarter of a century old.
“We have messed up every other natural (salmon) run in the world, except this one,” the former UCLA quarterback and Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominee says in the film. “This being the last there is, it makes me want to pay attention.”
At the end of their interview Harmon asks Titus, “What more can I do?”
Titus then invited Harmon to go back to Bristol Bay and fish there again.
So during a break in Harmon’s hectic TV filming schedule, he joined Titus and his wife Wenche during the Nushagak River’s king salmon derby.
In a plot twist, Wenche ended up catching the biggest salmon, and Harmon made it a point to poke a little fun at the filmmaker’s expense when he wasn’t landing any fish.
“She kicked both Harmon’s and my ass,” Titus says of his wife.
At the same time, the two Marks bonded throughout their week together in Alaska. Harmon’s family has also endured substance abuse issues, so he and Titus had a spiritual connection.
“When I leveled with him and was very vulnerable about my own situation, it really kind of opened the doorway between us,” Titus says. “We spoke very honestly and openly about the things that matter.”
VII. THE PRESIDENT’S SONS
Nancy Morris Lyon, owner and operator of Bear Trail Lodge (907-246-2327; beartraillodge.com) on the Naknek River in King Salmon, offered a glimmer of hope during a most divisive time in the political arena.
The Environmental Protection Agency under President Donald Trump has made it a point to try and accelerate the mine’s permitting process. Still, Morris Lyon shared a fascinating subplot in the film. She hosted Trump’s outdoors-loving sons Donald Jr. and Eric for a Bristol Bay fishing adventure.
“I really enjoyed my time with them,” Morris Lyon says in the film. “They loved their time here. And I would certainly hope that President Trump would take to heart the memories that they gleaned here … I’m going to have faith in them to know that they will get it right and allow us to make sure that what we have for an ecosystem and environment around here can maintain in its current form. Otherwise they won’t be able to share it with their grandchildren and great grandchildren.”
For his part, Titus says he appreciated Morris Lyon’s transparency when sharing her story about hosting the sons of a commander in chief who seems to be very pro-Pebble Mine. He calls the longtime lodge owner and fishing guide a dear friend and an ally in their shared passion for protecting Bristol Bay’s salmon.
In terms of how much influence Donald Jr.’s and Eric’s experience will have on their father’s policies, Titus says he isn’t holding his breath.
“But it can’t hurt anything for one heart to another heart, one human to another human who has experienced things bigger than themselves, to inject that into the current debate at a bigger political level. It’s a much better thing for those guys to have done that and relate that experience to their father than not.”
And what about that November 3 election date? Will the results dictate what happens next?
“No question. I just unequivocally think it’s very clear that there’s just one choice moving forward for Bristol Bay,” Titus says. “And that is not to vote for the current administration, because we know in the last four years this current administration has fast-tracked the Pebble permitting process. That’s just data.”
VIII. THE ARTISTS
Artwork has played a part in both of the Titus’s salmon films. Ketchikan-based painter Ray Troll’s salmon-inspired work is featured in The Breach.
“I’m first and foremost a fan of the artists. My very first piece of art – sorry, Ray, to do this to you – I bought a piece of his art called Midnight Run when I was 19 in Dillingham working in the cannery,” Titus says.
In The Wild, artist Zaria Forman talked about the landscapes of diminishing ice flows from around the world that she’s painted and how she has a soft spot for precious natural resources that are under siege.
And Titus sought out a Dillingham local named Apayo Moore, a member of the Yupik tribe (“I paint because I have a hard time talking,” the mom jokes). Moore’s paintings and murals depicting the natural resources to be found around the bay can be seen throughout Dillingham. Titus always appreciated the salmon motif in Moore’s work while in town.
“And then to get to meet her and see the depth of her soul and the work that she has endured to carry on the torch of her people’s traditional ways,” Titus says. “To me it was a miraculous gift to have her agree to participate in the film and share her heart and her artwork.”
IX. THE INSPIRATION
Steve Gleason, a Pacific Northwest native, Washington State University Hall of Fame football player, and longtime outdoorsman, was once a gritty NFL defensive back who is royalty in New Orleans, where as a member of the Saints his blocked punt in a Monday Night Football game spawned a statue titledRebirth, signifying the city’s recovery process post-Hurricane Katrina.
The 43-year-old Gleason, whose brother Kyle is a Bristol Bay fisherman and a friend of Titus, has ALS, is confined to a wheelchair and uses what’s known as speech-generating device technology with his eyes to speak. Titus met with Gleason, his wife Michel and their kids in New Orleans.
“Steve Gleason is a soul of fire and the kind of person that I want to have around my eternal table,” Titus says. “He’s got a different perspective on the world because of his lack of physical ability. He can see into the soul of things and see the things that endure and are worth fighting for. He knows that’s why he’s here and absolutely shines bright with every word that he’s got. Being able to interview him was a massive gift to me just to be able to meet him.”
Gleason shared his own Bristol Bay story – also chronicled in his powerful documentary, Gleason – from shortly after his initial ALS diagnosis almost 10 years ago. He and then-pregnant Michel made a 13,000-mile road trip that included touring Alaska and fishing while he still had use of his motor skills.
“I was losing the ability to cast a line, which, for someone who has enjoyed fishing their entire life, it was crushing,” Gleason says in The Wild. “I decided to give it one more cast. Incredibly, even miraculously, I snagged a glorious sockeye salmon. That salmon came through Bristol Bay.”
X. THE FUTURE
“Getting sober is not one a one-time event where you get a diploma and you move on; it’s a lifetime of recovery,” Titus says. “I just celebrated three years of sobriety on May 3, and during the course of recovery I have grown in ways that I didn’t think were possible.”
Just as someone with a drinking problem is more likely to use the term recovering rather than recovered, the Pebble Mine and Bristol Bay story is far from finished. The Army Corps of Engineers will release its much-anticipated and controversial Environmental Impact Statement on Friday, with most Pebble opponents expecting the report to offer the project’s support, though a final decision wouldn’t come until later this year.
At the end of his movie, Titus asks what can be done to ensure that this remarkable spot so full of sustainable life never goes away: “How we will bear the responsibility of this story’s ending? This story of what could be saved and how we will be held accountable for what will happen on our watch?”
And that’s what has both locals and concerned outsiders so stressed, so nervous, so unsure about the future. For Morris Lyon, Hurley, Olson and Moore, Bristol Bay represents their home, their careers and their family legacies. And the region has just as much of a lasting memory on visitors like Harmon and Gleason, maybe even a couple of Trump’s kids, if you dare to dream.
If Titus has learned anything about Bristol Bay – he refers to his friends there as his “salmon family” – it’s that it can be a stimulating place to many people for many reasons. But the specter of the proposed mine makes it feel like it won’t remain that way forever. The Wildcites the devastation of accidents at British Columbia’s Mount Polley mine and two Brazilian sites as painful what-if reminders.
Titus lives in Seattle, where salmon runs were once plentiful but are now a shell of their former selves due to a variety of human-caused damage. So despite the reassurances of Pebble’s Collier and Shively, it’s easy for him to be leery that the mine project supposedly poses zero threat to Bristol Bay salmon.
“So what it really boils down to is this: No matter how much Tom Collier assures me, you or anybody that they’re never going to have a dam failure, (that) they’re never going to have a problem with this project, he can’t back that up with any data at all – anymore than I can say this thing is going to wipe out the entire system, guaranteed,” Titus says.
“What we can say is that history has shown this is not a good idea – that every time human beings have come into salmon country to extract resources, the salmon have been left for dead. So essentially Tom Collier’s saying the same thing that my alcoholic self is saying: ‘This time it will be different.’” ASJ
Editor’s note: For more info and screening dates for The Wild, go to thewildfilm.com. Director Mark Titus is also founder and CEO of Eva’s Wild, which “provides three ways for people to take action that matters – by sourcing wild, wholesome foods; distributing evocative, inspirational media, and arranging passage to pristine, wild destinations.” See evaswild.com for more.