Few outsiders know Southwest Alaska as intimately as Robert Glenn Ketchum. Remote and vast, the region has limited roadways, requiring planes and boats to explore. It’s also home to several national and state parks, wildlife reserves, complex ecosystems and the largest salmon fishery in the world, Bristol Bay, which supplies half of the global sockeye salmon catch.
“There’s Katmai, a national park; there’s Lake Iliamna, one of largest freshwater lakes in the world; there’s Lake Clark, a national park; there’s Togiak National Wildlife Refuge; there’s Wood-Tikchik, the largest state park in North America. They’re all there, and they’re all going to get [expletive] up if you put this mine in there.”
The proposed mine to which Ketchum refers is known as Pebble Mine. If permitted, it would be the largest open-pit mine in North America, potentially as large as two miles wide and two thousand feet deep, in a terrain Ketchum describes as, “Saturated at surface level. You draw water by stepping on the soil. Dig down 2,000 feet, and the walls of this pit mine are going to look like a waterfall.”
In the context of the immense, pristine landscape of Southwest Alaska, the mine proposed by Northern Dynasty Minerals, a Canadian company, might seem relatively small. “Unfortunately,” Ketchum explains, “to make a mine that big, and to maintain it, the footprint goes way beyond that,” referring to the pit itself. “The next part of the footprint would be the road and all of the hauls that have to occur to move the ore, and all the air pollution that’s created by doing it.”
Then there’s powering the mine. “It would use more electricity than the entire city of Anchorage. And they’ve [Northern Dynasty] said, ‘You don’t have to build us any infrastructure though, because there’s coal on-site, so we’ll mine it and burn it to generate our own electricity.’”
Ketchum continues, “So now because of the coal burning you’ve got mercury pollution in the air and in the water coming right in to the Bristol Bay fishery, and it’s spreading out across the entire landscape. The footprint is getting bigger and, wait, we’re not finished. This mine is flooding continuously and it’s continuously being pumped out, and all of that’s toxic because it’s got iron oxides in it, it’s got the injection materials that are used, it’s got the [residue from] the explosives used, so you end up with these huge toxic pools.”
To make the scene relatable, Ketchum references a recent story in the Los Angeles Times reporting that thousands of migrating snow geese had died after landing in toxic pools from a former open-pit copper mine, Berkeley Pit in Montana.
“Berkeley Pit is a couple hundred yards across. I’ve photographed it extensively,” says Ketchum. “It’s not that big; they have air radar, beeping horns and everything else, and it still wasn’t enough to drive the birds off. This mine [Pebble Mine] would have 20 square miles of open pits—20 square miles. That’s like a small inland sea. That’s bigger than the Salton Sea [in California] of open pits. They’ll be deep enough that the earthen dam works containing them will be larger than the Three Gorges Dam in China. And, you’re doing this on the Pacific Flyway in the middle of a complete wilderness, so you have wolves, moose, caribou, marten, lynx, eagles and a hundred million birds on the Pacific Flyway who will think those [open pits] are lakes. So, unless you’re going to build screens over them, or stadiums around them to keep everything out, you’re going to kill anything that comes near them. You could, in fact,” Ketchum concludes, “damage the entire Pacific Flyway. And the end result of the mine, the waste left after the mine—who cleans that up? They [Northern Dynasty] go back to Canada and dump it on the American taxpayers. It becomes a Superfund site.”
The effort to stop the mine is one Robert Glenn Ketchum is uniquely equipped to join.
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Ketchum has spent most of his career as a photographer working tenaciously for conservation efforts, and Southwest Alaska is a chief beneficiary of his lens.
“When I graduated from UCLA,” he says, “I left rock-and-roll photography and came in to my career, which is grounded in the landscape. Rather than just making beautiful images in and of themselves, I saw, in my generation, the politic of it, too. I reasoned that if I was going to do this as a profession, I wanted to do it as a profession of responsibility and not one out of narcissism. Instead of having just another monograph about Robert Ketchum, I wanted to write about the Tongass rain forest or the Cuyahoga Valley. I wanted to write about places where you could make stuff happen.”
His first opportunity to create effect through his work was his Hudson River project, which resulted in the book, The Hudson River & the Highlands, published by Aperture in 1985. The success of the book as an advocacy tool convinced Aperture’s then-publisher Michael Hoffman to pursue new projects with Ketchum, the next of which, The Tongass: Alaska’s Vanishing Rain Forest (1989), marked the beginning of several decades of work Ketchum would do on behalf of Alaska.
The Tongass project was serendipitous. The Wallace Foundation, underwriter of the Hudson River book, was so impressed with Ketchum’s work, he was offered a new commission: Alaska. “What landscape photographer wouldn’t want to go to Alaska?” Ketchum asks. “But Alaska to me was, like, Denali.”
The Wallace Foundation’s interest was in bringing public attention to the clear-cut logging taking place in Alaska’s Inside Passage. The foundation explained that the region comprised the rarest rain forest in the world, unique for its proximity to the Arctic Circle. Ketchum confesses that, at the time, he was hesitant.
“At that point, I’m a backpacker—I hate rain. I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I don’t want to do this. I want to go to Alaska, but I don’t really want to go to a rain forest.’” Ultimately, the opportunity won, and he boarded a plane to Anchorage.
Disabused of the misconception that he might simply rent a car in Anchorage and drive to the Tongass—not possible—Ketchum was provided with a small cruise boat, courtesy of The Wallace Foundation, that would cater to him for the next 10 days, giving him access to places the foundation wanted him to experience and to photograph. “In those 10 days, I found myself wearing a full Helly Hansen rainsuit. It rained virtually every single day, and sometimes it rained five or six inches a day,” he recalls. After a few days, though, he began to adjust to the conditions and finally enjoy himself. When the ship charter ended, he took to kayaks and trails to explore deeper into the rain forest.
“And that was how it all began,” says Ketchum. “I’m in Alaska, I’m in a kayak that’s like an extension of my body, and I can go anywhere there’s water—up rivers, across lakes, I can paddle into incredible fiords—and it was like I was reborn.”
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By the end of the Tongass project, Alaska had captivated Ketchum. At the encouragement and invitation of friend Kenneth Leghorn, Ketchum joined the board of directors of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, and helped promote the foundation through photography and media campaigns. “That gave me an excuse to go up three times a year for board meetings,” he confides, which also afforded him opportunities to explore and photograph new locations.
At the time, Ketchum remembers, “I didn’t really have any projects, I just got involved with ACF campaigns. We were fighting to protect the North Slope from drilling, we were working with native villages about bycatch in the gulf and wasted fish being thrown overboard, and so those were the wide range of issues,” to which he contributed.
As Ketchum’s tenure on the ACF board was about to end, he was approached by a former board member, Jan Konigsberg, who had retired the year prior. “So what are you going to do when you leave the board?” he inquired of Ketchum.
“I don’t know, try to find another project in Alaska.”
“Do you fish?” he asked. “Yeah, sure, why?” replied Ketchum.
“You want to see some of the greatest fishing in the world, really world class, and it’s completely unprotected and nobody even knows it’s there? I think it’s going to become a battle zone, and I think it could be a great project for you. We’ll fly out there now if you want.” They left immediately for Bristol Bay.
“I’ll never forget this,” Ketchum says of the flight. “We came out of the clouds in this tiny little jet headed into the airport at Dillingham, and the landscape opened up underneath me, and in one easy glimpse, I could see three or four hundred lakes and eight or ten rivers and thousands of sidestreams.” Ketchum was awestruck by the sheer magnitude of Southwest Alaska. “How would I even photograph this much landscape, because it’s a huge area, it’s larger than the state of Washington.”
At the time, Pebble Mine had not yet been proposed, but there were petroleum leases in Bristol Bay. Ketchum decided that his next project would focus on protecting the bay and the salmon fishery on which the local and native communities depended. As he departed its board, he forged a partnership with ACF to use the project as a fundraising campaign, and with support from additional corporate sponsors, Ketchum began the work that would become his 2001 book, Rivers of Life: Southwest Alaska, the Last Great Salmon Fishery.
His next book on Southwest Alaska, Wood-Tikchik: Alaska’s Largest State Park (2005), was a natural extension of his work on Rivers of Life. “I had spent a lot of time in planes,” explains Ketchum. “Wood-Tikchik from the air is spectacular, and I had an inordinate amount of pictures in Wood-Tikchik that didn’t get in to the book,” referring to Rivers of Life.
“Wood-Tikchik was on press when they announced the Pebble Mine,” Ketchum recalls. “So, I took the best pictures from both books, and as I normally do to support the book campaigns, I bled the pictures together and created a ‘No Pebble Mine’ exhibit.” The exhibit intended to bring attention to the impact the mine would have, not only on the life-sustaining salmon fishery in Bristol Bay, but on the ecology of all of Southwest Alaska.
Ketchum’s photographs were also used to illustrate full-page ads opposing the project, placed by the Natural Resources Defense Council in major U.S. newspapers. At NRDC’s request, he sent books and a slideshow to President Obama, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. He sent the same slideshow to executives at Rio Tinto, one of the world’s largest mining concerns and a principal investor in the Pebble Mine project.
“The project will kill half the wildlife in Southwest Alaska and all the birds in the Pacific Flyway with their toxic ponds,” Ketchum asserted in the slideshow. “Three months later,” he reports, “Rio Tinto pulls out.”
In 2014, Alaskan voters passed the “Bristol Bay Forever” initiative, which requires state legislative approval for the mine project to proceed. The campaign also succeeded in convincing all three major investors in the mine—Mitsubishi, Anglo American and Rio Tinto—to abandon the project, leaving Northern Dynasty Minerals as a shell corporation without funding. In response, Northern Dynasty is suing the EPA, “But they have no investors,” Ketchum notes, “so they couldn’t build the mine even if they beat the EPA in court.”
Despite the apparent success of the campaign to stop Pebble Mine, the battle isn’t over, and Ketchum remains vigilant. As an artist, activist and a Founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, he’s frequently asked about his next project, to which he responds, “You know, we haven’t won this Pebble Mine thing yet, and I’m not going anywhere. I want to see this place protected, and all of my resources are directed at that.”
Advice For Exploring Alaska’s Southwest
Southwest Alaska is a paradise for hunters, sport fisherman and photographers alike. The immense, untouched wilderness is the source of the region’s allure, but also its challenge to would-be adventurers.
“There’s a reason a lot of people who go to Alaska take a cruise boat,” Ketchum says. “Everything’s answered for them; they don’t have to figure anything out by the seat of their pants.” The problem with this, Ketchum points out, is that you don’t see much from a cruise boat, so he doesn’t recommend that approach for photographers who want to truly experience Southwest Alaska. “The bottom line is, Alaska doesn’t really have an in-between. So, if you want to get off the cruise boat and get on the ground, you’re going to have to do some of this yourself.”
For the kind of access necessary to explore Southwest Alaska as Ketchum has, expect to charter planes and guides to get you from Dillingham to destinations like Katmai and Lake Clark. “Once you’re there, on the ground,” Ketchum advises, “you’ll see there are pilots advertising everywhere, and there are fishing charters going upriver. You can get a pilot who will fly you out over the entire territory, not just Katmai. None of these things is cheap. This is why common public tourism isn’t out there yet—tourism is growing, it’s just expensive.”
One path for photographers is to use services and facilities catering to sport fisherman. From his experience, “The fishing lodges are spectacular destinations, but they’re also killer expensive,” says Ketchum. “They run about $700 to $1,000 a day, and they’re usually a minimum of five days. However, having said that, if you think about this as a photographer and you’ve spent any time in Alaska, you know how much getting anything done in Alaska costs. When you go to one of these amazing lodges, you get picked up in Dillingham by private plane and flown out to the lodges. So, as a photographer you pay those fees, and you go in as a fishing client, and then you say, ‘I don’t need a [fishing] guide, I just want to fly with everybody on their way out and their way back. I just want as much airtime as you can give me, so just fly me out with each of your [fishing] groups.”
You might even get lucky and get a dedicated plane. On one trip, Ketchum got just that. “You would be hard-pressed to have a really good place to stay with three square meals a day and all the flying time you could pay for—for $1,000 a day—anywhere else in Alaska. For one flight from basecamp out in Denali, you could drop $700 just for that one flight and it’s only an hour long. You can fly all day staying with one of the lodges for the $1,000-a-day fee. That may sound like a lot of money, but when you look at what you’re getting for it as a photographer, it’s really not such a bad deal.”
Alternatively, there are roads out of Dillingham that lead up to the southern boundaries of Wood-Tikchik State Park. “You can drive to the southernmost shore of the southernmost lake, and then start accessing the lake chain through boats, so that’s another way to approach it.” While most of Southwest Alaska’s wildlands aren’t reachable by road, Ketchum notes, “There are plenty of places to drive to that are interesting, and in Katmai, there’s a bus trip you can do as a day trip that takes all day long, about a three-hour drive by bus—so you’re going to spend a good bit of time in a bus—but you end out in the Valley of Ten Thousand Smokes, which is a volcanic landscape that’s like no other place you’ve ever seen. It looks like the surface of Mars, and it’s so unlike the rest of the park, it’s like going to another place entirely. And, so, it’s like two parks in one—you’ve got this volcanic park up at the top, and you’ve got the rain forest and fishery down at the bottom, with all of the bears. Katmai is a really neat place, with walking trails and the infamous Brook Falls where everyone takes the ‘salmon jumping into the bear’s mouth’ photograph. Katmai is a destination that everyone knows, whether they realize they know it or not, and there are roads to drive and there are trails to walk, and it’s probably the simplest [park] to access.”
Another destination in Southwest Alaska that Ketchum recommends for road access is Lake Iliamna. Fly in to the city of Iliamna, which has its own airport, and from there, “You can drive 150 miles of road at Lake Iliamna, and go out into complete wilderness areas like Pedro Bay, put a kayak in the water, and go camp on the most fantastic little islands you’ve ever seen. Lease a kayak in Iliamna from one of the outfitting guides, and get them to drop it at the beach of your choice in Pedro Bay and have them pick you up at a designated time 10 days from then, and just take that kayak and go. So, anywhere that there’s an airport and a little hub of some kind, you can fly in there and figure that the fisherman and hunters have got it all figured out. You just need to get on the ground and start asking some questions.”
Ketchum generously welcomes anyone who’s serious about planning a trip to Southwest Alaska to contact him through his website, robertglennketchum.com, for advice.
Visit Robert Glenn Ketchum’s blog at rbtglennketchum.blogspot.com.