Where Water Is Gold

Carl Johnson photographs life and livelihood in Alaska’s Bristol Bay
bristol bay
The source of all wealth in Bristol Bay, Alaska, is its undisturbed water—rivers, lakes and ocean, providing life and livelihood for the region’s fish, wildlife and people.

What is wealth? Money, mansions and material possessions? For most people who live in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, the answer is none of the above. Instead, they define wealth as a freezer full of wild salmon, moose and berries. The cultural knowledge to fish, hunt and gather food. Family and community.

All of these things are made possible by water, the source of all wealth in Bristol Bay. A recent book by Alaska photographer Carl Johnson, Where Water is Gold: Life and Livelihood in Alaska’s Bristol Bay, features the rich abundance of a natural landscape unimpaired by pollution, extensive roads or dense civilization.

“The book celebrates the connections between people and a wild place,” says Johnson. “I chose to tell the story of Bristol Bay through the lives of its people because most of us relate to a place by learning about those who live there.”

To make images for his book, Johnson spent time with many people—fishermen in the summer, hunters in the winter, bear viewers, anglers, berry pickers and more. He was struck by the rich knowledge that folks in the region have of where and when things like salmon, moose and edible plants will be available.

Johnson grew up in South Dakota, yet never lived anywhere long enough to develop a connection to a place because his military family moved often. He entered the Navy after high school and served as a photographer documenting the shipboard way of life and cultures encountered abroad. He attended college in Minnesota, which led to two summers of guiding backcountry expeditions in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Encountering moose, harvesting wild edible plants and falling asleep to the haunting cries of loons, he came to know a place for the first time. It was here where he focused his camera on nature.

wild cranberries bristol bay
A Dena’ina Athabascan elder sorts wild cranberries picked from the tundra. Most of the residents of Bristol Bay fish, hunt and gather their food from the wild.

It was also here where he encountered threats to a place that had fostered in him a deep connection to wild country. At the time, there was a push to open the wilderness area to motorized access. In the ensuing public debate, the young Johnson saw firsthand the power of photographs to influence the public and decision makers. Photographer Jim Brandenburg, a Minnesotan regarded for his conservation values, used his images to draw attention to the issue. Reading the works of Sigurd Olson, a renowned Minnesotan author who used his words to extol the values of wilderness, further deepened Johnson’s conservation education.

“The photographers I looked up to included Eliott Porter, Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell and others,” says Johnson. “It wasn’t just their work that I admired; it was how they used their work for conservation.”

He went on to law school, specializing in environmental law and federal Indian law. He landed in Anchorage, Alaska, and practiced law for a decade. His work included a legal case challenging the proposed Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, which, if built, would be one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. A massive deposit of gold, copper and molybdenum sits near the headwaters of two of the world’s most important watersheds for salmon. Mineral extraction on the scale proposed threatens the water, and thus the fish, wildlife and way of life for the people of the region.

“Every one of the 30 or so villages is located on water—the coast, a river or a lake,” he says. “Water is gold in Bristol Bay—salmon habitat, riparian plants for moose, commercial salmon fishing and tourism in the form of sport fishing and wildlife viewing.”

Best known for its abundant salmon, Bristol Bay is the source of 50 percent of the world’s commercially harvested wild sockeye. Anglers flock here to catch enormous rainbow trout nourished by salmon. And some of the best brown bear viewing in nearby Katmai National Park takes place when salmon are spawning. The local Yup’ik, Athabascan and Alutiiq cultures were and continue to be built by salmon, an important source of nourishment for both body and soul.

“When an elder eats the first fresh salmon of the season, he’s not just satisfying hunger. He’s tasting the connection to the land and water of his ancestors and his children,” says Johnson. “This way of life is unique in our country and the world, and should be allowed to continue.”


Where Water is Gold: Life and Livelihood in Alaska’s Bristol Bay is the recipient of an Independent Publisher Book Award. Learn about Carl Johnson’s work in Bristol Bay at wherewaterisgold.com, and see more of his photography at arcticlight-ak.com.

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