Bristol Bay, A Southern Perspective

                The legal term used to describe it was mineral rights. 

            The way it played out was like this.  A family would have a few acres in East Tennessee or Southeastern Kentucky with maybe one dwelling and a barn.  A representative for a coal company would show up and offer hard cash if the owner would sign over the mineral rights to his property.  In the poverty ridden condition that most of my ancestors lived, a city dude offering a couple of hundred dollars in cash for what might or might not be under the ground seemed like a no brainer.  A no brainer until a group from the company showed up and told these folks they had to leave because they had come to claim not what was on their property, but what was under their property.

            Mines bored deep cavernous holes in the hillside to extract the black gold that would become a defining element of my regions contribution to the industrial revolution.  With impunity these companies worked round the clock to pull ton after ton of coal from the land.  Many of these families stayed on in mining camps where they toiled six and sometimes seven days a week raping the land they used to own.

            One of the resounding effects the mines had on the region was not in what they pulled from underneath the land; it was the runoff of poisons that they polluted into the streams that flowed from the high country.  Streams that once were a water source and a provider of food ran orange and red; literally everything within them died.  Children were born with defects which were in part generated by mothers who were exposed to a myriad of caustics that invaded their bodies and in turn the bodies of their children as toxic levels of selenium, mercury, and arsenic seeped into the water table.

            The financial boon filled the pockets of many, but a very small percentage of them actually lived in the area.  Workers were paid in scrip, which were just tin tokens from which to buy from the company store which inflated the prices thereby increasing their profits as well.

            It took decades for this to be turned around, and in the area in which I grew up; its effects remain on a pilfered landscape, and a few streams which have yet to recover.  And it is quite possible that they will never recover.  Sometimes, the impact of industry on a landscape is too great a price to pay; it is too large a burden to risk.

            When the subject of the pebble mine in Alaska began to surface, I felt connected.  From an environmental standpoint, I saw here in Tennessee (albeit on a much smaller scale) what could happen there and was angered to the point of action.  Sometimes, and perhaps it could be argued most of the time, the best development or industrial progress is none at all.  There comes a time when we must evaluate financial gain against the strong backdrop of what would be lost.  In most cases what would be lost, is lost forever and triggers a chain of events that will impact much more than the particular region.

            Bristol Bay is a massive area that is primarily wild untouched country.  This area has been home to native Alaskan Tribes for millennia and is considered to be the largest fishery for sockeye salmon on the planet. Hundreds upon hundreds of miles in streams participate in the watershed through the Nushagak and Kvivhak rivers, and smaller streams such as the Napotoli and Stuyhok.

            The United States Environmental Protection Agency began a study on the area and how a pebble mine might impact it from an ecological and environmental perspective.  This was of utmost importance to the Alaskan native tribes who have entire cultures built around the lifecycle of the salmon that call the bay home.  The study intended to evaluate the development and mining of this area be its impact while in operation (which was estimated to be between twenty and one hundred years), and the recovery and maintenance of the area after the mine had closed.

            Personally, I have yet to visit Alaska, but from a distant perspective, to negatively impact a location where nearly half of the sockeye salmon in the world congregate with numbers going well above thirty million fish moving inshore to spawn is beyond a bad idea, it is criminal.  If you also take into account the other fish species that live there (lake trout, rainbow trout, Dolly Varden, grayling, pike), the sheer numbers of fish that would be effected staggers even the broadest of imaginations.  Try to wrap your mind around 200,000 rainbow trout in one watershed!

            The long term economic impact would be catastrophic as entire communities who, through commercial fishing and tourism, find their subsistence would find themselves with a dwindling fish population and a constantly growing demand as well as the ever upward costs of living.  There are families who have been in an economic relationship with Bristol Bay for hundreds of years.  To fish its waters for sustenance and financial gain is all they know.  To remove or reduce it would be to (in effect) kill entire villages.

            The E.P.A. assessment states that up to 94 miles of streams would be completely lost because of their location in relation to the mine footprint.  94 miles!  Can you imagine how many fish would just vanish forever?

            The E.P.A. report goes on to state that reduced food resources would result in the death of many streams outside the footprint due to the loss of organic material, a reduction in winter fish habitat and by nature of design, reduce or remove vital spawning areas.

            The blow that would be dealt to creatures such as the storied brown bear, or the bald eagle would also be irreparable.  A reduction in food, a reduction in habitat, and once again a reduction in the local economy and way of life.

            When do we say enough?  When do we finally realize that once a fragile thread like Bristol Bay is severed, it is highly likely that it will not be mendable?  When do we stand and say that not only is it a bad idea for the wildlife, it is a bad idea for the people?  When do we stop and take a position that does not approve in any shape, form, or fashion the potential health risks involved in a huge mining operation?  When do we finally realize that clean water impacts every person on this planet, and that wild places need to remain wild places?

            Hopefully, that time is now.


The Stream ( a story or perhaps parable )

Parson's Branch was an untouched run of water when Balcom set up his homestead.  From the first night, when all he had to his name was a deed from the bank in Asheville, and a canvas tent from his time with Roosevelt in the war, he knew he had found home.  Fifty and two tenths acres lay out before him in all directions, and all of it belonged to him. He walked into the bank, laid down hard money that he had been saving for years and walked out a man of property.  And as each day passed, and with each improvement he made on the place, his soul and the spirit of this wild North Carolina country became indistinguishable one from the other.

Through the middle of the property ran Parson's Branch, named after a Presbyterian missionary who came down here from Boston to teach the natives about Jesus.  The story goes that the Parson was doing a bang up job and actually had build a brush arbor church with regular attendees, but he soon fell head over hills in love with the Chiefs daughter.  He asked for her hand, the Chief said no, they tried to run away and were caught somewhere along the creek.  She was brought back to the village but the parson was never seen again.

Parson Branch ran so clear that on some days, when the water was still, it looked as though it were just an empty rock trail, and the trout with their bright orange and white fins seemed to hover midair over the bottom.  Balcom drank from this branch, drew water to wash and cook from it, fished in it, and on occasion would swim in the deepest of the pools that gathered near the bottom of the hill from his cabin.  It was his place of provision and peace.

Months past and by the time the leaves began swirling like golden and red dancers in the wind he had built a modest cabin, a smoke house, and had just finished gleaning the final vegetables from his garden.  Life was clean and simple, his dream had become a reality, and the pristine water ran day and night with a soft song that kept him company on even the darkest of days.

It was around this time that the stranger arrived.  A dapper looking gent, clothed in the finest outdoor gear money could buy, his hair was trimmed neat and the curls at the end of his mustache were acutely waxed.  Balcom knew of his presence long before his eyes located him as the squat man stumbled and bulled his way through the brush along the branch.

"Heelllllooooo!", the gent called as he came up the hill from the water to where Balcom stood in his doorway.

Balcom nodded, never taking his eyes off the face of this stranger.

"The name is Gephart Cole, and my associates and I just purchased the one hundred acre tract just upstream from you.  Thought I would come by and introduce myself."

He stepped onto the porch and extended his hand.  Balcom shook it and as his calloused hand wrapped around the Coles, it felt to him as if he were holding the belly of one of the specks that swam in the crystal water below.


"Yes, we have a company called The Richmond Mineral Company and our business is acquiring property that holds a greater financial interest that just what is on the surface.  You might say that we don't deal with the land as much as we deal with what the land holds."

Balcom said nothing.

"I have come here today to offer you a very generous financial offer for your property.  The interests my company has here extend beyond just our land but yours as well.  If you would allow me to come in and sit down with you I would love to lay out a financial plan that I am sure you would find most lucrative."

"I ain't interested."

"But sir, you have not even seen the monetary figure we are willing to lay at your feet just for this tract of dirt.  I am sure that after seeing it you would agree that to refuse would be foolish."

"I said, I ain't interested."

Balcom stepped forward so that the gent had no choice but to step off the porch.

(to be continued...)


...and not a drop to drink


The most important ingredient to everything living.  Plants, fish, people, soil...you name it.  And though certain situations will produce condensation or perhaps a scientist can "make it rain" in a lab somewhere, but what is produced really isn't new.  What they are doing is in effect recycling what is already hear.  There is no new water.

And what humanity is doing with the highest of resources (and perhaps I should include air), is poisoning it at an alarming rate.  The recycling of our water from liquid, up to the atmosphere, and back to earth is unable to keep up with its contamination on the ground and as it passes into the atmosphere through God knows what.

We are generating poison.

As you no doubt are well aware, I fish the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and as I stand there looking at a stream that appears pristine, I have also seen great changes that would go unnoticed by the casual viewer.  I see acid levels on a steady incline.  I catch fish from time to time with odd sores on their sides.

The whole thing is freaking scary.

If you want to see the world erupt into a blind panic, imagine what will happen when there is no more fresh water.  Imagine just how many things will be in dire straights.

Think about the pollution in our current water table. Chemicals that would burn your skin off if not diluted to a degree, or perhaps residual poisons from the clouds.  Now, think about that same water being used by your food provider for his or her vegetables.  It might be diluted to a massive degree, but over the course of a lifetime, just how much of that poison are you putting into your body?

And then, to return this post to the focus of this blog, what about the fish. 

The whole ball of wax is melting at a rapid pace.

As I watched the Governor of West Virginia telling folks that all is well, I saw a degree of fear in his eyes and wondered to myself just how "safe" are the current levels of pollution in the site of massive amounts of poison dumped into a vital and primary water source.  Ten years from now, what will the health condition be of those who were told that all is well?

In the coming days, I plan to address this issue in detail.

Stay tuned.


An Angler Undone

A question was asked of me today of which I thought I knew the answer, but upon further introspection, I suspect that perhaps I need to reset my footing.  A friend asked me today why exactly it was that I fly fish and why it was that I do not keep the very thing that I spend so much time and effort to get in my net?  I gave him what I suspect would be considered an answer gleaned from the liturgy of the angler, an answer that contained all the right keywords to at least insinuate that I knew what I was doing.  I am writing a book about it for goodness sake, so my answer came forth without any forethought.  Not because of any rehearsal, but because I have conversed enough, I have read enough, and perhaps on some levels I have written enough so that I have all the right words.  But a wise man once said to me, "If your words and your actions do not match, no one will believe a word you say".

I used all the key phrases that would get the approving nod from my contemporaries.  Words like, challenge,
nature, peace, wild places, clean water, skill, beauty, conservation.  All of these, or at least some of these will appear in literally every published volume on the sport, which would justify, in effect, that what I was saying was correct.  But just because you say the right things, you are not granted membership into those who "get it".  Many are the folk who have all the accouterments of the sport-the right gear, the right look, the proper technique yet they seem somewhat empty.  I suppose it is the empty ones who do not last very long in the sport.  As a matter of fact, I have a couple of friends who dove into the deep end, bought all the gear, but when there was nothing left to buy, they found that it wasn't the sport they were interested in at all.

So what makes me a true angler?  If I were to remove the nice gear and replace it with the worst possible equipment-would I still hold the passion?  If I were to be dropped into a situation where the only place I had to cast a fly were to bluegill in an algae laden farm pond-would I still hold the passion?  If I had never started this blog or stepped out as a writer of fly fishing- would I still hold the passion.  If all the key words and catch phrases were removed from my rather limited vocabulary- would I still hold the passion?

In all honesty, after much introspection, the answer would be yes.  You see, as far as a great...or even good fly fisherman...I am at a loss.  More times than not my cast is not pretty and if I am in the water for more than three hours it is a certainty that I will manage to create a mess of my leader that would be in league with the Rubik's Cube in difficulty to repair.  I am often quite clumsy as I wade, and the biggest fear I have in life is drowning.  My flies are not pristine, and my selection looks more mutant than even an attractor pattern might imply.  As a fly fisherman, I am just about as undone as you will find.

Therefore, without an abundance of skill and a limited perspective, I am faced with a burning question

imposed upon me innocently enough by a curious companion.  Why exactly do I fly fish?  And to answer in as simple a way as I know how, the answer comes to me without having to dig very deep at all.

I cannot even try to imagine myself NOT being one.

This sport is as much a part of me as my next breath, much as a runner with his or her next stride.  The great race horse Secretariat was said to have a heart larger than is common for a horse.  Larger heart meant an incredible blood flow and an expanded capacity to do that which it was born to do.  I can see myself in no less of a term.

If you fish with me, it is a near certainty that you will outfish me.  I know this to be so because of the number of times it has actually occurred.  For me the epic day is nothing more than blind luck.  I can read the water well thanks in great part to Tom Rosenbauer.  I can understand the methodology of fly selection, casting, and most other things that encompass a day in the water.  But all the information in the world will not make you a great angler.  There comes a time when skill must take over...and in that department I am most lacking.

Yet I continue to frail about, stumble, make messes, and admire those of whom I spend time on the water.  I get so frustrated at times with myself that I curse under my breath at the bad luck or bad technique, yet the very next opportunity I have to fish, I will be there playing the role of jester in my own court again.  Not because I am a glutton for punishment and self degradation.  It is because I am a fly fisherman, and I cannot help but do that which I have found to be a very large part of me.  Tangles and all.