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STORY BEHIND THE IMAGE: The River Wild

200809025334cr2-2_blogNikon D3 / 17-35mm f/2.8 lens / ISO 200 / 1/1000th sec / f/5.6

Sitting in my inflatable kayak, the Chilikadrotna River carried me swiftly, helplessly, and directly toward a 10-foot, 500-pound grizzly bear standing mid-current.

“Bear! Bear! Bear!” my friend Dan Duane yelled behind me. “Fucking paddle, Corey! Paddle! Paddle!”

Right or left? I didn’t know which way. I was frozen by fear and indecision, two attributes that don’t get you very far in wild, grizzly-infested places like Alaska. The river pushed me faster and faster toward the jaws and claws that would surely be the end of me.

As someone who has logged 300 days traveling on assignment over the course of many a single calendar year, one of the foremost questions I get asked is what locations are on my must-visit list.

My first reaction, without hesitation, is my home: Lake Tahoe. One should always love where they live, and I happen to think Tahoe is one of the most amazing, geographically diverse places—with great climbing, biking, skiing and weather—that I’ve ever experienced. Not to mention the fact that I get to enjoy all of that with my best friends and family, too.

Alaska, however, easily comes next. It’s amazing that Alaska is even part of the United States. It is one of the few remaining places on earth that allows you the opportunity to go back 150 years to experience wild, untamed nature on its most primal, real level.

Several years ago I had the opportunity to team up with my buddy, the great writer and author Dan Duane, for an assignment for Men’s Journal. The story we were working on was an exposé of a proposed gold and copper mine right at the edge of Lake Clark National Park, one of Alaska’s great wildernesses. The site was alleged to hold a half-trillion dollars worth of precious metals, one of the biggest strikes of the last century, but mining it would require constructing (on BLM land) the largest open-pit mine in North America. In addition, dams would have to be built to hold back 10 square miles of chemical waste. The mine’s proximity next to a stunning protected wilderness had created one of the toughest environmental controversies our country has ever faced.

Lake Clark is also important because it’s one of the largest sustainable spawning areas for salmon. The lake and its network of rivers don’t just provide us humans with our daily dose of proteins and omegas in the form of delicious sockeye, but they are absolutely vital to the local ecology.

Our story was two-pronged in that we would be covering the controversy as well as spending five days floating down the Chilikadrotna River with a few Alaskans, including a biologist who is one of the most prominent fisheries scientists in the state. A combo environmental/adventure story with a great team that also included Dan Oberlatz, owner of Alaska Alpine Adventures, a backcountry guide service. Oberlatz was our gracious host. His love for this region was infectious and he was here to show us what we stood to lose should the mine, called the Pebble Mine, went forward.

Oberlatz has a great personal story. He lived in Lake Tahoe, coincidentally, for many years as a ski bum and climber. But he transplanted north after his first taste of Alaska. One season there and he was hooked. He fell in love with the mountains, got married, had kids and created for himself a business and lifestyle in which he gets to call this supreme wilderness his backyard.

As such an unpopulated, undeveloped state, Alaska requires specific means of travel. The reality is that with so few roads, Alaskans fly little Cessna planes from location to location the way we, down in the Lower 48, might drive to work. Whether landing on a river or lake, dirt landing strip or glacier, the Alaskan commute to work is one to be envied.

Though Dan Duane and I might not consider ourselves city slickers (even though Dan lives in San Francisco), coming to Alaska from California required adjusting to a new lifestyle. It took days for us just to get to the headwaters. We took a big 747 to Anchorage. From there, we jumped from one Cessna to another over several days to reach Twin Lakes, the headwaters of the Chilikadrotna River.

By the time we were on the river, I think Dan and I were both feeling quite antsy. After all, we are used to our routines back home: healthy eating, going to the gym, working out—all on a tight schedule, too.

Once on the river, we paddled like we were trying to achieve a new personal record in a CrossFit class. And it was within those first few overly energetic minutes that I found myself about to ram my kayak into a 500-pound grizzly.

“Go left, Corey! Paddle! Paddle!” Dan screamed behind me.

I paddled hard to the left. But fortunately, the bear had probably never seen humans before in its life and was twice as scared of me as I was of it. The bear darted out of the river and scampered into the tall grass.

From that point on, Dan and I vowed to stay right beside Dan Oberlatz, who kept a loaded .44 Magnum secured on a hip holster for this exact reason.

Why was it important for us to cover this story by way of rafting down the Chilikadrotna River? We could’ve just as easily chartered a helicopter, and viewed the proposed mining site and beautiful wilderness from a safe distance in the air. It would’ve been easier—not to mention gotten us back to our routines and regimens back home in California more quickly.

The obvious answer, of course, is you need to be close to nature, immersing yourself in the medium, to experience it fully. It’s an old Edward Abbey philosophy: when you’re sweating, and there’s dirt on your face, bee stings on your arms, and your heart is beating like a drum—those are the moments when you actually appreciate the place you’re in: When you experience it in a way that pushes your own personal threshold.

Freedom means that our lives are ours to create and define however we want. To be engaged by challenge, uplifted by beauty, and rewarded by knowledge and meaning is what it’s all about. That this state takes so many interesting expressions around the world is one of the most solid reasons I can think of to travel. And when you do, absolutely dive headfirst into that stunning new lifestyle.

We not only got to experience this raw Alaskan wilderness, but we also got to experience the lifestyles of people like Dan Oberlatz, whose commute to work is by Cessna, and whose gym is the rivers and mountains of this great outdoors.

Today, the Pebble Mine is still a proposal, and still a hotly debated controversy. But what I learned on this trip is that the guy who goes to a beautiful place like Alaska, and immerses himself in that reality by nearly ramming his boat into a grizzly, is going to have a much different appreciation for this place than the guy behind the desk, who might see more value in concrete dollar signs than something as abstract as wilderness, something on which you can’t put a dollar sign. Something that can only partially be captured on paper and through photos.

So, get as close to these kinds of environments as you can. And bring your camera, too. Those images you capture will naturally lead to the appreciation and engagement we need to conserve these rare, wild places.

Comments

  1. I’ve long known about the Pebble Mine and its controversy. But this little story really helped personalize the place for me, even from afar. Thanks for that!

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