Homer Alaska - Business

Story last updated at 6:25 PM on Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Pair pedals, paddles for information

By Lindsay Johnson
Staff writer


Photo provided

Bjorn Olson and Kim McNett stand by the Kuskokwim River during their three-week paddle on it in June. The two worked with Ground Truth Trekking on the trip, which was designed to increase awareness about the Donlin Gold project.

There's more to Alaska than the internet lets on. Besides the fantastic fishing, majestic scenery and deluxe accommodations, the last frontier is richer, wilder and bigger than a person could understand through computer channels.

With so much unwritten and so great the cost of travel, even many Alaskans never get to experience much of the state they call home.

It takes some drive to venture off the highway, which is how two Homer residents recently wound up traversing southwest Alaska on their own power.

Bjorn Olson, a lifelong Alaskan, and Kim McNett, here 2 1/2 years from Washington state, started riding fat-tire bikes from Knik in March. They were destined for McGrath, 350 miles northwest along the Iditarod trail, where they would turn southwest and ride the frozen Kuskokwim River another 500 miles to the coast and Bethel.

Along the way they sought to A) have fun, B) see new territory, and C) learn what is going on with Donlin Gold.

The Donlin Gold site lies 13 miles north of the village of Crooked Creek, near the middle of the Kuskokwim River, on land owned by two Native corporations. Surface rights belong to the Kuskokwim Corporation and the Calista Corporation owns subsurface rights. Developers NovaGold and Barrik Gold U.S. Inc. say Donlin is in the top 1 percent of gold deposits worldwide, estimated to contain more than 30 million ounces. Within the next six years, they plan to permit and construct a 2-square-mile open pit mine to extract the refractory gold.

This operation will provide jobs for at least 20 years in an economically depressed area as it alters the physical and chemical landscape.

The refractory gold ore has high amounts of sulfur and mercury associated with it, which will be separated by crushing and leaching with chemicals, developers say. Tailings from that will be stored in a dam and require treatment in perpetuity, for which the project has proposed a $96.1 million reclamation bond. For reference, the bond for the smaller Red Dog mine is more than $300 million.

Though the issues are essentially identical to the Pebble project south and west of there, the Donlin Gold prospect hasn't had so much attention paid it.

"The implications are huge, the greater footprint will be huge, yet you don't hear many people talking about it. Bjorn first heard about it when he went out there (a few years ago) with his buddy, and did a winter bike trip on the Kuskokwim River," McNett explained. "He's pretty up on Alaskan politics and that's the first time he'd ever heard of it."

To learn more about what the mine would mean in the context of the place and people involved, Olson and McNett planned a human-powered excursion through the region, documenting impressions with an assortment of cameras and a small audio recorder.

They followed the steps, so to speak, of Seldovia residents Erin McKittrick and Bretwood Higman, who co-founded Ground Truth Trekking. The organization started in 2007 and is a now-501(c)3 nonprofit focused on illuminating places —mostly in Alaska— through self-powered expeditions and sharing experiences.

"Ground Truth Trekking is based on the belief that expeditions to see what's on the ground help us learn about important issues. We combine that 'ground truth' with 'researched truth,' using our scientific backgrounds along with our adventures to come up with something we hope will further the conversation about these issues in an entertaining and informative way," the Ground Truth website states.

The founders' trip from Seattle to the Aleutians five years ago, along with resulting slideshows, book and film, provided a chance to talk about far-flung places. McKittrick and Higman have done another major excursion since then, and have experimented with the idea of working with other adventurers to cover more ground, so to speak.

Higman said Olson's idea for the Donlin expedition, which he said had all the elements of a good trip, ignited a promising spark.

"The trip was really well-suited to looking at some of the complicated aspects of this project," Higman said.

Olson, a guide for Hallo Bay bear viewing, and McNett, whose primary occupation is in environmental education, describe themselves simply as outdoor enthusiasts.

"That's what we live for, doing trips locally, regionally," McNett said.

"We like to do these human-powered expeditions to the actual site to learn more about it and get attention from the public as well. It's kind of a strategy to open up a dialogue about what is going on out there."

The Donlin Gold mine will require a lot of energy to operate — about 10 billion cubic feet of natural gas per year, according to an estimate published in the Alaska Journal of Commerce.

Instead of constructing wind turbines and hauling 85 million gallons of diesel fuel up the river to power generators as initially proposed, developers are now exploring the idea of building a 325-mile-long natural gas pipeline from Cook Inlet paralleling the route of the Iditarod trail.

Besides being conveniently packed for biking, that trail allowed Olson and McNett to interact with the people who would see the pipeline the most.

They encountered a range of people and opinions along the trail, from residents who'd like to be able to tap into the pipeline to those who fear it will scare the game away or destroy the iconic trail.

As with the original Ground Truth trekkers, McNett and Olson strive to be educators rather than advocates, students rather than preachers.

"I wasn't out there to change people's minds or advocate for no development. It was important for us to engage people on the issues when it comes to the mine," McNett said. "We wanted to find out information about the issue, hear people's opinions, record it, finish our route."

After nine days in the saddle, McNett and Olson flew out of McGrath, postponing the river section of the journey until June, when McNett's strained knee would be healed and the water flowing.

"It really ended up being a good intermission," she said of the unplanned break in the expedition.

In the first part of the journey, she said, "the chapter of the power that was our bike trip, we were really able to engage people in that setting of how will this impact the trail. The second portion was water. A lot of our questions centered around how the mine will impact this watershed. So, we were actually able to float on the water and see people subsistence gathering their salmon."

When they started again in June, McNett and Olson flew from Anchorage's Merrill Field to Nikolai with packrafts instead of bikes. They spent the next three weeks floating down the Kuskokwim, where they witnessed the role of that water, for better and for worse, in the lives of the people there.

They saw people fishing and moving along the river. At Crooked Creek, the wake of destruction from the breakup flood in May was still evident, as was the gratitude residents felt for Donlin's help during the disaster.

As with the first leg of the trip, Olson and McNett found some communities to be more supportive of the Donlin development while others were far more skeptical.

While the travelers found most people welcoming, the locals were generally hesitant to state their positions on film.

"It's not going to be a shallow interaction when you jump in with an issue like Donlin," Higman said.

McNett and Olson are planning a follow-up trip to collect more voices for the documentary they aim to produce.

"Hopefully people at that point maybe understand who we are and what our mission is. I think that people maybe thought of us as a threat, they thought we were with some conservation organization or had an agenda so were kind of skeptical of us," McNett said.

"We just think it's important that people know about it."

In the meantime, the search for "ground truth" continues. Human interactions combined with wilderness challenges make a reason to have a conversation, about acid mine drainage, for example, or rural economics, jack-up rigs, coal and corporate philanthropy.

"There's a lot you can get by Googling, but not everything," Higman said.

To read more about the Donlin Creek expedition, visit www.groundtruthtrekking.org/Journeys/Donlin.html.

For information about Donlin Gold, visit www.donlingold.com.

Lindsay Johnson may be reached at lindsay.johnson@homernews.com.