Note: Paperback includes map, Kindle digital version does not, suggest getting map below.
Down in Southeast Alaska, in the Misty Fjords National Monument, a deep, many armed canyon winds back into the wilderness, the Boca de Quadra. Once, as in many Alaska bays, there were a couple of buildings on pilings where salmon were canned or salted; today only the pilings remain.
In more recent years pretty much just a single boat worked winters in there and nearby bays, a 58 footer, the Alsec, using pots to catch shrimp from the deep clean waters. These were called spot prawns, nice big ones; the crew had a blast freezer on board, and they’d clean and freeze the catch, and every ten days or so, run back into Ketchikan, and put the prawns on the southbound Alaska Airlines jet bound for Seattle restaurants. Imagine that, a single boat working an area almost the size of Rhode Island!
Then a large deposit of Molybdenum or ‘moly’ was found, back in the wild country behind the Boca. A plan was hatched, for a giant mine, one of the largest in the world, an open pit mine. These mines generate immense quantities of toxic tailings, the crushed rock that remains after the moly is extracted. The mine would employ several thousand workers, who could commute by high speed ferry from Ketchikan. The plan was that the toxic tailings would be dumped into the deep waters of the Boca.
At first fishermen from Southeast Alaska couldn’t believe that such dumping would be allowed, that such a project in such a pristine wilderness would even be considered. But Ketchikan’s biggest employer, the pulp mill, was getting ready to close its doors for good, so the possibility of such a number of good paying jobs close at hand had a lot of local support. At a hearing in Ketchikan, a biologist stood up and told the crowd that nothing of commercial importance was in the waters or on the bottom of the Boca. The skipper of the Alsec stood up. He begged to differ.
“Well,” he told the crowd angrily, “if there’s nothing on the bottom then there’s sure a lot of crab and shrimp that swims into my pots on the way up.”
But the process went on, getting the necessary permits one by one, until it seemed as if nothing could stop it.
In April of 1982, I stopped by the Boca in the big fishboat I was running. The herring fishery at nearby Kah Skakes cove was getting ready to open, and when it did, I would load herring from the smaller boats and take it to the freezer plant in Petersburg. But that might be days away, so I headed up into the Boca to wait.
The Alsec was in there, I knew the skipper, so after we anchored, my crew and I took the skiff over for a visit. The skipper boiled up a mess of those gorgeous big prawns, broke out the wine and had a visit. Naturally the talk got around to the Boca and the impact of the mine, slated to start construction in a few months.
“I could have stopped it.” The skipper told me, “I should have stopped it.”
What he said floored me. The Sierra Club, the United Fishermen of Alaska, and the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association all banded together to try and stop the mine, they hired lawyers. And failed. What could the skipper of the Alsec do that all their efforts couldn’t?
Then he laid it out for me. “I met the guy,” he said, “eight or nine falls ago, I kept seeing this old cruiser anchored up in the Boca, or sometimes way back in Wilson Arm, funky old thing. That time of year it’s pretty rare to see anyone else in here at all. So one evening I took a mess of shrimp over in the skiff for a visit. He was a nice old guy, just poking around it seemed. But then we got to talking and he told me about how he was a prospector, how he’d just made this big find of moly, how he figured there was a huge deposit up in Quartz Hill, between the Boca and Wilson Arm. He showed me the ore samples. He said he was getting ready to fly down to the states and show what he’d found.” The skipper stopped and looked out the window. Outside the last light was just shining on the hills up by lonely Hugh Smith Lake and all that wild land behind the Boca. “I should have taken care of it back then. None of this would be happening.”
I was a bit naive back then… I had to ask what he meant.
“I should have sunk his boat. Him with it. No one would ever have known. All this wouldn’t be happening.”
Then, as it turned out, the mine never happened after all. They got all their permits, but the the Cold War ended suddenly. I turned out one of the biggest demands for moly was for hardening the steel for the turbine blades of fighter jets.