I've just returned from a quick but productive trip to Bristol Bay, where I teamed up with my old partner in crime Corey Arnold (the talented photographer behind the image above) for the peak of the Bristol Bay commercial salmon season. It was a quick, exhausting, exhilirating trip, with none of the gradual ramp-up that you have in working the full sockeye season. This year, it was out of the plane and into the fire: 24 hours after leaving Newark, I was hauling in nets with salmon hanging off of them, as someone once wrote, like grapes off a vine. The fishing hardly let up the entire time I was there, as the Kvichak River experienced a particularly robust run this year. The weather was perfect, the midnight sunsets memorable, and the company, as ever, varied but enjoyable. More to come on all of this soon, including photos.
It's that time of year again--the salmon are returning to spawn in the rivers of Alaska's Bristol Bay region, and I'll once again be joining the shadow migration of fishermen drawn there in their wake. I'm headed out tomorrow to join my old co-conspirators at the mouth of the Kvichak River to work the peak of what is shaping up to be a rather impressive season for the east side of Bristol Bay. It'll be a short trip for me, two weeks of tides and mud and mosquitoes, no showers or electricity or internet or cell phones, long days and very little sleep and grinding work and thousands and thousands of fish. I'm looking forward to it.
Anyone familiar with Norman Maclean's masterful Young Men and Fire, a stunning recreation of the events surrounding the deaths of 12 smoke-jumpers in the legendarily tragic Mann Gulch fire in 1949, will likely recall Robert Sallee, one of only three survivors from that doomed crew. Sallee was just 17 years old at the time of the fire, and was the last living link to it until he passed away last week in Spokane, WA, at the age of 82.
Sallee returned to the site of the fire with Maclean in 1978, and that visit is captured beautifully in the book, though, as the Times obituary observes, the eyewitness testimony proved inconclusive:
[Maclean's] detailed account of their recollections and their court testimony fails to unravel precisely what happened; rather, it succeeds in illustrating the terror of being caught in such a monstrous natural maelstrom.
Mr. Maclean wrote: “Sallee talks so often about everything happening in a matter of seconds after he and Rumsey left Dodge’s fire that at first it seems just a manner of speaking. But if you combine the known facts with your imagination and are a mountain climber and try to accompany Rumsey and Sallee to the top, you will know that to have lived you had to be young and tough and lucky."
The book, published posthumously in 1992 (MacLean died in 1990), won the National Book Critics Circle award. I remember the first time I read it, when I was about the same age as many of the young men of the title and thought myself young and tough and lucky. I recall being entirely entranced by the craftsmanship of the book, by the attempt to put the pieces of the puzzle together even if the end result is bound to be inconclusive. But I was also warned by its content of the limits of the seeming invincibility of youth:
“They were still so young they hadn't learned to count the odds and to sense they might owe the universe a tragedy.”
I'd encourage any reader at any age to pick up a copy. In fact, it may be about time I re-read it.
My review essay on Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest and the enduring quest to solve the Michael Rockefeller mystery is now up on Slate. It’s partly a book review, partly a recollection of my own Asmat adventure, and partly an attempt to grapple with the problematic questions—historical, cultural, linguistic, colonial, narrative—that underlie this seemingly evergreen story. An excerpt:
“I believe I’ve solved it,” says Carl Hoffman in the book trailer for Savage Harvest, his investigation into the mysterious disappearance of 23-year-old heir Michael Rockefeller off the south coast of New Guinea in 1961. It’s a bold claim: The Rockefeller disappearance has become known as one of the 20th century’s most enduring unsolved mysteries, catnip for generations of journalists and adventurers, all looking to answer the same question: Did Rockefeller drown trying to swim to the marshy shore of the Asmat region after his boat capsized (the family’s official story), or did he make land, there to be killed and eaten by the very Asmat people whose art and carvings he had been collecting? His last words before diving in and swimming toward shore, uttered to a companion who stayed with their overturned craft and was rescued the following day: “I think I can make it.”
Did Michael make it? Probably. Has Hoffman solved it? Sort of. In both cases, it’s complicated.
Read the rest here.
And if you’re looking for a more straight up review of Savage Harvest, there’s no shortage of them out there. Joshua Hammer reviewed it in the New York Times Book Review this past weekend, following Bill Gifford in the Washington Post, Roger Lowenstein in the Wall Street Journal, and a host of others.
And while my review is less straightforward than the others, I generally agree with their assessment: this is a book worth reading.
In another blow to the already beleaguered Pebble Mine, Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto announced Monday that it was ending its involvment with the controversial project and gifting its 19.1% stake in Pebble prospect owner Northern Dynasty Minerals to two Alaskan charities, the Alaska Community Foundation and the Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation. This leaves Canadian mining company Northern Dynasty without a partner for development of the mine, a process it cannot afford to undertake on its own.
There were hints that Rio was headed towards this decision--in December they announced a strategic review of their investement in Pebble, and then in February, the Rio representative on Northern Dynasty's board resigned--but the announcement triggered another fall in Northern Dynasty stock prices nonetheless. This comes on the heels of a tough six months for Pebble's prospects: In September, Anglo-American, which owned 50% of Pebble, pulled out of the project, taking a loss of $300 million; soon after, layoffs began for Pebble's Alaska staff; then in January Alaskan Sen. Mark Begich came out in opposition to the mine; in early February, the Pebble Partnership replaced its long-time CEO; and then the bombshell in March, when the EPA, which had been studying the potential effects of a large-scale mine on Bristol Bay's salmon run, announced that it was invoking its power under section 404c of the Clean Water Act and intiating a process that could lead to a "veto" of mine permits, and which effectively blocks the mining companies from applying for permits for the foreseeable future.
According to Rio's press release, their divestment is the result of the strategic review's conclusion that "the Pebble Project does not fit with Rio Tinto's strategy", and its decision to give away the shares was an effort to insure that Alaskan stakeholders have a voice in the process. But the more likely explanation is that they simply could not find a buyer.
Pebble opponents were jubilant--"Thank You, Rio Tinto" ran the headline of a post by the NRDC's Joel Reynolds on HuffPo--and even optimistic. "Rio Tinto's divestment from Pebble may not be the final nail in the coffin," Bonnie Gestring, Northwest program director of Pebble critic Earthworks, told the Washington Post, "but it's surely one of the last."
Of course, not everyone's so happy, and Alaska Governor Sean Parnell took the opportunity to once again hammer the EPA for what he sees as an unprecedented encroachment on Alaskan sovreignty, which he blames for scaring off companies like Rio. “It’s disheartening to see a company like Rio Tinto take its business elsewhere as a result of the current federal regulatory environment,” said Gov. Parnell in a statement released by his office. “Even more troubling is the EPA’s efforts to preemptively veto a project before any proposal has been submitted and before a public permitting process has even commenced."
The oddest part of Rio's move, though, may be how they have chosen to dispose of their shares, currently valued at about $16 million. "By giving our shares to two respected Alaskan charities," said Rio Tinto Copper CEO Jena-Sebastien Jacques in the company's release, "we are ensuring that Aaskans will have a say in Pebble's future development and that any economic benefit supports Alaska's ability to attract investment that creates jobs."
Having local stakeholders more involved will be a good thing, but there are two salient, though unspoken, ironies here: first, Northern Dynasty's share prices tumbled after the announcement and have dropped nearly ten percent from close of trading Friday through today, eroding the value of the gifted stock by $1.5 million; and second, and more interestingly, the Bristol Bay Native Corporation (BBNC), whose Educational Foundation will receive half of Rio's stake, has been a powerful and vocal critic of Pebble, which could make them particularly interesting as an owner.
"This gift provides an example of what open discussion and relationship building between stakeholders with differing views can accomplish," said BBNC President Jason Metrokin, according to the Anchorage Daily News. "However, BBNC's opposition to the proposed Pebble mine has not changed."
Read more here: http://www.adn.com/2014/04/07/3413818/mining-giant-rio-tinto-pulling.html#storylink=cpy
For their part, Northern Dynasty remained stonefaced as ever. "We look forward to meeting with the leadership of the Alaska Community Foundation and Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation in the days ahead," said Northern Dynasty President & CEO Ron Thiessen in the company's statement, "to better understand their long-term goals and aspirations, and how their ownership interest in Northern Dynasty and the Pebble Project can make the greatest possible contribution to the people and communities they serve."
Is it just me, or does that not sound entirely enthusiastic? Watch this space for more on this story.
(When news reached NYC that journalist Matthew Power had passed away while on assignment in Uganda--NY Times obit here for further details--tributes began popping up almost immediately, which makes sense for a man who was so generous and cultivated so many friendships. And cultivate is the right word: an avid gardener, Matt knew that some effort, attention, and nourishment were as necessary for friends as for plants. When a call went out for essays and remembrances of Matt, with the suggestion that Matt would have wanted us to write through the grief, all I could think of was the last afternoon I spent with Matt. The vignette below is the result. --TS)
The last time I spent an afternoon with Matt was on a sunny, crisp day in December. After a couple weeks of emailing back and forth, trying to make our schedules mesh, we met for lunch at a coffee shop a few blocks from his house in Lefferts, the day before Matt was to head off to South Sudan for a story about a remote Doctors Without Borders post there.
It was a sort of too-hip-for-its-own-good place—“A beachhead of the coming gentrification,” Matt said, before steering me towards the grilled Portobello sandwich.
We spent the lunch discussing what we always did, writing and the work and the pieces in front of us and the ones coming down the pike and the ones we hoped some day to get to. Matt was a star in our world of magazine writers, out-working, out-producing and out-writing most of the rest of us, but with a humility that never sought to outshine anyone. He gave of his time generously and genuinely, and on that afternoon, there was never any inkling that we were anything but equals having a lunch, sharing stories of the highs and lows of this writing life.
Except that for Matt, the lows always paled in comparison to the prolonged high of getting to tell stories and be paid for it. He seemed to do the job so much better, more fluidly, with less hand-wringing than others of us, at least partly because he never lost that initial sense of joy. He never stopped believing that what we do is a privilege, and that it’s important.
It wasn’t until after lunch that we moved on to what both of us considered the more exciting segment of our two-part itinerary: we went back to Matt and Jess’s house on Hawthorne Street. I’d recently begun a renovation project, and when Matt caught wind he invited me over so he could show me what he’d done at his place. I knew going in that it would be incredibly informative, and I suspected it would be also be entertaining. It was both, but it was also something else: motivating.
If ever I was tempted in the months that followed, while embarking on my own renovation, to overlook a detail, or to claim that whatever deadline I was on had left me without enough time for housework, I thought back to that afternoon. To his attention to every unloved cranny of that house. To his soliloquies about the oddest home-ownership minutiae. To him, standing in the back garden, pointing up at the tin can he’d jury-rigged to catch overflow from an ill-fitting downspout that had flooded his bedroom while he was off on a story and someone else was staying there. To his crooked smile as we stood in the dungeonesque “gym” in his basement, contemplating a residency program centered on voluntary imprisonment in such a space, with no release until a satisfactory number of pages had been generated.
It was a nothing moment but it encapsulated many things: the willingness to dream; a recognition of the discipline required to produce good work; the attention to detail, in both writing and home improvement; the giddy appreciation of the absurd; and the generosity both of time and of spirit that made him such a positive influence on me and literally hundreds of others.
As it wound on towards late afternoon, we said our goodbyes. I had a deadline and he had to pack for Africa. As I walked off to the subway, Matt called after me with one last suggestion. “Better start thinking about your spring planting,” he said. “We’ll talk about it when I’m back.”
We never did connect for the planting tutorial, and since hearing the shocking, tragic news that Matt had passed away while on assignment in Uganda, I’ve been thinking often of that December afternoon. Looking back through the email chain that preceded it, all the usual Power hallmarks are there: prompt responses, answers to every question, and a refusal to let the vicissitudes of our schedules defeat our efforts to meet up. There were also, embedded in the messages in a subtle, older-brotherly sort of way, kernels of advice.
I’d been beating myself up about a book that was about to come out—I was writing a review, but it was a story I had a long history with, and I was kicking myself for not having churned out a book on the topic years ago. Matt was typically gracious, typically useful.
“I can totally empathize, but no use beating yourself up about a book you didn’t write,” he wrote. “There are always more stories to chase.”
Back when I was starting out and hungry to get my name in print by whatever means necessary, a kind editor at Outside named Grant Davis started letting me write portions of our monthly, Front-of-Book fitness roundup, The Pulse. It was a break, and I tackled it with all the juvenile gusto you might expect, assaulting the editors with countless awful ideas. But enough of them stuck that I snuck into print, and got some pretty good reporting experience in the process. This entry, from March 2003, which I just came across while attempting to update some links on this site, was probably my favorite. Here it is, in all its choppy-prosed glory:
NO MORE HEAVY BREATHING: Researchers at London's Imperial College School of Medicine, working with researchers in the Kyrgyz Republic, are using VIAGRA to alleviate pulmonary hypertension, a factor in high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), the lethal condition in which the lungs fill with fluid as a result of lower oxygen levels at higher elevations. "The assumption is that if you can prevent pulmonary hypertension, you might offset or prevent the chances of edema," says researcher Martin Wilkins. "And Viagra can do that." But how? In addition to the, shall we say, helping hand that Viagra provides for men, the drug also relaxes blood vessels running to and from the lungs that might otherwise constrict in a low-oxygen environment. This doesn't make the pill an altitude-sickness cure-all. When it comes to preventing acute mountain sickness or high-altitude cerebral edema, "Viagra is unlikely to have any effect whatsoever," says Thomas Dietz, a doctor with the International Society for Mountain Medicine. Still, it may be good news for your lungs. And the doctors say mountaineers on Viagra won't have to worry about stretching out their snow pants—unless a particularly attractive female yeti happens by.
It was my favorite less for the not-so-subtle erection jokes than for the hilarious, perfect illustration by the prolific John Cuneo. Here was a throwaway blurb, based on dubious science, but somehow, once paired with Cuneo's illustration, it became something (slightly) more:
At the time, this all represented, to me, a sort of amazing alchemy: I could write some text; that text would be sent off to an illustrator; this would return; they would run together. My words had put this chain in motion. My little words. Again, it was nothing, but in some part of my cub-journalist brain, it aligned exactly with my overly idealized version of what magazines might be: synergy between text and illustration, the creation of an immersive reader experience, little bits of serendipity folded between pages.
Either that, or I was 24 at the time and it made me laugh. Still does.
Congrats to Carl Hoffman on today's release of Savage Harvest, his book about the 1961 disappearance of young heir Michael Rockefeller in the Asmat region of New Guinea. I'll have more to say about the book shortly when my review is published, but for now, listen to Carl talk about it himself on NPR's Weekend Edition and Fresh Air.
Word began reverberating this morning in the relatively small world of magazine journalists via email lists and various social networks that we'd lost one of our own: Matthew Power--kind, generous, curious, brilliant, and indefatigable--passed away while reporting a story for Men's Journal in northern Uganda. He was profiing and following a man who is attempting to walk the entire length of the Nile, and initial reports indicate that Matt died of some combination of heatstroke and overexertion, in a place remote enough that there was no possibility of timely medical assistance.
Matt was a friend, a guiding light, and an inspiration. While the rest of us would get bogged down, fed up with the vaguaries of the magazine world, Matt was always charging forward towards the next story, always one step ahead of the rest of us, always producing quality work at a rate that astounded me. He was also always generous with his time, his contacts, his words of encouragement, and his laughter. He was the kind of writer and journailst that many of us aspire to be, and he will be greatly, greatly missed.
I will leave it to others who knew him far better than I did to pen more thorough eulogies and remembrances, but I will post a couple links, because I think everyone should read some of Matt's work today, and because I think his work will endure. Small consolation right now, perhaps, but here are a few of my favorites:
"Mississippi Drift: River Vagrants in the Age of Wal-Mart," Harper's, 2008.
"Confessions of a Drone Warrior," GQ, 2013.
"Excuse us While we Kiss the Sky," Urban Exploration, GQ, 2013.
"Blood in the Sand: The Killing of a Turtle Advocate," Outside, 2014.
As one might expect of a man who seemingly made a new best friend every day, there have been no shortage of tributes to Matt springing up already. There are tribute pages at Harper's and GQ, and yet more from Outside and Men's Journal. And then this morning came his NY Times obituary, which included a pretty accurate attempt to distill the Power ouevre, from Roger Hodge:
“He was always searching for the human truth beneath the sorry facts,” said Roger Hodge, who edited many of Mr. Power’s articles for Harper’s and is now the editor of The Oxford American. “He wanted to live it — live what these people were living.”
Last night, a bunch of us gathered at the Scratcher, a dive bar in the East Village and one of Matt's favorites, to drink whiskey, mourn the loss of our friend, and tell stories of his exploits. It was, as more than one attendee noted, just the sort of gathering Matt would have loved, and we all half-expected him to burst through the door at any moment. When, towards the end of the evening, someone got a hold of the text of the Times obit and read it aloud off their phone, there wasn't a dry eye in the room. But there was also laughter, as the reader gave every mention of "Mr. Power" an exagerrated seriousness that had us all laughing at the contrast between the stilted formality of Times house style and the memory of our genuine, humble, goofy friend.
In 2008, Outside Magazine and the Travel Channel sent me to Indonesian Papua to follow in the footsteps of vanished heir Michael Rockefeller to try to figure out whether the grisly rumors of his being killed and eaten by Asmat headhunters in 1961 were true. The resulting Travel Channel pilot, "Gone Missing: Vanished in Papua," disappeared even more quickly and mysteriously than Michael did, but Amsat is a place I think of often, and I'll always count my experiences there as among the most important and formative of my early reporting adventures. My feature for Outside about my Asmat adventure can be found here; further links to the trailer and the full cut of our pilot can be found on my Gone Missing page.
Over the years, the Rockefeller story has attracted journalists and storytellers of widely varying levels of competence (I put myself somewhere in the middle of the competence spectrum), but few have dug as deep as journalist Carl Hoffman, who's investigation into the Rockefeller disappearance is chronicled in his new book Savage Harvest, set to be released March 18th. Hoffman unearths a heap of evidence pointing to the conclusion that Michael was killed and eaten, but I'll hold off on further analysis for a review essay I'm planning to write. For now you can learn more about it at Harper Collins (be sure to watch Hoffman's book trailer) and Amazon.