In 2013, with salmon numbers crashing across Alaska for reasons no one could explain, a fishing ban was placed on King Salmon in the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta. 23 Alaskan natives defied the ban, and in their court case they claimed that their faith, centred upon a subsistence life style, had given them no other choice. Can such traditional beliefs be upheld in a rapidly modernising world?
"As I fly towards Point Hope, Alaska, I have Sarah Palin’s line turning over in my head, who, when asked to comment on her expertise in foreign policy during the 2008 presidential campaign, reportedly said that she could see Russia from her house. If she lived in Point Hope, I thought, she might actually have been right"
Far north of the Arctic Circle, 500 miles from the nearest city, Point Hope is America's oldest settlement. It is home to 700 Inuit, who are both modern Americans and the holders of centuries-old traditions, hunting bowhead whales from seal skin canoes. During the summer's whaling festival I explored the impacts whale oil has had on their past, and the impacts crude oil could have on their future.
Chicken, Alaska, is a town of 23 people (winter population 7), and yet on the 4th July hundreds of gold panners from all over America descend upon the town for the annual picnic. With the price of gold increasing ten fold in the past few years there is a new gold rush in Alaska. But the state economy is a history of booms and their subsequent busts, and now as oil prices drop, the state's reliance upon its resources appears one again precarious.
“We would have the environment as an adversary that we can pit ourselves against, something that can, with enough wile, be mastered, and when mastered we can pry from it what we will. Be that a life lesson, a spiritual experience, a barrel of deep sea oil, the summit of a mountain, a twenty ounce nugget. Choose your poison”
In 1992 Chris McCandless walked into Alaska's backcountry and perished several months later. In 2013 I walked into Alaska's backcountry, curious as to why this young man's story had become so divisive for Alaskans. What is it that the wilderness come to represent for those of us living in the urbanised west?
In 1989 the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound, Alaska. At the time it was the biggest oil spill in US waters. Sailing through the Sound 25 years later the environment seems to have recovered, but the more I question the people that live there, the more I can see that its legacy lives on. As Alaska pushes to industrialise further, I explore the potential repercussions such projects could have on some of America's last untouched landscapes.