Morning we wake in Tonsina Bay, one of many coves ringed by near-vertical forested slopes. The beauty takes my breath away. So do a half-dozen mountain goats, each with a small baby, above the treeline, above a grass slope, on a rocky precipice. How do mountain goats survive their lives? They choose the absolutely most difficult spots of all, and literally cling to life.
Though the Bay is mirror perfect, word is that there’s a menacing surge running over at Gore Point, where we need to go to land. We know this because Chris Pallaster, executive director of an organization called the Gulf of Alaska Keeper, has flown from Homer to Gore Point by float plane. By radio is suggesting a different strategy. Gore point extends out a bit like a curved catcher’s mitt, catching all kinds of stuff coming from the Gulf of Alaska. We planned to land in the palm, but the surge conditions dictate that we try to backhand our landing and walk across to the mitt side.
We pack for a day of it. The sky is cloudless but this is Alaska so I pack rain gear. I take my cameras, notebook, and pepper spray for bears. My joke is: why take just pepper spray for bears when we taste better with oregano and garlic. I’m not afraid of bears; I’m just respectful. They’re not usually dangerous. Trouble with bears is mainly about surprising them. They don’t like surprises. So if you keep talking, you’re safer than you are while you’re driving. We probably won’t see any here anyway.Net, Ropes and Bottles
Photo: Carl Safina
We land our skiff on the beach and are met by Pallaster, who has arrived with several co-workers. He tells us that in the last 20 years his organization has removed roughly a million pounds of trash from 1,200 miles of Alaskan beaches. Much of it comes from fishing boats who find it cheaper to dump old nets than pay for disposal, much comes from Asian consumers via Asian Rivers. Much comes from American consumers. Some comes from containers washed off ships in heavy weather. By one estimate, cargo ships lose 10,000 containers annually. The number is vigorously disputed-by companies owning cargo ships. Their spilled contents begin worldwide journeys. The smallest amount of trash that we find, but in the largest pieces, is from Fukushima, post-tsunami.
Pallaster says they categorize the trash into 140 categories. He says that someday they will have to assess blame, so the people whose plastic this is can be asked to pay. For instance, unclaimed deposits on bottles could go into a fund that pays for cleanup. Fishing boats might pay a deposit on their nets or even get a discount for a trade-in. Anyway, cleanup costs money. At present, donations and tax dollars are paying to clean these beaches.
We begin walking through a dark primeval forest of spruce. Captain Cook, I am told met people living here. They lived in round houses partly dug into the ground and then roofed and covered with sod. Rather amazingly, several pits of those homes remain here, covered now in mosses and fallen wood but clearly visible, just alongside the trail.
A hermit thrush calls. Several crossbills show briefly and flit onward.
The beach at Gore Point is bookended by cliffs of black basalt, largely bare and partly forested. Distant peaks slumber under a light blanket of late-spring snows. It’s perhaps a mile long, black sand, and piled deep in heavy driftwood. You could walk the length of the beach entirely on drifted timber. The blue sea delivers a slow and rhythmic snore to the black shoreline. It’s a lovely sound, eternal and soothing.
Among the logs, there’s foam, old driftnet floats and new fishing net floats that vary up to about bowling-ball size. There are bleach bottles, sports balls, and water bottles. Several fishing nets lie in tangles. Before they get to beaches, but even now, these are dangerous for wildlife.