Wild times at Berners Bay

Posted: Sunday, May 13, 2007

Berners Bay looked like a circus last weekend.Instead of a big top and grandstands, we had mist-shrouded mountains and sunlight cutting through rain. Our fireworks were streaks of black and white: dive-bombing arctic terns, mew gulls, squadrons of scoters.

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Who needs clowns and dancing poodles? We had gangs of Steller sea lions thrashing the water into foam. Humpback whales formed a ring around them, circling, feeding, spouting.

It was a great show.

But behind it all, I couldn't help noticing the dock for the Kensington Mine.

The dock was glistening: bright, metallic and so obviously a construction of man in the middle of nature's handiwork.

I'm not prepared to say much about the mining proposals that have generated so much debate and litigation. I can't go on about the pros and cons of using Lower Slate Lake to store tailings. I really don't know enough about it.

But I know about having a mining operation close to home. I lived above one when I was a kid.

I grew up in Puerto Rico, on the outskirts of Ramey Base. My parents' house was on a cliff that looked north over what was once a stretch of sand dunes ending at a beach, and then the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. In retrospect, it was paradise.

But sand-miners scraped all the plant life away at the foot of the cliff. They took all the sand. They dug until there was nothing but a yellow-white limestone base called caliche.

Their trucks and cranes and construction gear carved huge pits, breaking below sea level and leaving chasms filled with turquoise groundwater.

So below us, where there used to be coconut palm groves and rolling dunes, there was total sterility. We saw a flat wasteland etched with pits, dotted with oversized construction equipment.

It was hideous and beautiful, a bizarre sight. But homebuilders needed sand to make concrete, so the miners didn't stop mining.

They finally abandoned the project more than a decade ago, but the place was lifeless for years. Then it filled in with weeds, shrubs, and finally an invasion of Australian pines called Casuarinas.

They grew fast. Now most of the scars are covered in green, and it looks nice again - dramatically different, but nice.

What does all this have to do with mining and the wildlife at Berners Bay?

I can't say. My childhood recollections are probably as unreliable as my understanding of the Kensington details.

I 'm pretty sure, though, that we're in for some kind of show. Maybe it will be more of the same: whales breaking clean water and sea lions gulping when they're not napping on the rocks.

Maybe we'll see glinting machines carving and gashing and digging in the rain.

Perhaps we'll see the birds and seals cavorting in a home that's more theirs than ours. Perhaps we'll see the earth cut open and raw, then healing itself again.

Which of the shows will it be? One has been seen in almost every region inhabited by man. The other one is unique to Alaska.

I know which one I'm hoping for.

• Ken Lewis can be reached at ken.lewis@juneauempire.com.

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