Tim Bristol: Reflection on the President's visit to Dillingham

Dillingham, Bristol Bay, Alaska – It’s not out of the ordinary, the Dillingham flight back to Anchorage canceled. This time it turned out to be an unexpected source of pleasure, an opportunity to reflect on the incredible events of the previous 24 hours. Life happens fast. The fishing seasons pile up. The purpose of meetings are blurred by time, words scribbled in a notebook. The latest event or front page story quickly becoming yesterday’s news. Yes, getting another “day in the Bay” was a gift.

Bumping and splashing along the nearly deserted streets of Dillingham in Rick’s old truck, it was hard not to smile; the day before, this tiny town on the banks of Bristol Bay played host to the President, a visit born of a million messages. In a year marked by low fish prices, strange weather and an even weirder salmon run, a visit by the “leader of the free world” and the luxury of time, had clearly helped put things in a different - and perhaps - the proper perspective. 

Friends made over the past ten years of visits used word like “biblical” and “sacred” to describe scenes from the fourth largest sockeye salmon run ever recorded in Bristol Bay. With fishing limits imposed due to a shortage of processing capacity for the 58 million returning sockeye, these were likely not the words used describe the situation by fishing friends in the middle of this mighty run. But with a little time and distance and a visit from a very important person, anger and frustration has been supplanted by different emotions: pride, awe, love.

At this point everyone has heard about the President’s dancing and the “happy” salmon that greeted him on a rainy beach but why did he come to Bristol Bay? It may be due in large part to the three words in the paragraph above: the pride the people of Bristol Bay and Alaska have of their home; the deep sense of awe this place and can evoke, and the love residents possess for the land, the waters and their way of life. For a decade, they have faced a choice about what to do with their homeland, roll the dice on a project of immense risk and possible reward or continue to put their faith in the productivity and resiliency of the place they have been such magnificent stewards of. In the opinion of most here in Alaska they have chosen wisely and if the visit from the President is any indication, the rest of America -and maybe even the world - agrees.

Bringing the attention of the world to Bristol Bay and the risks posed to its astounding salmon runs has been the work of a lifetime. To see the signs and banners along the road, stapled to buildings and hanging from wires of the town’s main street, to see people lined up in the rain for the motorcade and to hear the passion and intelligence in people’s voices as they spoke to the world, those three words: pride, awe, love came rushing back again. But the second time, it was not in relation to this land but to its people, who have showed all of us, even Mr. Obama, a different and perhaps better way to live on this Earth. 

Tim Bristol, Director of SalmonState, which works to promote laws, policies and protections guaranteeing Alaska remains the “Salmon state.”

Click here to read more reflections on the President's trip to Bristol Bay.