Flying Copper Mountain

Flying Copper Mountain

Benjamin Drummond

Copper Mountain Project, British Columbia, looking S towards US Border. Photo: Benjamin Drummond made possible by LightHawk

Last week I had the opportunity to collect new aerial photographs that make a particularly powerful case for why industrial-scale mining threatens the Methow. Mazama lies at the southern end of the Quesnel Trough copper belt that stretches for 2000 miles up into British Columbia. The trough is thought to be one of the most productive copper resources in the world and it currently has eight active mines. Only 50 miles north of the Methow is Copper Mountain, an 18,000-acre open-pit near Princeton, BC. It’s estimated to contain five billion pounds of copper.

LightHawk pilot Lane Gormley. Photo: Benjamin Drummond made possible by LightHawk

LightHawk is an organization that pairs pilots with conservation causes. Over the years I’ve flown nine different photography missions with them all over the Pacific Northwest, including three for the Methow Headwaters Campaign. In 2015, they helped us gather initial aerial photographs of Flagg Mountain and the headwaters, last year we flew a doors-off mission to capture footage for the Methow Headwaters film, and this past Memorial Day weekend we returned to the skies to fly Copper Mountain.

Flagg Mountain and the upper Methow Valley, looking NW. Photo: Benjamin Drummond made possible by LightHawk

Early on May 27, I met pilot Lane Gormley and his Cessna 182 at the Methow Valley State Airport. The skies were clear, the wind was calm and it was the perfect day for a mountain flight. We flew up the valley, made some circles around Flagg Mountain and Goat Peak and then headed up to photograph Washington Pass, the river’s headwaters near Holliway Mountain and Harts Pass.

LightHawk pilot Lane Gormley call the FAA to file a flight plan. Photo: Benjamin Drummond made possible by LightHawk

Making photographs from a small plane is more like shooting sports than landscapes. My position changes constantly and perfect compositions disappear in an instant. I’m in constant communication with the pilot as they must frequently lift the right wing and put the plane into a subtle sideways slide to give my lens an unobstructed view of the horizon. And in the rugged terrain of the North Cascades it’s easy to become disoriented and lose track of which drainage you’re working in. It’s a dance and Lane was a fantastic partner.

Hinkhouse Peak, Liberty Bell and Silver Star Mountain at Washington Pass, North Cascades Highway, looking NE. Photo: Benjamin Drummond made possible by LightHawk

After just over an hour of shooting we returned to the airport to make preparations for our next flight into Canada. Neither of us knew what to expect with the border crossing, but after we registered our flight plan with the FAA and entered the appropriate squawk code to identify us on radar, we were good to go. Twenty minutes north of Winthrop we found Copper Mountain. It was impossible to miss.

Copper Mountain Project, British Columbia. Photo: Benjamin Drummond made possible by LightHawk

The mine consists of two giant pits, surrounded by tens-of-thousands of dump truck piles of processed tailings and one florescent lake kept in check by a team of bulldozers. We flew three slow circles around the site, baffled by the scene of destruction. But it was only when I got home and found tiny full-size pickup trucks in my 50 megapixel files that I truly appreciated the scale of the operation. The project at Copper Mountain is by far the most persuasive statement I’ve seen of how incompatible a mine of this size is with the Methow Valley. And it’s only 20 minutes away.

Copper Mountain Project, British Columbia. Photo: Benjamin Drummond made possible by LightHawk

A huge thanks to pilot Lane Gormley, Christine Steele at LightHawk and everyone at the campaign for making this work possible.

LightHawk pilot Lane Gormley on approach to Methow Valley State Airport. Photo: Benjamin Drummond made possible by LightHawk