The view out our window at dawn. What is it like, living in a village of only 50 people, no roads in, no roads out, just a dirt and gravel runway capable of landing bush planes and a shallow river connecting this village to similarly tiny sister villages miles downriver?
In June, 2016 we left Mongolia to return to the state we consider home. Prior to Mongolia, we had lived in the Native Alaskan villages of Shishmaref and Point Hope – places where people are counted in the hundreds and where the air is so clean we could go for weeks and even months without needing to dust and where neighbors readily share the salmon, berries, caribou and even whale they harvest. In those years, we spent our summers living aboard our sailboat in Seward, Alaska, a coastal town of fewer than 3,000 residents and where the local seas team with salmon, halibut, orcas, whales, sea otters, puffins and other wildlife. Upon returning to Alaska, we decided that we wanted to experience life in a village even smaller than Shishmaref or Point Hope. This is what we’ve found.
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Imagine a Place
Chignik Lake, Alaska – population about 50. Our place, the half of a small duplex marked with a red star, is a cozy 589 square feet. Though larger apartments were available, we have been on an eight-year run of fitting ourselves into ever smaller living quarters – for reasons of economy by all measures as well as for the sheer satisfaction of living an increasingly simplified life. The road cutting through the village begins at the airstrip just out of view to the right and runs for about 3.5 miles before terminating at a river landing (also out of view) where small barges sometimes bring in fuel, vehicles and building materials. The water visible is Chignik Lake, a slow, serpentine flow that empties into the Chignik River a couple hundred meters to the left of the photo and from there runs perhaps 13 miles to Chignik Lagoon before joining the Alaska Gulf.
Imagine a village with no traffic lights (and never the frustration, however mild, of being stuck at a light or mired in traffic or having to wait to cross a road). No horns honking, no car doors slamming and air that smells like air instead of like automobile exhaust. Imagine a place with no statues and no names on buildings exaggerating the importance of one person or keeping some long past event alive, no advertising of any kind, no signs telling you to “keep out” or to “stop” or where you can and can’t walk. Imagine sitting at your table or desk reading or writing or enjoying a game of Scrabble in the evening as hours on end go by during which the only sounds you hear, if any, are the far off drone of a small bush airplane or the engine of a skiff starting up as someone prepares to head down the lake. Imagine a place where the morning’s first sounds might be owls hooting, kingfishers rattling, seagulls crying or an eagle calling its mate… fresh bear tracks on the village lakeshore, wolf prints in the nearby berry fields, river otters taking over a seldom-used summer cabin.
Imagine a place where the post office is a few minutes’ walk from home and where if you have an important package the postmaster will personally phone you. Imagine a village where there is one small church with one sonorous bell, one small school and no police officers, sirens or jails. Imagine a place where a bike can be parked unlocked, anywhere, with no fear of it being stolen, where you can leave your door not only unlocked but wide open, where you never have to suffer listening to someone else’s idea of “good music,” where, if you’re walking to the river to go fishing, anyone you pass by will wish you luck.
Imagine a village where wild berries grow between houses and along thoroughfares as thick as on a U-Pick farm, where all summer and into fall getting a fresh salmon is a few casts away, where on any glance out your window your eyes might bring into view a veritable garden of wildflowers, an eagle dining on a salmon, a pair of cranes calling back and forth as they fly overhead, a family of loons gliding across the lake, or a curious seal popping his head up for a look around.
Imagine a place where people don’t cross paths without waving a greeting, where everyone knows everyone by their first name, where as you walk through the village you cross a small, clear stream filled with charr and young wild salmon. Imagine a village where no one is rich in material things, but where everyone has a nice home, a larder stocked with jars of smoked salmon and wild-berry jam, and freezers filled with more salmon, moose and caribou and where nesting boxes built for wild songbirds outnumber humans by a considerable margin.
Not so many years ago, Barbra and I stumbled into some money, enough that living in San Francisco – a deeply held dream in those days – was within reach. But at that juncture I was already changing, as was Barbra, and we ended up choosing other experiences, and those experiences led to still others, each of which pulled us further and further from the metropolitan life we’d once imagined as ideal.
And now we’re here, in a place of quiet, in a place where we can choose and attain solitude when we wish to, a place of clean air, good water, rainbows and on cloudless nights a clear sky full of stars and all around us a landscape filled with possibilities.
Chignik Lake, marked in red, is tucked amidst mountains about halfway down the Alaska Peninsula. Hundreds of thousands of Sockeye salmon ascend the Chignik River each year along with tens of thousands of Coho – and that’s after the commercial nets have had a go at them in the lagoon. (The large island on the map is Kodiak – the second largest island in the United States after Hawaii’s Big Island.)