River Heart

What a wonderful name – Chocolate Lily. They’re blooming everywhere, including right outside our door.

As a soft drizzle fell in the small hours this morning, I could hear bears on the beach outside our bedroom window, thick pads pressing into wet sand with subtle, sandy crunches. Salmon have begun showing up. Not in the numbers the river is accustomed to receiving – by now a couple of hundred thousand Sockeyes should have passed through the weir downriver -, but some. Tens of thousands. It won’t be enough to allow the local commercial fishermen to set their gear, but enough for friends and neighbors to set nets for subsistence fishing. Each day now when the tide is right they launch and then later return to the beach in their skiffs, 18-foot Lunds sporting faded maroon stripes around the hull. These days they bring back salmon and since a lot of those fish end up being cleaned right there at the lakeshore, eagles and a few gulls hang around during the day. The bears come at night, looking for heads, spawn sacs and other scraps. A mother and two cubs have been showing up almost every night. It’s not worth trying to make a picture in the dim light, but we get up to look anyway. “Petting the whale,” Joel Sartore calls it – setting cameras aside to simply watch and enjoy.

This mature bald eagle has been coming around to fill up on salmon scraps left on the beach. One of the things we’ve most enjoyed about our life at The Lake has been the live and let live attitude toward wildlife that generally prevails. A few moose and an occasional caribou are taken, but no one begrudges our eagles, bears and foxes what’s leftover after the salmon have been split for smoking and canning.

Our plane, the bush plane that will fly us away from this village we have called home to our new village in Newhalen, will arrive sometime this afternoon. At this point the cupboards and shelves in our house are empty and our voices echo – a hollow sound that reflects the hollowness in our chests. Twenty-six places. I listed them up the other day as I was writing to a friend. During my adult life, I’ve lived in 26 different communities for at least a month. I’ve rarely stayed anywhere longer than a couple of years. I like to see new places. I like change.

Cinquefoil, I think. More specifically, Norwegian Cinquefoil. Maybe. Most people around here don’t really have lawns. A palette of salmonberry brakes, lush wild grasses and wildflowers line the dirt and gravel thoroughfares and continue without interruption right up to porches and doorsteps. Our own house is surrounded by a thick growth of Horsetail Fern, Fireweed, Chocolate Lilies, Dandelions, grasses, Cinquefoil, Nootka Lupine and Wild Geranium.

This time is different. We wanted to stay. The simple story is that Chignik Lake School, where Barbra teaches, didn’t make the minimum enrollment of 10 students necessary to stay open. The school board voted to close the school and to transfer Barbra to another, larger school up the peninsula. It has been difficult to reconcile leaving this community, these mountains and this river.

Redpolls (above), Pine Siskins and Pine Grosbeaks have been visiting daily to feast on Dandelion seeds around the playground outside our door. We watch them out the window as we cook and wash dishes and have been heartened by their cheerful songs and chatter  throughout the day as we come and go. I cautiously eased open our front door and took this photograph from our kellydoor, the local nomenclature for mudroom. If you haven’t checked out our video of these Dandelion seed eating finches, you can find it here: Finches of the Dandelion Jungle

I grew up near the Clarion River, had favorite trout streams and lakes in Pennsylvania and went out into the world to find myself living within easy distance of other waters – close enough to certain rivers, streams, bays and beaches that I could duck out at halftime from watching a March Madness basketball game and be back before the game’s end with a couple of Sea Trout for dinner, hop on a bicycle and be on one of Japan’s top Sea Bass venues, walk up a small river to cast flies for Rainbow Trout after college classes, or watch Largemouth Bass chase smelt from the balcony of my apartment. There were other waters, too.

We love our big, orange and yellow Bumble Bees. And our Lupine.

But I’ve never had what I would call a home water. I don’t know how others might define such a thing, but Roderick Haig-Brown’s accounts of his life along Vancouver Island’s Campbell River used to tug at me with an emotion that lies somewhere between awe and envy, an I’d like to have that one day feeling.

A pair of Golden-crowned Sparrows nested beneath a willow thicket right next to our home, and although we’ve heard the young ones chirping for food, we’ve never bothered to look too closely for the nest for fear of leading Magpies to the location. Keeping the little ones fed appears to be a full-time job. I got this photo yesterday morning.

The Chignik did not immediately fill the longing for a home water. We fished. We caught fish – a few char but mostly salmon, mostly Silvers – and it was very satisfying. That we could actually see fish coming up the lake from our dining room windows, lift our fly rods from their pegs on the wall and walk down to the water exceeded anything I’d ever expected to have. But this abundance and proximity by themselves did not make the water feel like home.

One of the first flowers to appear in spring, only Yarrow will still be blooming in autumn when the last pale purple Wild Geranium petals fall to the ground.

There were the otters we came to recognize, mink prints in wet sand, the bears we encountered and got to know, the eagles that watched us. There was the way that, over time, we came to know the river’s music – the flow of the river itself and the lapping of waves on the lake shore – but also the kingfisher’s rattle, ducks quacking, Tundra Swans bugling, the raucous music of Sandhill Cranes, the fierce Chignik winds that filled the valley and whistled and howled and sometimes shook the house, snipe winnowing softly in evenings, the startling sound of a salmon leaping and falling, unseen, back into a downstream pool. There were nights when we would like awake in our bed, listening quietly as Harbor Seals chased down freshly arrived Coho in the dark, catching them and hurling them into the air to chase down and catch again… evenings and dawns when the eerie, supremely wild howl of wolves echoed across the lake and up and down the river valley… bears grunting and splashing on the beach below our window… winter days when heavy, wet snow put a hush on the world. We came to know where the Great Horned Owls roosted in a grove of spruce trees at a bend on the river where we caught our first salmon, a place where Barbra found a perfectly knapped stone knife Native fisherman long before us had undoubtedly used to split salmon and where we picked berries by the gallon.

Young Eagles waiting for someone to come in with fish.

Through all of this and more, The Chignik came to feel like home, and while I could list many more of the river’s attributes and our experiences along its shores and on its waters, I suppose what it comes down to is love and I don’t have the words to explain that.

Just a few more seeds… Look at that swollen crop! This Pine Grosbeak seems determined to cram himself as full as he possibly can. One of the first things that struck us about our home on The Chignik was the shear abundance around us. Vegetation grows as thick and lush as in a jungle, local Brown Bears are some of the world’s largest and a season’s tally of salmon isn’t measured in thousands or even tens of thousands but in hundreds of thousands and millions. 

I suppose it is natural, upon leaving a place, to consider the things that were left unexplored, stones unturned, projects unfinished. I topped off at 75 the number of bird species I was able to identify in and near the village, but just two days ago I got a glimpse of something that may have been new – an Arctic Warbler? It would have been one of several “first documentations” for this area. I can’t say for certain, and so the matter must be left at that. It’s time to go. We were still learning about the fishing, still getting to know our friends and neighbors, still savoring every day here.

We thought we would have to leave before my favorite flower, wild Irises, came into bloom. But in these past few days, they’ve begun bursting open. We’re glad we got to see them. 

3 thoughts on “River Heart

  1. A heartfelt and lovely paean to Chignik. I feel for your hollowness (and the 9 kids who have lost their school and teacher) but remember you said that you were invited back, so not lost forever.
    It seems to me you two will always see and make the best of your surrounds and I hope you will continue to share your lives with us all. Go well and thank you both.

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