An Incalculable Loss: Tragedy at Chignik Lake

Fred Shangin and Nick Garner

Fred Shangin, left. Nick Garner, right. They don’t cut men from finer cloth. Watermen through and through, from the headwaters of the Chignik to the unpredictable Alaska Gulf and Bristol Bay, Fred and Nick were two of the most skilled boatmen in the world. We were honored to have them take us under wing and teach us. We are asking our readers to make a contribution in the name of Fred and Nick to the Alaska Dive Search Rescue and Recovery Team.*

Christmas Day here was wonderful. To imagine a holiday at The Lake – Halloween, Easter, The Fourth of July, Christmas – place yourself in a small town 50, 60, 70 years ago, in a gentler, quieter world, far less commercialized, less politicized, more intimate. It snowed all day. Multiple invitations were issued back and forth to come share food and cheer, and for those who felt uncomfortable visiting due to Covid… or for whom age has made going out on a snowy day difficult… heaping platters of turkey, ham, moose, beef, salmon, side dishes and desserts were delivered. The day was a snapshot of life in our tiny village.

How quickly a scene… or a small boat… can flip, leaving the world upside down.

Despite the prospect of incoming weather, the following day three of our men took a skiff up the lake, an eight mile run. The boat the men took was also carrying a snow-machine, the Alaska term for snowmobile. The plan was to look for moose or caribou to replenish the village’s stock of meat.

Weather was coming from the southeast. From that direction, winds have an unobstructed eight miles to build waves as they blow up the lake to the sometimes treacherous northwest corner. Near the lake’s outlet at the village of Chignik Lake, the water can be calm while up in the northwest corner messy, white-capped three footers seem to come from all directions as they bounce off the sheer mountains that crowd the shoreline. Sudden williwaws pouring down those same mountains can turn those three-foot waves into erratic four footers. That’s a lot of sea for a small boat – enough to upend such a vessel.

And so it is that the village lost two great men in the prime of their lives, and we lost two dear friends. Fred was a particularly close friend. In fact, he was much more than a friend. He was our nearest neighbor, our guardian angel and perhaps the most generous and capable man we’ve ever known – and the happiest, truly a man who had found his place in this life. Unbelievable that the guy Barbra sometimes called Superman had perished like that.

Fred was one of the guys who kept the diesel generators running that supply The Lake with electricity; the guy who texted and called me, relatives and friends every day to check in and see what we were up to or to invite us along on one of his adventures. He’d run his skiff down the river and out onto the ocean to set halibut skates (similar to trot lines) and crab pots (which he and Nick welded together from rebar and chicken wire); he was the guy who organized hunting trips for moose and caribou. He was the guy who set nets for salmon and liberally shared his catch. When Fred got halibut, everyone got halibut. When Fred got crab, everyone got crab. When Fred and his crew got a moose… well, you get the idea.

He taught us how to spot the caribou that go up on the ridges of the lower mountains on warm summer days, miles across the lake, mere specks we’d overlooked till Fred pointed them out. He appreciated my photographs, and so I’d regularly get texts and calls from him: Bear on the beach with 2 cubs, or Wolf on the airstrip or Looks like a dandy day there Jack. Good day to go out and take some pictures.

Nick, too, was a friend, though we were only just beginning to get to know each other well. Like Fred, he had a wide range of skills and we admired him greatly. Both were loving, devoted family men. To the village, they were excellent providers as well as the kinds of men who would do anything to help a friend or neighbor. Fred was 42. Nick was 39. In our village of Chignik Lake, a community of only 50 or 60 residents, the loss of these two great men is incalculable. The entire village is in a state of disbelief, shock and sadness.

A fitting tribute to these men would be a contribution to the Alaska Dive Search Rescue and Recovery Team.* Thank you so much for contributing whatever you can give.

*The Alaska Dive Search Rescue and Recovery Team is a donation funded, all volunteer, unpaid, 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Corporation. Donations are tax deductible.
   Only through charitable donations can their volunteers receive the specialized training needed to perform hazardous missions. It also ensures they can maintain their extensive rescue gear cache and equipment trailer that are required to perform missions around the state.

16 thoughts on “An Incalculable Loss: Tragedy at Chignik Lake

  1. I am so sorry to hear this. Here in Pa I am sorry to have to share the loss of my father who died Thursday. Please share with your parents Jack.

    • Oh, Mark… So sorry to hear that your father is gone. I’m glad I got to hunt with him and learn a bit about birds from him. I don’t maintain contact with my parents… But I do hope they learn of Gil’s passing. I just flashed on a big green frog sitting atop a filing cabinet in your dad’s and Nadine’s office…

  2. I hadn’t asked you for further details about the incident within the last week, because the news would strike me hard like a fist. Then to see the picture of Fred and Nick boating together, and all of this during the holiday. Tell me how I should send my donation.

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