All Quiet at The Lake

Dawn, late February, Chignik Lake, Alaska

It has been a winter unlike our previous two at Chignik Lake – quiet, even by the quiet standards we’ve become accustomed to. Pine Siskins, dozens of them, have taken over the White Spruce Grove. A raucous lot, it may be that they’ve driven off most other birds. In any event, the Dark-eyed Juncos and other sparrows of past years have been all but absent, and we’ve not seen a sign of Golden-crowned Kinglets, Redpolls or wrens. There’ve been fewer, far fewer, ducks on the lake this year as well. Perhaps this unusually warm Alaskan winter has given waterfowl other open water to choose from. And while we did spot our first ever winter-white Short-tailed Ermine as well as a pure white Collared Lemming awhile back, otherwise wildlife has been scarce, a very occasional fox, otter or seal notwithstanding.

A friend has been setting a net and catching a few Sockeyes. Mirror bright, free of sea lice and small at just 22 inches or so, they are almost undoubtedly representatives of a resident lacustrine population – kokanees that never migrate out to sea but spend their lifecycle in the lake. One such fish is on the dinner menu for this evening. I will poach it whole in a broth of clam juice, lemon and saffron. The broth in turn will serve as the base for a salmon bisque.

As quiet as it has been, Barbra and I remain as busy as ever. There are unending lists of new recipes and baking, many thousands of photographs from previous adventures to edit, Barbra’s duties as a teacher to attend to, literature to read and study and future adventures to plan for. We’re looking forward to slightly warmer weather when we can more comfortably work on our fly-casting. We’re both on pace to be in shape to run a half-marathon this summer – our first in 10 years. Meanwhile, I’ve been putting in full days and then some between putting together articles for magazines and my new interest, learning to play an acoustic steel string guitar. The quiet provides a pleasant backdrop for these activities.

Only three months till Sockeyes begin returning to the Chignik River. Biologists are forecasting a strong run. It’s raining on the Lake this morning, but there’s new snow on the mountains. A neighbor reports hearing our owls make “strange noises” lately. Spring is coming.

 

 

When Evergreens are too Precious to Cut, Why not Craft Your Own Christmas Tree?

A beaver obliged by stripping the bark from the trunk of this hand-crafted holiday tree. A drill and a few Alder branches were the only other materials required. With almost all of our Christmas ornaments in storage in Sacramento, California, we had fun hanging items on hand here in Chignik Lake. 

The few White Spruce trees around Chignik Lake are not native to the area. They were brought from Kodiak Island and are too valuable for what they add to the landscape and as refuges for birds (they love the dense cover and the cone seeds) to even contemplate cutting for use as Christmas trees. So we crafted our own tree using abundant Alders as branches and a section of a beaver-gnawed stick we’d found while out hiking.

When we lived in Shishmaref and Point Hope, we had a tree we’d crafted from driftwood from the beaches of Sarichef Island where Shishmaref is located. It was nice, but we like our new tree even better. With all the decorations from that first tree carefully packed away and put in storage when we moved to Mongolia for two years, we didn’t have much on hand when it came to decorating our Alder tree. So we used our imaginations.

An assortment of seashells, brass bells (presented to us for good luck), tiny decorative birds and carved wooden trout we’d collected on our recent bike trek in Hokkaido were rounded out with some of our more colorful salmon fishing flies. We placed our collection of Japanese glass fishing floats beneath the boughs along with a decorative lamp made from recycled glass we also sent back from Hokkaido. Two strings of fairy lights competed the decorations.

Lights on we stepped back…

…and had to agree that of all the trees we’ve put up over the years, this is our favorite.

Sometimes it’s the Little Things: Farm Fresh Vegetables in Bush Alaska

Courtesy of The Farm in Port Alsworth, a newly-arrived box of fresh vegetables fit to inspire any food-lover.

Once a week flown in a little bush airplane, a box shows up packed with freshly picked vegetables. It’s like having a birthday each week!

We’ve written a number articles about how we get food out to the tiny, remote Alaskan bush villages where we live. There’s a story about carefully packing a year’s worth of food from Costco into durable Rubbermaid tubs. More recently, we’ve been ordering much of our food from the Fred Meyer grocery store on Debarr Road in Anchorage. The people there take great care getting our groceries out to us, sending us impeccably wrapped and packed goods usually within about four days of the request. Amazon’s grocery store is another great way to get groceries, although sometimes that involves a wait of several weeks. When we lived in Point Hope we discovered a company in Washington called Full Circle, which mails farm fresh gourmet vegetables to select communities in Alaska. We would get multi-colored carrots and Swiss chard, yellow beets, and pink haricots verts. These premium veggies came at a premium price, but I will admit that after eating frozen vegetables our first year in the bush, we threw our budget to the wind in the name of fresher, tastier fare. Besides, it was fun to experiment in our cooking with colorful and interesting ingredients.

When we moved to Chignik Lake, we heard about “The Farm” in Port Alsworth. It was almost spoken as a whisper – a secret to be kept tight within an inner circle. The scoop was that they would sync orders with local flights and ship boxes filled with vegetables picked that very morning. Freshly picked veggies? Right to our door? The same day they’re picked? Our response – “What’s the phone number?” In the same secretive way we’d first heard about this magical place, we were handed a phone number. Imagine a folded slip of paper passed from one to another during a knowing handshake. When I looked up The Farm in Port Alsworth on the internet, I was surprised to discover that there was no evidence of such a place. I took out the note with the scrawled number and called.

“Hello?” an informal voice came through the receiver. Oh, dear. I must have a wrong number, I remember thinking. They should have answered the phone with a jaunty, “The Farm!” Right?

Tentatively I asked, “Is this The Farm?”

“Yes!” came the cheerful reply. Sometimes things in Alaska don’t come about the way one might imagine.

“The Farm” is actually “The Farm Lodge.” Located in Port Alsworth on beautiful Lake Clark, the lodge is operated by the same company that runs Lake Clark Air, which we regularly fly with. The lodge features a picturesque greenhouse, inviting grounds and accommodations for guests who travel to Port Alsworth for nature viewing, hunting and fishing expeditions. In addition to world class salmon fishing and wildlife photo opportunities, the lodge boasts excellent home cooked meals featuring, of course, their garden fresh vegetables. Since Chignik Lake is a regular stop for Lake Clark Air, we benefit from the surfeit of fresh produce grown in their greenhouse.

They may not have multi-colored beets or artisan green beans, but they nonetheless offer wonderful produce. We’ve received many of the crisp favorites one might find in a typical garden – cucumbers, green-leaf lettuce, tomatoes, chard, beets, radishes, bell peppers and sugar snap peas. With long hours of summertime daylight, Alaska is famous for the truly humongous size certain vegetables attain up here. The cabbage that came in our box last week was as big as a large mixing bowl – and yet it turned out to be only half the original head!

The only downside to The Farm’s service is that the growing season ends in October. But until then, we have all the fresh vegetables we can eat to go with meals of the equally fresh salmon we catch in the river in front of our house!

If you are in our area and would like to participate in The Farm Lodge’s special deliveries, here is the secret phone number (907) 310-7630.

May 1 Plane Crash near Chignik Lake: A Tribute to our Bush Pilots

A nine-seater from Grant Aviation cuts through the mountains just after leaving Chignik Lake this past March.

They’ve been called Alaska’s cowboys, and life without them would range from difficult to impossible for those of us in the remote parts of Alaska that make up most of the state. They’re our bush pilots – the men and women who navigate the trackless wilderness between population hubs and the isolated communities we and thousands of other Alaskans call home. They bring us everything from mail to grocery staples to visitors (when we’re lucky enough to have them). With skill and confidence, these men and women navigate through weather that can change in a blink (it alternately was sunny, rained, snowed, hailed and rained again as I wrote this morning) and through winds most of us wouldn’t even want to take a walk in. We complain a little among ourselves when the planes don’t fly (earlier this year we went for over a week with no mail as our Brussels sprouts and other groceries languished in King Salmon) and we grumble when grounded flights mean truncated vacation time or a delay in friends reaching us. But we understand – safety first. And we know that if it’s possible to fly, the pilots serving Southwest Alaska – our pilots – will be in the air.

Yesterday we lost one.

By mid-afternoon word had swept through the village that a Grant Aviation plane – a Cessna Grand Caravan, the nine-seaters that are fairly standard in the bush – had gone missing. It was en route from Port Heiden to Perryville (see map at end of article), scheduled to arrive at 2:15 PM. At 2:00, just 15 minutes out of Perryville, the plane’s Emergency Locator sounded. The pilot, making a cargo and mail run, was the vessel’s only passenger.

This photo was taken near Perryville, a coastal community about 28 miles southwest of Chignik Lake. The Aleutian Mountain Range sprawls across the Alaska Peninsula. It’s breathtakingly rugged country where high winds can spring up out of nowhere. The name Chignik means “Big Winds.”

Soon afterwards, a Coast Guard C-130 and an MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter began combing the mountainsides, tundra and lakes around Chignik Lake. In fact, the chopper landed here to take aboard volunteers to serve as additional pairs of eyes out the helicopter’s windows. At 5:49 PM, 3,000 feet up on a steep mountainside at a place known as Windy Pass, the wreckage was spotted. A rescue swimmer was subsequently lowered to the crash site where he confirmed that the pilot had died. Given the difficult terrain and cloud cover, recovery of the pilot’s body and the cargo he was carrying will be challenging.

Gabriele Cianetti, 54, the pilot of the downed Cessna 208B, touched many lives, including ours. Our thoughts and condolences go out to his family and friends as well as to his extended family at Grant Aviation. Additionally, our deep appreciation is extended to the men and women of the United States Coast Guard: Semper Paratus – Always Ready.

The Chignik Lake airstrip at dawn. The pilots who serve our community and Alaska’s other bush communities are true heroes in a land where air travel is not a luxury, but a necessity.

The above map includes Port Heiden, where the plane departed from and Perryville, where the plane was heading. Chignik Lake is marked in red.

Additional details for this article were pulled from KTVA news and Alaska Dispatch News.

November Light: Old Tikigaq and Project Chariot – 160 Hiroshimas in the Arctic

umiak sunrise n

November 29, 12:46 p.m.: Framed below a seal skin umiak whaling boat, the sun edged itself above the southern horizon and lingered for just two hours and 24 minutes. On December 7, the sun will stay below the horizon and remain there for 28 days.

In 1958, under the direction of Edward Teller, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) devised a plan to detonate a series of nuclear devices 160 times the force of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. These bombs were to be exploded just 30 miles southwest of the Inupiat village of Point Hope, Alaska. Teller’s plan – if an action so dangerous and misguided can even be called such – was to blast out a harbor in this far north coastline. The United States government didn’t bother to tell the local residents of this scheme. Nor did they take into consideration that the land in question dId not belong to the United States government; it was and still is sovereign Inupiat territory.

old tikigaq bones nov light n

Whale bones mark a sod igloo buried in snow in the ghost town of Old Tikigaq, which was abandoned in the mid 1970’s. Although the sun is only in the sky briefly in November, it is a glorious time of year. This is the November light we have been waiting for.

A caribou hunting party stumbled across AEC engineers and para-military personnel encamped at the mouth of Ogoturuk Creek, near Cape Thompson. That’s when the questions and the lies began.

grass snow dawn n

Grass silhouetted against the southern sky just before dawn, the frozen sea stretching to the horizon near Point Hope, Alaska.

In the end, Teller’s heartless plan was stopped. The bombs were never detonated. The experiment to determine how much radiation local flora, fauna and humans could survive was never carried out.

This is a story of heroes. There was Howard Rock, the co-founder of the Tundra Times, a highly educated, literate Inupiat leader who wrote the first, insistent letters to the United States government demanding that this plan be immediately halted. There were the white scientists from the University of Fairbanks, Pruitt and Viereck, who raised their voices against the project, and in standing up for the Inupiat people and standing against the government were fired by University President, William Wood, who played a less noble role in this story. There were the millions of citizens in the United States and all over the world who were in the streets, protesting nuclear tests of this kind. And there are the people of Point Hope who stood up to the government then and who are still fighting to force the United States government to tell the whole story of Project Chariot.

Because this story is not over.

old tikigaq house winter n

Over time, as erosion steadily ate away the finger of land jutting into the Chukchi Sea, the old town had to be abandoned. This fall, the entire area was inundated with water when high winds and hurricane force gusts pushed sea water over the rock sea wall protecting the north side of the point.

Although Teller lost his bid to detonate the world’s most destructive arms, in what feels like a tit-for-tat payback, under his direction, in secret, another group of engineers and military personnel were dispatched to the Project Chariot site. This time, they spread radioactive waste on the ground and in the stream. And they buried something there. Something in large, sealed drums.

To this day, the United States government has refused to divulge what was buried.

Since that time, the incidence of cancer has been higher than the national norm among the people of Point Hope. Higher than it should be, even taking into consideration other factors. These are some of the best people we’ve ever had the honor to be associated with. Kind, generous, resourceful, resilient, tough. Their government owes them answers.

whale jaw arches dawn n

Tell-tale tracks leave evidence that an Arctic fox was patrolling Old Tikigaq just before we hiked out. These whale bone jaws located near the airstrip a mile and a half from town welcome visitors to Point Hope. The area around Point Hope is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the Americas – maybe the oldest. While many Inupiat (Eskimo) cultures were nomadic, here the animals came to the people. The point of Point Hope formerly extended far to the west out into the Chukchi sea, bringing the land in close proximity to migratory paths of seals, whales, walruses, char, salmon and other fish. Two impressive capes, Thompson to the south, Lisburne to the north, are home to tens of thousands of sea birds. To the east, Point Hope is situated near the migratory route of thousands of caribou. The sea and the land are the garden that has sustained people here for thousands of years.

For more about Project Chariot, see the book The Firecracker Boys by Dan O’Neill. And although it is difficult to obtain a copy, there is an excellent, 73-minute documentary film titled Project Chariot, copyrighted 2013 NSBSD & Naninaaq Productions: UNCIVILIZED FILMS.

First Sea Ice, Point Hope 2013

snow arc point hope beach n

Wind and cold sculpted this mixture of sea spray and snow into a delicate arch. The sea ice has been late in coming to the Chukchi Sea this year. This photo was taken at 3:00 p.m. with the winter sun already skimming low on the horizon. Our month of day-long darkness will begin December 6.

The thick, slushy sea ice hisses and softly moans as it moves with the current past ice already frozen fast to shore. The hissing is vaguely reminiscent of a soft autumn breeze filtering through the dry leaves of oaks and maples in my native Pennsylvania. The moans sound like the muted voices of whales deep below the sea. All else is still, the ice stretching out as far as one can see. There is no wind, and there is no other sound.

sea jelly caught in ice n

This sea jelly, entombed in shore ice, is about the size of a polar bear’s paw.

We searched for signs of life, perhaps a seal out on the ice or a snowy owl coursing the shoreline, or even the tracks of an Arctic fox. There is nothing, just the steady hiss of the ice as it flows before us. We walk along the pebbled beach for maybe a mile and finally spot a small group of ravens. Tough birds, making a living up here during the winter.

point hope frozen beach n

If you look closely among the rocks along the Point Hope Beach, it’s common to find jade. Less common are fragments of mastodon tusks.

first sea ice 2013 n

Thick ice prevents the shore from eroding during winter storms. Polar bears depend on the ice to hunt seals. Things are changing up here. The ice seems to be coming later, and there is less of it. Red foxes are becoming more common, pushing out their smaller Arctic cousins. Once winter truly locks up the sea and the sun sinks below the horizon, there is no place on earth that is quieter. It is cold and stark but beautiful. 

sea jelly caught in ice b n

We don’t always take our big cameras along on walks. Today we relied on “Little Blue,” our Cannon PowerShot D10, our trusty point and shoot.

Ptarmigan and Cloudberries: A Walk on Alaska’s Arctic Tundra

willow ptarmigan pair n

Looking almost like exquisite mounts in a museum diorama, these Willow ptarmigan (Lagopus lagopus) proved to be quite approachable. While hiking on the tundra near Point Hope in September we came across two coveys totaling about 20 birds.

cloudberries early frost

Nipped with frost, these cloudberries tasted like sorbet and were no doubt what had drawn the ptarmigan.

willow ptarmigan jack shooting n

Barbra cautiously approached the birds as I lay on my stomach, inching through the boggy terrain, shooting, hoping a few shots might come out.

willow ptarmigan solitary n

The plumage of these fall birds is in transition from the mottled browns and reds of summer to the snow white of winter. These are the same species as the red grouse of Scotland.

willow ptarmigan barbra approaching n

Barbra crouches and stalks closer to the birds. Note the densely feathered legs. The Latin lagopus translates to “hare foot” for the resemblance of ptarmigans’ feather-covered legs and feet to those of snowshoe hares. 

caribou antler fall tundra n

There’s always evidence of a rich ecosystem on the Arctic tundra. Caribou antlers, bird nests, animal burrows and an amazing array of plants are part of our walks.

brown bear track tundra beach n

Brown bears (grizzlies) are common visitors to the beaches and tundra near Point Hope. We found a set of fresh tracks along the shores of an inlet off the Chukchi Sea not far from where we encountered the ptarmigan. Red foxes, Arctic foxes, Arctic ground squirrels, weasels and caribou are frequently seen mammals. Wolves and musk oxen are less common, but also figure in the mix. In the foothills and mountains east of Point Hope there are wolverines and at higher elevations, Dall sheep. Rarely, moose are seen in the scrub willows along the nearby Kukpuk River, and during the winter months polar bears show up both on the sea ice and on land. 

snow geese lifting off n

During the fall migration, snow geese are fairly common. (Above and below)

snow geese lifting off close n

Brandt, Canada geese, and a wide variety of ducks and shore birds are also common.

willow ptarmigan in flight n

When the ptarmigan finally had enough of us, they glided off a few yards, regrouped and resumed feeding. At that point we turned for home. 

cloudberries frozen in hand n

A handful of frozen sweetness for the road. 

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A pair of sandhill cranes lifts off above the last of the cotton grass on the tundra near Point Hope.