Wild Delicious Refreshing Summer Parfait

Summer in the Chigniks, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

Berries beginning at the bottom:  watermelon berries, blueberries, salmonberries, and nangoon berries (aka wine berries). Simply put – the best way to start a glorious day in the Chigniks.

The Fourth at the Weir

Fourth of July girl, Easton

“Hey there, Yukon Jack, we’re gonna meet at the bend, down there just past FRI and float down to the weir. You and Barb wanna get your skiff and join us?” It was Willard on the phone. Temperatures were pushing just past a balmy 70° and the Alaska sun was high in the sky. With the prospect of tasty grilled food, cold beer and Fourth of July fireworks, why not?

“People are gonna be floating down on their Shamus and I don’t know what else. We’ll meet you there in about 20 minutes,” Willard continued.

“Cool. See you down there.” Shamus?? This oughta be interesting.

Taxiing up from the weir in a trusty Lund modified V-haul – the Ford F150 of The Chigniks.

We quickly threw together a few things, walked to the lake beach in front of our house, fired up the skiff and cruised down to a gravel bar where Alaska Fish & Game weir summer staff were assembling with a variety of floating devices – including the “Shamu” Willard had mentioned. Before us was a wilderness river and the perfect day for a Fourth of July float.

The splashy start of the regatta – a two-mile race to the weir

With about half the participants already on the gravel bar, we waited around for the other half to taxi up by boat from the weir. Salmon parr dimpled the surface of the river and an occasional Sockeye showed itself with a splash. Eagles soared in the distance, and directly across the river, a Brown Bear found a shaded spot beneath an alder and plopped down for a rest.

As races go, this one was pretty casual.

With boats beached, docked or deflated, Willard (right) and his son William got things going with live music. The talented Lind family has been playing all kinds of music on all kinds of instruments for generations.

The weir makes an unusual backdrop for a game of horseshoes. This is where the Chignik’s salmon are counted – hundreds of thousands of fish annually. While we were playing, thousands of salmon – mostly Sockeyes but also a few Chinook as well as a couple of seals – were milling around behind the weir. There’s an escapement opening in the weir – you can see it indicated by a fenced corral area between these two horseshoes participants. Seals as well as salmon use this passage. Cameras connected to monitors inside the weir station record ascending fish.

I hadn’t played horseshoes in 40 years and was game to jump into a 10-participant tournament. After knocking the rust off my tossing arm, I even managed a couple of ringers and a leaner! I rewarded myself with samples of the seven basic food groups – moose, King salmon, chicken wings, baby-back ribs, scallops, cheeseburgers and, for dessert, a perfectly charred, deliciously salty hotdog all hot of the grill. For “salad,” I dug into slices of apple pie and rhubarb cake. No one makes friends with salad! 😉

Heading back upriver to our tiny village on the lake

It doesn’t get dark till after midnight this time of year in the Chigniks, and besides, some of us had to make the upriver run back home. So the fireworks came out while there was still light in the sky. A few pops, bangs, sparkles and smoke, and another Fourth had been properly celebrated – Chignik Style.

Almost home, we came across mama bear and her two cubs. With the early salmon run down compared to previous years, she’s looking a little thin. Hopefully things will pick up with the late run and everyone will get all the fish they want.

Here’s hoping everyone is having a safe, happy summer!

Big Boys of the Bear World: Here Come the Brownies of Chignik Lake

Until the salmon arrive en force, salad’ll have to do. Bigboy has been a regular visitor, here loafing about 40 yards from our living room window.

Between a proliferation of recently fledged finches (Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls), baby Great Horned Owls (downy snowballs, their ears barely showing as tiny tufts of fuzz), a pair of Rough-legged Hawks brooding on their nest, and an abundance of Brown Bears ranging from itty-bitty little triplets all the way up to thousand-pound behemoths (and they grow larger than this), there hasn’t been much time to practice my guitar lately. It seems that no sooner do Barbra and I shoot and process one batch of National-Geographic-esque scenes than another bear (or four) strolls into view outside our window and another shoot is on, followed by another stint editing photos.

At the beach, looking for salmon. He’s gonna ruin his Brad Pitt highlights…

Meanwhile, we’re edging closer to the first 30,000 Sockeyes being counted at the weir – enough salmon to get the bears and everything else from eagles to ravens to us excited, but still only 3% or so of the nearly one million fish we hope will have been counted by the end of summer. Yellow Paintbrush, Chocolate Lilies, Lupine and Wild Geraniums are in full bloom. Salmonberries, Raspberries and Red Currants are beginning to set fruit. The White Spruces, transplanted from Kodiak Island back in the 1950’s when Chignik Lake became a permanently settled village, are sheathed in new, purple-red cones, each a promise of abundant mast this coming winter for the finches, chickadees and sparrows that relish the seeds.

Life at The Lake is bumpin’.

You don’t hear ’em called bluebacks much these days, but blue backs they have. Judging from a puncture on the other side, this Sockeye barely escaped an encounter with one of the Harbor Seals that follow these fish up the river. Badly injured, this is exactly the kind of easy meal patrolling Brownies are looking for.

Not yet wearing the startlingly white plumage of fully mature Bald Eagles, these are probably three-year-olds. The tin roof of a lakeside house Sam Stepanoff built – subsequently flooded out by annual high-water events – is a favorite salmon-watching perch for eagles, ravens and gulls.

So… about those bears….

This male (left) got a little too close to the mom and her twin one-year-olds. She woofed a stern “Stay put!” in Brown Bear to her cubs and then put the intruding male to flight.

The Chignik River drainage is home to one of the densest populations of bears in the world. And these aren’t just any bears. Coastal Browns, big males can push 1,500 pounds and stretch to nearly 10 feet from snout to toe. Growing fat on a diet rich in salmon, sows give birth to as many as four impossibly cute, clumsy, curious cubs.

The village post office is located in a small room on the first floor of the house in the upper left. You can just make out a piece of Chignik Lake’s main road, which the bear is following. The wooden rail in the foreground partitions our yard from the blurry line between settlement and wilderness our village embodies.

The little fella on the right isn’t entirely sure what to do with the salmon head he found down at the beach. Mom just filled up and now will head up Post Office Creek to find a quiet place to nurse the little guys.

When they emerge from their dens in mid to late spring, the bears begin regaining weight by grazing almost constantly on grasses, sedges, roots and other vegetation. But, like most of us humans who call Chignik Lake home, what they really want is salmon.

“Wait up!” By the time they enter their second season, unceasingly curious cubs seem to engage in a constant game of lagging behind to explore and then racing to rejoin mom.

Once the fish start running, the bears begin a perpetual patrol along the riverbanks and lake shoreline. Until the salmon get well up the system and into the various tributaries, there’s no easy place for the bears to catch them. So they amble along, grazing on grass and other vegetation, keeping an opportunistic eye out for any fish that has made easy pickings of itself.

Blondie gives himself a mighty shake after wading the shallows in search of salmon. Still skinny from his winter fast, once the salmon come in he’ll begin putting on serious poundage.

Watch a shoreline for any length of time, cruise up and down the river in a skiff, or simply keep your eyes open as you travel through the village: you’ll see bears. From now through November, we don’t even make the five-minute walk to the Post Office without carrying bear spray. Bears use the little creek we cross on that walk as a thoroughfare. There were four down in there just last night. Two more today. That we saw.

Could be checking to see if Kevin left the key in the ignition of this sweet skiff… more likely it was the scent of a recent catch of halibut from the sea a few miles downriver that had this guy’s attention. 

We do a fair amount of our bear photography right from the dining/living room window of our home which sits only 30 yards from the edge of the lake – a quarter of a football field; six car lengths. In the live-and-let-live world of Chignik Lake, fishermen sometimes leave salmon scraps on the beach and in the shallow water there, knowing that at some point bears, eagles, gulls, ravens and magpies will come along to clean them up.

First thing after getting up and getting dressed this morning – 6:05 AM – I looked out the window. At 6:05:50 I made this photo. If you look closely, you can see salmon parr dimpling the lake as they take emerging midges.

But in actuality, a person could pick just about any piece of lake shoreline or riverbank, commit to sitting and watching, and see bears and other wildlife here. Thus far this season, we’ve counted 13 different individual Brownies. There are more around…

Last night as the sun lingered on past 10 0’clock, then 11 and on toward midnight, it seemed every time we looked out our window there were bears on the beach. First Mom and the triplets, who earlier in the day had surprised us as we were cleaning our skiff. The little ones are still suckling. They waited patiently on the sandy beach, taking turns standing on hind legs in imitation of mom as she scanned the shallows for salmon carcasses, the little guys steadying themselves with small paws pushing on their siblings’ backs.

Later one of the larger males came up the shoreline from the direction of the river. Finding no salmon, he went for a swim in the cove below Fred’s house and headed back down the lake.

Barbra composed this early morning photo about a week ago. 

Not long after that a dark-coated male shot past our house right below our window. Leaning out to watch, we heard the cause for his burst of speed. Suddenly, a roly-poly light-coated male came charging into view, paws falling heavy on the sand 15 feet from our window, the big bear breathing hard, tongue rolling out of his mouth, hot on the trail of the previous bear, leaving us to wonder what the story there might be.

Conversation led to conversation as twilight descended, the snow-capped mountains glowing in the gathering darkness. We recalled our first visit to Alaska back in the summer of 2009. Experiencing the famed midnight sun for the first time that summer, we found it hard to go to sleep – not because of the daylight, but because of all there was to see and do and marvel at.

Eleven years later, it’s still like that.

Waiting for Salmon

Infinite Patience – Bald Eagle scanning for salmon, Chignik Lake, May 20, 2019

Each year from June 1 when Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists begin counting at the weir on Chignik River till late summer when they remove it, an average of over 700,000 Reds (Sockeye Salmon) are tallied making their annual spawning run up this watershed on the remote Alaska Peninsula. In 2015, the number was a staggering 1,123,898 and that’s after a million Reds were taken by commercial fisherman in Chignik Lagoon, the saltwater estuary the river debouches into. Because Alaska persists in the foolishness of allowing “intercept” fisheries further out at sea, it can be difficult to determine precisely how many salmon are headed for the Chignik watershed – perhaps two million on average. Nonetheless, over that past nine years an average of 780,000 Sockeye Salmon have been counted at the weir.

Last year that number plummeted to just 540,000, and that was despite a nearly complete closure of the commercial fishery. It was, quite literally, a disaster. The cases of beef stew, generic peanut butter, lentils, canned fruit cocktail and boxed mac and cheese freighted in by government agencies didn’t begin to offset the economic and psychological hole the Sockeye collapse created.

As I write this, eager neighbors are already setting nets. Here and there an early-returning fish is showing up. But “early” is the operative term. Even in good years, the run doesn’t get going until the first week of June. Sometime during the second week of that month, the first counts of 1,000 fish a day might begin. Later in summer, daily counts will top ten thousand. The Chignik’s feeder streams will be carpeted with spawning fish. Brown Bears and Bald Eagles will be everywhere.

In a good year.

For now it’s still early.

Everyone is waiting…

…and hoping.

They enter the river with muscles of steel, bright as new dimes. By the time they’re ready to spawn, they will fill clear tributaries in a carpet of crimson. They are the lifeblood of the Chigniks. Reds…

 

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.