Twilight, that sliver of light between the day’s last direct sunlight and darkness, is often the prettiest light of the day. I was happy that Fred has his lights on. This shot was taken from the beach in front of our house. (Snowing here this morning, May 6.)
May 1, Tuesday Morning, frost: Eagles are once again daily encounters as they take up familiar roosts and join the village in watching for salmon. A few fish have trickled in, but usually it’s June before the run really gets going. A couple of nice char have been caught. Catkins on the willows, leaf buds everywhere ready to burst. A small flock of Pine Grosbeaks was in the village yesterday, the males as brilliant pinkish-red as they’ll ever be.
It was one of those days when we woke with no plans, and now the day was making a plan for us. The sun slid through a few thin clouds hovering above snowcapped mountains downriver to the east, casting a silvery light across the glassy lake. From our dining room window we could see fish rising, leaving little rings on the lake’s surface.
“We should do a float,” Barbra said. “It’s beautiful.”
“I’ll get breakfast going if you’ll start putting our gear together,” I replied.
Within an hour we were on the water, our inflatable canoe gliding down the lake to the narrows where the water quickens to become Chignik River. Magpies and chickadees called from the banks and as we slipped past the White Spruce Grove we could hear a cacophony rising from the 30 or so Pine Siskins that have spent the winter here. Salmon fry, fingerlings and parr dimpled the river surface all round us, occasionally leaping clear to add a shimmer of silver to the morning light. A kingfisher rattled as it flew overhead. With the shoreline suddenly teaming with small salmon and sticklebacks, our kingfishers will soon be back in numbers. Maybe this will be the year I find a nest.
Behind polarized sunglasses we let our eyes to adjust to the water’s clear-green depths, searching the cobblestone riverbed for the year’s first Sockeyes, a big Dolly Varden or a rare steelhead. No luck, but a neighbor has already found two ocean-bright salmon in his net, the year’s first. A million more are on their way, and with them eagles, harbor seals and bears.
With the wind down and as much time as we cared to take to float the two miles to the barge landing, we let the easy current do most of the work, dipping in our paddles mainly to keep a true course. Being the first boat on the water, we had a good chance to encounter any ducks or swans that might be around. And you never know: bears are just beginning to wake up, and the shores are frequently patrolled by foxes, otters and mink and less frequently by wolves, lynxes and wolverines. We spoke softly, scanned the banks, and listened.
Long before we came around a bend and saw them, we could hear Tundra Swans and mallards honking and quacking in one of their favorite stretches of water. There were just two swans, stately, regal, gracefully gliding along the shoreline to our left. The mallards were a bit of a surprise. There must’ve been 20 or more drakes and hens paired up, feeding on vegetation in the shallows, warily bursting into fight as our raft drifted close.
Further down the river, we came upon a pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes, a rare species in the Chigniks. We sometimes get Common Goldeneyes in the dozens, but years go by between reports of Barrow’s. It’s possible that they might nest here if they can find the right sort of rocky crevice or opening in an abandoned structure of some sort.
On the North side of the river there’s a feeder stream we’d been talking about exploring. So when we came to it, we beached the raft, tied it down and began hiking. The stream is just eight to 15 feet wide on average and shallow enough in places to cross in Muck boots. But the water runs cold and fast and clear over clean rocks and gravel, pooling and eddying in ways that are attractive to salmon. Peering into a riffle, I noticed what appeared to be one long, continuous set of redds – salmon nests – before I thought to give the banks a closer look.
On both sides of the creek, the vegetation had been trampled down in broad swaths, a sure sign that bears heavily use this stream. Sure enough, when we looked down we found the area littered with the winter-bleached spines, gill plates, and tooth-filled jaws of Pink Salmon. We agreed that we’d have to make sure to fish the stream this fall when sea-run char marked in spectacular greens, reds and oranges would follow Pinks into the stream to pick off eggs that aren’t successfully buried in the redds. In places where stands of alder choked down foot traffic, the narrow trails had been worn inches deep into the soil, the work of centuries or perhaps millennia of brown bear comings and goings. Along the shoreline, every patch of sand held a carpet of fox tracks, some old, some fresh.
By the time we returned to our raft, the morning sun was high and temperatures had climbed into the 40s. Millions of tiny black midges were hatching, skittering across the water as they struggled to free themselves from the husks of their pupal stage – activity that was eliciting slashing rises from pinky-sized salmon as well as a few larger char. Mixed in with the midge hatch were a few dark stoneflies as well as big, creamy-brown caddisflies. With days warming and insects hatching, our swallows should be on their way.
Drifting along the rocky bluff across from the salmon-counting weir that the Department of Fish & Game operates from June through September, we came across two large piles of sticks in the still leafless alders – active magpie nests, egg-shaped and roughly the size of a couple of basketballs. Our chickadees, too, seem to be establishing territory and selecting mates, and everywhere new green shoots are pushing up through winter-browned grass.
We beached the boat at the barge landing, deflated it, rolled it up, stuffed it in a backpack and began the three-mile hike home. Along the way we took note of bright green salmonberry shoots, the beginnings of wild irises, an unfamiliar warmth in the air. Earlier in the week it had snowed. But winter’s fighting a losing battle at this point. And every living thing knows it.
Years ago when this house was built, precipitation in mid-October fell in the form of snow, at least in the higher elevations around Chignik Lake, Alaska. But this year, warm weather and consecutive days of rain have pushed the lake close to record levels and the water is still rising. This house, incidentally, was previously abandoned.
The alders surrounding this abandoned, flooded house, too, are a new feature around Chignik Lake which until a few years ago was largely bereft of trees. Now there’s a new thermal dynamic in effect: The trees themselves are darker than the berry plants, sedges and grasses they’re replacing. These darker alders draw in more solar heat, further warming the land, creating a better growing environment for more alders in a cycle that is rapidly changing the landscape. Note the flooded jungle gym on the right. When I asked local residents if this kind of flooding is normal for this time of year, the answer was an emphatic “No.”
While the village’s 50 or so inhabitants are remaining high and dry, the lake’s banks are now perilously close to our neighbor’s duplex and the spring I noticed gushing from beneath the foundation can’t be good. By the way, the blue spruce trees visible in the background were planted decades ago when the Aleut and Alutiiq Natives who had long utilized this area as hunting and fishing grounds decided to build a permanent village here.
Fortunately our own home – the right side of this duplex- is on a little rise overlooking the lake and should be fine. These same-looking buildings are part of the school and the teacher housing complex and, in an appropriate twist on history, are built on land temporarily ceded back to the the government from the Native Alaskans who own it.
The village post office is located on the ground floor of the house in the center of this photo. Normally it’s about a two-and-a-half minute walk from our home, but after four days of rain and with more coming (it’s raining even as I write this) we may need to borrow a skiff to get our mail. The real story in this photo is the small, cold, crystal clear stream that normally flows under this road through a large culvert. Just four weeks ago, the stream filled with Dolly Varden char (a species closely related to brook trout) making their way up from the lake on their annual fall spawning run. With high water blowing out the stream, I can only assume that most of the char’s redds (spawning beds) have become silted in with sand and mud, suffocating the eggs. Thus, an entire year class of char may be lost.
A similar concern exists for the tens of thousands of salmon redds in the river below Chignik Lake as well as thousands of Sockeye salmon reds along the shore of the lake itself. Flooding water is particle-laden water, and these nests are in danger of being silted in. Again, in past years when October precipitation fell as snow, this would not have been a problem.
Barbra doing her best “on the scene weather watch report” impersonation in front of Chignik Lake’s rising water yesterday evening. As far as I can determine, we don’t have an official meteorological station here in the village, and reports from the next closest station can be wildly inaccurate due to mountains and a marine effect. Up to this point, winds – some of them gusting to gale force – have been coming out of the south. There’s a lull at the moment. The concern is that when those winds switch around and start coming out of the Northeast – which they invariably seem to do here – additional water will be pushed out of the upper lake, Black Lake, down the Black River and into Chignik Lake. So even as the rain appears to be subsiding somewhat, we may continue to see rising water levels.
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.)