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. 

Morning Nature Walk, the Chigniks, Alaska: Landscapes, New Birds & the Season’s First Bear Photos

A Sandhill Crane fluffs his feathers on a patch of tundra and scrub a short hike from Chignik Lake. The photos accompanying this article were all taken on May 23, 2019 within 2½ miles of this village of about 50 residents.

We got an early start and this chubby fellow or gal appears to be barely awake. Wonderful singers, Sooty Fox Sparrows might be the most abundant bird in and around the village right now. Their only rival in that regard are Wilson’s Warblers.

While I focused on a warbler singing near the creek, Barbra turned around and got this elegant frame looking back at one of the village’s abandoned houses and the wooden jungle gym at the old playground.

The weather doesn’t always cooperate. All last night it rained hard and blew a gale, the winds whistling around our snug little home on The Lake. I listened and listened for the little Saw Whet Owl that has been coming around to wake me the past few nights. I could hear waves slapping the sandy beach, the wind… but no owl. There’s light in the sky over the mountains across the lake to the east as I begin this piece of writing in the pre-dawn. Maybe it’ll clear up. After a winter of day after day of spot-on weather forecasts, Spring has returned such prognostication to its usual hit and miss spin of the roulette wheel. It’s supposed to be raining right now, but the sky is clearing. If it does I’ll go out and look for birds. With just four weeks remaining in our life at The Lake, we’re making every day count.

It’s spring and everyone is singing. One of the morning’s objectives was to photograph the Hermit Thrushes that came in with Wilson’s Warblers about a week ago. I’m still looking for a great shot, one with catchlight in the subject’s eye and the bird near enough to crop in portrait close, but this is a start.

Two days ago we woke to a sky that was broken but clearing. The faintest of breezes barely rippled the lake’s surface. We hurried through breakfast, got our camera gear in order, packed a small bag of trail mix and a water bottle, grabbed our binoculars and headed out. Bird song was everywhere and our recently-arrived Tree and Violet-green Swallows had already taken command of the skies. Three elements make for a good birding walk: little or no wind, nice light and birds. We had all three.

We weren’t sure if these Black-capped Chickadees were gleaning insects or gathering nesting material from the last of the catkins in this willow. Either way they didn’t sit still for a moment.

Before we even came to the edge of the village, about a quarter mile walk from our door, we identified 10 species of birds. (There’s a list of what we encountered at the end of this article.) With copses of White Spruce, thickets of alder and willow, salmonberry brakes, open patches of grasses and flowers, rolling terrain, a creek filled with small char and salmon parr and a large lake and river where midges and other insects are constantly hatching, the local landscape features diverse habitat and varied food sources. The dozens of nesting boxes established throughout the village further add to Chignik Lake as a bird paradise.

He’s up there! A tiny speck at the top of the tree on the right, you’d think this Wilson’s Warbler would feel safe from the gentle photographer far below. But I know from experience that as I’m not shooting from a blind, I’m already pushing the bird’s comfort zone. A step or two closer and he’ll disappear. 

Thus far in my ongoing project to document birds within a three-mile radius of The Lake, I’ve identified 76 species, the recent appearance of the Saw Whet Owl being the 76th. Because until recently Barbra’s school district didn’t allow teachers to remain in the district’s housing beyond the school year, this is the first summer we’ve been able to stay for summertime birding. Already this has allowed us to more thoroughly document the two species of swallows that visit The Lake each year, and we’re told that a short way down the river is a colony of Bank Swallows as well. We’re keenly interested to see what else might turn up over the next four weeks.

And there he is, all 4¾ inches of male Wilson’s Warbler, dapper in his jaunty black cap, king of his world overlooking Post Office Creek. In previous years we’ve had quite a few Yellow Warblers and a very few Orange-crowned Warblers as well, but no sign of either of those yet. 

Wilson’s Snipe nest right here in the village. Their vocalizations and winnowing can be heard throughout the day, but I can count on three fingers the times I’ve been close enough to a sitting snipe to get a decent photograph; I’m still looking for my first Chignik Lake shots.

At times, Golden-crowned Sparrows can be cooperative subjects. We have one that visits the lawn just outside our door multiple times a day and no longer pays much attention to our comings and goings. But the bird in this photo is less accustomed to human traffic and chose to eye us warily from inside a thicket of branches while I composed this shot. 

A lightly-traveled ATV trail begins at the Northwest edge of the village and winds its way over varied terrain through patches of crowberry and cranberry, stands of fireweed, willow and alder thickets, bog and tundra all the way to the mouth of Clarks River. We’ve hiked this path often, seldom encountering anyone along the way. Muddy places along the trail often have imprinted evidence of foxes, wolves, bears and moose. We pause often to listen and to look and even to use our noses.

It is a landscape that invites a hike, and on a day like this… who can say “No?”

Every hike is different. The landscape changes from day to day, and with the shifting play of light sometimes the changes are from moment to moment. In the depths of winter, it is possible to hike this trail and encounter nothing save for perhaps a handful of chickadees – a species we’ve come to greatly admire for their intelligence and tenacity. The Native American wisdom that “Every animal knows more than you know,” sinks home when you’re out on a cold, blustery day and these little guys are going about their business, thriving. On this morning we took note of the receding snow line, budding alders, willows leafing out and new flowers, fresh shoots of all kinds of plants popping up everywhere – geranium, yarrow, fireweed, lupine, iris, cow parsnip, star gentian… Each of these plants is like a calendar of the summer, marking the days in different stages of growth.

Is there any plant more graceful than a springtime fern unfurling?

The more you walk, the more you learn, until eventually the generalized mix of bird song is differentiated into individual voices – the chattering of a certain type of warbler, the melancholy Here I am… of a sparrow. What was once a wash of varicolored green becomes an intricate web of individual plants, each kind with its own name, lifecycle and place in this complex ecosystem. Over time you come to know where the owls roost, how to find the nests of ground-nesting sparrows, what kind of tracks have been left in the sand and perhaps how long ago they were placed there. A bird lets you have a glimpse of its form as it flits across the path and where many miles of walking ago you might have thought to yourself “a bird,” you now know precisely what kind of bird and where it might nest and what it likes to eat and you know all this without thinking much about it. It just is.

We have been coming across tracks for close to two weeks – tracks left by large bears, tracks left by sows and their cubs, tracks left by young adults perhaps embarking on their first full season alone. But these were the first two bears we’ve seen this year. Skinny from a dormant winter and quite likely from not having gotten as many salmon as they would have liked given the low return of salmon to the Chignik River last year, these spring bears will manage to begin to put on weight on a diet of grass and tubers. They’ll even eat insects this time of year.

Two miles up the trail a steep bluff provides a vantage point overlooking the lake and an adjacent savannah-like area. We always stop here to glass for wildlife – bears on the beaches, ducks on the water and anything that might happen to be out in the flat where we’ve seen foxes, cranes and signs of wolves, bears and moose. It’s a good place to look for Savannah Sparrows, another species that just recently arrived.

We’ve come to call this view of the lake The Infinity Pool.

Far out on the lake, a few Black Scoters were milling around, occasionally quacking. A young Harbor Seal, barely more than a pup, popped up to have give us a curious look. Three or four Bald Eagles and half a dozen Mew Gulls were resting on a sand spit at the mouth of Clarks. While Wilson’s Warblers and Fox and Golden-crowned Sparrows seemed to be everywhere, the Savannah Sparrows we’d hoped to photograph proved to be more elusive. Here and there we’d hear their distinctive, almost blackbird-like call, but aside from a couple of distant views through binoculars, we didn’t have much luck. We left the grassy area to follow the lake shore. As our boots crunched along the sandy beach, little schools of shore-hugging salmon parr skittering for deeper water.

This stickleback was so ripe with eggs she could barely swim. I cupped her in my hands for a quick photo and released her into a patch of filamentous algae where she tucked in. The Chignik watershed has two types of stickleback – Three-spined and Nine-spined. Slow swimmers, they are preyed upon by everything from River Otters to Mergansers. Most of the time when I see a duck with a fish, it’s a stickleback. 

Seeing young salmon along the lake shore and in the several small creeks feeding in the lake always puts a lightness in our hearts. Sockeyes and Coho and lots of them. When a midge hatch is on, the surface of the lake becomes dimpled as though rain is falling as these fish rise to intercept the insects. When I turned over a few rocks in one of the streams, to my surprise I found the undersides to be thick with mayfly nymphs. There were also a few stoneflies, which equally surprised me. In late summer we’ve been here for the heaviest midge hatches we’ve ever witnessed, but other than sporadic hatches of caddisflies we haven’t noticed much else, a very occasional stonefly and a few small mayflies notwithstanding. The undersides of lake rocks can be thick with caddis cases, so there must be significant hatches of those at some point. And if the feeder streams are home to mayflies, maybe we’ll be around for a hatch of those. There’s always something new to look forward to.

We call this stretch of the trail The Tunnel – a fitting name when it’s crowded in with leafed out alders. We’re usually quiet hikers, but in places such as this where you can’t see more than a few feet ahead, we make a little noise, not wishing to surprise or be surprised by any four-legged beings.

Well, the morning’s half gone. A big patch of blue has pushed its way through the clouds and although the best light is past, it might still be worth it to go out for a look around. Yellow Warblers should be showing up any time now, and I’m still looking for a photograph of a Hermit Thrush with a bit of catchlight in its eye.

Here’s the list of the birds we came across on this walk:

Black Scoter
Common Merganser
Tundra Swan
Greater Yellowlegs
Wilson’s Snipe
Sandhill Crane
Mew Gull
Bald Eagle
Black-billed Magpie
American Robin
Hermit Thrush
Black-capped Chickadee
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Wilson’s Warbler
Savannah Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Sooty Fox Sparrow
Redpoll
Pine Siskin

The Hike to Clarks River: An Alaska-Sized Landscape on the Remote Southwest Peninsula

Like a vast infinity pool, Chignik Lake pulls in the mountains and sky and seems to go on forever. 

We woke before dawn to clear skies, still air and frost. With noon temperatures projected to reach a nearly summer-like high of 50° F, it was the perfect day for the three-mile hike from Chignik Lake up to Clarks River. By the time we downed hot bowls of steel cut oats and slabs of energy-rich, thick-cut bacon, the sun had cleared the snow-capped mountaintops across the lake from our house. Outside the air was still brisk from the nighttime freeze, but American Robins, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Sooty Fox Sparrows, Pine Grosbeaks and Redpolls were already filling the sleepy village with song. We didn’t know it yet, but Violet-green Swallows would arrive later in the day to add to the chorus.

By the time we hit the trail, soft sunlight was beginning to brush the frost off crowberry plants and other vegetation.

Skim ice covered puddles and everything about the morning felt crisp and full of promise. Savannah Sparrows sang from brushy perches. Somewhere down by the lake a Sandhill Crane trumpeted in brassy notes. On a morning like this, there was no telling what we might see. I tapped the bear spray in my coat pocket. We stopped often to listen and to glass patches of open tundra and hillsides.

Most of the catkins were finished. In places bathed in light during these 18-hour spring days willows were leafed out in brilliant green.

As we approached Lower Pond, a pair of Black-capped Chickadees emerged from a tangle of still bare alders to look us over. A crane soared low over the path and landed somewhere out of sight. Fresh avalanche runs tongued the steep Chignik Mountain slopes, still buried in snow. When we hit the Blueberry Bog, a snipe exploded from an edge that often seems to have one of these wary, secretive birds. Mindful of not bothering a possible nest, we kept moving.

Barbra hikes into a landscape traversed by fewer than 100 living people. Clarks River lies straight ahead. The lake is to the right. 

As we hiked we noted that Fireweed shoots were at the perfect stage for picking. We’d brought along a small bag to gather some on the way back to add to the evening’s teriyaki salmon stir-fry.

Wildlife tracks ran all along the beach, their number and variety increasing the closer we got to the river. Seldom seen, wolves are always around, as this track attests.

One for the books, this is the largest Brown Bear track we’ve ever come across. With males routinely topping 1,000 pounds and sometimes exceeding a standing height of 9 feet, Chignik’s bears are among the world’s largest, rivaling those of Kodiak Island in size. An abundance of salmon makes for a healthy bear population – and a healthy ecosystem in general. Barbra’s sunglasses measure 5¾ inches from temple to temple.

In addition to lots of fox tracks, two sets of wolf tracks and several sets of bear tracks, it was evident that a troupe of River Otters had recently been through the area. Though it was mostly quiet under the mid-morning sun, a Red-throated Grebe rested out on the lake, and along the far shore we could just make out Scaup, a Red-breasted Merganser and a few Common Goldeneyes. Savannah Sparrows sang and flitted from bush to bush and as we approached the mouth of Clarks, a yellowlegs or perhaps a Wandering Tattler took off up the river.

The remains of a feast, this bleached piece of Red Salmon jaw was a reminder of last fall when the banks of Clarks were trampled down into a bear highway and the shores and shallows were carpeted with spawned-out Sockeyes and Silvers.

We paused to let our eyes search a pool below a beaver dam in a small tributary before Clarks, recalling a fall when we’d seen it stacked with maybe a thousand Coho Salmon. The beavers, like those salmon, are long gone. Tiny salmon fry and parr darted through the pool in tight schools, the parr occasionally rising to take a midge off the water’s surface. Around the pool’s edge, the first light pink salmonberry blossoms were opening.

Clarks River forks just before it debauches into the lake. This is the lower, quieter piece of water. In late summer and fall, tens of thousands of salmon ascend this cold, snow-fed river.

We found a warm spot in the sun on the sandy beach, made a makeshift picnic blanket of my coat amidst otter tracks, and had lunch. Magpies chattered from a distance as we scarfed down trail mix and reminisced about the fine fly-fishing we’d had at the mouth of this river for bright Silvers. You never stop scanning for bears when you’re out here, and of course there are the wolves. The salmon will return soon, new birds are steadily filling the landscape and there’s the prospect of getting that gargantuan Brown Bear in the view finder of one of our cameras – so many incentives to get out into this country to look around.

Philosophies for Learning to Play the Guitar at 60: The Final Philosophy

Sunrise April 6, 2019. A golden new day in Chignik Lake.

Philosophy #21

Express Gratitude. Growing up, I had a difficult time imagining what 60 would be like for me. The people in my life who were around that age seemed old. I think, looking back on it, that in truth most of them were old. I wasn’t exposed to many (any?) models of older people who were physically fit, active, still exploring new ideas, and welcoming into their lives new music, new passions or fresh perspectives. A few of the older people I knew sometimes got into a car or boarded a plane and went somewhere – to go see, more than to go do.

Sitting. What I remember most about the older people I knew back then was the sitting. Lots and lots of sitting.

In 1974 my family took a spring vacation trip from our home in Clarion, Pennsylvania to Washington, D.C. I was 14. The ostensible reason for the trip was my father’s interest in an international wrestling tournament in which one of Clarion State’s wrestlers, Wade Shallas, was participating. But to my young mind, the wrestling tournament was almost irrelevant. In the spring of 1974, Washington was electrified. 

Further south than Clarion, everything was already bright spring green. Magnolia trees covered with big, showy blooms seemed to be everywhere. Attired in the kind of post-Haight Ashbury garb I’d only seen on TV and in magazines, people were busking, selling art and hand-made pot holders, giving soap box speeches or loosely milling around signs, tight in their own earnest discussions. The Watergate Scandal was exploding. Then President Richard Nixon had fired special prosecutor Archibald Cox the previous November, senior Whitehouse aides J. R. Haldeman and John Ehrlichman had just resigned and Whitehouse Counsel John Dean’s head was about to roll. Impeach the Cox-sucker! one of those signs shouted. Coming from the tiny mountain town of Clarion it was like leaving a world of somnambulance for one wide awake.

But amidst the flowers and buskers, the street hawkers and protestors, the wrestling and the (in my then very limited experience) fancy hotel where we were staying, over the years my mind has continually returned to one image.

Tennis was hugely popular in the ’70’s, and as we strolled the streets we came upon a park of lovely, tree-shaded courts. With heads of impeccably coiffed white hair and crisp, white tennis attire, the couple volleying a ball back and forth must’ve been in their sixties. Yet both the man and the woman hit with real power, and the way they dashed around the court gave them the impression of being half their chronological ages.

In that moment, watching them play, I formulated what was to become a salient life goal. I could be like those two.

The image that couple modeled, and the goal I set for myself back then have stayed with me for 46 years.

And so, in my 50’s, I learned to sail, guided myself to fishing firsts including fly-caught salmon, backpacked remote country in Denali National Park, found my own dinosaur fossil on a trip to the Gobi Desert while living in Mongolia, helped a group of Eskimo friends haul a whale up onto the ice, took up photography, got into birding, kept my cool when charged by a thousand pound bear and at 59 went off on my first-ever bike trek, a self-guided 1,300 miles through Hokkaido, Japan.

I wake up every day grateful for every day. I go to bed every night thankful for the day that transpired and looking forward to the next. And between those two times, I strive to keep myself fit, active and growing. I don’t do this merely for myself. If my own interests were the only motivation, I’m sure I’d have lost momentum and replaced it with the TV remote control years ago. My hope, every day, is that in some way I might help or even inspire someone else. I’m lucky, and I know I’m lucky. Maybe a young person who saw us on our bike trek will one day herself embark on a similar adventure. Maybe a fisherman who has always dreamed of catching a salmon will make this the year they go out and give it a try. Maybe someone who had given up the idea that they could learn to play the guitar will revisit that dream.

None of us knows what tomorrow or even the next moment will bring. It’s good to be alive.

 

 

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.

 

 

Whale Bones and Crosses, the Cemetery at Point Hope

Whale Bones & Crosses, Point Hope, Alaska

Perhaps its most iconic landmark, the cemetery at Point Hope, Alaska, is enclosed in Bowhead Whale ribs positioned as one would a picket fence. The above image was made at 2:25 PM, November 7. At that time of year, there are slightly less than six hours between sunrise and sunset. By early December, the sun sinks completely below the horizon and will not show itself again for 32 days.

In 1890, three years after a commercial whaling base called Jabbertown had been established near the village, the first Christian missionary arrived in Point Hope. A doctor by profession, it is reported that John Driggs performed “heroic” medical work, but his attempts at converting the village’s inhabitants to his religious beliefs were unsuccessful. In fact, the Episcopal Church that sponsored him reported that Driggs had become “eccentric and absent” in his duties to proselytize. Nonetheless, by 1910 Christianity had become predominant throughout Arctic Alaska. By this point the new religion had been spread from village to village by converts among the Inupiat themselves.*

*See: The Inupiat and the christianization of Arctic Alaska, Ernest S. Burch, Jr., Etudes/Inuit/Studies,1994

Burn Barrel Love (Valentine’s Day)

Burn Barrel Love, Chignik Lake, Alaska

Waking to heavy snowfall a few weeks ago, we went out looking for wildlife. At the White Spruce Grove, Pine Siskins, Chickadees, Golden-crowned Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos were happily filling up on cone seeds and the food in our feeders. We’d heard there was a lynx in the area, and there are always foxes and wolves just beyond the village. We didn’t see much – just this pair of Ravens hanging out and enjoying a snowy moment at one of their favorite meeting places.

 

Assignment #6: A Sense of Place – Suutei Tsai in a Mongolian Ger

mongolia-woman-pouring-milk-n

Outdoor Photographer’s challenge two weeks ago: an environmental, visual or cultural photo depicting a strong connection with a specific place. Here, our hostess at her ger in the Mongolian countryside prepares a pot of suutei tsai to take the chill off an October night – piping hot milk with a little tea and a dash of salt. 

 

 

“Dry and Sunny, a Break from Winter Weather” – OP Assignment #4

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It doesn’t get much drier and sunnier than Mongolia’s Gobi Desert. Above, Khongoryn Els, the famed “Singing Dunes,” stretch across the landscape. See nine additional photos from our October 2014 trip below.

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As in any desert, no resource is more precious than water.

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Well adapted for this parched climate, over a million Mongolian Gazelle flourish in arid steppe grasslands which include portions of the Gobi. Mongolia’s grasslands are considered to be one of the world’s last, great wilderness areas.

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Red-billed Choughs, a striking member of the crow family, close out the day at Yolyn Am Canyon…

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Earlier in the day a magnificent Siberian Ibex, protective of his harem, kept a wary eye on an approaching photographer.

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As we journeyed, we stayed with families in their gers (yurt homes). Here, aruul, a type of cheese, bakes into a hard cake on a tray atop a ger.

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Not only dry but extremely cold and windswept, winters in the Gobi can be unforgiving. The worst of them are know as zud and can wipe out millions of livestock.

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The nighttime skies were spectacular.  The Big Dipper hangs over our lighted ger. 

Not all deserts have camels, of course, but they certainly add an exotic element. In Mongolia, two-humped Bactrians are utilized for transportation, meat, milk and the most excellent cream cheese we’ve ever tasted. Here, Barbra’s mount and I exchange inquisitive looks.

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Our eight-day trek through part of the Gobi Desert was one of the highlights of our two-year stay in Mongolia. Not only did we get to briefly experience the lifestyle of one of the world’s few remaining semi-nomadic people, we also got to sample new foods, see exotic animals we’d read about in books as children, feel the Singing Dunes hum mystically through our bodies…  and, yes, riding a camel to seldom-visited sand dunes was a first and it was fun. At Bayanzag (pictured above), the legendary Flaming Cliffs where the first fossilized dinosaur eggs were discovered, we even found a large, fragile skull with teeth intact and a spine radiating out several feet, the fossilized remains of some species that no longer walks the earth. It’s 20° F (-7° C), a north wind swirling falling snow as I write this. A trip back to the Gobi through photographs was indeed a nice break from winter.

Next Thursday: Assignment #5 – Motivational Moments: the things that get us out of bed at 4:00 AM to go out and shoot; or that inspire us to sit for hours waiting for a capture. I already have a few ideas in mind. Stay tuned!