Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Swan Barque

Found art ice Chignik Lake
Swan Barque

In the first month of 2017, temperatures dropped into the single digits and stayed there. Coinciding with this, the Chignik’s infamous winds abated for a few days. Skim ice began forming on January 16. The following morning we woke to find the lake frozen solid.

Scattered around the lake close to shore, we found a few of these exquisite ice sculptures. Intricately crafted by natural forces, they looked to us like fine crystal. Upwelling – subsurface springs – may have played a role in their formation. Beyond that, they were mysteries.

They didn’t last long. Eventually the wind came up and piece by delicate piece they were dismantled. We never again found such beautifully detailed arrangements, and so I’m glad to have made a few photographs. The ice in the photo suggested to us a swan on a placid lake, or a sailing vessel. (Nikon D5, 105mm f/2.8, 1/125 @ f/14, ISO 125)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Post Office Creek

Chignik Lake Post Office Creek in Snow
Post Office Creek

Barbra and I call the stream in the above photo Post Office Creek for its proximity to the former post office here in Chignik Lake. The post office has since relocated, but during the first three years we lived here, we regularly crossed this creek on foot as we traveled back and forth. Although our home sits just 60 paces from a lake full of water, this tiny creek holds an especial appeal and anytime I am near it, I find myself drawn to it, approaching stealthily for a careful look into its deeper pools.

From mid-spring through fall, there are char and sometimes salmon parr and one year a pair of Pink Salmon spawned in a riffle below the culvert where the road crosses. The char are wary, but by approaching quietly and giving one’s eyes a few moments to adjust, fish a foot long and even larger might be found. A cottonwood overlooking the mouth is a favorite perch for kingfishers, and when salmon are in the lake eagles can also be found there. Loons and mergansers regularly hunt the lake’s waters outside the creek mouth and yellowlegs can often be found wading and catching small fish along the shore.

During wintertime, there generally isn’t much evidence of life in the creek’s clear waters, but it’s there – char eggs waiting to hatch, caddis larvae along with mayfly and stonefly nymphs clinging to the undersides of rocks, a visiting heron catching small fish where the creek enters the lake, fresh otter and mink tracks at the mouth some mornings.

In summertime snipe nest in a marsh that seeps into the creek, and bears use it as a thoroughfare so that even in the village, you’re wise to carry bear spray if you’re walking that way. The dense thickets of willow and alder near its banks are a good place to look for warblers and thrushes. In fall Coho gather just below the creek’s mouth, resting before traveling to larger tributaries further up the lake. As Roderick Haig-Brown observed, a river never sleeps. Nor does Post Office Creek. I made this picture on January 13, 2021. (Nikon D850, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/50 @ f/22, ISO 400, 24mm)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Visitor

Chignik Lake Alaska hoary redpoll
Visitor

Right down to his black-gloved claws, male redpolls are strikingly handsome fellows. The species is a regular wintertime visitor at the lake, though they’re unpredictable and irruptive flocks or a few individuals or none at all might be encountered in any season here. Two springs ago, Barbra saw one carrying nesting material. That same late spring we saw a number of what were surely brand new fledglings. In recent years they’ve joined Pine Siskins and Pine Grosbeaks in what has become the annual late-spring Feast of the Dandelions. As the little yellow flowers go to seed, these finches descend on the school yard and elsewhere to gorge on the tiny seeds. This occurs in large part due to Clinton, the school’s grounds-keeper, whom I’ve convinced to put off mowing till after the main part of the dandelion season is over.

I’m hesitant to say with certainty that the bird in the above photo is a Hoary Redpoll, but he’s got the smallish bill, light side streaking and pinkish breast associated with that species. There is a lot of morphological variation among redpolls. The matter brings up what is to me one of the most interesting questions in biology:

What is a species?

When do two groups of similar flora or fauna differ from each other enough to merit taxonomic separation? The question creates divisions between “lumpers” who advocate for leaning toward the simple “can they interbreed and produce viable offspring” test and “splitters” who observe that even though two types can successfully breed, it may not be useful to group them together as a single species.

My interest in ichthyology has led me to place myself firmly in the “splitters” group. Applying the simple “can they breed and produce viable offspring” test, fisheries managers of bygone eras decimated genetically unique stocks of salmonids (char, trout and salmon) through nearly indiscriminate hatchery breeding policies and stocking programs. What was learned – the hard way – is that although, for example, Chinook Salmon from two different rivers might seem to be the same thing, biologically they aren’t. Each population of Chinook represents a unique genetic strain, specially adapted to the conditions of its own home river. A strain of salmon transplanted from one river to another is unlikely to thrive. Thus, the best approach to ensuring healthy salmon populations is to protect their habitat – river by river, right down to individual spawning tributaries.

Which brings us to the matter of redpolls and the question as to whether there are two species in North America, Hoary and Common, or whether a redpoll is a redpoll is a redpoll. Based on what I’ve read, in addition to any phenotypic or genotypic differences that might exist between the two types, they tend to nest it different areas. Hoaries prefer tundra or other open areas; Commons like more brushy habitat. Which suggests to me that they are different enough that we need to protect both types of habitat if we want to continue to have both types of redpolls. (Nikon D5, 600m f/4 + 2.0 TC, 1/1000 @ f/8, ISO 1600, 1200mm

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Speck

Chignik Lake Alaska Red Fox
Speck

By the calendar, this isn’t strictly speaking a winter shot. But on April 1 of 2017, there was still lots of snow with more to come. Ice had only just begun to relinquish its hold on Chignik Lake. No one was seriously trapping that year, and the inhospitable landscape had driven several foxes into the village where food was easier to find. Several of us at The Lake are happy to occasionally oblige these visitors with a handout of fish or whatever else we might have in the fridge. So, full disclosure, the fox in the above photo, whom we named Speck, had long ago dropped his guard in favor of scoring an easy salmon head dropped from our living room window.

We learned quite a lot about Red Foxes that winter, starting with the fact that each is an individual, distinguishable by both physical features and character traits. In all, we came to recognize (and subsequently name) five different foxes that year: Speck, Frost, Kate, King and Skit. Each had its own unique personality, and each had some special physical trait, such as the spots on Speck’s face. He was a favorite, and along with a little female (we think she was a female), Frost -named for the white on her face -, he could often be found sleeping and loafing below our window.

Is it ethical to feed wild animals? It depends. Certainly it’s a bad idea anywhere the species in question is being hunted or trapped. It’s an equally poor practice in parks or other areas where animals might become a nuisance. No one wants to sit down at a picnic table only to be besieged by squirrels, gulls or jays. And we oppose the practice of baiting animals – that is, feeding them in order to shoot them, whether with a rifle or a camera. But we feed birds in order to help them and because we enjoy their company, and in the depths of winter we sometimes put out a salmon head or something similar for foxes. Here at The Lake, most fishermen will leave salmon and trout carcasses on the beach for the benefit of eagles and bears – a practice that is illegal most other places. Foxes have evolved so that an encoded part of their behavior is to follow larger animals – bears, humans – in hopes of obtaining a few scraps of food. People have undoubtedly been sharing with them for as long as there have been foxes and humans. (Nikon D5, 70-200mm f/2.8 + 2.0 TC, 1/1250 @ f/10, ISO 1600, 400 mm)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Otter Pile

Chignik Lake River Otters
Otter Pile

Our first winter in the village, the lake froze solid. Temperatures plunged during a period of calm. Ice-over occurred quickly and the new ice was clear and dense. The lake hadn’t frozen solid in recent years, and so I became the first person in five years to walk across the lake. At one point, Barbra and I hiked up the frozen lake as far as Clarks River. We even did some cross country skiing after a snowfall left the lake blanketed in white.

Most of the river froze as well, and it is certain that bodies of water further up the peninsula also turned to hard water. Due probably to subsurface springs, a few acres of water near the lake’s outflow – right in front of our house – never froze. This open water became a a refuge for all kinds of wildlife – several species of ducks, Harbor Seals, hunting foxes and eagles, and, for a short time, a wolf. Bundling up in warm clothing and crawling out onto the ice day after day, I encountered species of ducks that aren’t often seen here and got some beautiful wildlife photographs.

My favorite subjects were a group of River Otters that used the edge of the ice and openings as they hunted, played and rested. They’re common throughout the Chignik drainage, but they’re shy, and so although we frequently see them, we don’t often get opportunities to make good portraits of them.

At first the otters in the above photo were so cautious I was unable to approach near enough to get photos of more than the “these are otters” variety. Down on my belly, I’d edge forward across the frozen lake pushing my camera on its tripod before me. I’d hear their alarmed snorts from a distance and watch them slip like silk into the water, gone.

But day by day they became more accustomed to my presence. And they are intelligent, inquisitive beings. I think eventually they couldn’t help themselves in permitting closer proximity between us.

Among North American carnivores, River Otters are unique. Truly communal by nature, I’ve never seen them squabble the way bears and foxes often do. Although I would imagine that from time to time these playful fellows and gals must engage in spats, their more usual disposition toward each other is captured in the above image.

I’ve upgraded my equipment and improved my camera skills since that first year, so I keep hoping for another cold winter, an absence of trappers, and an opportunity to get to know these fascinating residents of The Lake better. Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017. (Nikon D5, 600mm f/4 + 1.4 TC, 1/1000 @ f/8, ISO 2500, 850mm)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Blues & Pinks

Chignik Lake Winter landscape sunset
Blues & Pinks

I had read about artists moving to specific locations for the quality of light found in those places. It was a concept the eluded me until, rather late in life, I picked up a camera and began to try to make pictures. I lived in Point Hope, Alaska at the time – 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. There were periods during the spring and fall when the sun lingered on the horizon for a good part of the day. The soft hues of pink, purple, red, orange, gold, yellow and lilac bathing the snow and ice covered landscape was… amazing.

Although early morning and late evening periods of beautiful light would have been more brief in other places I’d lived in and visited, surely that light was present. But I had missed it. In my pre-photography days, I thought of light mainly in terms of its brightness: enough to see by or not; sufficient to read by or to tie on a fly, or not; bright, too bright, not bright enough, absent. And because that’s how I thought of light, that’s how I saw it – an example of selective, self-imposed blindness that might apply to anything from preconceiving the results of a scientific experiment to being incapable of observing a solution right in front of one’s eyes… or whether or not the object of one’s affection is returning that affection.

If I ever go back to Pennsylvania, it will be one of the first things I look for: morning and evening light. Surely there must be moments when it softly colors the landscape -the rounded mountains forested in mixed trees, the trout streams, a lady’s slipper orchid or an abandoned apple orchard. Now that I can see…

The most challenging element in making a photograph such as this is the camera. Put simply, there is no camera sensor that can fully capture the subtle and brilliant range of colors the human eye can discern. This is where the photographer – at least this photographer – admires the painter who is in possession of a broader and more subtle palette of colors. Still, even with a Monet, the end result is only a proximation of what was seen by being there. Chignik Lake, January 9, 2017, 3:07 PM. (Nikon D800, 17-35mm f/2.8, 2.0 @ f/22, ISO 100, 22mm)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Melon-colored Dawn

sunrise chignik Lake alaska
Melon-colored Dawn

September is very much a transitional month at The Lake. There can be days of summer-like sunshine and warmth followed by days of cold, wind-driven rain. The Coho run is at its peak as each day hundreds and even thousands of fresh salmon enter the river. Almost all of the Chignik’s Sockeyes have come home, and by now they can be found throughout the upper river, including every major tributary and both lakes. Pinks may still be abundant (depending on the year), but the fish that remain are drab, nearly spawned out husks of their former selves. There are even a few ragged Kings still clinging to life, the females doggedly expending the last of their life energy protecting their redds. Day by day this effort becomes greater as they struggle against the current, are pushed downriver, find the strength to swim back upriver and regain their nest… only to be pushed downriver again until eventually they’ve given all they have to give. The Chignik gathers these great fish in her flow and carries them back toward the sea from where they came.

September is a time of promises realized on the Chignik, the entire valley burgeoning with life. It is a good month to look for bears on the river. Maybe the best. By now they’ve grown fat on salmon and are feeding regularly on an abundance of nearly spent Pinks, spawning Reds and an occasional fresh Silver. Cubs that survived the lean spring months have become roly-poly balls of fur and are beginning to occasionally find their own fish.

As the days begin to grow discernibly shorter, late summer and early fall sunrises linger a bit longer above the mountains surrounding the lake. I made this picture on September 4, 2020 at 7:26 AM, Gillie in the lower left foreground. (Nikon D850, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/10 @ f/8.0, 55mm, ISO 100)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Autumn Char

Chignik Alaska Sea Run Char
Autumn Char

Perhaps there is no species of fish more stunningly marked than a char in spawning colors. Regardless of their size or the particular species (there are dozens scattered across the Northern Hemisphere), the beauty of a fall char offers a special reward for a fly-fishing outing to the cold, clean rivers, streams and brooks they inhabit. The term char is thought to derive from the old Irish ceara or cera, which refers to the blood red coloration sported by some char.

The specimen in the above photo is of the species Salvelinus malma, Dolly Varden, caught on September 25, 2016 on a local creek. While many char inhabit only fresh water, others, such as the 18-inch male in this picture, spend part of their lifecycle at sea. This fish had migrated to a small stream where he was fattening up on salmon eggs prior to his own spawning event. While the char of the Chigniks don’t attain the massive size of certain populations elsewhere (30 pounders have been recorded), their spirit as a game fish when taken on a light fly or tenkara outfit and their striking coloration make char of any species among our favorites. And by the way, if you’ve never treated yourself to a meal of char, check for farmed Arctic Char where you purchase fish. Unlike farmed salmon, which we strongly advise avoiding, farmed char are a sustainable, ecologically smart choice. Served whole or filleted, the meat is sumptuous.  (Olympus Tough TG-3, 1/320 at f/32, ISO 100)

If you’d like to read more about cooking and fishing for char…

Broiled Char for Two

Rustic Char with Root Vegetables

Shioyaki Char

Beading the Dolly Varden… and how did they get that name?

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Cherry Coho

Salmon fishing Chignik
Cherry Coho

In the early days of my Pennsylvania youth, I thought that a salmon was a salmon was a salmon. That’s generally the way they were presented back then – in texts, on restaurant menus, in other contexts. Salmon. Gradually, (in large part thanks to outdoor sporting magazines given to me by my grandfather), I came to understand that there are seven species worldwide, and that’s not including the many genetically distinct races within those species.

As fascinating as this genetic plasticity is, the changes salmon undergo throughout their life cycle are equally captivating. On October 9, 2020, the Coho in the above photograph was no longer feeding. Her stomach and digestive track had atrophied to almost nothing. The salmon  intercepted Barbra’s streamer for reasons fly anglers have long puzzled over. Meanwhile, day by day her roe sacks were swelling, her scales were being absorbed into skin which was becoming thicker and more leathery, the tip of her jaw was developing a distinctive hook known as a kype, and the silvery sheen along her flanks had begun taking on a pallet of color worthy of fine art. (Nikon D800, 105mm f/2.8, 1/50, ISO 250)

 

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Rule of Tonnage

Brown Bear Chignik Alaska
Rule of Tonnage

We had parked our scow near a familiar cottonwood growing on a 270 yard long, fish-spear-shaped island in a pool we call Devil’s Flats. The Flats are a massive 16 acre piece of water featuring two islands of substantial size and every kind of promising salmon water an angler might imagine. The cottonwood tree sits at the tip of what might be thought of as a backward-angled barb on a spear. There is a shallow eddy behind the barb which offers a secure place to leave a boat anchored to the bank.

We’d walked downriver to a second barb extending out into the water – a good place to set up for an evening of fishing. Our backs were to the river as we assembled our rods, laced up our lines and chose flies. Behind us, fresh Silvers, colored-up Reds and a few nearly spawned-out Pinks finned languidly in water the color of clear, liquid emeralds. It was the Silvers that had drawn us to the pool, ten to twelve pound fish still bright from the sea.

I was, as usual, talking when Barbra interrupted me with a sharp, hoarsely-whispered, “Listen!” I knew instantly what to listen for. Directly in front of us just out of view behind the island’s dense growth of willows, thick grasses and flowering plants gone to seed was a bear and there was little doubt that it was heading straight for the point of land where we had set up.

Casting about for a course of action, the best I could come up with was the proposal that we simply back away. “He probably just wants to fish,” I offered. Suggested. Hoped.

“Hey bear! We’re here!” I called out as we began backing into the river. Barbra joined in the familiar call of “Hey bear!” as, fly rods in one hand, the other on our holstered cans of bear spray, we felt our way backward, searching for firm footing among slick riverbed rocks in our hobnailed boots. Spare rods, the net, fly boxes and a backpack were on the shore where we’d left them. The snapping and cracking of autumn-browned vegetation grew louder as the bear drew closer. We both remember thinking that we hoped he didn’t step on our rods.

Suddenly, 900 pounds of hungry bruin emerged from the brush. I’m hesitant to apply human emotions to bears, but he squinted at us as we stood out in the water making our strange (but non-threatening) vocalizations, then he surveyed the gear strewn across his path, and then he shifted his look back to us with what appeared to be a mixture of confusion and annoyance – weighted heavily toward annoyance. He finally gave a little huff, entered the river where it eddied behind the barb of the spear, splashed forward to trap something with his forepaws, stuck his head into the water and came up with a male humpy fixed squarely between his jaws. His efficiency was laudable. Water cascading down his face, the salmon wiggling wildly in his mouth, the bear gave us another look. He seemed to be gauging our reaction to his catch. Assured that we weren’t going to contest his meal, he moved into shallow water and tore into the fish. “Look at the size of those claws!” I whisper-shouted to Barbra. We were in water only knee-deep, as close as we’ve ever been to a feeding bear.

When that snack was finished he waded a few feet downriver and repeated the trick. Another pink, this one a female. He nimbly held it between his enormous paws and took a might chomp. Ripe eggs burst from her belly. The bear, which initially had emerged only a few feet from us, was dozens of yards downriver by the time it caught its third salmon, a crimson-bodied, green-headed Red. With the pool crasher finally at a safe distance, our breathing and heart rates began returning to normal.

“Rule of tonnage!” Barbra exclaimed with a laugh as we waded ashore. The reference is to a nautical phrase we picked up in our sailing days. While not a law, per se, it is an acknowledged matter of practicality that a smaller vessel (us) is well advised to make way for a larger vessel (the bear) when on the same course. Arriving at the bank we traded fly rods for cameras, however the bear had continued moving downriver and by now wasn’t offering much of a photo opportunity. But we’ve got the story of that encounter and photos from other days at Devil’s Flats that recall the memory and our sense of awe at being so close to such a magnificent animal and the smiles – “Rule of tonnage.”

Conditions have to be just right to get quality images of bears on the Chignik. Optimally we hope for a fair weather evening coinciding with a falling tide. As the sun drops into the valley, it floods Devil’s Flats with soft light so that downriver subjects are bathed in gold. A falling tide concentrates the salmon, making it easier for bears to successfully fish. I made this photography on September 18, 2020. (Nikon D850, 600mm f/4 with 2.0 TC, 1/600 at f/8, 1200mm, ISO 2000)

Fish Spear Island