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.

Shishmaref, Alaska on Sarichef Island

February 13, 2011: Flying into Shishmaref. Situated on the Seward Peninsula Near Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Sarichef, the sandy barrier island upon which Shishmaref is located, is just 2.8 square miles and shrinking. The highest point above sea level is perhaps just over 20 feet. In the photo a frozen lagoon in the foreground and a frozen Chukchi Sea in the background surround this village of fewer than 600 Inupiat inhabitants. The nearby tundra provides wild berries, caribou, musk ox and moose. The seashore waters and a nearby river provide sea run char and salmon. Seals are also hunted and relied upon for subsistence. This is one of the few places in the world where one can reliably encounter McKay’s Buntings. For nine months from late August 2010 through May 2011 we made our home here. It was a fascinating introduction to Alaska.

A Good Day Sailing

We took advantage of beautiful weather yesterday to do some sailing on Resurrection Bay. Dall porpoises showed up around our boat as usual and several times we saw salmon leaping. Maia got her first experience at the helm of a sailboat.

Air temperatures were in the low 60’s, so a light jacket was in order, but the sun felt great. 

It’s always good to look up and see the mainsail catching wind.

These are the good old days.

A Study of Upper Summit Lake, Alaska

One of the most frequently photographed lakes in Alaska, Upper Summit Lake lies along the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Seward.

We recently got a wide-angle landscape lens and were eager to try it out. A broken sky over breaking up ice on Upper Summit Lake created a visually arresting set of contrasts and similarities.

We’d never been on the Kenai Peninsula early enough to see this much ice and snow. Only a few days prior, the lake was completely covered in ice, although it was apparent it was beginning to thin.

Notice the dandelions blooming in the foreground. Tough little flowers, pushing up through asphalt in the city, almost pushing away the ice and snow up here.

The upper end of Upper Summit Lake is the kind of place where we slow down and scan for moose.

Dungeness Crab in Beer and Miso

Whether fresh or previously frozen, Dungeness crabs and blue crabs are a great meal to linger over.

Flip a coin. Heads its Dungeness, tails its blue. We’re in either way. Some of the most memorable meals we’ve enjoyed were centered around freshly steamed or boiled crabs, good beer or wine, and a long, leisurely meal with just the two of us or with friends cracking and picking crabs.

We prefer fresh crabs whenever we can get them. In South Carolina, there was a private dock on a saltwater cut through the marsh that could be counted on to produce blue crabs on incoming tides. And when I lived in Oregon, throwing out a couple of crab pots was a matter of course on salmon fishing trips. Because Dungeness populations are depressed in the parts of Alaska we frequent, their harvest isn’t currently permitted in those locales. So most of the crabs we’ve been getting are purchased already cooked, but we still heat them before serving.

Our favorite way to boil-steam crabs is fairly simple. We start with about a half-bottle (6 – 8 ounces) of beer and 1 tablespoon of miso per Dungeness crab. Since more liquid than this is necessary, we add a cup of water or two. The idea is to ensure that there is enough liquid so that it doesn’t all boil off in the 12 minutes or so required to heat through a previously frozen Dungeness. For two crabs, add a 12-ounce bottle of beer, a little more miso, and, if necessary, a little more water.

I usually don’t immerse the entire crab. This is because I’m frugal (cheap) and hate wasting beer. I boil-steam the crab on one side for a few minutes, then flip it and continue cooking it for a few minutes more. If I’m doing multiple crabs, I arrange them in the pot as best I can and rotate them once during the cooking – although this really may not be necessary.

Previously cooked crabs are inevitably already plenty salty. The beer and miso bath gives them a mild sweetness. If you’re starting with fresh crabs, you might want to add some salt to the broth. A good rule of thumb is to steam fresh crabs for about 7 – 8 minutes per pound – which means a two-and-one-half pound crab needs about 20 minutes in the pot. One crab this side is usually plenty for the two of us, served with, say, a salad, fresh corn on the cob, and a loaf of crusty bread.

Our favorite dipping sauce? Melted butter, olive oil, garlic, lemon and soy sauce. For two people, melt about 6 tablespoons of butter. Add a clove of minced garlic and sauté  it for a minute or so. Then add 1 tablespoon of olive oil, the juice from half a lemon, and 1 tablespoon of soy sauce. A slice or two from a really great loaf of bread can be used to sop up any remaining sauce.

Crab goes great with a wide range of beers or a buttery Chardonnay.

Rivers of Ice: Glaciers, Icefields and Floating Sculptures of Blue

Icebergs such as this ethereal blue sculpture are the culmination of a dynamic process eons in the making.

It’s easy to imagine glaciers as static – water interrupted, subject to thaw and melt, but otherwise frozen in space and time. In reality, they’re more like slow moving rivers, pulled down by gravity, pushed forward by the unimaginable tonnage of ice and snow in the icefields where the originate. A fast-moving glacier can travel at a rate of 20 meters a day or more.

Tidewater glaciers are among the most dynamic forms of ice in nature. Like the Blackstone Glacier (pictured below), they flow from icefields, much as a mountain stream might originate as the outflow from an alpine lake. What makes tidewater glaciers so fascinating is that they don’t gradually turn to water as they descend down a mountain valley, warming and thawing with the descent.

Instead, tidewater glaciers terminate when they reach the sea. The ice continues to flow, pushing the face of the glacier forward. If the face of the glacier is large enough, the combination of forward movement and warmer air and water temperatures can result in spectacular calving events, with massive pieces of ice sloughing off into the sea.

The Harding Ice Field, which gives birth to three dozen or more glaciers, stretches out like a vast, island-studed lake. 

As soon as the freshly calved ice hits the water, it become part of sea’s ecosystem. Harbor seals (above) and black-legged kittiwakes (members of the gull family, below) use the frozen islands to rest, feed and stage hunts. The seals also use the ice as nurseries.


Point Hope in Winter from the Air

The village of Point Hope, Alaska, February 24, 2012, as seen from a nine-passenger Cessna Caravan.

Viewed from the air, a continuous sheet of ice and snow obscures the boundaries between land and sea in the Arctic north. We were happy to fly south to Anchorage for a few days, thereby escaping the steady string of days with temperatures hovering around negative 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Compared to Point Hope, the weather in Anchorage was downright balmy, with highs around 28 degrees. Intermittent snow showers filled the crisp air with big, soft snowflakes.

Six days later our plane touched down on the icy Point Hope runway. As we descended the ladder, a blast of icy wind crushed into our faces, momentarily taking our breath away. The previous week, the absence of wind made walking outside pleasant enough, but now the wind chill is frequently dipping to 50 or 60 below and even colder. Cases of frostbite are up, as are cases of frozen plumbing. Each day, we’re gaining eight minutes of daylight. Still cold. Still a lot of winter left.

Denali – The High One

Denali – meaning “The High One” in Koyukon Athabascan – is known by many as Mount McKinley. 

The day we toured Denali National Park the namesake mountain was shrouded in clouds, a situation so commonplace we weren’t disappointed at not being able to see more than its base sloping up into the shrouding mist. In fact, a small industry exists to fly people up through the clouds for a bird’s eye view of North America’s highest summit. But with prices for those flights running hundreds of dollars per passenger, we figured we’d take our chances and wait for happenstance to put us on a plane flying near the elusive peak.

This past Friday, a flight from Point Hope to Anchorage via Kotzebue finally gave us the view we’d been hoping for. Denali’s rugged shoulders seemed to float on a sea of thick clouds. Barbra and I looked out our window awestruck as we contemplated the tectonic forces capable of thrusting this much solid granite nearly four miles above sea level.

In 2010, our trip to Denali National Park took place on a foggy day in mid-summer. The hills and valleys were verdant, wildflowers were in bloom and animals seemed to be everywhere. Ptarmigan burst from roadside cover, golden eagles soared overhead, moose browsed the willows along creeks, and Dall sheep – some with thick, heavy, fully-curled racks – dotted the slopes like tufts of white cotton. We saw three different sets of female grizzlies and their cubs, and after having heard wolves on different occasions while camping in Yellowstone and Yukon Territory, we finally saw a pack of wolves, males, females and cubs, resting and playing on a grassy hill. That alone made the trip to Denali worth it for us.

Although there is a very brief window in which a limited number of lottery winners (literally) are permitted to drive their own vehicles deep into the park, the more typical approach is to sign up for one of the bus tours. These shuttle tours are no frills, economical, and worth every penny. While we camped on the park’s outskirts (our campground neighbor showed us a photo of a lynx he’d seen the previous day), camping – both tent and RV – is available in the park as well. A 91 mile road – almost all of it unpaved – cuts through the heart of the park, but only the first 15 miles are open to the public. That’s where the bus tours come in. Backpacking permits are available as well.

We took the bus all the way to the end of the road at Wonder Lake, hoping against hope for a photo of The High One reflected in the lake’s glassy waters. No mountain, but lots of wild blueberries!

The Bus in Hyder: The Best Fish & Chips Anywhere

Barbra and Maia waiting for orders of fried halibut and fried shrimp at The Bus in Hyder, Alaska

We blogged about Hyder before (A Ghost Town and a Grizzly, February 5, 2011). It’s an interesting  town of 87 inhabitants, definitely worth the side trip if you find yourself traveling the Cassiar Highway in northern British Columbia. Go there when the chum salmon are running in late July and August, and you’ll have an excellent opportunity to view grizzlies up close from a deck overlooking Fish Creek.

A hip little shop on main street, Boundary Gallery and Gifts run by Caroline Steward, features dulcimers beautifully crafted from Sitka Spruce as well as some of the best fudge we’ve ever had. There’s a hotel, a post office, a small, sparsely-stocked grocery store, a couple of RV parks and a boat launch on Portland Canal, which isn’t a canal at all but is a narrow, 71-mile long fjord separating Southeastern Alaska from British Columbia. It’s the kind of place that takes you back in time. None of the streets are paved. The residents are friendly and the ones we’ve met have been happy to while a way a piece of the day talking. Maybe the quiet, natural beauty of the place brings out easy-going attitudes. Part of the movie Insomnia (Al Pacino, Robin Williams, Hilary Swank) was filmed here in 2001.

If you do go to Hyder, the one place you shouldn’t miss is The Bus. Diana and Jim Simpson came up with the idea to permanently park a school bus on one of the side streets in town and convert it into a kitchen. Jim’s the fisherman. Diana’s the cook. The catch of the day generally features fresh halibut and Alaska’s incredibly delicious shrimp along with salmon and other shellfish. Traveling from place to place, we’ve come across really good deep fried fish from time to time. Heck, I make pretty good deep fry myself. I don’t know exactly what Diana does, but the fare at The Bus is in a class by itself. It’s been our good fortune to dine there on two separate occasions, two different summers. Both times, our plates of fried halibut, shrimp and French fries disappeared fast and left us talking with amazement for some time afterwards. Diana also keeps icy cold Alaska Amber Ale and Alaska Summer Ale on hand – the perfect compliments to enjoying the food while Rufus Hummingbirds call back and forth from the tops of spruce trees.