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: Return to Clarks River

Salmon fishing Chignik Alaska
Return to Clarks River

Each September we pick a day when the forecast is for clear skies, pack up our gear, and head up the lake to Clarks River. In years past, we hiked a three-mile honda trail across a rolling landscape of tundra, berry bogs, salmonberry brakes, meadows and dense stands of alders and willows. This year, we took our scow up the lake and beached it on the sandy shore near the mouth of Clarks.

The Silver fishing here can be phenomenal, though it is seldom as easy as the fishing further downriver. By the time they’ve arrived at Clarks, the salmon have been in the river awhile. Although many are still silvery bright, we’ve found them somewhat less inclined to come to our flies than are newly-arrived fish. Nonetheless, basking under blue skies while presenting flies to 10-pound fish cruising the lake’s shoreline is a pleasant change from swinging streamers in river current. We can often see the takes as a salmon peals off from the pod of fish it is swimming with and turns to inhale whatever combination of fur and feather we’re offering.

At some point, the urge to explore the lower reaches of Clarks River itself overtakes us. As we make our way across the sandy beach and then along the well-worn bear path following the river, we never cease to be amazed by evidence of just how many bears fish here. The trampled, matted down vegetation strewn with salmon parts suggests more of a bear highway than a bear trail. There are always a few eagles hanging around, seals, gulls, mergansers and other ducks, and we’ve come across the tracks of otter, mink, moose, wolf and wolverine.

The salmon are always there in September, so many that at times they seem to carpet the rocky river bottom. Every so often a fresh school of fish enters the river, and when they do they sometimes come in such numbers that the wake they push before them looks like a tidal bore. As with the lake, in Clarks’ extraordinarily clear water, the fishing is not a given. But with the right fly, thoughtful casting and patience, we manage to coax a few. The challenge is part of the enjoyment, as is the knowledge that most probably ours will be the only flies any of these salmon ever see.

It is difficult to make a good photo of Clarks itself and the salmon we catch there. During early morning in September, the mountains that cup Clarks keep it in shadow. By the time the sun rises above those jagged peaks, it shines very bright. The process reverses itself as evening approaches, the valley abruptly transitioning from bright to dark in moments as the sun disappears. Barbra made the above photo in the evening of September 12 along the lakeshore just below Clarks. Shirtsleeve fishing in Alaska in September is not a thing to be expected, but each year we’ve picked a day or two, made the trek to this pristine river, and lucked out. (Nikon D800, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/1000 at f/8.0, 31mm, ISO 400)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Flattop

Chignik Lake Alaska
Flattop

It is not an easy hike. Nor is the trail, now overgrown with disuse, easy to find. But one fall day a couple of years ago, a visiting friend and I made the climb to the top of Flattop.

This is the view looking across the lake and across the Alaska Peninsula toward Bristol Bay. Clarks River, a spectacularly clear, nearly pristine spawning tributary, enters the lake just out of view to the left. To the right, the lake narrows and passes by the village of Chignik Lake and then tapers further as the water picks up speed and becomes Chignik River. If you look closely, you can just make out the airplane landing strip on this side of the water near the right-center of the photo. (Nikon D5, 24-70mm f/2.8, 1/160 at f/22, 24mm, ISO 320)

No Bananas! Our Project with B&H Photo is Up and Running!

Who knew that getting a minute and 29 seconds of film could be so much work!? But thanks to our friends at B&H Photo (the world’s largest camera store) it was a terrific experience. Initially (back in pre-Covid times) they were going to send a crew out to Chignik Lake. Well, as the epidemic took hold, that plan got nixed. Technology to the rescue!  The B&H team remotely coached us through the interview and getting the on-location footage they needed back in New York City.

In a skinny 1:29, we think the team did an excellent job of capturing some of the unique challenges (and very cool opportunities) that are part of our lives as photographers in this remote, spectacular part of the world.

The Fourth at the Weir

Fourth of July girl, Easton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As races go, this one was pretty casual.

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

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

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

Heading back upriver to our tiny village on the lake

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

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

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

Delightfully Sweet and Delightfully Sour – Lingonberry Chess Pie

While baking, tangy lingonberries, also known as lowbush cranberries, rise to the top of a custard-like pie filling. The combination of the tart berries and the sweet, creamy filling all in a crispy pie shell is possibly the best reward for shoveling out a driveway’s worth of fresh snow.

It’s been endlessly snowing for the past day. Our Alaskan home now resembles the Alaska home I imagined before we moved to this famously frozen state. As I left home this morning for my very short walk to school, I was surrounded by blinding white. The trees were covered. Rooftops were blanketed and fringed with shimmering icicles. A splash of bright red peeked through two feet of snow where our ATVs are parked. My first-floor classroom windows have shoulder-high drifts piled a quarter of the way up. The plow crews can barely keep up, and Jack has become the John Henry of snow shovelers. Sitting on her trailer, Gillie is up to her gunwales in a sea of white. We’re socked in with snow like we have never before been socked in. I love it!

With only two months of school remaining (unbelievable!), we are at that time of year where we challenge ourselves to empty out our freezer and pantry. There is one lonely gallon-sized bag left from one of our treasured fall harvests – lingonberries. Most of the lingonberries we picked have been baked into muffins, upside down cake, and fruit breads or pressed into juice for hot lingonberry tea. The snow outside spurred me to action last night. Baking is not only entertaining but also has three wonderful outcomes – a warm house, a delightful aroma, and of course, the delicious results. This recipe was slightly adapted from my favorite baking book, The Williams-Sonoma Baking Book. According to the recipe book, chess pies may be named such because they keep well in traditional storage cabinets, otherwise known as pie chests. Another explanation is that “chess” is a corruption of the word cheese, derived from a chess pie’s cheese-like filling. Whatever the etymological origins may be, the way the folded in lingonberries all rise to the top of the pie during baking is magical – and visually quite appealing. The effect when you eat the pie is interesting as well: The sweet and the sour are notably separate and in so become complementary flavors.

As to the shelf life of chess pie… It’s unlikely one has ever lasted long enough to tell!

Lingonberry Chess Pie

Ingredients

  • dough for a single crust pie
  • 1 1/3 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
  • pinch salt
  • 3 eggs
  • 1/4 cup all purpose four
  • 1/3 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 tsp cider vinegar
  • 1 tbsp orange zest, finely chopped
  • 2 cups frozen or fresh lingonberries

Directions

  1. Roll out pie dough to cover a 9-inch pie dish.
  2. Trim off excess. Leave plain or pinch edge to decorate.
  3. Chill dough-covered pie dish in refrigerator for 30 minutes.
  4. Place oven rack in lower third of oven. Preheat to 375° F.
  5. Blind bake pie by covering it with foil, weighting down the foil with rice or pie beads and baking for about 20 minutes. Crust should be very lightly browned and no longer look wet.
  6. Leave oven on and slightly cool crust on a wire rack while making the filling.
  7. In a large bowl, whisk together sugar, butter, salt, eggs, flour, yogurt and vinegar.
  8. Stir in orange zest.
  9. Fold in lingonberries.
  10. Pour the filling into the pie shell.
  11. Bake pie until top is golden brown and filling is firm, about 50 – 60 minutes.
  12. Cool on wire rack completely before serving.

After the Fog Burned off – Eagles

As swallows swooped and soared, this pair of Bald Eagles began a chorus of their characteristic high-pitched piping. The sunshine must’ve felt as good to them as it did to us.

Two days in a row we’ve woken to heavy fog here at The Lake. It wasn’t forecast either day. Yesterday by mid-morning, the mist had burned off. When it did, the birds came out in force. From our vantage point on the deck outside my “office,” Barbra and I saw or heard Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, Redpolls, Wilson’s Warblers, Ravens, Magpies, Golden-crowned Sparrows, American Robins, Fox Sparrows, Violet-green Swallows, Tree Swallows and out on the lake a small group of Black Scoters and a few passing Glaucus-winged Gulls. But the stars of the morning were a pair of mature Bald Eagles that took up perches on a favorite utility pole near the lakeshore.

This was the view from our dining room window yesterday morning just after dawn. The village of Chignik Lake lies only a few miles upriver from a bay on the Alaska Gulf, so we get our share of wet weather. 

As the sun began peeking through the fog, the first eagle to arrive did its best to dry its soggy wings. Either that, or this is one of those rare Peacock Eagles.

His (her?) mate hadn’t yet arrived and I moved a little closer to capture a portrait. Once the fog lifted, we had a day of blue skies. Temperatures climbed into the 60’s so we took the opportunity to work on our “Alaska Tans” – defined as tans that cover the backs of one’s hands, face and neck down to the level of a shirt or coat collar. But by early afternoon, it was warm enough (mid-60’s) to sit outside in a just a shirt, shorts and bare feet and read (Barbra) and play guitar (me).

While I worked on photos, Barbra scanned for birds from the deck outside her former classroom. Off in the distance to the right, along the far edge of the lake, the second eagle can be seen soaring low. (You might have to enlarge this photo.) The duplex in front of Barbra is where we live – on the righthand side. 

There are at least 50 nesting boxes in this bird-loving village of only about 50 to 70 residents. The boxes are occupied almost exclusively by either Violet-green or Tree Swallows. Both species seem inclined to investigate anything out of the ordinary in their neighborhood – us, eagles, other birds. The real threats to swallows are Chignik Lake’s abundant Magpies – notorious nest robbers. In years past, Merlins, Northern Shrikes and occasional Sharp-shinned Hawks have also posed a threat, but none of these species appear to be present this year – at least so far.

A mated pair? Siblings? Friends? (Do eagles have friends?) It was interesting to watch these two repeatedly mirror each other’s behavior. We’ve read about these dreaded Dracula Eagles – another rare sighting.

As I mentioned, we’ve had two consecutive mornings of heavy fog. Inspired by the way the morning cleared up yesterday, last evening we prepared our pack raft in anticipation of doing a three-mile river float today. Unfortunately, the weatherman got it completely wrong. The fog only grudgingly lifted late in the morning and instead of the calm that had been forecast, winds – the bane of rafting – kicked up. So I spent the morning working on photos. Yet hope springs eternal. The prediction for tomorrow morning is for partial sunshine and calm, so perhaps we can get in one last river float before we have to pack up the gear and mail it to Newhalen. Every hour of these final days at The Lake is a time to savor.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to see some of the birds mentioned and more of the landscape around Chignik Lake, check out the link below:

Morning Nature Walk, the Chigniks

Hope your day is going well!

Shioyaki Wild-Caught Alaska Salmon – It couldn’t be Easier, Even if You aren’t an Experienced Cook

Sea salt, olive oil and heat are the only ingredients you need to turn out great salmon every time. Particularly if you’re just getting into cooking and you try this recipe, we’d love to hear from you with any comments or questions and of course a report on how your salmon came out!

Over the years, one question has repeatedly come our way: “I really don’t do much cooking, but I’d like to be able to make salmon. Is there an easy recipe you know of?”

Not only is the answer to this question a resounding “Yes,” the recipe happens to be our favorite. I learned about shioyaki (salting and cooking) when I lived in Japan where shioyaki can refer either to charcoal grilled fish or, more commonly in home kitchens, broiling.

In addition to being the definition of simplicity, the genius of this recipe is that, unlike more elaborate recipes, the salt brings out rather than masks the flavor of the fish. This is exactly what you want when dealing with a fresh, wild-caught salmon. On the other hand, because the flavors are simple, the finished dish is easily enhanced with toppings. Try it with raspberry chipotle sauce (easily made at home) or with Mae Ploy Sweet Chili Sauce. Here’s how it’s done.

Ingredients & Preparation

  • You’ll need a broiling sheet. A standard cookie sheet works fine, but a heavier sheet is even better.
  • Salmon fillets – any species of wild-caught salmon
  • A favorite kosher salt or sea salt. We’ve found coarse Grey Sea Salt to work especially well.
  • Extra virgin olive oil

Directions

  1. Place oven rack in center or one position below center. (This is the one “trick” you might need to experiment with. Ovens vary. So don’t be discouraged if your first attempt doesn’t work out as you expected. Adjust the rack position and go for it again! Once you have this dialed in, the rest is a snap.)
  2. Place the broiling sheet in the oven and preheat on Broil. (10 minutes is generally the right amount of time.)
  3. Meanwhile, rinse salmon fillet(s) in cold water. Pat dry with paper towel and place skin side down on cutting board.
  4. Sprinkle salt on fillet.
  5. Put a little olive oil on the hot broiling sheet – enough to cover the area where you’ll place the fillet.
  6. Place salmon fillet skin side down on prepared sheet and place in oven. It should vigorously sizzle when it touches the sheet. If it doesn’t, simply place the sheet back in the oven and continue preheating.
  7. Cooking time will vary depending on fillet thickness. 8 to 10 minutes is usually about right. An oil-like liquid will begin to emerge from the top of the fillet when it is done. Again, if your first attempt produces an undercooked or overcooked fillet, make a note, stick it on your fridge, and adjust the cooking time. If the fillet comes out overly dry on top or burnt, you probably need to lower the rack. Keep simple notes till you get it dialed in.

Fillets prepared this way are superb served on rice, on pasta, served along with tartar sauce or avocado spread as a sandwich or broken into pieces to top a superb Alaska-style pizza. Going for an added touch with a glass of wine? It’s tough to beat a lightly chilled Chardonnay.

See also:

Alaska Silver Salmon Pizza

Raspberry Chipotle Sauce Recipe

Broiled Salmon Spine: Getting the Most out of Every Salmon

 

 

 

 

 

In Dandelion Sugar

More than halfway into my first 500 hours on the guitar. Irresistible to take it outside into the yard today, sunshine, swallows swooping, sparrows chirping and singing, warblers chattering from bare alders and newly leafed out willows. Working on my Travis picking patterns. Barbra took this photo for posterity.

After starting off the new year with three consecutive months of not looking at the news, I got sucked in again. A mistake. Monotonous. Depressing. It doesn’t matter which news source you look at, there’s nothing like it to simultaneously rile you up while making you feel powerless. There are better places to focus energy. In fact, we’ve decided to go back off TV altogether. Extra time on the guitar. Extra time to write. I think I’ll start reading Ted Leeson’s The Habit of Rivers this evening.

Still trying to get a decent photo of our Hermit Thrushes. Of course, if I could capture an image of their otherworldly song, that would be the real trick.

I imagine someone will let me know if we go to war.

These final days at The Lake, I want to savor it.

In dandelion sugar.