For the first time in several years, Chignik Lake froze. The few patches of water that remain open have become a magnet for wildlife.
“It used to freeze solid every year,” one of my neighbors was telling me as he referred to the lake our village is named for. “We used to ice fish for trout, wolves sometimes came down the lake – it was our wintertime highway. The last time it froze over like that was, I don’t know, maybe five years ago. Maybe longer.”
The gang of four. In all, a family of six freshwater otters regularly work their way from a den up a feeder creek down to the lake to feed. The otter on the left in the above photo has scored a Starry Flounder. The third flounder is working on a Three-spined Stickleback and the mouthful of aquatic vegetation that often comes with them. The otter between those two appears to be enjoying a sculpin.
An icy November drizzle fell from a lead sky as we talked. Cold, but not cold enough. Over the next couple of months we went through several cycles of snow turning to rain turning to snow turning to rain. The footing on paths, roads, steps and boardwalks was often treacherously slick – I hardly know of anyone who didn’t slip and fall at least once. Meanwhile, now and then out on the lake a little skim ice would form along the shore… and disappear.
Starry Flounders are among the members of the Pleuronectidae family known to travel many miles into freshwater. Several miles from the sea, Chignik Lake experiences subtle tidal influences, but the water is fresh and provides an important nursery for wild Sockeye Salmon.
In the first week of January, consecutive days of winds out of the north drove temperatures down into the teens. Ice again formed along the shoreline and in areas protected from the wind. All we needed was a period of windless calm and continued cold.
After crawling on ice the length of a football field or more to get into position (and not spook the quarry), often the best strategy is to just sit quietly and wait. In this case, the otters swam along the edge of the ice where I was set up.
On January 6th, magic happened. The wind died, the lake’s surface turned glassy calm, and for once the winds didn’t flip around and start bringing warm air from the South. “If it stays like this through the night, the lake will freeze solid,” I predicted to Barbra. Upon waking the next morning we rushed to our dining area windows and strained our eyes to see into the predawn light. Were we looking at ice? Or merely calm water? As dawn broke, we could see snowcapped mountains reflected across the lake on a sheet of hard, shimmering ice.
Although the otters occasionally show interest in each other’s catch, I’ve seen neither quarreling nor attempts at theft. They seem to genuinely enjoy one another’s company, often communicating with snorts, chirps, body language and physical contact.
Two days later the ice was sufficiently thick and safe for travel; and so I became the first person in perhaps five years to walk across Chignik Lake. Later that day, Barbra became the second. Shortly thereafter, riders on ATVs and snow mobiles began making the trek.
Torn between caution and curiosity, otters can barely help themselves from investigating anything out of the ordinary – such as a fellow creature of some sort sitting out on the ice day after day watching them. With several small open areas on the ice, there was an element of whack-a-mole in photographing these active fellows as I never knew where one would pop up next – including right in front of me.
I’ve been out on the ice every day since. Each day has been a gift, a rare event that may not be repeated in future winters. Each day is a reminder that I am living in an amazing place in a unique time.
Perhaps one of the older members of the clan, indicated by wear on the incisors.
Highly skilled predators related to weasels, North American River Otters, Lontra canadensis, can weigh as much as 30 pounds (14 kg.) and may reach over a yard (1 meter) in length. Although in most populations fish comprise the bulk of their diet, insects, small mammals, mollusks and even waterfowl are taken opportunistically. In fact, on waters where fish are scarce, otters may key on birds. Litter sizes range from one to three kits, but may be as many as five.
Down the hatch – one less stickleback in the Chignik system. Although otters might prefer salmonids or other gamefish, they tend to target whatever is easiest to catch, thus providing a net benefit to Chignik Lake’s salmon and char which, as fry, compete with sticklebacks for food.
Habitat loss and pollution are the main threats facing River Otters, and they are now absent or rare in parts of their historical range. Reintroduction efforts have been successful, but only in places were people are committed to keeping the environment healthy. Happily, here in Chignik Lake, otters remain and abundant and important part of the ecosystem.