A little over a month ago with darkness still falling early and Chignik Lake yet locked in ice, we were engaged in a familiar evening time routine. Standing at the dining room windows with binoculars pressed to her eyes, Barbra was scanning a patch of open water for ducks, seals and otters as well as the frozen lake and shoreline for foxes, moose and whatever else might happen along. Meanwhile, I was in the kitchen preparing the evening meal. In fact I already had the broiling griddle preheating in the oven for the marinated pork which would become the night’s pulled pork sandwiches. Deep into my own thoughts, I only half heard Barbra’s musing as she glassed the lake, words along the lines of…
Brown Bear Claw Marks on Clay Bank: The Trail to Clarks River near Chignik Lake, Alaska
With two lakes, a river and numerous small streams that draw hundreds of thousands of spawning salmon each year, Alaska’s Chignik River watershed is home to a dense population of some of the largest bears in the world.
No man should go through life without once experiencing healthy, even bored solitude in the wilderness, finding himself depending solely on himself and thereby learning his true and hidden strength.
Jack Kerouac – Lonesome Traveler, 1960
– Although Kerouac’s (1922-1969) Lonesome Traveler didn’t achieve the acclaim of On the Road, The Dharma Bums or even Big Sur, the short story “Alone on a Mountaintop” by itself makes it worth diving into.
We’re lucky to live in a village where, by and large, people are at peace with their wild neighbors. Moose, caribou and the occasional duck and ptarmigan are harvested for food, and everyone takes advantage of the surfeit of salmon that ascend the river edging the village of Chignik Lake, Alaska, but most of the rest of our wild neighbors are left free to go about their business. River Otters swim the lake in pursuit of starry flounder and other fish, foxes keep the local population of voles in check, and some of the largest brown bears in the world amble unmolested right through the village as they head upstream and downstream in search of salmon which spawn from late March through November. Nesting boxes are liberally scattered throughout the village, awaiting the return of the swallows that will raise their chicks here and in so doing help to keep the mosquito population down – without the use of pesticides. Recently, Tundra Swans have begun showing up on the river and lake, suggesting to everyone that at last Spring is approaching.
Red Foxes are locally abundant, and several have taken up residence in or near the village. This has provided us the opportunity to really get to know this species, so much so that, as field biologists often do, we’ve learned to distinguish among individuals and have given them names. Guido is instantly recognizable by his dark flanks, lean build and furtive personality; Frost, the smallest and most vocal of our resident foxes, has a lot of frosty white coloring in her coat and on her face; Hank could pass for Speck’s brother (and may well be) with his freckled face; Skit’s eye injury is improving, but he’s had a tough go of it this winter; Kate is older and larger than the other village foxes and doesn’t often show herself, but when she does it’s obvious – Kate is drop dead gorgeous.*
Speck began showing up around our house at about the same time Frost began coming around. He combs the lakeshore for whatever scraps may be there, hunts the nearby open areas and likes to sun himself on the grassy bank in front of our home. Although his ears constantly and independently move like two radio dishes in search of sound as he rests, he’s a confident little guy and has become habituated to both our presence and, remarkably, to the presence of Buster, the big lovable village dog who frequently visits our house.
Soon voles and hares will begin multiplying in earnest and salmon will return to the Chignik River. Later in the summer, salmonberry and blueberry bushes will load up with ripe fruit and there may even be ground nesting birds to catch. All in all, Chignik Lake is a good place to be a wild fox. With any luck, we might discover a den with litter of kits in the coming months and thereby continue learning about these fascinating animals.
*Disclaimer: short of rolling a fox over on its back and performing a close inspection – which is out of the question with a wild fox -, we know of no practical way to determine if one is male or female. Thus, our naming system is arbitrary regarding sex.
For this assignment, Outdoor Photographer asked: What motivates you to get up early in the morning? Or to sit and wait patiently, sometimes for hours, for the right shot? For me, the answer to that question this winter has been “ice.”
In “Good-Bye, and Keep Cold,” Robert Frost wrote “…Dread fifty above more than fifty below…” Every day the red needle is pushed down means another day of solid water and snow-flanked mountains.
The challenge in shooting in the cold is the cold. Insulated boots, great socks (I live in my Darn Toughs), and good gloves or mittens are requisite. The most vulnerable-to-cold part of my body is my fingers – especially those on my right (shooting) hand. To combat this, I use a system of warm, nimble glove liners, HotHands hand warmers, and top-of-the-line mittens. A balaclava is indispensable, particularly on days when the wind is out of the north, as are snow pants. On the coldest days, I layer wool or Merino shirts and sweaters over tech blend long-sleeved t-shirts. A good watch cap and a hooded down jacket with deep pockets round out the gear.
Wintertime lighting is often gorgeous, as are mammals in their thick wintertime coats. Everyone’s trying to stay warm. Some birds will gain upwards of 50% more feathers in their cold-weather plumages. If you’re lucky enough to find an animal resting like the Red Fox in this photo, move slowly, (crawl), keep your distance and watch for signs of discomfort. Calories can be hard to come by for these animals. Better to miss the shot than to cause an animal to flee, leaving it’s safe place and unnecessarily burning energy.
Ice presents opportunities to see animals engaged in unique behavior such as this Red Fox attempting to ambush a Common Goldeneye resurfacing after a dive on a pothole in lake ice. Oftentimes, the best strategy is to simply sit as still as possible, watch, wait, and let the action come to you. This fox was well aware of my presence, but as I had been in the same place for over an hour, wasn’t moving and presented no threat he was able to go about his routine.
On any given day of the year, it’s common to see a harbor seal or two in Chignik Lake, a freshwater body a few miles from a saltwater bay. But nine hauled out and sunning like this is strictly a wintertime event – and a rare one at that. Ever vigilant for the wolves that sometimes patrol the area, these seals are quite wary.
I go out and shoot nearly every day – even when the barometer is dropping and the winds are howling across the Bering Sea and down the Chignik River valley. As these stoic Common Mergansers attest, “It isn’t that bad if you dress for it.”
Among the rewards of going out and shooting this time of year is that you never know what you’ll find. I’ve been fortunate enough this winter to get captures of a number of bird species that are rare for the Chignik Region as well as two other birds that, to the best of my knowledge, had never been recorded here before. In the above photo, the closest bird is a Tufted Duck, a fairly rare migrant from Asia. Moving clockwise are two female Greater Scaup and a male Greater Scaup, a species that was perhaps formerly rare or uncommon in the Chignik system but which appears to be becoming more abundant. Below the male scaup is a Ring-necked Duck, another species that is rare for this area.
Again, by picking the right place, sitting quietly and waiting, sometimes the wildlife will come to you. River Otters may only allow a fleeting glimpse of themselves, but their curiosity often compels them to check out anything unfamiliar in their environment.
Another day at the office – this time a macro-session capturing bubble formations, fish, caddis larvae and other things trapped in Chignik Lake’s ice. Although on this, the last day of February, temperatures are hovering around 20° F (-7° C) and gusting winds out of the North are pushing sheets of snow across the lake, it’ll be Spring soon and the ice and snow will be a memory. Get it while you can!
I made this photo just a few feet from my home in Chignik Lake. The challenge was to somehow clean up the assortment of utility poles, wires, satellite dishes and the dissonant array of scrub alder closer to eye level. I actually knew as soon as this assignment (Winter Landscape in Black and White – the second weekly assignment from Outdoor Photographer magazine) was posted the scene I wanted to shoot. I put on a long lens, waited for the right light, and got this frame.
Next Thursday: Patterns of Winter
Abstract #4: Parallel Worlds – Among new projects in 2017 is a commitment to taking on the “Weekly Photo Assignment” challenge at Outdoor Photographer magazine. The first new assignment for 2017 was Winter Macro.
Abstract #4: Fracture – For the first time in perhaps five years, our lake, Chignik Lake, has frozen solid. The first day it was reasonably safe to walk on the ice, it was incredibly clear.
Abstract #9: Galaxy – As I walked around scanning the bottom for fish and aquatic insects, here and there I noticed bubbles trapped in the clear ice.
Next Thursday: Winter Landscape in Black and White
Fresh from the sea, uni and ikura create a salty, savory combination.
Much as is true of most Japanese people, most Alutiiqs love virtually anything harvested from the sea. From octopus to chitons (locally known as bidarki), if it’s fresh from the ocean it’s likely to find its way onto the menu here in Chignik Lake. Sea urchins are highly prized.
And there’s really nothing to preparing them. Insert a small knife into the opening on the bottom of the shell, cut the shell open, and remove the bright yellow lobes, which are the urchins’ reproductive organs. (They are not roe.) Most people are careful to remove the dark colored matter inside the shell, but the urchins we had were small and including this substance added, we thought, both a subtle additional flavor and contrasting color. In Alaska, we almost always have a jar or cured salmon roe on hand. This bright, salty, translucent salmon caviar is a perfect finishing touch on many dishes. For a popular recipe for making your own ikura, click here.