Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Sea Pup

Chignik Sea Otter pup
Sea Pup

Forest-like patches of bull kelp, a rocky shoreline, small islands and protected bays add up to Sea Otter habitat. While there always seem to be at least a few of these engaging animals in the nearshore sea along the Chignik coast, late spring and early summer when mothers can be found nursing pups is a particularly rewarding time to look for them. We found the pair in this photo on June 28, 2020 along with over 100 additional otters just outside of Anchorage Bay, an inset of the larger Chignik Bay. The mother’s surprised expression and the hint of the pup’s pink tongue set this photo apart from other captures we got that day.

Shooting from a boat at sea is always challenging as subject and photographer alike are continuously in motion. Reflected by water, light can overwhelm an image causing highlights to be blown out. For a moment, clouds obscured the sun, but there was still enough light to set the ISO low, close the aperture enough to keep both mother and pup in focus, and still shoot fast enough to get a clear image on a gently bouncing sea. (Nikon D850, 600mm f/4, 1/2500 at f/8, ISO 500.)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Upstream

spawning sockeye chignik river alaska

Five species of Pacific Salmon spawn in Chignik Lake, Chignik River and its tributaries. Although numbers vary from year to year, the cumulative total of returning salmon is in the hundreds of thousands. There is a place on the river where at the peak of the run in July, the number of returning fishing splashing through the shallows can be heard from a quarter of a mile distance, like a cascade. The salmon in these shallows in turn attract massive brown bears, crying gulls, piping Bald Eagles, foxes, mink, otters, seals and other wildlife.

I made this photo on July 24, 2020, near the peak of the Chignik’s Sockeye Salmon run at the shallows described above. My primary subject that day had been bears, but as I watched salmon pushing through a piece of flat, shallow water I was struck by the silky quality of their wake. These spawning Sockeyes are a stunningly bright red, but I thought there might be a nicely contrasting, silvery black and white image to be made. (Nikon D850, 600mm f/4 with 2.0 TC, 1/500 at f/8, 1200mm, ISO 800)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Blueback

Chignik Blueback Sockeye

The Chignik River has two genetically distinct strains of Sockeye Salmon. The first-run fish, which might begin showing up as early as late April but which really don’t appear in significant numbers until June and continue entering the river through the end of July, are distinguished by their startlingly blue backs. From sometime late in July through September, a second run of Sockeyes ascends The Chignik. These later fish tend to run a little larger than the early fish and are distinguished by their marine green backs.

It would be difficult to overstate the eagerness that sweeps through the village as springtime nets are set in anticipation of the year’s first Sockeyes. In so many ways, these fish are the lifeblood of The Lake. A fish-counting weir, established by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, is put in place at the end of May. By mid-June, thousands of fresh Sockeyes are counted each day as spring transitions into summer.

I’ve come to think of getting good photographic captures of fish as the toughest wildlife assignment. Bright light plays havoc on their shiny flanks. Dingy water makes obtaining a clear image impossible. Even perfectly translucent water rapidly absorbs light. Attacked by a variety of mammalian, avian and piscine predators, they’re wary, ever-watchful, often skittish subjects. Holding a fish out of water presents its own challenges, as squirming seems to be a nearly universal fish characteristic. And a fish out of water is just that – a being out of its natural element.

On a visit to the river on June 19, 2020, finding this blueback Sockeye in clear, shallow water and not in a disposition to flee presented a rare opportunity. Using different cameras and lenses, Barbra and I both composed several low-angle shots in order to capture the eye and flanks of this fish, but we ended up preferring this overhead perspective which we think really tells the story of The Chignik’s early-run bluebacks and the beginning of summer. (Nikon D800, Nikkor 24-70mm f2.8, 1/200 at f/8, 48mm, ISO 400)


Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Dancer

Chignik Lake Alaska Sandhill Crane

Situated at 56° North Latitude (similar to Moscow, Edinburgh, southern Sweden and the  Kamchatka Peninsula), we don’t have many resident birds. Thus, the springtime arrival of nesters is met with great anticipation each year. The entire village listens for the songs of early arriving Fox Sparrows followed by swallows, Wilson’s and Orange-crowned Warblers, Hermit and Gray-cheeked Thrushes, the eerie eventing-time winnowing of Wilson’s Snipe, the nighttime cacophony of migrating flocks of Cackling Geese and Brandt, piping Bald Eagles and the ratchety trumpeting of Sandhill Cranes. Standing close to four feet tall (nearly 120 cm) and with a wingspan of almost six-and-a-half feet (just less than two meters), the latter are extraordinary birds. Encountering a pair of adult cranes on a hike makes for a memorable outing.

It’s not just their physical stature that draws attention. Their brassy calls – repeated back and forth by flying pairs or given in answer to other cranes as they go about the business of establishing nesting territory – momentarily dominate the landscape. Even when the birds are secreted away unseen in some distant berry bog or patch of tundra, a frequent springtime query among residents at The Lake is “Did you hear the cranes?” In late summer or early fall, one of the most joyful sights we encounter is a trio of them flying high, heading south, the third bird a little smaller, a little drabber in color than the other two – a new member of the Sandhill community, evidence of a successful breeding season.

Barbra and I had hiked half-a-mile beyond the village to a place we call The Berry Bog . The date was May 22, 2019. It’s a good time of year to check the bog for violets and other wildflowers, nesting snipe and Savanah Sparrows, and signs of early emerging Brown Bears as well as the tracks of foxes, wolves, moose and cranes. We never expect to see these magnificent birds. They’re wary. But it’s a thrill when we do. (Nikon D850, Nikkor 600mm f/4 with 2.0 TC for a focal length of 1200mm, 1/3200 at F10, ISO 1250)

If you’d like to learn more about Chignik Lake’s cranes – and watch a short video featuring the incredible music they make – see: Birds of Chignik Lake: Sandhill Cranes – Wild, Resounding Tremolo

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Mist

Chignik Alaska Orca Migration Seal Hunting

Six miles downriver from our home on Chignik Lake, the river broadens and joins an estuary, Chignik Lagoon. A few miles beyond that, there is a massive, sheer rock cliff – an ocean head beyond which the Pacific stretches for thousands of miles. Each spring and again in fall whales and orcas travel along the coastline here.

My friend Fred Shangin and I had gone down the river and out around the head to set crab pots and a halibut skate in Castle Bay: May 6, 2018. It was a spectacular day. The seas were calm, at times glassed off, and although snow lingered on mountaintops we were comfortable in warm jackets as we cruised along the ocean. The crabbing and fishing were excellent. In short order we had a a large tub filled with Tanner Crabs and another filled with King Crabs. The skate, which Fred had baited with salmon, paid off as well and we headed home with a 40 pound halibut carpeting the deck of Fred’s skiff.

Just as we passed Eagle Rock at the entrance of Chignik Bay, our attention was drawn to a mighty commotion in the nearshore rocks. Orcas! An adult male, an adult female, a juvenile female… and a very young female not much more than a baby or perhaps a toddler. The cause of the commotion soon became evident. The adult female had caught a harbor seal. Rather than kill it, she and her male companion were escorting their catch to open water. Their daughters kept pace.

“Training Day,” Fred and I came to call the event. The adult orcas were using the seal to teach their daughters to hunt. Fred idled the engine and we watched for perhaps half-an-hour as the orcas pushed at the seal, dragged it here and there, held it under water, and then let it up to allow one of the youngsters to have a turn. I have photos in which the helpless pinniped wears in its eyes the expression of terror and dread of one who understands one’s fate. I did not choose those photos for this presentation, but if you take a second look at the picture above, you can see the alive but exhausted seal floating in front of the orca’s nose.

Life in The Chigniks has brought me more closely in contact with the natural world than I ever imagined I might be. One of the themes I keep confronting – an ineluctable truth – is how intelligent animals are. It’s an injustice to call them “critters;” and not much better to refer to them as “creatures.” They are beings, not so different from ourselves as some might imagine in terms of their relationships with each other, their capacity to learn, to observe, to experience emotion and to teach.

Again and again, Fred and I were struck by how close the orcas came to the skiff: so close that although I was not using a particularly long lens, at times I failed to get a shot. (How I wish Barbra had been along to witness the event and to work with a second camera!) In a vast ocean setting, the adults chose the piece of water Fred’s skiff occupied to conduct most of the teaching. They certainly were aware of us. At one point the male cruised just below the skiff, so close it’s huge dorsal fin might have touched the boat’s underside. When it broke the surface, it angled back to look at us. It felt very much as though they wanted us to see, to be part of the event. That, just as we were drawn to the orcas, they were drawn to us. (Nikon D5, Nikkor 70-200 mm F2.8, 1/1000 at f/16, 70mm, ISO 2000)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Blue Flag

wild irises Chignik Lake Alaska
Blue Flag

In the first half of my life, I knew irises only as garden flowers, eye-catching in their stunning variety of whites, yellows, oranges, reds, blues and purples – the latter at times so dark they appear black. But I later discovered that among the approximately 300 species worldwide, there are many which are wild. One of the things I love about irises is that their peak tends to coincide with my June 30 birthday. I have come to think of them as birthday flowers.

Regardless of the species, I’d long referred to all varieties of this flower as “iris,” a name derived from the ancient Greek iris, which means “rainbow.” But recently I’ve come to learn that the vivid purple-blue wild specimens I’ve been seeing are among the types referred to as  “Blue Flag” in descriptive passages of certain novels featuring bucolic settings. It’s a fitting name for Iris setosa, the meadow and bog loving variety we have out here on the Alaska Peninsula. They are, to my eye, the most beautiful among the many wildflowers that bloom in the Chigniks, and serve as a sure sign that spring is coming to a close, that salmon are in the river, and that summer will soon be upon us.

Irises are unscented, an aspect of Blue Flag that brings to mind a line written by Steve Conrad and delivered by Sean Penn in the film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty: 

“Beautiful things don’t ask for attention.”

I made the above photo just a few steps from our home on June 19, 2019, the day before summer solstice. There is a small meadow near the beach shared by Blue Flag Irises, Chocolate Lilies, Nootka Lupine, Northern Yarrow, Wild Geranium, Cinquefoil, Yellow Paintbrush and other wildflowers. Two challenges present themselves when photographing flowers. The first is light. Regardless of their color, petals are easily blown out under bright skies. So it is best to try to shoot during a brief period of soft light early or late in the day. The second challenge is, surprisingly enough, movement. Set atop willowy stalks, the slightest breeze can set the flowers into enough motion that they end up appearing as blurs in photographic images. A solution is to take full advantage of a calm, early morning and to make as many pictures of flowers as possible before the sun climbs too high in the sky. A good tripod is invaluable. (Nikon D850, Nikkor 600mm f/4.0, 1/400 at f/9.0, ISO 200)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Bursting

Chignik Lake Fiddlehead FernBursting

Seasonally, the Chignik calendar for spring, summer, winter and fall fits well with the actual dates of winter and summer solstice and spring and autumn equinox. So, while back in my native western Pennsylvania I thought of summertime as starting at the beginning of June, here at The Lake it doesn’t feel like summer until Chinook Salmon begin to enter the river in late June. The main exception to this view of seasonality at the Lake is that our summers are a bit truncated. Autumn comes early.

I made this photograph on June 4, 2019 on a hike to Clarks River – a trek made memorable by our first bear sighting of the year. With the school year having finished weeks ago, we had been going out every day, soaking up as much of our beloved countryside as possible before our scheduled move to Newhalen later in June. Chignik Lake’s school enrollment had dropped below 10 students; the school board had voted to close the school and transfer Barbra. A strange mix of springtime joy and melancholy stirred within our hearts. We did not want to move. But perhaps the understanding that we soon would be leaving created in us a deeper appreciation for the beauty we were surround by.

Willows had just begun to leaf out, and the year’s first flowers were emerging – salmonberries, wild geranium, pink lousewort, delicate purple violets, cinquefoil and lupine. Heavy buds hung from iris and chocolate lily stems. Fireweed was just beginning to push up through the soil in thin red shoots. Our avian spring migrants had returned, and the hike was alive with the songs and calls of swallows, thrushes, sparrows, warblers, yellowlegs, gulls and cranes. Just a few days prior, on May 28, Donny had caught the year’s first Sockeye Salmon in his net. Eagles had begun to post sentinels along the river, watching for more fish to arrive. My memory of the hike is of warmth, but I can see from a photo I took of Barbra that we were still wearing substantial coats and gloves.

While Barbra was photographing alder catkins, (the long, golden-yellow flowers that hang from male trees), I turned my attention to the tightly furled fiddlehead ferns in the above photo. My mind was more on birds than plants, so I had affixed my wildlife lens to my camera and had even attached a teleconverter. But when I looked through the viewfinder, I liked the image so I composed the shot. There’s nothing like a long lens for creating bokeh. (Nikon D850, Nikkor 600 mm + 2.0 TC = 1200 mm, 1/25 at f8, ISO 650)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Spring Spruce

Great Horned Owl Chick Chignik Lake AlaskaSpring Spruce

Until about 70 years ago, the shores of Chignik Lake had only seasonally been occupied by humans. Historically, the present-day site of the village had been a hunting and fishing camp. The first census here was recorded in 1960. Since then, The Lake has primarily been inhabited by people connected to commercial salmon fishing. Most of the permanent residents, which now number about 55, are of Native Alutiiq heritage.

Many of the original permanent residents had close ties to Kodiak Island. At 2,388 square miles (9,293 km2), Kodiak is quite large – second in size only to the Big Island of Hawaii among U. S. Islands. Much of Kodiak Island is covered in spruce forests. So when people began to permanently settle Chignik Lake, they introduced White Spruce seedlings from Kodiak. The species thrived, and now scattered throughout the village the trees grow as majestic singles, in pairs and in copses of up to 20 trees. They are a testament to the positive impact planting a few trees can have for wildlife, particularly birds. Among the beneficiaries are Great Horned Owls, a pair of which nests in one of the spruce copses.

This past spring and summer, the owls successfully fledged two offspring. In the photo above, the younger of the two siblings is perched on a White Spruce bough. Despite the needle-like spruce leaves there is a softness to this image, underscored by the downy owlet and the gentle transitions among hues of green and aqua. The plumb-colored young cones are visually surprising, I think, in a pleasant way. Although I made this photograph on June 25 – five days after summer solstice – I felt it fit perfectly in the springtime collection. Soft evening light slightly backlit and sidelit the young owl which helped prevent blowing out the white plumage. The air was still, allowing me to shoot slow and keep the ISO low – an important consideration when it comes to cropping wildlife photos and lightening areas of heavy shadow.  (Nikon D850, Nikkor 600 mm f4.0, 1/200 at f6.3, ISO 200.)