A landscape seen by fewer than 100 living people….
The Hike Up Flattop
There’s a small mountain behind our village. We call it Flattop, though once you reach the peak you find that it is somewhat rounded. Although reaching the summit constitutes an elevation gain of only about 1,200 feet (a quarter of a mile; four football fields), because it is the foreword-most mountain facing the village, the summit provides an unobstructed 180 degree view sweeping from the corner of Chignik Lake to one’s left where Clarks River enters, down the lake and through the village, and then down the Chignik River all the way across the estuary to the next village, Chignik Lagoon, a vista encompassing about 12 miles. But in fact, the view is more grand even than that, for one can see mountains 20 miles beyond Chignik Lagoon where a portion of the Alaska Peninsula curves out into the Alaska Gulf, and while gazing across Chignik Lake the landscape disappears in haze over Bristol Bay. Keeping in mind that a few steps beyond the last house in the village one is entering a landscape fewer than 100 living people have seen, the view from Flattop is even more exclusive.
The roundtrip hike from our home to the summit and back is fairly rigorous. We begin by following the community’s main thoroughfare, a dirt road that curves along the lakeshore, crosses a small, willow-crowded stream inhabited by char, and then branches off to the left past a few houses beyond which is a honda trail. For about two miles, the trail alternately cuts through stands of scrub alder and willow, open tundra, and shoulder-high grasses, fireweed, ferns and salmonberry brakes.
The trailhead leading up Flattop is easy to miss if you don’t know where to look. People – young men who are hard on their machines – very occasionally take their quads up the mountain, though scarcely often enough to beat back the jungle-thick vegetation waiting to reclaim any seldom-used path in this part of the world. Not long ago, a neighbor was lucky to get clear in time to avoid injury when the mountain took control of his honda. His quad is now somewhere on Flattop’s steep flanks, hung up in alders, unrecoverable. One’s own two feet are the more prudent – and satisfying – option for ascent.
In the early morning of September 17, we entered the trailhead through a field of tall grasses and fireweed gone to downy seed, colored with autumn, made dripping wet with low fog. As we gained elevation, the grasses, ferns and flower stalks gave way to thick stands of salmonberry bushes. It wasn’t long before our pants were soaked and our water-resistant boots were saturated through to squishy socks. Sunshine in the forecast promised dry clothing once we climbed beyond the vegetation.
Landmark by landmark, salmonberry brakes began to thin. Alders grew smaller and more wind-twisted. We ambled through openings where, back in early June, we’d come across patches of heathers and wildflowers – vaccinium, geranium, yarrow, paintbrush, candle orchid, fireweed. At times we lost the faint trail, the path buried in tall, thick grasses or barely discernible through tangled tunnels of gnarled alders. Just as the sun broke free from mist and crested the summit we emerged onto the first treeless scree, the sudden warmth and open landscape a joy, handfuls of lingonberries, tart, sweet, energizing.
As we continued up the slope, I studied the loose scree for signs of the Weasel Snout, lousewort, Alpine Azalea, Alp Lily, Pincushion, Moss Campion, Roseroot, avens, saxifrage and Purple Oxytrope I’d photographed in June, but aside from a few lupine still clinging to periwinkle-colored blooms, the rest were gone, the few remaining leaves various hues of yellow, red and orange. Near the top we were surprised to find blueberries, wind-stunted bushes hugging thin soil, leaves crimson, berries big and frost-nipped sweet.
We had chosen a day when the forecast predicted calm air, offering the hope of mountains mirrored in a glassy lake and pleasant loafing at the top. We scanned the lakeshore and flats for moose and other wildlife, but aside from a few Black-capped Chickadees, Pine Grosbeaks, a sparrow or three and clouds of midges dancing in filtered sunlight, animals were scarce, though near the summit my spirit bird, a Northern Shrike, materialized from out of nowhere to hover a few feet above my head in order to puzzle me out. Bear tracks all the way at the top. Moose tracks and fox tracks along the way. Lynx scat… maybe.
The video is best viewed on a large screen. As you watch, notice the round, snow-crowned summit just barely peaking out from behind foreground mountains in the view across the lake. That’s Mount Veniaminof, an occasionally active volcano 24 miles southwest of Chignik Lake. The earth’s curve over that distance causes it to appear to be only as tall as the closer 3,000 foot peaks. But in fact, Veniaminof touches the sky at 8,225 feet. We hear it rumble from time to time and have occasionally woken to a smoke-clouded sky or a fine dusting of volcanic ash on new snow in the village.
The corner of the lake to the left, in front of those mountains, is where Clarks River debouches. A major salmon spawning tributary, in September Clarks offers spectacular, nearly untouched fly-fishing for returning Coho Salmon.
Then, looking up the lake through the gap in the hills and mountains, the landscape disappears into haze. Black River flows into Chignik Lake here, beyond which is miles of Black River itself, and then the upper lake, Black Lake. Past that is a vast area of boggy tundra and kettle ponds all the way across the peninsula to the ghost village of Ilnik and the coast where sandy barrier islands, The Seal Islands, front Bristol Bay.
Following the landscape to the right, the lake narrows as it flows past the village of Chignik Lake, a community of about 50 to 55 people, most of whom are of Alutiiq heritage. The large white buildings in the middle are the school gym (left) and the school itself (right) where Barbra teaches. Just as the village ends, the lake narrows further, picks up speed and becomes Chignik River. A narrow dirt road follows the river downstream and terminates at a boat landing across from the fish-counting weir, the buildings of which are just barely visible. There are no roads beyond this one, which terminates on its other end at the airfield.
I included a photograph looking downriver and across the estuary, locally referred to as the lagoon. The image zooms in on the village of Chignik Lagoon, the community closest to Chignik Lake. With no roads nor even trails linking the communities, the river and estuary serve as the highway. Virtually everyone in The Chigniks owns a skiff or two.
The end credits roll over a black and white photograph I made from Flattop’s summit in early June.
Hiking with us on this day were school faculty members new to The Lake: Melody Wiggins, Jacob Chapman and Melody’s son, Micah. Barbra is on the right in the group photo.