Subsistence Salmon Beach Seining on Chignik Lake

This short video shows a group of Chignik Lake residents beach seining for Sockeye Salmon along the shores of Chignik Lake. The salmon thus harvested were later distributed to village members.

I didn’t have the lenses I might have preferred to have with me, and I have just barely begun the journey into videography, but on a recent hike up the lake to the mouth of Clarks River, an opportunity presented itself. Jake and Jamie pulled up to the beach in Jamie’s skiff and in a few minutes were joined by several other friends and neighbors who had traveled upcountry by honda. The plan was to do some beach seining along the lakeshore for Sockeye (Red) Salmon, with the request that since I was there, would I take some photos? 

I’d made the hike in hopes of finding interesting macro shots, or perhaps a moose or bear in a landscape setting. The 105mm prime lens attached to my camera wasn’t ideal for the shoot at hand, but it was the lens in hand – neither long enough to adequately capture the bear that was fishing at the mouth of Clarks when I first arrived, nor wide enough to capture the sweeping landscape the netting operation was set against. 

Nonetheless, I really got into recording this event, which has been occurring here in the Chigniks in one form or another for thousands of years. In fact, if you look closely along lake and river beaches where salmon harvesting has long occurred, you might get lucky and find stone artifacts such as the ones in the photo below.

From upper left, counterclockwise: The notched ends in the first three stones indicate that they were used as weights along the lead line – the bottom line – of a fishing net. The oblong object in the upper right is an ulu-like knife that would have been used to split salmon carcasses before they were hung to dry. It is still quite sharp. The two center pieces are arrowheads. 

Most of the time in most places, salmon spawn over clean gravel or small rocks in clear-flowing rivers and streams. Sockeye Salmon, however, often spawn along lake shorelines where upwelling in the form of small underwater springs is present. There doesn’t have to be a stream as long as enough water is seeping up through lakebed gravel in water a few feet deep. There the female Sockeye will scrape out her nest, her redd, with her tail, deposit her eggs which a male at her side will fertilize, and then push gravel back over the eggs to protect them while they incubate. Shortly after they’ve spawned, all the adult salmon will die. Their decaying carcasses provide a vital source of nutrition for the various zooplankton and small insects upon which their young will feed until they’ve matured sufficiently to migrate out to sea.

This past season, beginning in late May or early June, over half a million Red Salmon ascended the Chignik River. While many spawn in the lake itself, many others spawn in the Chignik River as well as in several tributary streams and rivers. These salmon, along with the Pink, Chum, Coho and Chinook that also run the Chignik, are foundational to life here. They provide food for our abundant bears, eagles, otters, seals and other wildlife, provide a nutrient base for the lakes and rivers, and, with the help of Brown Bears, become fertilizer for berry flats, wildflowers and other vegetation which, in turn, feed everything from mushrooms to mice to caterpillars to songbirds. It would be no exaggeration to say that every living thing along the Chignik is connected to salmon. That includes the 50-some residents of Chignik Lake, among which Barbra and I are two.

Kita the Kitten: Welcome to a Life of Adventure, Chapter I

We’d been considering adding to our family for quite awhile, but the timing and the situation never seemed quite right. After having Buster in our life, we felt the urge even more strongly. He was such a great dog – an eager hiker, a terrific optimist and a joy to be around. We could easily imagine going on hikes and trips with a dog just like him. So, we began watching dog training videos. But when it came to envisioning how a dog might fit into our sometimes unpredictable lives, we had to conclude that now was not the right time.

Then there was the idea of a cat. We loved having Franny in our life back when we lived in Sacramento. She loved chatting, playing and being part of our lives. Her mischief was confined to unrolling toilet paper and pulling socks (only mine) out of drawers. Her lone drawback was that she hated being in a car. And so, her adventures were confined to our home.

Out of curiosity, I began doing some internet searches on pet adoption in Anchorage. There are a surplus of dogs and cats needing forever homes. I suppose this is true of most cities. Jack and I would “aww” over all sorts of pictures, all the while becoming more and more serious about adding a new family member. The more pictures we looked at, the more honed in we became on what sort of pet would fit into our family. This furry friend would need to be friendly, communicative, and happy to go on adventures.

After much deliberation, we decided a cat would make for the best fit. We thought we could find a kitten that we could leash train and also one that could be taught to understand that car noises are not scary. The hope is that one day she would be on the road with us, traveling around the country in our camper. Once our search began in earnest, as often is the case, things quickly fell into place.

There are several organizations in Anchorage that adopt out cats and kittens. My internet searches kept bringing me back to the Alaska Cat Adoption Team’s (ACAT) website. There was a picture of this one kitten… how can a picture tug at heartstrings, I’ll never know. But it did. I showed Jack. Same reaction. Love at first sight. In our conversations, we had already named her Kita, which means North in Japanese.

I contacted Kita’s foster care person, Terri, to see what the process was. Terri, of course, turned out to be a big-hearted lady with a commitment to helping the growing feral cat population in Anchorage. She told me stories of her recent rescues and about the kittens she was currently fostering. Then she broke the news that someone was coming to look at Kita that very day.

Oh no! ACAT has a strict policy about rehoming. They require the prospective owner to come and visit the adoptee in person to make sure there is a positive connection. ACAT is trying to ensure that their cats get placed in a forever home. Disappointed, I gave Terri my contact information and asked her to let me know if Kita’s adoption didn’t go through. Meanwhile, Terri offered to help me find another cat that might fit, so we left off our conversation on a positive note.

A few days later, I got a call from Terri. They guy who was going to adopt Kita kept missing his appointments, leaving her unsure that adoption was going to happen. Jack and I pounced on the opportunity. We were ready to happily commit to Kita’s adoption. We paid a reservation fee and I began organizing a trip to Anchorage. In the meanwhile, Terri called or emailed almost daily with reports and photos of our new little friend playing with her foster siblings, snoozing in different place, and generally being cute.

Kita is now in her new home, having survived her first adventure with her new family. I couldn’t tell the story as well as she can, so I’ll let her tell it.

Well, it’s been quite a couple of days! First, I went with my new owner to a hotel. It was a cool and strange scene. The place was almost devoid of smells and was humming with funny sounds. There were these curious glass panels with kittens behind them that looked just like me! By the time I was finished sussing out the place, night had fallen. I climbed up on a gigantic bed, nestled into a hundred pillows and proceeded to fall asleep. Then, all of a sudden, there were terrifying creaking sounds like the building was going to break. Fearing the worst and not knowing what to do, I jumped up and hid under the bed. A few minutes later a ringing sound made Barbra turn on the light and talk into a little machine. I heard her say “8.2 magnitude? Are you ok? I’m relieved to hear that.” She seemed worried for a bit. Finally, she quieted down, I climbed back onto the bed and we both fell asleep. A short time later, a loud alarm went off and scared both of us awake. Turns out it was a false alarm, maybe triggered by the earlier earthquake. At that point, both of us were too amped up to sleep. We turned our attention to playing games with the feather toy Barbra had brought for me.

Soon it was time to snuggle into my travel crate. I cuddled in with a blanket and a soft shirt that smelled just like Barbra. After a sleepy car ride, we waited in a warm building where kind people curiously peeked in at me. After a time, I noticed strange smells and some weird noises coming from other crates that looked kind of like mine but were much bigger. My crate was set atop these others and I was wheeled outside. One after another, we were loaded onto a plane. First the geese, then the pig, then a box of ducklings, and finally me. The smells coming from those crates were quite intense! I watched Barbra take a seat, the engine roared and we ascended into the air! When the plane stopped, all the smelly animals were disembarked and I got to sit right next to my friend, Barbra. This was much better.

The next time we landed, I met Jack. He put me into the truck cab and the three of us drove to my new home. Jack’s a very busy guy who likes to make noise in the kitchen. I could tell he loved me right away because he played with me and petted me very nicely. He even spoke to me in Japanese, which I couldn’t understand, but then he gave me some delicious salmon!

Let me tell you about my new home. It’s big and has very different noises than my foster home. I get all the attention from my two people. They love to play with me. They even made me some new toys. I love to sit on the windowsill and watch the birds at the window feeders. If I get tired, there are soft blankets for me to nap on. At nighttime, I get to share a bed with my new warm family. I think I’m going to have a great life with many fun adventures with these two.

Breakfast Panna Cotta – Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary

A breakfast fit for a celebration – now where’s my champagne?

As it happens sometimes, we received a random box of ingredients, this time thanks to the Farmers to Families program. The box included a variety of items that someone defined as household staples. Included were roasted chicken quarters, hot dogs, potatoes, apples, milk, and yogurt. Jack quickly turned out a delicious soup with the chicken, potatoes, and other veggies we had in our fridge. My challenge was the yogurt. I usually make our own yogurt, so we already had more than enough for our regular menu. 

Living in a small village, we often gift extra food amongst our neighbors. For example, if someone gets an extra order of canned pumpkin or tahini (real examples), we share. When that happens, the resulting cooking challenge always strikes me as our own episode of Chopped. We don’t like to let anything go to waste. So the puzzle of the yogurt needed to be attended to right away.

I had just finished re-reading The Tutka Bay Lodge Cookbook and was in the middle of another pastry chef cookbook when the box arrived. I already had Panna Cotta on the brain. I wondered if Panna Cotta could be made with yogurt instead of cream. Panna Cotta is a wonderful gelatinized dessert that can become a delicious canvas for a variety of fruit. The name is derived from Italian and means “cooked cream.” In my experiment, it would be cooked yogurt. So, yes, this is not a true Panna Cotta. My version has the same vanilla bean canvas and the same structure. That’s where the similarity ended.

I tested different dishes and glasses for serving the Panna Cotta including wine glasses and ramekins. I think they all worked beautifully. My breakfast Panna Cotta definitely tasted like a rich vanilla yogurt. But it made for a gorgeous and delicious breakfast presentation – layers of crunchy granola, chewy dried fruit, zippy tart berries, and a drizzle of last summer’s wineberry syrup. The same visual layers can be accomplished in any clear glass if ramekins are not available. With just a bit of chilling time and not too much effort, you too can turn ordinary into extraordinary.

Breakfast Panna Cotta

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 tsp powdered gelatin (1 package)
  • 3 cups plain yogurt
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 tsp vanilla paste
  • 2/3 cup granulated sugar
  • granola
  • dried fruit
  • frozen or fresh berries
  • berry syrup

Directions

  1. Place gelatin in a small bowl. Pour a couple of tablespoons of the milk into the gelatin and mix. Let set for about 5 minutes.
  2. In a medium mixing bowl, whisk together the remainder of the milk, yogurt, vanilla and sugar.
  3. Place about 1/2 cup of the yogurt mixture into a small pot. Warm mixture while stirring constantly.
  4. Add gelatin mixture to pot.
  5. Whisk mixture until gelatin is dissolved. Let cool for 5 minutes.
  6. Pour gelatin mixture back into the original yogurt mixture in the medium bowl. Mix thoroughly.
  7. Divide the panna cotta into 6 ramekins or glasses. 
  8. Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight in the refrigerator.
  9. To serve, layer on granola, dried fruit, berries and berry syrup of your choosing.
  10. Alternatively, run a knife around the edge of the ramekin, dip the ramekin in hot water and unmold onto a serving plate prepared with a bottom layer of granola. Top panna cotta decoratively with remaining ingredients.

Dungeness Crab Cakes

Sweet Dungeness Crab – all you’ll want is a spritz of lemon.

For as long as I can remember I’ve ordered crab cakes in restaurants. They are, I think, the most difficult seafood fritter, patty or cake to get right. The best I’ve had were served at McCormick’s in Portland some years ago. They came with hollandaise sauce and I used to have them for breakfast with a cup of black coffee or a glass of Pinot Gris, after which I’d walk up the street to Powell’s to look at books or to write.

Thanks to the Dungeness in our freezer, I’ve been experimenting. Crab is difficult because it’s more important to get the seasonings right than with other seafood and then you’ve got to cook the cakes just so. If the cakes are very good, lemon is all you’ll want.

Dungeness Crab Cakes

Ingredients

  • ½ pound cooked Dungeness or Blue Crab meat. If it seems too wet, it is. Squeeze the excess moisture out with paper towel or through a strainer. Take extra care to make sure there is no shell.
  • seasonings: Crab is very sweet. It needs something. I use a blend of dried powdered peppers such as Aleppo, Ancho, Cayenne, Chipotle. The idea is that you want to balance the sweetness of the crab with something that pulls your pallet in a different direction. This actually serves to underscore the sweetness of crab, its signature trait. In addition to the above types of spice, smoked paprika, nutmeg and tarragon can also be added. Dill or fennel? I wouldn’t. I seldom spice anything exactly the same twice. The key here is the spicy pepper.
  • soy sauce: as desired
  • 1 or 2 shallots, diced fine, sautéed till soft in olive oil, removed from pan and set aside to cool
  • ¼ cup red bell pepper, diced, sautéed in olive oil, removed from pan and set aside to cool
  • 1 egg, beaten with a little soy sauce whisked in. Provided you don’t add too much spice to the cakes themselves, you can also add a couple shakes of Cholula here.
  • panko: approximately the same amount in volume as the crab meat. Start by mixing in about half the volume. That won’t feel like enough, so add more till it seems about right – not to wet, not too dry.
  • Olive oil and Butter

Directions:

  1. In a large bowl, mix together the crab, seasonings, shallots, bell peppers, soy sauce and egg. Hands work best for this. Then mix in the panko. Shape the cakes into patties. Keep them fairly small so that they are easy to turn and they stay together.
  2. In a frying pan on medium heat, add enough olive oil and butter in equal parts to shallow-fry the cakes. When the oil is hot, set the timer for 4 minutes and add the cakes. Cover the pan and cook for 1 minute, then lower the temperature to a little below medium. It is important to check the cakes periodically to make sure the bottom side is browning the way you want.
  3. At 4 minutes, gently turn the cakes over and continue cooking uncovered. Occasionally spoon some of the oil-butter mixture on top of the cakes.

These are the best crab cakes I’ve ever had. All I ever want with them is a spritz of lemon. When Barbra and I pick a whole crab and dip it in herbed lemon-butter, we almost always go for a buttery, oaked Chardonnay. But these cakes want something lighter and more fruit forward, so Pinot Gris or similar pairs well.

Don’t Discard the Discard Sourdough Crackers

Delightfully crispy and packed with flavor: cheese-like tang, garlic, onion, with a hit of salt. You’ll never discard your discard starter again.

One day, I noticed a friend had posted on a community webpage that she had extra sourdough starter if anyone wanted it. It made me wonder about extra starter – a problem I don’t seem to encounter. Due to a combination of where we live and our predisposition to avoid waste, we generally don’t have “extra.” Of course, shortly after coming to the conclusion that we’d never have extra starter, I had a week where I skipped making sourdough loaves and wound up with “extra starter.” One of my recipe books recommended discarding the extra. What?! I decided to taste it, to see if the flavor would inspire a recipe. Tasting raw starter was a bad idea. Yuck! 

After a bit of research, I decided to tinker with a cracker recipe I found on the King Arthur Flour website. My first batch came out wonderfully flavored, but too soft. The problem was the thickness. My rolling pin and I could not get the dough thin enough. The solution came to me after rolling lasagna noodles – the pasta machine! If you’ve only ever thought of your pasta machine as a noodle machine, think again. Besides wonderfully flavored and textured linguini and spaghetti, I’ve also cranked out perfect bowties, ravioli and even wonton wrappers. This seemingly single-purposed machine helps perfectly roll sourdough to make satisfyingly crunchy crackers.

If you don’t have a pasta machine, I highly recommend the Atlas model we have. It is a heavy beast, but it is a kitchen tool that’s made the cut every time we’ve had to pack up and move. If you don’t want to add another item to your cupboards, a rolling pin will still work with this recipe. Be patient and aim to roll a thickness of about 1/16”.

The finished crackers have a tangy cheese-like flavor from the sourdough starter. This in combination with a mixture of onion and garlic and a hit of grey sea salt make these crackers very addicting. Serve with the complementary topping of your choice. Or enjoy their flavor unadorned, as I usually do.

Don’t Discard the Discard Sourdough Crackers

Ingredients

  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 tsp sea salt
  • 1 tsp granulated shallots (onion powder would work, too)
  • 1 tsp granulated garlic
  • 1 cup sourdough starter, unfed
  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
  • olive oil for brushing
  • coarse salt for sprinkling on top (I like grey sea salt)

Directions

  1. Mix first 6 ingredients to form a smooth dough.
  2. Tightly cover in plastic and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. I often refrigerate for several days.
  3. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
  4. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper or reusable liner.
  5. Cut off 1/4th of refrigerated dough and roll until it’s about 1/16” thick. I roll it like it is pasta on the pasta machine down to the 5th setting.
  6. Placed rolled dough on prepared baking sheet.
  7. Using a knife, or pastry roller, cut dough into cracker shapes. There is no need to move the crackers apart.
  8. Brush dough with olive oil.
  9. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt.
  10. Bake for 9 minutes.
  11. Crackers will be lightly browned when done.
  12. Let cool on wire rack. Store cooled crackers in an airtight container at room temperature.
  13. Repeat with remaining dough.

Salmonberry Sour Cream Crumble Cake for Four (Or two. Or one.)

Salmonberry crumb cake

Springtime in Mongolia meant every kind of weather. Recently, this similarity to Chignik Lake has seemed to be especially true. A few days ago the lunchtime thermometer read 42 degrees under sunny skies and only a few patches of a deep snow that had blanked the landscape remained. We were inspired to go for a Honda ride to look for whatever new growth we might find. That was a few days ago…

Yesterday, we awoke to drizzly rain that morphed into melty, wet snow. Next thing we knew, we were immersed in a blizzard that blanketed us in again in a winter wonderland. This morning, the new day greeted us with broken skies, gusts of wind, a thermometer registering a chilly 16°, and new skim ice near the shoreline.

The warmth streaming in through our windows a few days ago prompted thoughts of summer – fishing, berry picking, mushroom hunting, boating, and the like. But the honda ride confirmed that even though the warmth of the sun is returning, the land is still in a deep wintery slumber. The blizzard kept me indoors, antsy – I really wanted a taste of summer, even though I know it is still months away. There is nothing more evocative of Alaskan summers than berries. Last year, we picked gallons of wild berries and carefully preserved them in our freezer – blueberries, raspberries, salmonberries, wineberries and lingonberries. Lately, I’ve been favoring the blueberries to top my oatmeal or to mix in with homemade yogurt. But to satisfy my craving for a  summer creation, I found myself drawn to the beautiful, multi-colored gems that are salmonberries. They have a tangy, sweet-sour flavor that pairs perfectly with almond – an ingredient I wanted to feature.

I was very happy with how this cake turned out. The diminutive dessert was just right for the two of us to share. The berries baked into the batter, retaining their jewel-like beauty. The cake was delectably moist. The flavors incorporated the lovely balance of natural sweet and sour. Each bite was complimented by the crumbly sweet almond topping. Full disclosure – it was intended for two desserts. We managed to finish the whole thing off in one delicious fell swoop.

Salmonberry Sour Cream Crumble Cake for Four (Or two. Or one.)

Ingredients

Topping

  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 4 tbsp unsalted butter, melted

Cake

  • 3/4 cup + 2 tbsp all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1/4 tsp baking soda
  • Pinch salt
  • 1 extra large egg (1 1/2 large eggs)
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 tsp almond extract
  • 1 1/2 cups salmonberries (if frozen, let thaw and drain off extra liquid)

Directions

  1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F (180C).
  2. Line bottom of 7-inch springform pan with parchment paper. Grease the sides of the pan with butter. Set aside.
  3. In a small bowl, mix together topping ingredients. Stir with a fork until mixture is crumbly. Set aside.
  4. For the cake, in another bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
  5. In a bowl of a stand mixer, mix together eggs, sour cream and almond extract.
  6. Add flour mixture for cake into the egg mixture. Beat until smooth, about 2 minutes.
  7. Pour batter into prepared springform pan.
  8. Top with salmonberries.
  9. Sprinkle crumble mixture evenly over berry layer.
  10. Bake until topping is golden brown the the center is cooked, about 40 minutes. Test this with a toothpick. It should come out clean when inserted into the middle of the cake.
  11. Let cake cool on wire rack in the pan for 20 minutes before removing springform sides.
  12. Cut into slices and serve warm or at room temperature.

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Swan Barque

Found art ice Chignik Lake
Swan Barque

In the first month of 2017, temperatures dropped into the single digits and stayed there. Coinciding with this, the Chignik’s infamous winds abated for a few days. Skim ice began forming on January 16. The following morning we woke to find the lake frozen solid.

Scattered around the lake close to shore, we found a few of these exquisite ice sculptures. Intricately crafted by natural forces, they looked to us like fine crystal. Upwelling – subsurface springs – may have played a role in their formation. Beyond that, they were mysteries.

They didn’t last long. Eventually the wind came up and piece by delicate piece they were dismantled. We never again found such beautifully detailed arrangements, and so I’m glad to have made a few photographs. The ice in the photo suggested to us a swan on a placid lake, or a sailing vessel. (Nikon D5, 105mm f/2.8, 1/125 @ f/14, ISO 125)

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: Visitor

Chignik Lake Alaska hoary redpoll
Visitor

Right down to his black-gloved claws, male redpolls are strikingly handsome fellows. The species is a regular wintertime visitor at the lake, though they’re unpredictable and irruptive flocks or a few individuals or none at all might be encountered in any season here. Two springs ago, Barbra saw one carrying nesting material. That same late spring we saw a number of what were surely brand new fledglings. In recent years they’ve joined Pine Siskins and Pine Grosbeaks in what has become the annual late-spring Feast of the Dandelions. As the little yellow flowers go to seed, these finches descend on the school yard and elsewhere to gorge on the tiny seeds. This occurs in large part due to Clinton, the school’s grounds-keeper, whom I’ve convinced to put off mowing till after the main part of the dandelion season is over.

I’m hesitant to say with certainty that the bird in the above photo is a Hoary Redpoll, but he’s got the smallish bill, light side streaking and pinkish breast associated with that species. There is a lot of morphological variation among redpolls. The matter brings up what is to me one of the most interesting questions in biology:

What is a species?

When do two groups of similar flora or fauna differ from each other enough to merit taxonomic separation? The question creates divisions between “lumpers” who advocate for leaning toward the simple “can they interbreed and produce viable offspring” test and “splitters” who observe that even though two types can successfully breed, it may not be useful to group them together as a single species.

My interest in ichthyology has led me to place myself firmly in the “splitters” group. Applying the simple “can they breed and produce viable offspring” test, fisheries managers of bygone eras decimated genetically unique stocks of salmonids (char, trout and salmon) through nearly indiscriminate hatchery breeding policies and stocking programs. What was learned – the hard way – is that although, for example, Chinook Salmon from two different rivers might seem to be the same thing, biologically they aren’t. Each population of Chinook represents a unique genetic strain, specially adapted to the conditions of its own home river. A strain of salmon transplanted from one river to another is unlikely to thrive. Thus, the best approach to ensuring healthy salmon populations is to protect their habitat – river by river, right down to individual spawning tributaries.

Which brings us to the matter of redpolls and the question as to whether there are two species in North America, Hoary and Common, or whether a redpoll is a redpoll is a redpoll. Based on what I’ve read, in addition to any phenotypic or genotypic differences that might exist between the two types, they tend to nest it different areas. Hoaries prefer tundra or other open areas; Commons like more brushy habitat. Which suggests to me that they are different enough that we need to protect both types of habitat if we want to continue to have both types of redpolls. (Nikon D5, 600m f/4 + 2.0 TC, 1/1000 @ f/8, ISO 1600, 1200mm

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Otter Pile

Chignik Lake River Otters
Otter Pile

Our first winter in the village, the lake froze solid. Temperatures plunged during a period of calm. Ice-over occurred quickly and the new ice was clear and dense. The lake hadn’t frozen solid in recent years, and so I became the first person in five years to walk across the lake. At one point, Barbra and I hiked up the frozen lake as far as Clarks River. We even did some cross country skiing after a snowfall left the lake blanketed in white.

Most of the river froze as well, and it is certain that bodies of water further up the peninsula also turned to hard water. Due probably to subsurface springs, a few acres of water near the lake’s outflow – right in front of our house – never froze. This open water became a a refuge for all kinds of wildlife – several species of ducks, Harbor Seals, hunting foxes and eagles, and, for a short time, a wolf. Bundling up in warm clothing and crawling out onto the ice day after day, I encountered species of ducks that aren’t often seen here and got some beautiful wildlife photographs.

My favorite subjects were a group of River Otters that used the edge of the ice and openings as they hunted, played and rested. They’re common throughout the Chignik drainage, but they’re shy, and so although we frequently see them, we don’t often get opportunities to make good portraits of them.

At first the otters in the above photo were so cautious I was unable to approach near enough to get photos of more than the “these are otters” variety. Down on my belly, I’d edge forward across the frozen lake pushing my camera on its tripod before me. I’d hear their alarmed snorts from a distance and watch them slip like silk into the water, gone.

But day by day they became more accustomed to my presence. And they are intelligent, inquisitive beings. I think eventually they couldn’t help themselves in permitting closer proximity between us.

Among North American carnivores, River Otters are unique. Truly communal by nature, I’ve never seen them squabble the way bears and foxes often do. Although I would imagine that from time to time these playful fellows and gals must engage in spats, their more usual disposition toward each other is captured in the above image.

I’ve upgraded my equipment and improved my camera skills since that first year, so I keep hoping for another cold winter, an absence of trappers, and an opportunity to get to know these fascinating residents of The Lake better. Chignik Lake, January 2, 2017. (Nikon D5, 600mm f/4 + 1.4 TC, 1/1000 @ f/8, ISO 2500, 850mm)