We began the float by paddling our Alpacka Gnu to the north shore of Chignik Lake opposite of Chignik Lake village, which looks as tiny as it actually is tucked up against the Chignik Mountains. Chignik means “big winds.” Not on the morning of April 14. (For a look at this same float in December, 2017, see: Early December in Paradise – a Float down the Chignik River.)
It was one of those days when we woke with no plans, and now the day was making a plan for us. The sun slid through a few thin clouds hovering above snowcapped mountains downriver to the east, casting a silvery light across the glassy lake. From our dining room window we could see fish rising, leaving little rings on the lake’s surface.
“We should do a float,” Barbra said. “It’s beautiful.”
“I’ll get breakfast going if you’ll start putting our gear together,” I replied.
Within an hour we were on the water, our inflatable canoe gliding down the lake to the narrows where the water quickens to become Chignik River. Magpies and chickadees called from the banks and as we slipped past the White Spruce Grove we could hear a cacophony rising from the 30 or so Pine Siskins that have spent the winter here. Salmon fry, fingerlings and parr dimpled the river surface all round us, occasionally leaping clear to add a shimmer of silver to the morning light. A kingfisher rattled as it flew overhead. With the shoreline suddenly teaming with small salmon and sticklebacks, our kingfishers will soon be back in numbers. Maybe this will be the year I find a nest.
Behind polarized sunglasses we let our eyes to adjust to the water’s clear-green depths, searching the cobblestone riverbed for the year’s first Sockeyes, a big Dolly Varden or a rare steelhead. No luck, but a neighbor has already found two ocean-bright salmon in his net, the year’s first. A million more are on their way, and with them eagles, harbor seals and bears.
With the wind down and as much time as we cared to take to float the two miles to the barge landing, we let the easy current do most of the work, dipping in our paddles mainly to keep a true course. Being the first boat on the water, we had a good chance to encounter any ducks or swans that might be around. And you never know: bears are just beginning to wake up, and the shores are frequently patrolled by foxes, otters and mink and less frequently by wolves, lynxes and wolverines. We spoke softly, scanned the banks, and listened.
Long before we came around a bend and saw them, we could hear Tundra Swans and mallards honking and quacking in one of their favorite stretches of water. There were just two swans, stately, regal, gracefully gliding along the shoreline to our left. The mallards were a bit of a surprise. There must’ve been 20 or more drakes and hens paired up, feeding on vegetation in the shallows, warily bursting into fight as our raft drifted close.
Further down the river, we came upon a pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes, a rare species in the Chigniks. We sometimes get Common Goldeneyes in the dozens, but years go by between reports of Barrow’s. It’s possible that they might nest here if they can find the right sort of rocky crevice or opening in an abandoned structure of some sort.
On the North side of the river there’s a feeder stream we’d been talking about exploring. So when we came to it, we beached the raft, tied it down and began hiking. The stream is just eight to 15 feet wide on average and shallow enough in places to cross in Muck boots. But the water runs cold and fast and clear over clean rocks and gravel, pooling and eddying in ways that are attractive to salmon. Peering into a riffle, I noticed what appeared to be one long, continuous set of redds – salmon nests – before I thought to give the banks a closer look.
Above are the remains of a couple of salmon that became a brown bear banquet. Last fall, the Chignik system filled with the highest number of Pink and Silver Salmon anyone had seen in a long time. Fat autumn bears make for fat spring cubs.
On both sides of the creek, the vegetation had been trampled down in broad swaths, a sure sign that bears heavily use this stream. Sure enough, when we looked down we found the area littered with the winter-bleached spines, gill plates, and tooth-filled jaws of Pink Salmon. We agreed that we’d have to make sure to fish the stream this fall when sea-run char marked in spectacular greens, reds and oranges would follow Pinks into the stream to pick off eggs that aren’t successfully buried in the redds. In places where stands of alder choked down foot traffic, the narrow trails had been worn inches deep into the soil, the work of centuries or perhaps millennia of brown bear comings and goings. Along the shoreline, every patch of sand held a carpet of fox tracks, some old, some fresh.
By the time we returned to our raft, the morning sun was high and temperatures had climbed into the 40s. Millions of tiny black midges were hatching, skittering across the water as they struggled to free themselves from the husks of their pupal stage – activity that was eliciting slashing rises from pinky-sized salmon as well as a few larger char. Mixed in with the midge hatch were a few dark stoneflies as well as big, creamy-brown caddisflies. With days warming and insects hatching, our swallows should be on their way.
They’re small, but to some of our favorite fish and bird species (trout, char, salmon and swallows) they are indispensable food items. They’re midges, order Diptera from the Greek indicating that they use two wings to fly. During a hatch such as the one we found ourself in the midst of, midge pupae trap gas in their thorax, ascend to the water’s surface, shake off their pupal exoskeleton and emerge as winged adults – as this one on my ring finger has just done.
Drifting along the rocky bluff across from the salmon-counting weir that the Department of Fish & Game operates from June through September, we came across two large piles of sticks in the still leafless alders – active magpie nests, egg-shaped and roughly the size of a couple of basketballs. Our chickadees, too, seem to be establishing territory and selecting mates, and everywhere new green shoots are pushing up through winter-browned grass.
Chignik’s magpies began nesting about two weeks ago, giving away locations as they ferry large sticks into thick, brush growth along banks or into spruce trees. Somewhere in that jumble there very likely are half-a-dozen or so lightly speckled gray-green eggs.
We beached the boat at the barge landing, deflated it, rolled it up, stuffed it in a backpack and began the three-mile hike home. Along the way we took note of bright green salmonberry shoots, the beginnings of wild irises, an unfamiliar warmth in the air. Earlier in the week it had snowed. But winter’s fighting a losing battle at this point. And every living thing knows it.