The Fourth at the Weir

Fourth of July girl, Easton

“Hey there, Yukon Jack, we’re gonna meet at the bend, down there just past FRI and float down to the weir. You and Barb wanna get your skiff and join us?” It was Willard on the phone. Temperatures were pushing just past a balmy 70° and the Alaska sun was high in the sky. With the prospect of tasty grilled food, cold beer and Fourth of July fireworks, why not?

“People are gonna be floating down on their Shamus and I don’t know what else. We’ll meet you there in about 20 minutes,” Willard continued.

“Cool. See you down there.” Shamus?? This oughta be interesting.

Taxiing up from the weir in a trusty Lund modified V-haul – the Ford F150 of The Chigniks.

We quickly threw together a few things, walked to the lake beach in front of our house, fired up the skiff and cruised down to a gravel bar where Alaska Fish & Game weir summer staff were assembling with a variety of floating devices – including the “Shamu” Willard had mentioned. Before us was a wilderness river and the perfect day for a Fourth of July float.

The splashy start of the regatta – a two-mile race to the weir

With about half the participants already on the gravel bar, we waited around for the other half to taxi up by boat from the weir. Salmon parr dimpled the surface of the river and an occasional Sockeye showed itself with a splash. Eagles soared in the distance, and directly across the river, a Brown Bear found a shaded spot beneath an alder and plopped down for a rest.

As races go, this one was pretty casual.

With boats beached, docked or deflated, Willard (right) and his son William got things going with live music. The talented Lind family has been playing all kinds of music on all kinds of instruments for generations.

The weir makes an unusual backdrop for a game of horseshoes. This is where the Chignik’s salmon are counted – hundreds of thousands of fish annually. While we were playing, thousands of salmon – mostly Sockeyes but also a few Chinook as well as a couple of seals – were milling around behind the weir. There’s an escapement opening in the weir – you can see it indicated by a fenced corral area between these two horseshoes participants. Seals as well as salmon use this passage. Cameras connected to monitors inside the weir station record ascending fish.

I hadn’t played horseshoes in 40 years and was game to jump into a 10-participant tournament. After knocking the rust off my tossing arm, I even managed a couple of ringers and a leaner! I rewarded myself with samples of the seven basic food groups – moose, King salmon, chicken wings, baby-back ribs, scallops, cheeseburgers and, for dessert, a perfectly charred, deliciously salty hotdog all hot of the grill. For “salad,” I dug into slices of apple pie and rhubarb cake. No one makes friends with salad! 😉

Heading back upriver to our tiny village on the lake

It doesn’t get dark till after midnight this time of year in the Chigniks, and besides, some of us had to make the upriver run back home. So the fireworks came out while there was still light in the sky. A few pops, bangs, sparkles and smoke, and another Fourth had been properly celebrated – Chignik Style.

Almost home, we came across mama bear and her two cubs. With the early salmon run down compared to previous years, she’s looking a little thin. Hopefully things will pick up with the late run and everyone will get all the fish they want.

Here’s hoping everyone is having a safe, happy summer!

Where in the World is Newhalen, Alaska?

The red star (just right of center) marks Newhalen, Alaska – our new home at the mouth of the Newhalen River on the shores of Lake Iliamna. Temporarily up in the air this past spring with the closing of the school in Chignik Lake, we’ve landed in the heart of some of the best trout and salmon fishing in Alaska – and hence in the world. 

On June 21st, we said our goodbye-for-nows to friends in Chignik Lake, boarded a small bush plane, and bid farewell to the tiny village in the Alaska wilderness that had been our home for the past three years. Our summer has been something of a whirlwind since.

A parting view of our wonderful village on Chignik Lake. The red dot (near center) marks our home there. The good news is that in late July, a family with children moved to The Lake, so the school is restored to the minimum enrollment necessary to open this fall. 

From The Lake, we flew straight to Newhalen and began familiarizing ourselves with our new community. The house we were to move into was still occupied, so we quickly tucked ourselves into a nearby apartment, boarded another plane, and flew across Cook Inlet (the large body of water on the right side of the above map) to Homer where our truck, camper, C-Dory fishing boat and canoe have been in storage. The scramble was on.

It’s hard to believe this photo of Gillie was taken over 10 years ago in Cordova, Alaska. She’ll be happy to be exploring Lake Iliamna and other nearby waters near our new home.

Six days later, we’d made the drive to Anchorage to take care of errands, appointments and catching up with friends, drove back to Homer (450 miles round trip), delivered the truck, canoe and boat to a transportation company to be barged across Cook Inlet, driven on a haul road to Lake Iliamna, then barged across the lake to our home, returned the camper to storage in Homer, then flew back to Newhalen. Two weeks later, our house-to-be opened up and we began moving in. Since then, we’ve been engaged in daily projects large and small, turning this house into our home.

Meanwhile, we’ve been sandwiching in regular runs in preparation for the half-marathon we’ve signed up for in October, tying flies, catching salmon and putting away 100 pounds of beautiful Newhalen River Sockeye in our freezer, squeezing in a little guitar practice, picking blueberries (gotta have berry security for the coming months) and managing to still have time for our traditional evening games of Scrabble or chess. We’ve barely touched photography and writing during this time.

A thick mattress of soft lichen makes sitting or kneeling to pick blueberries quite comfortable. There is also an abundance of lingonberry (low bush cranberry) along with crowberries and, here and there, cloudberries.

We have begun to get the lay of the land. For about three weeks in mid-July, a nearly steady stream of tens of thousands of salmon ascended the Newhalen River. The fish get temporarily bottlenecked at The Rapids – a spectacular piece of unnavigable white water that forces the salmon close to the banks were anglers (such as ourselves) attempt to get a fly into their mouths. Where there are salmon there are bears, and although we haven’t seen any yet, there are signs of their presence. We have seen a couple of foxes, a set of moose tracks, and a number of interesting birds including ospreys, merlins and loons. The landscape is a mix of tundra with berry patches everywhere (and I mean everywhere) and taiga forest predominated by black spruce and some white spruce. The horizon is shaped by mountains.

With very limited roads, Hondas (ATVs/quads) are a great way to get out and explore. There are extensive trail systems lacing through the area.

With only a few miles of road and no practical way in or out of the village except by plane, this is till the Alaska bush. But coming from truly remote Arctic villages such as Shishmaref and Point Hope as well as Chignik Lake nearly 300 miles down the Alaska Peninsula, Newhalen and its sister village five miles up the road, Iliamna, are like no bush village we’ve lived in. Some of the roads here are paved! This is a hub for commercial fishermen, sport anglers and eco-tourists, and as such, the area has a decidedly cosmopolitan feel about it. Fairly large planes fly in and out, there is a modern, fully-staffed health clinic, a small grocer and a slightly larger, exceptionally well-stocked general store that carries everything from food to hardware to clothing with even a little fishing tackle in the mix. And get this: we can now get same-day delivery from Costco. It almost feels like cheating. “Cush Bush,” we’ve heard it called. Or “Bush Lite.”

Iconic Brooks Falls in Katmai National Park is just 90 miles – a short bush flight – from Newhalen. (Photo Credit: NPS/Michael Fitz – https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/view.htm?id=76833AAD-1DD8-B71B-0B3BA028DA419061)

At the same time, there are only about 300 residents between the two villages. During our three to five mile morning runs along the main road, we’ve never seen more than a handful vehicles. And the people here are super friendly. New friends at the airport call us when we have freight, and folks at the post office are happy to do the same when we’re expecting something important. Whether we’re on our bicycles, running, or driving our pickup, virtually everyone waves as they drive by. And it’s quiet. Not Chignik Lake quiet, but aside from an occasional plane, once we’re beyond the edge of town all we can usually hear is birds chattering and the distant roar of the Newhalen River. Inside our home, we hear almost nothing from outside. There are no police officers, virtually no litter, and most people don’t bother locking their doors.

Coho Salmon will be arriving in the river soon. A few miles beyond the village the Tazimina River is renowned for trophy-sized grayling and rainbow trout over 20 inches. Fly fishermen catch rainbows that large and larger at the mouth of the Newhalen, a 15 minute walk from our home. We’re a short bush plane ride from Katmai National Park, famous for the Brooks Falls where massive brown bears gather to intercept migrating salmon. As part of the Bristol Bay watershed, rivers that fill with salmon, not to mention trout and char of huge proportions, lie in just about every direction.

When I was a young boy, sometimes my grandfather Donachy would let me have his old issues of Sports Afield, Outdoor Life and Field and Stream. I’d pore over those magazines, reading them cover to cover and then reading my favorite articles again and again. That’s where I first learned of Lake Iliamna, this massive body of water fed by streams and rivers filled with fish, its shores patrolled by wolves, bears and moose, a few isolated Indian villages dotting the landscape, bush planes the only way in… It was the stuff to make a young boy dream.

Well. Here we are.

Fireweed flowers are near their finish, but here and there harebell is in full bloom. We’ve finally got our cameras out and are beginning to really dig in and explore this exciting part of Alaska, so stay tuned!

 

A Little Glitch & a Lotta Help: Welcome to Japan (and Murray is not your friend)

Just south of Sapporo, the beautiful city of Chitose was our entry point into Hokkaido.

Having lived in Japan both as a 7th Fleet sailor stationed in Yokosuka onboard USS Blue Ridge and as an English language teacher after that, I’m familiar with Japan – its ins and outs, the aspects of life here that make it fascinating and wonderful as well as – at times – puzzling and frustrating. In selling Barbra on the idea of doing our first bike tour in Hokkaido, I’d pretty much painted for her a picture of paradise. I described a land of exceptionally low crime, cleanliness, every modern convenience conceivable, incredibly kind people, great camping spots, and a culture different enough from our own to keep things interesting. There might even be some decent fishing, I offered. She already knew about the food – some of the best seafood, beef, pork and noodle dishes in the world. Given that Hokkaido is the least populated and least visited part of Japan, we probably wouldn’t even have to deal with the crowds that often plague other parts of the country. In fact, the only con I conceded was that Japan can be quite expensive; but even that deficit could be offset by the inexpensive (sometimes free) camping I anticipated.

However, as the trip got closer I began to have a tiny, nagging doubt. Maybe I’d oversold Japan. After all, it had been awhile since I’d lived there. In the interim, Japan had experienced a bubble economy collapse, a disastrous nuclear energy plant melt down, and the passing of time along with the challenges an ever changing world presents to all of us. And then there are the tricks our own memories play on us. What if it turned out to not be as good as I remembered it?

Anchorage to Seattle to San Francisco marked the first leg of our flight schedule, and it wasn’t until the final stop on that leg, San Francisco, that we realized we had not allowed enough time between landing at Haneda Airport, Tokyo and our connecting flight to Chitose, Hokkaido. An optimistic Japan Airlines ticketing agent in San Francisco assured us we’d make our connection – but I was fairly certain we’d made a mistake.

Upon arriving in Haneda we scurried to baggage claim where I had my first opportunity to dust off my never-was-very-good Japanese and explain our situation. Incredibly – and impressively – the baggage handler at the luggage carousel already knew about us and our bikes. He smiled and nodded in their direction as a baggage handler approached pushing a handtruck loaded with three boxes – our two bikes and our bike trailer. Almost simultaneously, our two “luggage” boxes with their brilliant orange duck tape emerged onto the carousel. Phew! Next…

A woman in a JAL uniform seemed to materialize out of thin air. While Yamamoto-San (Ms. Yamamoto) explained to us that we needed to get over to the domestic flights air terminal as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, two baggage handlers helped us load our luggage onto two smaller hand carts – which, by the way, are free in Japan. The race was on.

We followed Yamamoto-San to the baggage check-in counter where she consulted with other JAL agents, and then she made what appeared to be a “command decision” to circumvent normal baggage check-in procedures and get us and our luggage directly over to the boarding gate. With the perfectly quaffed, calm Yamamoto-San alternately leading the way and helping to load these huge boxes onto the elevator to the train shuttle platform, we were all perspiring a little. Arriving on the shuttle deck it looked like we just might make it. Yamamoto-San was on a radio, talking urgently and quickly enough that I could understand almost nothing…

…until she mentioned Murray. Murray… Murray… The word sounded so familiar and yet I couldn’t quite recall its meaning. And then, with what sounded like disappointment in her voice, she said the word again. Muri. 

Muri! As language sometimes does, the meaning suddenly came back to me. Muri means impossible. 

We were not going to make our connecting flight. Despite our assurances that we weren’t really bothered by this turn of events, Yamamoto-San seemed truly disappointed. Back at the baggage check-in counter, she offered to book us into a hotel. I explained that the glitch was really our fault for not allowing sufficient time between flights, but she insisted that, no, it was her airline’s responsibility. In all of my glowing descriptions to Barbra regarding Japan, I had probably not payed sufficient homage to the legendary customer service the Japanese people are known for. 

In the end, we declined the hotel, reasoning it would be simpler to spend the night stretched out on the comfortable seats in the waiting area, grab a cup of coffee in the morning and board a flight that would get us into Chitose at a time coinciding with check-in at our hotel. Our hotel in Chitose, by the way, did not charge us for the cancelled reservation.

Udon & Iced Coffee – our first breakfast in Japan!

And so, rather than arriving in Chitose on the night of May 29 as planned, we spent the night in Haneda Airport, sleeping relatively soundly in the seating area. The floors were so clean they gleamed. The restrooms were spotless. The coffee and bowl of udon we had for breakfast were excellent. And when we finally arrived at our modestly-priced hotel in Chitose, our room, though perhaps a bit small by American standards, was utterly immaculate, appointed with an excellent bathroom (including a nice, deep tub and more features on the toilet than either one of us is likely to ever use), a comfortable bed and truly plush bathrobes. 

Welcome to Japan.

Whale Bones and Crosses, the Cemetery at Point Hope

Whale Bones & Crosses, Point Hope, Alaska

Perhaps its most iconic landmark, the cemetery at Point Hope, Alaska, is enclosed in Bowhead Whale ribs positioned as one would a picket fence. The above image was made at 2:25 PM, November 7. At that time of year, there are slightly less than six hours between sunrise and sunset. By early December, the sun sinks completely below the horizon and will not show itself again for 32 days.

In 1890, three years after a commercial whaling base called Jabbertown had been established near the village, the first Christian missionary arrived in Point Hope. A doctor by profession, it is reported that John Driggs performed “heroic” medical work, but his attempts at converting the village’s inhabitants to his religious beliefs were unsuccessful. In fact, the Episcopal Church that sponsored him reported that Driggs had become “eccentric and absent” in his duties to proselytize. Nonetheless, by 1910 Christianity had become predominant throughout Arctic Alaska. By this point the new religion had been spread from village to village by converts among the Inupiat themselves.*

*See: The Inupiat and the christianization of Arctic Alaska, Ernest S. Burch, Jr., Etudes/Inuit/Studies,1994

Full Moon over Frozen Lake: Chignik Lake, Alaska

Full Moon over Frozen Lake – Chignik Lake,6:56 PM January 30, 2018

Twilight, that sliver of light between the day’s last direct sunlight and darkness, is often the prettiest light of the day. I was happy that Fred has his lights on. This shot was taken from the beach in front of our house. (Snowing here this morning, May 6.)

Point Hope Red, Orange, Blue 2011

Chukchi Sea Red, Orange Blue 2011

This November 19, 2011 sunset looking out over a Chukchi Sea nearly frozen solid reminded us of a Mark Rothko painting. The quality of light in the far north is often breathtaking.

Point Hope Aerial, 2013

Point Hope, Alaska, February 22, 2013

One of the great privileges in our life was to live for three years in the Inupiat village of Point Hope, Alaska. Lying 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle and still deeply connected to a whaling-based subsistence culture, it is said that the Tikigaq Peninsula has been inhabited for some 9,000 years, making it one of the oldest continuously inhabited sites in North America. It is a place of aqpik berries and caribou, snowy owls and arctic foxes, fierce winds and frozen seas, a full month of darkness and the most magically soft pink, gold and orange morning and evening light we’ve ever seen. One day in early fall we hiked out to the end of the peninsula, stood on the beach, and watched in wonder as thousands upon thousands of murres, puffins, auklets and other seabirds streamed by on their way to the open ocean to spend the winter, their nesting season complete – surely one of the planet’s greatest migratory events. We endured a mid-winter three-day blow of hurricane force winds that forced most of the village to huddle together in the school which had its own generating system and could offer warm shelter and hot meals. Polar bears sauntered through the village right past our house and there were nights when the Northern lights danced above our heads in electric greens, pinks, purples and reds.  And it was a place of friends, some of the toughest, most generous people we’ve ever known. Tikiġaġmiut – the people of this peninsula in the Chukchi sea.

Ink and Light: The Gobi Desert’s Singing Dunes and Inspiration from Herman Melville

Khongoryn Els: The Singing Dunes, Gobi Desert, Mongolia

A trace of slate in the sand grains at Khongoryn Els results in vibrations that are not only easily audible, but which reverberate through one’s body.

…I am tormented
with an everlasting itch
for things remote.
Herman Melville – Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, 1851

Herman Melville (1819-1891) served aboard a whaling ship before deserting in the Marquesas. Although he knew his subject (the book draws from Melville’s own experience, The Bible, Shakespeare’s work, research into whaling, the actual account of a hard-to-catch white whale nicknamed Mocha Dick and the sinking of the American whaling ship Essex by a whale, Moby Dick received mixed reviews and was a commercial flop. Dedicated to Nathaniel Hawthorn “in token of my admiration for his genius,” the book sold just 3,200 copies in Melville’s lifetime and was out of print at his death. 

A year after Melville’s death, Moby Dick was reprinted by Harper and Brothers. Literati circles – mostly in New York – kept interest in the book (barely) alive over the next several years until it was rediscovered by larger audiences. Of the book, William Faulkner said that he wished he’d written it himself; D. H. Lawrence called it “the greatest book of the sea ever written,” and in time it found its place as an icon of American literature.

Ink and Light: The Bones of Tikigaq and a Tribute to Tatanka Yotanka, Sitting Bull

x whale bone ruins Tikigaq copy n

Whale Bones and Ruins: Old Tikigaq Village, Point Hope, Alaska

Tikigaq’s sod, driftwood and whalebone igloos (homes) were occupied until the mid-1970’s when the village was abandoned due to erosion from the sea. By this time, some of the houses were wired for electricity. Sigluaks, freezers dug deep in the permafrost at Tikigaq, are still used by the people of nearby Point Hope to store the whale meat they’ve harvested.

If a man loses anything
and goes back and looks carefully for it
he will find it…
Tȟatȟáŋka Íyotȟake (Sitting Bull) – Pine Ridge Reservation Speech, 1883

Tatanka Yotanka (1831-1890) was a Lakota Sioux holy man who earned his place in history through his fierce resistance to white encroachment on Lakota lands. A vision he had seemed to foretell the victory a combined force of Sioux and Cheyenne would have over United States troops led by General Custer at The Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. In 1880, Tatanka Yotanka was assassinated by Indian Agency Police at Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Agency (reservation) who feared that he would lead an uprising. His remains are buried near his birthplace in Mobridge, South Dakota. A monument marks the site.