Big Boys of the Bear World: Here Come the Brownies of Chignik Lake

Until the salmon arrive en force, salad’ll have to do. Bigboy has been a regular visitor, here loafing about 40 yards from our living room window.

Between a proliferation of recently fledged finches (Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls), baby Great Horned Owls (downy snowballs, their ears barely showing as tiny tufts of fuzz), a pair of Rough-legged Hawks brooding on their nest, and an abundance of Brown Bears ranging from itty-bitty little triplets all the way up to thousand-pound behemoths (and they grow larger than this), there hasn’t been much time to practice my guitar lately. It seems that no sooner do Barbra and I shoot and process one batch of National-Geographic-esque scenes than another bear (or four) strolls into view outside our window and another shoot is on, followed by another stint editing photos.

At the beach, looking for salmon. He’s gonna ruin his Brad Pitt highlights…

Meanwhile, we’re edging closer to the first 30,000 Sockeyes being counted at the weir – enough salmon to get the bears and everything else from eagles to ravens to us excited, but still only 3% or so of the nearly one million fish we hope will have been counted by the end of summer. Yellow Paintbrush, Chocolate Lilies, Lupine and Wild Geraniums are in full bloom. Salmonberries, Raspberries and Red Currants are beginning to set fruit. The White Spruces, transplanted from Kodiak Island back in the 1950’s when Chignik Lake became a permanently settled village, are sheathed in new, purple-red cones, each a promise of abundant mast this coming winter for the finches, chickadees and sparrows that relish the seeds.

Life at The Lake is bumpin’.

You don’t hear ’em called bluebacks much these days, but blue backs they have. Judging from a puncture on the other side, this Sockeye barely escaped an encounter with one of the Harbor Seals that follow these fish up the river. Badly injured, this is exactly the kind of easy meal patrolling Brownies are looking for.

Not yet wearing the startlingly white plumage of fully mature Bald Eagles, these are probably three-year-olds. The tin roof of a lakeside house Sam Stepanoff built – subsequently flooded out by annual high-water events – is a favorite salmon-watching perch for eagles, ravens and gulls.

So… about those bears….

This male (left) got a little too close to the mom and her twin one-year-olds. She woofed a stern “Stay put!” in Brown Bear to her cubs and then put the intruding male to flight.

The Chignik River drainage is home to one of the densest populations of bears in the world. And these aren’t just any bears. Coastal Browns, big males can push 1,500 pounds and stretch to nearly 10 feet from snout to toe. Growing fat on a diet rich in salmon, sows give birth to as many as four impossibly cute, clumsy, curious cubs.

The village post office is located in a small room on the first floor of the house in the upper left. You can just make out a piece of Chignik Lake’s main road, which the bear is following. The wooden rail in the foreground partitions our yard from the blurry line between settlement and wilderness our village embodies.

The little fella on the right isn’t entirely sure what to do with the salmon head he found down at the beach. Mom just filled up and now will head up Post Office Creek to find a quiet place to nurse the little guys.

When they emerge from their dens in mid to late spring, the bears begin regaining weight by grazing almost constantly on grasses, sedges, roots and other vegetation. But, like most of us humans who call Chignik Lake home, what they really want is salmon.

“Wait up!” By the time they enter their second season, unceasingly curious cubs seem to engage in a constant game of lagging behind to explore and then racing to rejoin mom.

Once the fish start running, the bears begin a perpetual patrol along the riverbanks and lake shoreline. Until the salmon get well up the system and into the various tributaries, there’s no easy place for the bears to catch them. So they amble along, grazing on grass and other vegetation, keeping an opportunistic eye out for any fish that has made easy pickings of itself.

Blondie gives himself a mighty shake after wading the shallows in search of salmon. Still skinny from his winter fast, once the salmon come in he’ll begin putting on serious poundage.

Watch a shoreline for any length of time, cruise up and down the river in a skiff, or simply keep your eyes open as you travel through the village: you’ll see bears. From now through November, we don’t even make the five-minute walk to the Post Office without carrying bear spray. Bears use the little creek we cross on that walk as a thoroughfare. There were four down in there just last night. Two more today. That we saw.

Could be checking to see if Kevin left the key in the ignition of this sweet skiff… more likely it was the scent of a recent catch of halibut from the sea a few miles downriver that had this guy’s attention. 

We do a fair amount of our bear photography right from the dining/living room window of our home which sits only 30 yards from the edge of the lake – a quarter of a football field; six car lengths. In the live-and-let-live world of Chignik Lake, fishermen sometimes leave salmon scraps on the beach and in the shallow water there, knowing that at some point bears, eagles, gulls, ravens and magpies will come along to clean them up.

First thing after getting up and getting dressed this morning – 6:05 AM – I looked out the window. At 6:05:50 I made this photo. If you look closely, you can see salmon parr dimpling the lake as they take emerging midges.

But in actuality, a person could pick just about any piece of lake shoreline or riverbank, commit to sitting and watching, and see bears and other wildlife here. Thus far this season, we’ve counted 13 different individual Brownies. There are more around…

Last night as the sun lingered on past 10 0’clock, then 11 and on toward midnight, it seemed every time we looked out our window there were bears on the beach. First Mom and the triplets, who earlier in the day had surprised us as we were cleaning our skiff. The little ones are still suckling. They waited patiently on the sandy beach, taking turns standing on hind legs in imitation of mom as she scanned the shallows for salmon carcasses, the little guys steadying themselves with small paws pushing on their siblings’ backs.

Later one of the larger males came up the shoreline from the direction of the river. Finding no salmon, he went for a swim in the cove below Fred’s house and headed back down the lake.

Barbra composed this early morning photo about a week ago. 

Not long after that a dark-coated male shot past our house right below our window. Leaning out to watch, we heard the cause for his burst of speed. Suddenly, a roly-poly light-coated male came charging into view, paws falling heavy on the sand 15 feet from our window, the big bear breathing hard, tongue rolling out of his mouth, hot on the trail of the previous bear, leaving us to wonder what the story there might be.

Conversation led to conversation as twilight descended, the snow-capped mountains glowing in the gathering darkness. We recalled our first visit to Alaska back in the summer of 2009. Experiencing the famed midnight sun for the first time that summer, we found it hard to go to sleep – not because of the daylight, but because of all there was to see and do and marvel at.

Eleven years later, it’s still like that.

Ink and Light: “Amber Eyes” with a quote by Sir David Attenborough

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Amber Eyes: Arctic Fox, Point Hope, Alaska

The thick, soft fur of the Arctic Fox is the most efficiently warm of any land mammal.

It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.
David Attenborough – BBC Life documentary series, 2009

Knighted in 1985, Sir David Attenborough turned 90 in 2016. The world’s most recognized narrator of natural history films, he remains in possession of amazing vitality.