River Heart

What a wonderful name – Chocolate Lily. They’re blooming everywhere, including right outside our door.

As a soft drizzle fell in the small hours this morning, I could hear bears on the beach outside our bedroom window, thick pads pressing into wet sand with subtle, sandy crunches. Salmon have begun showing up. Not in the numbers the river is accustomed to receiving – by now a couple of hundred thousand Sockeyes should have passed through the weir downriver -, but some. Tens of thousands. It won’t be enough to allow the local commercial fishermen to set their gear, but enough for friends and neighbors to set nets for subsistence fishing. Each day now when the tide is right they launch and then later return to the beach in their skiffs, 18-foot Lunds sporting faded maroon stripes around the hull. These days they bring back salmon and since a lot of those fish end up being cleaned right there at the lakeshore, eagles and a few gulls hang around during the day. The bears come at night, looking for heads, spawn sacs and other scraps. A mother and two cubs have been showing up almost every night. It’s not worth trying to make a picture in the dim light, but we get up to look anyway. “Petting the whale,” Joel Sartore calls it – setting cameras aside to simply watch and enjoy.

This mature bald eagle has been coming around to fill up on salmon scraps left on the beach. One of the things we’ve most enjoyed about our life at The Lake has been the live and let live attitude toward wildlife that generally prevails. A few moose and an occasional caribou are taken, but no one begrudges our eagles, bears and foxes what’s leftover after the salmon have been split for smoking and canning.

Our plane, the bush plane that will fly us away from this village we have called home to our new village in Newhalen, will arrive sometime this afternoon. At this point the cupboards and shelves in our house are empty and our voices echo – a hollow sound that reflects the hollowness in our chests. Twenty-six places. I listed them up the other day as I was writing to a friend. During my adult life, I’ve lived in 26 different communities for at least a month. I’ve rarely stayed anywhere longer than a couple of years. I like to see new places. I like change.

Cinquefoil, I think. More specifically, Norwegian Cinquefoil. Maybe. Most people around here don’t really have lawns. A palette of salmonberry brakes, lush wild grasses and wildflowers line the dirt and gravel thoroughfares and continue without interruption right up to porches and doorsteps. Our own house is surrounded by a thick growth of Horsetail Fern, Fireweed, Chocolate Lilies, Dandelions, grasses, Cinquefoil, Nootka Lupine and Wild Geranium.

This time is different. We wanted to stay. The simple story is that Chignik Lake School, where Barbra teaches, didn’t make the minimum enrollment of 10 students necessary to stay open. The school board voted to close the school and to transfer Barbra to another, larger school up the peninsula. It has been difficult to reconcile leaving this community, these mountains and this river.

Redpolls (above), Pine Siskins and Pine Grosbeaks have been visiting daily to feast on Dandelion seeds around the playground outside our door. We watch them out the window as we cook and wash dishes and have been heartened by their cheerful songs and chatter  throughout the day as we come and go. I cautiously eased open our front door and took this photograph from our kellydoor, the local nomenclature for mudroom. If you haven’t checked out our video of these Dandelion seed eating finches, you can find it here: Finches of the Dandelion Jungle

I grew up near the Clarion River, had favorite trout streams and lakes in Pennsylvania and went out into the world to find myself living within easy distance of other waters – close enough to certain rivers, streams, bays and beaches that I could duck out at halftime from watching a March Madness basketball game and be back before the game’s end with a couple of Sea Trout for dinner, hop on a bicycle and be on one of Japan’s top Sea Bass venues, walk up a small river to cast flies for Rainbow Trout after college classes, or watch Largemouth Bass chase smelt from the balcony of my apartment. There were other waters, too.

We love our big, orange and yellow Bumble Bees. And our Lupine.

But I’ve never had what I would call a home water. I don’t know how others might define such a thing, but Roderick Haig-Brown’s accounts of his life along Vancouver Island’s Campbell River used to tug at me with an emotion that lies somewhere between awe and envy, an I’d like to have that one day feeling.

A pair of Golden-crowned Sparrows nested beneath a willow thicket right next to our home, and although we’ve heard the young ones chirping for food, we’ve never bothered to look too closely for the nest for fear of leading Magpies to the location. Keeping the little ones fed appears to be a full-time job. I got this photo yesterday morning.

The Chignik did not immediately fill the longing for a home water. We fished. We caught fish – a few char but mostly salmon, mostly Silvers – and it was very satisfying. That we could actually see fish coming up the lake from our dining room windows, lift our fly rods from their pegs on the wall and walk down to the water exceeded anything I’d ever expected to have. But this abundance and proximity by themselves did not make the water feel like home.

One of the first flowers to appear in spring, only Yarrow will still be blooming in autumn when the last pale purple Wild Geranium petals fall to the ground.

There were the otters we came to recognize, mink prints in wet sand, the bears we encountered and got to know, the eagles that watched us. There was the way that, over time, we came to know the river’s music – the flow of the river itself and the lapping of waves on the lake shore – but also the kingfisher’s rattle, ducks quacking, Tundra Swans bugling, the raucous music of Sandhill Cranes, the fierce Chignik winds that filled the valley and whistled and howled and sometimes shook the house, snipe winnowing softly in evenings, the startling sound of a salmon leaping and falling, unseen, back into a downstream pool. There were nights when we would like awake in our bed, listening quietly as Harbor Seals chased down freshly arrived Coho in the dark, catching them and hurling them into the air to chase down and catch again… evenings and dawns when the eerie, supremely wild howl of wolves echoed across the lake and up and down the river valley… bears grunting and splashing on the beach below our window… winter days when heavy, wet snow put a hush on the world. We came to know where the Great Horned Owls roosted in a grove of spruce trees at a bend on the river where we caught our first salmon, a place where Barbra found a perfectly knapped stone knife Native fisherman long before us had undoubtedly used to split salmon and where we picked berries by the gallon.

Young Eagles waiting for someone to come in with fish.

Through all of this and more, The Chignik came to feel like home, and while I could list many more of the river’s attributes and our experiences along its shores and on its waters, I suppose what it comes down to is love and I don’t have the words to explain that.

Just a few more seeds… Look at that swollen crop! This Pine Grosbeak seems determined to cram himself as full as he possibly can. One of the first things that struck us about our home on The Chignik was the shear abundance around us. Vegetation grows as thick and lush as in a jungle, local Brown Bears are some of the world’s largest and a season’s tally of salmon isn’t measured in thousands or even tens of thousands but in hundreds of thousands and millions. 

I suppose it is natural, upon leaving a place, to consider the things that were left unexplored, stones unturned, projects unfinished. I topped off at 75 the number of bird species I was able to identify in and near the village, but just two days ago I got a glimpse of something that may have been new – an Arctic Warbler? It would have been one of several “first documentations” for this area. I can’t say for certain, and so the matter must be left at that. It’s time to go. We were still learning about the fishing, still getting to know our friends and neighbors, still savoring every day here.

We thought we would have to leave before my favorite flower, wild Irises, came into bloom. But in these past few days, they’ve begun bursting open. We’re glad we got to see them. 

After the Fog Burned off – Eagles

As swallows swooped and soared, this pair of Bald Eagles began a chorus of their characteristic high-pitched piping. The sunshine must’ve felt as good to them as it did to us.

Two days in a row we’ve woken to heavy fog here at The Lake. It wasn’t forecast either day. Yesterday by mid-morning, the mist had burned off. When it did, the birds came out in force. From our vantage point on the deck outside my “office,” Barbra and I saw or heard Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, Redpolls, Wilson’s Warblers, Ravens, Magpies, Golden-crowned Sparrows, American Robins, Fox Sparrows, Violet-green Swallows, Tree Swallows and out on the lake a small group of Black Scoters and a few passing Glaucus-winged Gulls. But the stars of the morning were a pair of mature Bald Eagles that took up perches on a favorite utility pole near the lakeshore.

This was the view from our dining room window yesterday morning just after dawn. The village of Chignik Lake lies only a few miles upriver from a bay on the Alaska Gulf, so we get our share of wet weather. 

As the sun began peeking through the fog, the first eagle to arrive did its best to dry its soggy wings. Either that, or this is one of those rare Peacock Eagles.

His (her?) mate hadn’t yet arrived and I moved a little closer to capture a portrait. Once the fog lifted, we had a day of blue skies. Temperatures climbed into the 60’s so we took the opportunity to work on our “Alaska Tans” – defined as tans that cover the backs of one’s hands, face and neck down to the level of a shirt or coat collar. But by early afternoon, it was warm enough (mid-60’s) to sit outside in a just a shirt, shorts and bare feet and read (Barbra) and play guitar (me).

While I worked on photos, Barbra scanned for birds from the deck outside her former classroom. Off in the distance to the right, along the far edge of the lake, the second eagle can be seen soaring low. (You might have to enlarge this photo.) The duplex in front of Barbra is where we live – on the righthand side. 

There are at least 50 nesting boxes in this bird-loving village of only about 50 to 70 residents. The boxes are occupied almost exclusively by either Violet-green or Tree Swallows. Both species seem inclined to investigate anything out of the ordinary in their neighborhood – us, eagles, other birds. The real threats to swallows are Chignik Lake’s abundant Magpies – notorious nest robbers. In years past, Merlins, Northern Shrikes and occasional Sharp-shinned Hawks have also posed a threat, but none of these species appear to be present this year – at least so far.

A mated pair? Siblings? Friends? (Do eagles have friends?) It was interesting to watch these two repeatedly mirror each other’s behavior. We’ve read about these dreaded Dracula Eagles – another rare sighting.

As I mentioned, we’ve had two consecutive mornings of heavy fog. Inspired by the way the morning cleared up yesterday, last evening we prepared our pack raft in anticipation of doing a three-mile river float today. Unfortunately, the weatherman got it completely wrong. The fog only grudgingly lifted late in the morning and instead of the calm that had been forecast, winds – the bane of rafting – kicked up. So I spent the morning working on photos. Yet hope springs eternal. The prediction for tomorrow morning is for partial sunshine and calm, so perhaps we can get in one last river float before we have to pack up the gear and mail it to Newhalen. Every hour of these final days at The Lake is a time to savor.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to see some of the birds mentioned and more of the landscape around Chignik Lake, check out the link below:

Morning Nature Walk, the Chigniks

Hope your day is going well!

He Wasn’t Our Dog – a Tribute to Our Friend, Buster

If there was ever a more naturally contented being, we’ve not met. But there was often a lot going on inside that big, lovable head.

 He wasn’t our dog.

Shortly after we moved to The Lake, he began showing up, handsome with his barrel chest, slim hips and soft brown coat. Instantly lovable with those floppy, puppyish ears, sparkling brown eyes and that big head he liked to push into a hand to be petted. We didn’t know his name. So we called him Friendly. He seemed to always have a smile in his eyes, his bushy tail swishing back and forth hopefully whenever he saw us. We’d seen it before, a semi-feral village dog making the rounds, looking for a scrap of meat here, a bone there, maybe a dog biscuit or a bowl of last night’s leftovers.

But there was something different about this dog. In fact, there was a lot different about him. For starters, he traveled alone, doing his best to assume a live and let live attitude toward other dogs. He didn’t slink or skulk, bark or yip without good reason, beg or cower. He presented himself as a perfectly happy, intelligent, calm, confident being, and yet no one really seemed to own him. The backstory, we found out later, is that he had spent part of his early life as a truly feral “dump” dog, getting by on whatever he could scrounge. We were told that someone had eventually adopted him, but although he had places where he could often count on getting a meal, no one seemed to consistently take care of him.

It turned out that his name was Buster. When we began addressing him as such, it was apparent that he knew his name.

“We’re not going to start feeding him,” we reminded ourselves.

After all, he wasn’t our dog.

Hurts to look at. With the closest vet two bush flights and hundreds of miles away, removing these quills was difficult for the people involved and excruciatingly painful for Buster. This was his second such “lesson.” What is it with dogs and porcupines?

Even without the incentive of food, Buster began hanging out with us. On my daily birding walks, I could usually count on him to show up, seemingly out of nowhere, and falling into step. It seemed that he recognized the cadence of my stride and, as sometimes happens between two beings, that he’d taken a liking to me. When I arrived at wherever I was going to set up my tripod and camera for the morning – looking for ducks out on the river or lake, or songbirds at the White Spruce Grove – he’d position himself as closely to me as he reasonably could and then quietly, patiently and faithful watch alongside. Buster loved to be petted, and he had an endearing habit of pushing his head into my leg to remind me how much he loved being petted. For my part I couldn’t have asked for a better fellow birder. He had the capacity to remain still for a very long time and his alertness probably helped keep me more watchful. And so we spent mornings like that, enjoying sunshine, enduring rain and snow, staying low against the wind, documenting birds that in some instances had never before been recorded on this remote peninsula.

As I packed up and slung my tripod over my shoulder at the end of those birding sessions, Buster would spring to his feet, jog ahead of me a few paces, look back and give his head a little jerk in the direction we were heading, back to my house. It was as if he was saying, “C’mon, Jack! Let’s go get something to eat!”

There are bird dogs and there are bird dogs. Buster had the kind of toughness about him common to village dogs. Weather? What weather?

That’s how it started. A friend comes along and keeps you company for hours on end like that, both of us heading home hungry… You can’t not fix your buddy something to eat.

At first I’d dig around in the fridge for whatever leftovers might be on hand – a piece of salmon, gristly scraps of moose, or bones I’d left a little extra meat on for him. But before long dog biscuits and a quality dog food became part of our regular grocery orders. And of course a good friend like Buster needed a proper bowl. And a brush.

Between the good food and the regular brushings, which he loved, our already handsome friend was soon sporting a beautiful coat. His visits to our house became more regular and lasted longer until at some point we realized he was showing up almost without fail for breakfast each morning.  In fact, quite often he was spending the entire night sleeping below our bedroom window.

We, who had vowed “No dogs, no pets,” were being adopted.

Buster, the quintessential outdoors dog, never did get used to coming into our home. Although he was always welcome, he usually would only stay for awhile, and only as long as he could sit or lie next to one of us. Indoors seemed to be too warm for him. So he was content to lie outside our windows, all the better if his vantage point provided him with a view of one of us working at a desk or cooking in the kitchen. As far as I could tell, he’d never been trained, not even to sit. But he was one of the most well-mannered dogs we’ve ever known. Every so often he might give out a single, throaty bark – Buster’s way of mentioning that he might be ready for a snack.

And so it went for two years. The three of us hiked together up to Clarks River and along other trails for miles in all weather. He accompanied me out onto the ice that first year when the lake froze hard and ducks gathered in a small area of remaining open water. There were no trappers in the village that year, and so along with lots of birds, many of which were new to us, a number of foxes regularly showed up in the village and a family of river otters patrolled the lake and river. Every other dog in the village went dog-bonkers anytime one of these wild mammals was present.

That first winter when the lake froze, the wildlife viewing was enthralling. I spent hours on the frozen lake almost every day while it lasted. But on this morning out on the ice, I was collecting landscape pictures. Buster had his eye on a group of ducks milling around in open water.

Not Buster. In the spirit of full disclosure, the first time we encountered otters together, he did run off toward them… And promptly found himself sliding off a ledge of thick ice along the bone-chilling Chignik River, his eyes wide with panic as he looked to me for help and tried to scramble out. I guided him downriver to a break in the ice, asked him if he’d learned anything about ice while he shook himself off, and then we went home where I dried him with a warm towel and we both got something to eat. We saw otters after that, but he never again chased after them – at least not in my presence.

And the foxes? He was curled up in the snow outside our window one evening when a certain fox came by. Buster barely looked up. Instead, the fox started barking at him!

Bears and wolves were a different story though, and we came to appreciate Buster’s selective vigilance. When he let loose with his deep-throated bark, you could bet one of these two predators was around – and that Buster was doing his duty to keep them moving along.

Toward the end, when the mere act of standing was painful, a wolf – probably a pack scout – had been showing up in the village fairly regularly. An enduring memory is of Buster one evening pulling himself to his feet, propping himself against our house, and letting loose a barrage of fierce barking. The courageous old General, still on duty.

It was those slim hips that ultimately were his demise. When we returned to The Lake late this last summer, it was clear he was beginning to have mobility difficulties. He still had that optimistic smile in his eyes and an expression of sheer joy upon seeing us, and he was still getting around pretty well, but he was beginning to walk sideways. We knew our friend might not see another spring.

Through fall, Buster continued to be a constant companion. But as winter settled in, I had to begin discouraging him from trying to accompany me out into the field. It hurt us both, made worse by the fact that I’m sure Buster didn’t understand why his pal wouldn’t let him come along anymore.

He was losing control of his hind legs. He began falling down. Eventually he stopped trying to follow.

I am indebted to Barbra for taking pictures of me and my friend. A Tufted Duck – an uncommon to rare visitor from Asia to parts of Alaska – had mixed itself in with a few scaup, and I was spending a lot of time at The Bend on the Chignik River attempting to get photos. That’s where Barbra found us when she finished teaching on this snowy January day one year. 

But he still came by our house nearly every day. One especially nasty winter night Buster showed up at our front door quite ill. His nose was dry and hot to the touch, his eyes watery and listless. Fearing the worst, we had him come inside. I rolled out a sleeping bag on the kitchen floor so I could stay with him while he slept on the cool linoleum. The next morning he was greatly improved… for the time being.

Buster’s final days were difficult. In his last weeks, a small dog became his constant companion, watching over Buster as he hobbled around. Little Rex would chase magpies and other dogs away from Buster’s food dish, reach out with his paw to touch Buster and then curl up and sleep next to the old man. For Buster’s part, he showed enormous courage. He was in pain, and I have to imagine beyond frustration with his inability to get around as he once had. But there was still the brightness and optimism in his eyes that had drawn us to him the first time we met.

All the time we had known Buster, there was nothing he enjoyed more than a big bowl of food or a couple of biscuits. He was, after all, a dog, though perhaps much like many of us, food presented by a friend or loved one carries with it the additional pleasure of conveying a sense of being appreciated, loved and cared for. But toward the end, he wouldn’t begin eating until we petted him and talked to him for awhile.

He wasn’t our dog.

We had to keep reminding ourselves of that, and that decisions about how his last days should be handled had to be left to his owners. What we could do was help Buster be as comfortable and as loved as possible any time he came to our house, which he was still somehow managing to do almost every day.

What a wonderful friend. I don’t think we’ve ever known a being with a greater heart or a more optimistic outlook toward life.

He wasn’t our dog. He was our friend. And he is missed.

Morning Nature Walk, the Chigniks, Alaska: Landscapes, New Birds & the Season’s First Bear Photos

A Sandhill Crane fluffs his feathers on a patch of tundra and scrub a short hike from Chignik Lake. The photos accompanying this article were all taken on May 23, 2019 within 2½ miles of this village of about 50 residents.

We got an early start and this chubby fellow or gal appears to be barely awake. Wonderful singers, Sooty Fox Sparrows might be the most abundant bird in and around the village right now. Their only rival in that regard are Wilson’s Warblers.

While I focused on a warbler singing near the creek, Barbra turned around and got this elegant frame looking back at one of the village’s abandoned houses and the wooden jungle gym at the old playground.

The weather doesn’t always cooperate. All last night it rained hard and blew a gale, the winds whistling around our snug little home on The Lake. I listened and listened for the little Saw Whet Owl that has been coming around to wake me the past few nights. I could hear waves slapping the sandy beach, the wind… but no owl. There’s light in the sky over the mountains across the lake to the east as I begin this piece of writing in the pre-dawn. Maybe it’ll clear up. After a winter of day after day of spot-on weather forecasts, Spring has returned such prognostication to its usual hit and miss spin of the roulette wheel. It’s supposed to be raining right now, but the sky is clearing. If it does I’ll go out and look for birds. With just four weeks remaining in our life at The Lake, we’re making every day count.

It’s spring and everyone is singing. One of the morning’s objectives was to photograph the Hermit Thrushes that came in with Wilson’s Warblers about a week ago. I’m still looking for a great shot, one with catchlight in the subject’s eye and the bird near enough to crop in portrait close, but this is a start.

Two days ago we woke to a sky that was broken but clearing. The faintest of breezes barely rippled the lake’s surface. We hurried through breakfast, got our camera gear in order, packed a small bag of trail mix and a water bottle, grabbed our binoculars and headed out. Bird song was everywhere and our recently-arrived Tree and Violet-green Swallows had already taken command of the skies. Three elements make for a good birding walk: little or no wind, nice light and birds. We had all three.

We weren’t sure if these Black-capped Chickadees were gleaning insects or gathering nesting material from the last of the catkins in this willow. Either way they didn’t sit still for a moment.

Before we even came to the edge of the village, about a quarter mile walk from our door, we identified 10 species of birds. (There’s a list of what we encountered at the end of this article.) With copses of White Spruce, thickets of alder and willow, salmonberry brakes, open patches of grasses and flowers, rolling terrain, a creek filled with small char and salmon parr and a large lake and river where midges and other insects are constantly hatching, the local landscape features diverse habitat and varied food sources. The dozens of nesting boxes established throughout the village further add to Chignik Lake as a bird paradise.

He’s up there! A tiny speck at the top of the tree on the right, you’d think this Wilson’s Warbler would feel safe from the gentle photographer far below. But I know from experience that as I’m not shooting from a blind, I’m already pushing the bird’s comfort zone. A step or two closer and he’ll disappear. 

Thus far in my ongoing project to document birds within a three-mile radius of The Lake, I’ve identified 76 species, the recent appearance of the Saw Whet Owl being the 76th. Because until recently Barbra’s school district didn’t allow teachers to remain in the district’s housing beyond the school year, this is the first summer we’ve been able to stay for summertime birding. Already this has allowed us to more thoroughly document the two species of swallows that visit The Lake each year, and we’re told that a short way down the river is a colony of Bank Swallows as well. We’re keenly interested to see what else might turn up over the next four weeks.

And there he is, all 4¾ inches of male Wilson’s Warbler, dapper in his jaunty black cap, king of his world overlooking Post Office Creek. In previous years we’ve had quite a few Yellow Warblers and a very few Orange-crowned Warblers as well, but no sign of either of those yet. 

Wilson’s Snipe nest right here in the village. Their vocalizations and winnowing can be heard throughout the day, but I can count on three fingers the times I’ve been close enough to a sitting snipe to get a decent photograph; I’m still looking for my first Chignik Lake shots.

At times, Golden-crowned Sparrows can be cooperative subjects. We have one that visits the lawn just outside our door multiple times a day and no longer pays much attention to our comings and goings. But the bird in this photo is less accustomed to human traffic and chose to eye us warily from inside a thicket of branches while I composed this shot. 

A lightly-traveled ATV trail begins at the Northwest edge of the village and winds its way over varied terrain through patches of crowberry and cranberry, stands of fireweed, willow and alder thickets, bog and tundra all the way to the mouth of Clarks River. We’ve hiked this path often, seldom encountering anyone along the way. Muddy places along the trail often have imprinted evidence of foxes, wolves, bears and moose. We pause often to listen and to look and even to use our noses.

It is a landscape that invites a hike, and on a day like this… who can say “No?”

Every hike is different. The landscape changes from day to day, and with the shifting play of light sometimes the changes are from moment to moment. In the depths of winter, it is possible to hike this trail and encounter nothing save for perhaps a handful of chickadees – a species we’ve come to greatly admire for their intelligence and tenacity. The Native American wisdom that “Every animal knows more than you know,” sinks home when you’re out on a cold, blustery day and these little guys are going about their business, thriving. On this morning we took note of the receding snow line, budding alders, willows leafing out and new flowers, fresh shoots of all kinds of plants popping up everywhere – geranium, yarrow, fireweed, lupine, iris, cow parsnip, star gentian… Each of these plants is like a calendar of the summer, marking the days in different stages of growth.

Is there any plant more graceful than a springtime fern unfurling?

The more you walk, the more you learn, until eventually the generalized mix of bird song is differentiated into individual voices – the chattering of a certain type of warbler, the melancholy Here I am… of a sparrow. What was once a wash of varicolored green becomes an intricate web of individual plants, each kind with its own name, lifecycle and place in this complex ecosystem. Over time you come to know where the owls roost, how to find the nests of ground-nesting sparrows, what kind of tracks have been left in the sand and perhaps how long ago they were placed there. A bird lets you have a glimpse of its form as it flits across the path and where many miles of walking ago you might have thought to yourself “a bird,” you now know precisely what kind of bird and where it might nest and what it likes to eat and you know all this without thinking much about it. It just is.

We have been coming across tracks for close to two weeks – tracks left by large bears, tracks left by sows and their cubs, tracks left by young adults perhaps embarking on their first full season alone. But these were the first two bears we’ve seen this year. Skinny from a dormant winter and quite likely from not having gotten as many salmon as they would have liked given the low return of salmon to the Chignik River last year, these spring bears will manage to begin to put on weight on a diet of grass and tubers. They’ll even eat insects this time of year.

Two miles up the trail a steep bluff provides a vantage point overlooking the lake and an adjacent savannah-like area. We always stop here to glass for wildlife – bears on the beaches, ducks on the water and anything that might happen to be out in the flat where we’ve seen foxes, cranes and signs of wolves, bears and moose. It’s a good place to look for Savannah Sparrows, another species that just recently arrived.

We’ve come to call this view of the lake The Infinity Pool.

Far out on the lake, a few Black Scoters were milling around, occasionally quacking. A young Harbor Seal, barely more than a pup, popped up to have give us a curious look. Three or four Bald Eagles and half a dozen Mew Gulls were resting on a sand spit at the mouth of Clarks. While Wilson’s Warblers and Fox and Golden-crowned Sparrows seemed to be everywhere, the Savannah Sparrows we’d hoped to photograph proved to be more elusive. Here and there we’d hear their distinctive, almost blackbird-like call, but aside from a couple of distant views through binoculars, we didn’t have much luck. We left the grassy area to follow the lake shore. As our boots crunched along the sandy beach, little schools of shore-hugging salmon parr skittering for deeper water.

This stickleback was so ripe with eggs she could barely swim. I cupped her in my hands for a quick photo and released her into a patch of filamentous algae where she tucked in. The Chignik watershed has two types of stickleback – Three-spined and Nine-spined. Slow swimmers, they are preyed upon by everything from River Otters to Mergansers. Most of the time when I see a duck with a fish, it’s a stickleback. 

Seeing young salmon along the lake shore and in the several small creeks feeding in the lake always puts a lightness in our hearts. Sockeyes and Coho and lots of them. When a midge hatch is on, the surface of the lake becomes dimpled as though rain is falling as these fish rise to intercept the insects. When I turned over a few rocks in one of the streams, to my surprise I found the undersides to be thick with mayfly nymphs. There were also a few stoneflies, which equally surprised me. In late summer we’ve been here for the heaviest midge hatches we’ve ever witnessed, but other than sporadic hatches of caddisflies we haven’t noticed much else, a very occasional stonefly and a few small mayflies notwithstanding. The undersides of lake rocks can be thick with caddis cases, so there must be significant hatches of those at some point. And if the feeder streams are home to mayflies, maybe we’ll be around for a hatch of those. There’s always something new to look forward to.

We call this stretch of the trail The Tunnel – a fitting name when it’s crowded in with leafed out alders. We’re usually quiet hikers, but in places such as this where you can’t see more than a few feet ahead, we make a little noise, not wishing to surprise or be surprised by any four-legged beings.

Well, the morning’s half gone. A big patch of blue has pushed its way through the clouds and although the best light is past, it might still be worth it to go out for a look around. Yellow Warblers should be showing up any time now, and I’m still looking for a photograph of a Hermit Thrush with a bit of catchlight in its eye.

Here’s the list of the birds we came across on this walk:

Black Scoter
Common Merganser
Tundra Swan
Greater Yellowlegs
Wilson’s Snipe
Sandhill Crane
Mew Gull
Bald Eagle
Black-billed Magpie
American Robin
Hermit Thrush
Black-capped Chickadee
Tree Swallow
Violet-green Swallow
Wilson’s Warbler
Savannah Sparrow
Golden-crowned Sparrow
Sooty Fox Sparrow
Redpoll
Pine Siskin

In Dandelion Sugar

More than halfway into my first 500 hours on the guitar. Irresistible to take it outside into the yard today, sunshine, swallows swooping, sparrows chirping and singing, warblers chattering from bare alders and newly leafed out willows. Working on my Travis picking patterns. Barbra took this photo for posterity.

After starting off the new year with three consecutive months of not looking at the news, I got sucked in again. A mistake. Monotonous. Depressing. It doesn’t matter which news source you look at, there’s nothing like it to simultaneously rile you up while making you feel powerless. There are better places to focus energy. In fact, we’ve decided to go back off TV altogether. Extra time on the guitar. Extra time to write. I think I’ll start reading Ted Leeson’s The Habit of Rivers this evening.

Still trying to get a decent photo of our Hermit Thrushes. Of course, if I could capture an image of their otherworldly song, that would be the real trick.

I imagine someone will let me know if we go to war.

These final days at The Lake, I want to savor it.

In dandelion sugar.

Waiting for Salmon

Infinite Patience – Bald Eagle scanning for salmon, Chignik Lake, May 20, 2019

Each year from June 1 when Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists begin counting at the weir on Chignik River till late summer when they remove it, an average of over 700,000 Reds (Sockeye Salmon) are tallied making their annual spawning run up this watershed on the remote Alaska Peninsula. In 2015, the number was a staggering 1,123,898 and that’s after a million Reds were taken by commercial fisherman in Chignik Lagoon, the saltwater estuary the river debouches into. Because Alaska persists in the foolishness of allowing “intercept” fisheries further out at sea, it can be difficult to determine precisely how many salmon are headed for the Chignik watershed – perhaps two million on average. Nonetheless, over that past nine years an average of 780,000 Sockeye Salmon have been counted at the weir.

Last year that number plummeted to just 540,000, and that was despite a nearly complete closure of the commercial fishery. It was, quite literally, a disaster. The cases of beef stew, generic peanut butter, lentils, canned fruit cocktail and boxed mac and cheese freighted in by government agencies didn’t begin to offset the economic and psychological hole the Sockeye collapse created.

As I write this, eager neighbors are already setting nets. Here and there an early-returning fish is showing up. But “early” is the operative term. Even in good years, the run doesn’t get going until the first week of June. Sometime during the second week of that month, the first counts of 1,000 fish a day might begin. Later in summer, daily counts will top ten thousand. The Chignik’s feeder streams will be carpeted with spawning fish. Brown Bears and Bald Eagles will be everywhere.

In a good year.

For now it’s still early.

Everyone is waiting…

…and hoping.

They enter the river with muscles of steel, bright as new dimes. By the time they’re ready to spawn, they will fill clear tributaries in a carpet of crimson. They are the lifeblood of the Chigniks. Reds…

 

The Hike to Clarks River: An Alaska-Sized Landscape on the Remote Southwest Peninsula

Like a vast infinity pool, Chignik Lake pulls in the mountains and sky and seems to go on forever. 

We woke before dawn to clear skies, still air and frost. With noon temperatures projected to reach a nearly summer-like high of 50° F, it was the perfect day for the three-mile hike from Chignik Lake up to Clarks River. By the time we downed hot bowls of steel cut oats and slabs of energy-rich, thick-cut bacon, the sun had cleared the snow-capped mountaintops across the lake from our house. Outside the air was still brisk from the nighttime freeze, but American Robins, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Sooty Fox Sparrows, Pine Grosbeaks and Redpolls were already filling the sleepy village with song. We didn’t know it yet, but Violet-green Swallows would arrive later in the day to add to the chorus.

By the time we hit the trail, soft sunlight was beginning to brush the frost off crowberry plants and other vegetation.

Skim ice covered puddles and everything about the morning felt crisp and full of promise. Savannah Sparrows sang from brushy perches. Somewhere down by the lake a Sandhill Crane trumpeted in brassy notes. On a morning like this, there was no telling what we might see. I tapped the bear spray in my coat pocket. We stopped often to listen and to glass patches of open tundra and hillsides.

Most of the catkins were finished. In places bathed in light during these 18-hour spring days willows were leafed out in brilliant green.

As we approached Lower Pond, a pair of Black-capped Chickadees emerged from a tangle of still bare alders to look us over. A crane soared low over the path and landed somewhere out of sight. Fresh avalanche runs tongued the steep Chignik Mountain slopes, still buried in snow. When we hit the Blueberry Bog, a snipe exploded from an edge that often seems to have one of these wary, secretive birds. Mindful of not bothering a possible nest, we kept moving.

Barbra hikes into a landscape traversed by fewer than 100 living people. Clarks River lies straight ahead. The lake is to the right. 

As we hiked we noted that Fireweed shoots were at the perfect stage for picking. We’d brought along a small bag to gather some on the way back to add to the evening’s teriyaki salmon stir-fry.

Wildlife tracks ran all along the beach, their number and variety increasing the closer we got to the river. Seldom seen, wolves are always around, as this track attests.

One for the books, this is the largest Brown Bear track we’ve ever come across. With males routinely topping 1,000 pounds and sometimes exceeding a standing height of 9 feet, Chignik’s bears are among the world’s largest, rivaling those of Kodiak Island in size. An abundance of salmon makes for a healthy bear population – and a healthy ecosystem in general. Barbra’s sunglasses measure 5¾ inches from temple to temple.

In addition to lots of fox tracks, two sets of wolf tracks and several sets of bear tracks, it was evident that a troupe of River Otters had recently been through the area. Though it was mostly quiet under the mid-morning sun, a Red-throated Grebe rested out on the lake, and along the far shore we could just make out Scaup, a Red-breasted Merganser and a few Common Goldeneyes. Savannah Sparrows sang and flitted from bush to bush and as we approached the mouth of Clarks, a yellowlegs or perhaps a Wandering Tattler took off up the river.

The remains of a feast, this bleached piece of Red Salmon jaw was a reminder of last fall when the banks of Clarks were trampled down into a bear highway and the shores and shallows were carpeted with spawned-out Sockeyes and Silvers.

We paused to let our eyes search a pool below a beaver dam in a small tributary before Clarks, recalling a fall when we’d seen it stacked with maybe a thousand Coho Salmon. The beavers, like those salmon, are long gone. Tiny salmon fry and parr darted through the pool in tight schools, the parr occasionally rising to take a midge off the water’s surface. Around the pool’s edge, the first light pink salmonberry blossoms were opening.

Clarks River forks just before it debauches into the lake. This is the lower, quieter piece of water. In late summer and fall, tens of thousands of salmon ascend this cold, snow-fed river.

We found a warm spot in the sun on the sandy beach, made a makeshift picnic blanket of my coat amidst otter tracks, and had lunch. Magpies chattered from a distance as we scarfed down trail mix and reminisced about the fine fly-fishing we’d had at the mouth of this river for bright Silvers. You never stop scanning for bears when you’re out here, and of course there are the wolves. The salmon will return soon, new birds are steadily filling the landscape and there’s the prospect of getting that gargantuan Brown Bear in the view finder of one of our cameras – so many incentives to get out into this country to look around.