Abundance

Alaska subsistence gathering natural abundance

Freshly picked wild blueberries, wineberries, and a perfect King Bolete mushroom…

Mid-August in The Chigniks. The river and its spawning tributaries are filled with hundreds of thousands of salmon, its shores thickly blanketed in shades of green rivaling and perhaps surpassing images of Emerald Isles elsewhere. In meadows and bogs a profusion of wildflowers continues to bloom, progressing with the seasons from the irises, chocolate lilies, violets and lupine of spring to the fireweed, cotton grass, goldenrod and yarrow of late summer, yellow paintbrush and wild geranium overlapping the seasons. Salmonberries, their orange and red hues evoking the colors of spawning Sockeyes and Chinook, are nearly over now, gallons carefully vacuum-packed and tucked away in the freezer for the coming winter. Meanwhile, the skies are filled with birds. Our finches – redpolls, siskins and Pine Grosbeaks – apparently had a banner nesting season as did The Chignik’s Golden-crowned and Fox Sparrows. They’ve recently been joined by flocks of canary-colored yellow warblers in the midst of their annual late-summer migration through the Chigniks.

Coho are beginning to trickle into the river. They’ll begin arriving in force later this month, just as the feral raspberries and red currants around the village are ripening. Startlingly brightly colored Red-backed Voles seem to be everywhere, their abundance a boon to the Rough-legged Hawks which nest on a riverside cliff and managed to successfully rear and fledge four chicks this year. Bears continue to amble along the river and lakeshore, but most have moved upstream toward the headwaters of salmon-rich spawning grounds. There are even a few caribou around, moose, and the other evening we watched a porcupine meander up the lakeshore. Now and then a Harbor Seal or River Otter pops its head above the water’s surface to check out whomever might be strolling the shore. Families of teal and wigeons have been taking advantage of thick patches or water crowfoot growing and blooming in the cove near our home. Yesterday morning we were startled awake by the cry of a loon out on the lake.

Blueberries now. A skiff ride across the lake, a short hike along a disappearing trail, now nearly overgrown in salmonberry stalks, fireweed, cow parsnip and willows. We crest a hill carpeted with lowbush cranberries and descend into a wide, open area – a remnant of the boggy tundra that not so very long ago predominated this ever-changing landscape. The bushes are low, only inches above thick, spongy mats of lichen we kneel in as we pick. The berries out here on the Alaska Peninsula are not large – no “lunkers” of the size we picked last year in Newhalen. But lots. And lots. Mushrooms, too. Good ones. They and a few coveted wineberries are added to the gathering. Though we are not far from the village, the only sounds are berries making satisfying plunks in our containers, birds chattering and calling, and, yes, the occasional whine of mosquitoes. In the quiet of the natural world, our minds drift into zen-like states. As we fall asleep that night, blueberries will play on our eyelids like a movie on a screen.

Picking finished for the day, hiking back out, backpack of berries, our skiff anchored along a rocky beach we come to a surprised halt when we see a family of three Sandhill Cranes there – mom and dad in rich, russet-colored feathers, their nearly grown chick in drabber gray. Perhaps they are working the shoreline for caddis larvae. We hate disturbing them, but it’s time to go. As we draw near to the skiff, we see our owls perched in alder and cottonwood snags on the bluff near Otter Creek. All four, the adults and their two offspring whiling away the day till nighttime. The young are still in creamy-white down, their “ear” tufts barely emerging, but they are fully fledged now and capable of strong flight. Again, we hated to bother them. They flew off a short distance and watched us load our skiff, start the engine and cruise home.

Slices of boletes sautéed in butter and garlic on zucchini pizza for dinner, a game of Scrabble, a favorite TV show downloaded from the Internet, twilight and outside our windows the nearby whistling cries of hungry Great-horned Owls siblings waiting for a vole or two from their parents.

 

 

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.

Again to The Lake

It is good to be back. This was the view from our living room window this morning. If you look closely on the water, you can see the rings and dimples of salmon parr feeding on emerging midges.

May 22, Chignik Lake: After a day of glorious sunshine – which prompted us to go for a hike (a crane, two snipe, our first-of-the-year Savannah Sparrows, several other birds, wild violets) I woke this morning to drizzle with more in the forecast for the next few days. We’ll still get out. There’ll be sunbreaks, and we have rainwear. 

This rainbow arcing over the village featured in the view out our front door this morning. Our home is part of the school campus, to which these buildings also belong – additional housing (mostly vacant) to the right, the school itself to the left. Situated between the far house and the school is the diesel generator building, indicated by the two small smoke stacks. The mountains in the background received fresh snow just yesterday.

The department of Fish & Game will begin counting salmon on the first of June, just 10 days from this writing. A spate of small planes flying in personnel and supplies to the facility at the weir will occur any time now. Two friends set nets yesterday, but I haven’t yet had an opportunity to talk with them to see if they caught any early salmon. 

The landscape goes from brown to green with amazing rapidity this time of year. The lawn will be permitted to grow wild until after the dandelions have gone to down. Our finch population – Pine Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls – feast on the seeds. (See “Finches of the Dandelion Jungle.”)

The landscape is beginning to really green up. At 56.25° north (about the same as Edinburgh, Scotland), the climate here is perennially cool. First light, announced daily by a Golden-crowned Sparrow singing in earnest from the alders outside our bedroom window, came at 5:09 this morning. Last light won’t depart till 11:51 PM, so we’re already getting more than 19½ hours of daylight. Sunrise and Sunset times occurred at 6:04 AM and 10:56 PM – nearly 17 hours. Even obscured by clouds, that’s a lot of solar energy for plants rooted in rich volcanic soil and receiving abundant rainfall. During summer, the peninsula coast is as stunningly verdant (and the seaside cliffs, waterfalls sheeting from the tops, nearly as spectacular) as any imagination you might have of the Hawaiian Islands. Inland at The Lake, the summer’s deep and varied hues of green rival that of any emerald land. Already, the beginnings of Chocolate Lilies, Lupine, Wild Geranium, Iris, Horsetail, Cow Parsnip, ferns and more are pushing up… willows decorated with soft, fuzzy catkins, leaf buds on alders and salmonberry bushes near bursting.

I keep meaning to test my guitar against the Golden-crowned’s song – three notes, four if he begins with a slide on the first note. Coltrane, Davis and Armstrong had greater range, but for sheer clarity of tone these birds are masters. Blow, little sparrow! Blow!

We’ve been working each day to bring our home into shape. Having gathered in a couple of new interior decorating ideas while putting our place in Newhalen together and having had a year away to reimagine a few things in this house, we’ve got it looking better than ever. Yesterday, with Barbra’s help I hung 10 acrylic photographs I took in far flung places from Hokkaido to Mongolia to Alaska’s Kenai Fjords to here in the Chigniks. There’s even a favorite shot from a trout lake in Oregon. 

“Barbra!” a small boy cried out upon seeing us from a Covid-safe distance the other day. “Where did you go? Your whole class missed you!” Both of us were, in the words of Bob Dylan, “born a long way from home.” Amidst a peripatetic life, we finally found that place here at The Lake. Leaving when the school closed last year was difficult. The return has been stirring… at times overwhelming. 

Although the school district provides these rentals as “fully furnished,” at the modest prices they charge one would be correct in assuming that overall the furniture is pretty so-so. The beds are the exception; the mattresses are terrific!

Thinking that we’d be in Newhalen for several years, we acquired a few items – decent bookshelves, coffee and end tables, a small but elegant writing station that adjusts for working while either standing or sitting… even details such as nice throw pillows for the sofa… all of which have added up to make an appreciably more congenial living space. Perhaps our favorite item is a pub-style dining table – a high table with tall chairs. ”Up high” is more comfortable than “down low,” especially for us longer-legged types, and the additional six inches in height is just enough to enhance the vantage and view out the windows. 

A group of Greater Scaup has been showing up to dive for aquatic vegetation in a cove visible from our dining window and it was from that window that this photograph was taken. Into the breeding season now, most ducks have paired up and dispersed, but along with the scaup, we regularly see both White-winged and Black Scoters on the lake.

Upon returning to The Lake, we were asked to agree to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days. Thus far there have been no cases of Coronavirus in The Chigniks and everyone wants to keep it that way. The Lake is a village of 50 people, many of them elders. Right now, we don’t have a permanent health aid, so our tiny clinic isn’t regularly open. There are two positions available… 

Even by Alaska standards, Chignik Lake is truly tiny and remote. No restaurants. One small store that would just about fit inside an average living room. A short, bumpy, dirt airstrip. A shed with a pair of diesel-fueled generators that supply the village’s electricity and that can pretty much be counted on to cut out or to be shut down for maintenance periodically – (you’re well advised to frequently save any work you’re doing on the computer).

A stunningly plumaged Male Tree Swallow stands watch near a nesting box occupied by his mate. Each time I think I’ve counted all the boxes put up for swallows in this village, I notice a couple more tucked away under the eaves of a house or mounted on a utility pole. Suffice it to say there are dozens. Native Americans’ happy association with these birds goes back beyond recorded history. Having lived in communities that don’t extend such welcoming to these insectivores, we can testify that their presence makes a huge difference in the number of flying bugs. 

Just about anything we need – screws, batteries, wood for birdhouses, baking powder, clothing… everything, really – has to be planned for ahead of time, shopped for online, ordered, and its arrival patiently awaited. Though it’s not common, there have been times when even groceries have taken weeks to make it out here. (The record has been three weeks.) One learns to think about it before ordering anything perishable, and it pays to advise people shipping goods out here to package them with special care to accommodate multiple plane changes and the bumpy landing. A dentist and an eye doctor fly out once a year to spend a day doing examinations. I suppose I’ll take student portraits for the school this year…

You simply can’t be of a frame of mind of “needing” anything “right now.” This is a wonderful place to hone the arts of planning ahead, a mindful approach to living, taking joy in the moment, and patience.

And here’s a male Violet-green Swallow. With midges hatching on the lake on and off throughout the day, the village is frequently filled with the chattering and aerial displays of these beautifully accomplished pilots that seem to redefine air.

There are, of course, difficulties associated with all this. While we do manage to usually have on hand fresh fruit and vegetables (potatoes, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga, apples, avocados, grapefruit and Brussels sprouts ship well and can survive the typical two or three-day journey out; cauliflower, sweet corn, snap peas and pears are riskier. But forget about lettuce and most other fruits – those are city-visit foods unless a friend comes out and hand-carries them). Dried mushrooms take the place of fresh, and we go through canned diced tomatoes (and salsa!) like they’re goin’ out of style. 

Of course, we usually have some sort of wild berries on hand – fresh or fresh-frozen blueberries, lingonberries and salmonberries, and from time to time we make a salad of Fireweed shoots or Dandelion greens. We’re lucky in that we love salmon – which we take on flies we’ve tied – and are frequently gifted with moose meat, which we find superior to beef in most dishes. Every once in awhile we luck into some locally-gathered seafood: Tanner (Snow) Crab, clams, urchins, halibut, sea lettuce.

Getting other meat out here is expensive. If we go into town (into Anchorage), we bring back a tote filled with chicken, pork, beef and sometimes seafood such as scallops, shrimp and crab from Costco. Otherwise, we pay one of the bush airline employees to shop for us. She makes the purchases in the morning, gets our meat and and perhaps a few other delicate perishables on the plane that same day and with luck we have it by afternoon. We buy meat once or twice a year, repackage it into serving-sized portions, vacuum seal it and freeze it. 

We bake all our own bread – the best way of assuring fresh, quality loaves.

I took this photo, one of many tributaries in the Chignik drainage, as we flew into The Lake on May 12. One of these tributaries has a small run of Steelhead… and we finally figured out which one it is. So… If we can get up there…

There are other inconveniences. We’ve been waiting eagerly for our Hondas (ATV’s/quads) to ship out. Getting our boat out here is proving to be quite a logistical puzzle. Shopping online can be challenging. Often you’d just like to hold an item you’re thinking about purchasing in your hands – leaf through a few pages of a book, try on a pair of jeans, feel the grip of a kitchen utensil, evaluate fly-tying materials with your fingertips or see for yourself just how large or small a certain item is. But you can’t, so you make your best guess and hope whatever it is fits well enough or suits the purpose you have in mind.

You learn to look past some things. A shirt with slightly frayed cuffs still has “some good wear in it.” Something that could use a fresh coat of paint “can go awhile longer without one.” A window pane that has a bit of a problem is lived with, because getting the materials out here and figuring out how to make the repair… isn’t going to happen anytime soon.

There are benefits of making a mental contract to live with these inconveniences. (Many benefits, actually.) One of which is that none of the three Chignik villages have had cases of Coronavirus. A health team recently flew in and tested all three villages.

Of all the places I’ve lived, it is in this house that the rain falls on the roof like music and sometimes reminds me of similar music that lulled me to sleep in the Philippines and a small house where I lived in a quiet part of Japan. 

I’ve never lived any place where each morning begins with birdsong as it does here. In that regard, it’s like a permanent vacation on a favorite childhood lake – three far-too-short days in a tent or rented cabin supplanted by a life in a tidy, cozy lakeside home.

And there’s this… which only recently (upon moving back here) came to me. Imagine a sort of stock “beautiful view” from a window. An apartment high up in a skyscraper overlooking a city; a house commanding a view of a beach or a rocky coastline; or a window framing a vista of mountains – the Rockies, the Alps. 

All of these images are lovely.

Yet they are somewhat static. 

Except for the effect the relatively slow progression of seasonal change may bring to the view, or the changing light from day to day and hour to hour… to take in these views once is to take them in for the next several weeks or even months without much anticipation of change.

The view outside our windows is dynamic. The weather moving from sea to sea across this narrow peninsula is dramatic, the moods set by changing light sometimes stunning. There is wildlife – birds, bears, shoaling and leaping salmon, insect hatches, hungry seals, otters, foxes, an occasional wolf, eagles, owls… and there’s the comings and goings of friends (and everyone in this village is a friend) as they launch their boats or come in with the day’s catch, a freshly taken moose, or a shipment that was delivered to The Bay. 

Male Common Redpoll outside our kitchen window.

This morning, as I was proofreading this piece of writing, I saw the season’s very first school of salmon heading up the lake. Between now and October, hundreds of thousands more will follow, mostly Reds but also Pinks, Silvers, Kings, a very few Steelhead, lots of sea run char and close to the ocean, Chums.

Pine Siskins (above), redpolls, Golden-crowned Sparrows, Pine Grosbeaks and magpies have been daily visitors to our yard to take advantage of the seeds I put out for them. Watching them as we wash dishes makes the chore go faster.

Quiet. The entire time I have been writing this morning, (both yesterday and  today) the only sounds have been the off and on hum of the refrigerator (sometimes at night, I unplug it for awhile… real, blessed quiet), the gentle whistle of water coming to boil in our coffee kettle, the songs and cries of birds – thrushes, swallows, warblers, sparrows, redpolls, siskins, magpies, ravens, ducks, gulls -, and the steady music of rain on the roof. 

Today we will tackle the organization of the fishing & photography room.

I’ve been striving to practice three hours a day on the guitar. 

          O snail,
          Climb Mount Fuji
          But slowly, slowly!
                                   Issa

   

Nature Watching & Nest Finding: An Exercise in Mindfulness

Male Common Merganser, Chignik Lake, March 23, 2017

I have a particular photograph that, when I got it, I was quite stoked. It’s beautiful. Everyone who has seen it says it’s a great picture. But I look at it now…

It’s a shot of a Common Merganser taking wing. Click. Capture. The camera settings were correct. The light was wonderful. The moment is frozen in time.

He was feeding. Diving. Occasionally coming up with a small fish of some kind. Stocking  calories on a cold winter day.

I moved closer. And closer. And I flushed him.

See the nest? Spring through summer, anytime you flush a bird – and especially if a bird is behaving as though it is injured, tread carefully; there’s probably a nest nearby.

The speckling, which breaks up their silhouette, makes these Semipalmated Plover eggs especially difficult to see from a distance – unless you’re looking for them. (Interior Alaska, June 2017)

It’s a dilemma. Ongoing. As a naturalist, a photographer, a student of wildlife, I want to get close. I am drawn toward invading a being’s space. I want to see them in detail. I want to find their nest or den. I want to see what they are eating. I want to learn where they roost or rest.

But I really don’t want to disturb them. Most of my favorite photographs of animals are those in which they aren’t looking at me – photos in which they are going about their business hunting, eating, digesting, loafing, soaking up sunshine or huddling against a storm.

This is how I hope to capture birds – going about their business, oblivious to me. (Pileated Woodpecker, Oregon, June 2012)

As sportsmen and naturalists, we disturb animals all the time. We flush birds. We invade habitat. If my fishing season was limited to catching only what I need to stock my freezer, it would be a mighty short season. But I love to fish. So I fish for charr and trout that I have no intention of keeping, and I cast flies for salmon long after I’ve got plenty of fillets to get me through another year, letting go the additional Silvers that come to hand after I’ve got my quota.

This is not a dilemma to be solved, I think. Rather it is one to keep in mind.

As soon as we step foot in nature, we’re going to have an impact. Plants and invertebrates will be crushed underfoot. Birds will be flushed. A friend of mine walking on a river island once heard a crunch underfoot. He lifted his shoe to find a dripping smear of yolk and albumen from the crushed remains of a Killdeer’s nest. He felt really bad about that. If the world was populated only by bird-loving naturalists, I suppose evolution would have arranged for eggs in shades of neon and florescence.

Let’s hope all four of these greenish, brown-speckled eggs made it into fully fledged Siberian Rubythroats. (Hokkaido, Japan, June 2017)

In recent years, I’ve become pretty good at finding birds’ nests – a skill I’m reluctant to put into practice unless circumstances make it necessary. Hiking through an overgrown field in Hokkaido, Japan, a Siberian Rubythroat burst into flight practically beneath my feet. I knew from experience that there was undoubtedly a nest nearby, and that I’d better take great care with each footstep until I either located the nest and avoided trampling it or had gingerly stepped altogether clear of the area.  

Singing his heart out not far from the above nest, this male Siberian Rubythroat has staked out his small piece of Hokkaido. (June 2017)

I once flushed a mallard off her nest. Didn’t know she had a nest until I walked closer to where she had been. I quickly backed away, but it was too late. Before I could get completely out of the area, a pair of crows were happily going to town on eggs that would not become ducklings. Initially, I was mad at the duck for choosing such an open place to build a nest. But the fault was mine; I didn’t know enough about duck behavior to understand that she was brooding.

Those crows knew, though. Smart birds.

Birds are amazingly aware of their surroundings, and so I have little doubt that this merganser and her brood were aware of my presence. But I was tucked away behind vegetation photographing terns. She passed by with a circumspect eye directed my way, but not in panic. Good. A short distance upriver, they resumed feeding. (Tuul River, Mongolia, July 2015)

loon silhouette

Previous: Red-breasted Merganser – Not just Flashy. Fast!

Next Article: Northern Harrier – Rare but There

Birds of Chignik Lake: Long-tailed Duck – Political Correctness or Respect… when is a Name Change Merited?

No duck dives deeper (up to 200 feet) or more frequently than the Long-tailed. To catch The Chignik’s handsome, Neapolitan-ice-cream-colored drakes at their most colorful, you’ve got to get out on the lagoon in late winter when they are at their most abundant and resplendent. Later in spring and on through summer, they’ll disperse to tundra ponds where they molt into drabber plumage and lose their eponymous tails. (Chignik Lagoon, March 9, 2019)

You can find passages in older texts in which Long-tailed Ducks are identified by their former moniker, Old-squaws, an appellation assigned to these stunningly beautiful creatures for their habit of gathering in large groups where their somewhat gull-like calls and melodies fill the air almost without cessation. The name is a trifecta of insult – besmirching women, elders, and Native Americans in one fell-swoop. Come to think of it, it doesn’t do any honor to the ducks either. Several thoughts tempt my fingers to give them voice on this keyboard, but I refrain.

On patrol for mollusks and whatever else might be presented during a dive, a Long-tailed (left) ambles along with a female scaup on Chignik River. (December 30, 2016)

When, in the year 2000, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska petitioned the American Ornithologists’ Union Committee on Classification and Nomenclature to change C. hyemalis’s common name, the committee balked. Categorizing empathy for those who might be offended by the term Old-squaw as “political correctness,” members of the AOU took the position that such sensibilities alone did not justify new nomenclature.

One might reasonably counter, “For goodness sake, why not?” We’re talking about language here; shouldn’t the way we speak be permitted to evolve alongside insight, understanding, and other manifestations of enlightenment?

The above Long-tailed Ducks were part of a group of 13 we came across on an Arctic tundra pond near Point Hope, Alaska. (August 25, 2013)

The objections of some AOU members notwithstanding, the pressure was on. Refuge was found by couching the long overdue change as a matter of maintaining consistency with the rest of the English-speaking world where “Long-tailed Duck” had already long been designated.

The matter of naming birds (and other beings) is interesting. Wouldn’t we all be better served by appellatives that describe a characteristic of the animal in question rather than some anthropomorphized perception of their behavior, or more arbitrary still, the surname of whomever claims first to have “discovered” it?

In any event, in the matter of C. hyemalis, Long-tailed Duck it is. Though, I’ve got to say, I can’t look at a drake in late-winter plumage and not think of that tri-colored Neapolitan ice cream, the candy-red eye a cherry on the chocolate.

From Flattop Mountain, you can take in a view of the Chignik River flowing into Chignik Lagoon. The entire drainage is rich with aquatic vegetation, mollusks and other invertebrates, and small fish, all of which represent potential meals for the area’s waterfowl. (September 21, 2018)

Long-tailed Duck Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Long-tailed Duck: Clangula hyemalis
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Clangula: from the Latin clangare = to resound
hyemalis: Latin, of winter

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Common. At times abundant on Chignik Lagoon; Occasional on Chignik Lake; Summer ?

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Not Reported

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010Common in Spring & Winter; Rare in Summer; Uncommon in Fall

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

loon silhouette

Previous: Canvasback – The Duke of Ducks

Next Article: Steller’s Eider

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.

Ice Changes Everything – Wintertime Life on the Frozen Chignik

While River Otters are generally gregarious, playful sorts that get along beautifully, it’s hard not to project a twinge of envy on the otter to the left. Starry Flounder travel from the saltwater lagoon miles up The Chignik. Winter ice provides a lucky fisherman with a dining table. (Chignik Lake, February 2, 2017)

Clad in a 600-fill down parka, camouflage snow pants, insulated Muck Boots, a warm hat and heavy-duty mittens stuffed with hand warmers, I continue bellying forward on slick, solid ice toward a patch of open water near the lake’s outflow. With nearly effortless nudges from me, the tripod where my camera with its great, big wildlife lens is mounted slides before me. I’ve been at this since first light, moving slow and low. As careful as I’ve been, the otters have already taken notice. An assemblage of Greater Scaup, Common Goldeneyes, two species of mergansers, Canvasbacks and other waterfowl are either hauled out and resting on the edge of the ice or diving the frigid water for fish, clams and aquatic weeds. A pair of Bald Eagles perched on utility poles are taking in the scene, and I’m sure there are foxes – and maybe even a wolf or two – on patrol somewhere in the vicinity. Now I’m close enough to hear the otters snorting, breathing and crunching the bones of the fish they’ve caught. A pair of harbor seals pop their heads above water, survey the goings on, and quietly resubmerge.

Ice creates both new opportunities and new perils for the various species of the Chignik System. Here Skit, one of several Red Foxes we saw frequently enough to name, barely misses out on a sumptuous repast of Common Goldeneye. (Chignik Lake, February 3, 2017)

In early January of 2017, something happened to Chignik Lake that by local accounts used to happen nearly every winter but hadn’t happened in the past five years: save for a a couple of surface acres near the outflow, it froze solid. Over the ensuing days and weeks, while upwelling subsurface springs continued to keep the water near the outflow open, the lake ice grew thicker and the river itself froze in most places. For humans, foxes and wolves, the effect was to create an ice highway. The impact on waterfowl was to concentrate whatever birds remained in the system into the few patches of open water.

The more or less official book on the Chignik System is that Red-breasted Mergansers are common, and that Common Mergansers are uncommon or rare. While that tends to be true during summertime, we found that during wintertime, particularly during icy winters, Commons (above photo) greatly outnumber Red-breasteds and were in fact, common. Aside from research pertaining to salmon (and to a certain extent, Dolly Varden Char), the Chignik Drainage has been only lightly studied. Each new puzzle piece adds to a fuller picture of this complex ecosystem. (Chignik Lake, March 14, 2017)

As wintery conditions set in, scaup begin to show up on the lake, at times in flocks counted in the dozens. In the 2016-2017 winter, when the lake froze, scaup were fairly abundant. During the relatively mild 2018-2019 winter, scaup occurred less frequently and in smaller numbers. (Chignik Lake, January 3, 2017)

Icy conditions tend to concentrate any remaining waterfowl, making it a good time to look for less common or even rare birds. In a pocket of open water on the Chignik River, three female scaup (facing away from the camera), mill about with a fairly uncommon drake Ring-necked Duck (right) and, in the lower left, a somewhat rare visitor from Asia, a female Tufted Duck. 

Ice changes relationships among animals and creates new theater. I watched for several minutes as this River Otter used his catch (a flounder) to taunt a pair of eagles. The drama ended when one of the eagles took wing and made a half-hearted attempt to catch the otter, a maneuver the sleek fellow easily avoided by slipping back into the water. Resigned, the eagles flew off and the otter gnawed away at his catch. (Chignik Lake, January 25, 2017)

There always seem to be at least a few Harbor Seals somewhere in the freshwater lakes and river of the Chignik System. Here, a group haul out on ice to catch some rays. Events such as this are no doubt of great interest to the area’s wolves, as occasionally the pinnipeds get trapped on solid ice with no escape route. The foreground birds are male Common Goldeneyes – menaces in their own right to local sculpin and stickleback populations. (February 3, 2017)

Some of the preceding photos might give one a less than accurate picture of wintertime at The Lake. Chignik is an Alutiiq word meaning “Big Winds,” a suiting epithet. Weather bullying its way from one side of the Alaska Peninsula to the other can be formidable. Here a group of female Common Mergansers hunker down on an ice point to wait out fierce winds and snow. (January 6, 2016)

A Pacific Loon shakes of snow out on The Lake. (January 13, 2018)

As wintertime conditions change in coming years, those of us interested in wildlife of all kinds will want to keep our eyes sharp for commensurate changes in flora and fauna. In this global study, the role of citizen scientist has never been more important. Every well-documented backyard feeder, walk along local trails, and note of what is – and isn’t – nesting in hedgerows and elsewhere is a unique, vital data point.

loon silhouette

Previous Article: Birds of Chignik: Green-winged Teal – Bantam-weight Duck

Next Article: Greater Scaup

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.

Birds of Chignik Lake: Brant – the Goose that Was Once a Fish (sort of)

No white patch on cheek, white necklace, short bill, a constant, chatty murmur as opposed to the more distinctive honking associated with Canada and Cackling Geese… Brant!. For awhile during spring, wave upon wave of these migrants can be heard passing over The Lake. (May 5, 2018)

At The Lake, we slept with our bedroom window cracked open in all but most inclement weather. Nighttime sounds included Harbor Seals chasing down Silver Salmon, Brown Bears scavenging the beach, waves lapping the shore, hooting owls and – for a few nights in spring and fall – flocks of migrating geese.

To get a look at Chignik Lake’s migrating Brant, you need a bit of luck with timing (late April through mid May are best), clear skies or high cloud cover, and a good pair of binoculars or a long camera lens. With few exceptions, they’re up there, though David Narver reported them as “occasional” on the river. Birders seriously intent on getting a good look at this species would do well to check out Izembek National Wildlife Reserve way down at the big toe of the Alaska Peninsula. More than 90 percent of the Brant population that utilizes the Pacific flyway – along with half the world’s Emperor Geese – stop here each fall. That’s about 150,000 Brant and tens of thousands of Emperor Geese. (Note to self: go to Izembek!)

Here’s a little better look at Brant in flight. They’re fairly abundant near Point Hope, Alaska, which is situated within their breeding range. (Point Hope, Alaska, September 1, 2013)

Among Brants’ favorite forage is Eel Grass. As Chignik Lagoon continues to grow more silted-in and Eel Grass beds there expand, it will be interesting to see if in the future Brant begin to utilize this area. So why, as Brant feed extensively on Eel Grass, is their specific name “bernicla” (barnacle)? It was formerly believed that certain geese were spontaneously generated from barnacles. In fact, until fairly recently the Catholic Church permitted Catholics to eat these geese on Fridays as they counted as fish. See: Wikipedia.

The shifting forms flocks of geese glide in and out of invite a wandering imagination. With Sockeye Salmon soon to ascent the river, these Brant seem to be pointing the way. (May 3, 2018)

Brant Range Map: with permission from The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World

Brant Branta bernicla
Order: Anseriformes
Family: Anatidae
Branta: Latinized Old Norse Brandgás = burnt-black goose
bernicla: from the Latin for barnacle

Status at Chignik Lake, 2016-19: Spring & Fall migrant seen and heard flying in flocks

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Rare on Chignik River

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Uncommon in Spring; Common in Fall; Absent in Summer & Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Presence Documented

Previous Article: Cackling Goose (Aleutian Form) – Picture a Canada Goose with a White Necklace

Next Article: Mallard

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.

 

The Loons of Chignik Lake

Beneath calm, blue skies a group of Common Loons cruise The Lake on a morning in late summer. In addition to Commons, I frequently encountered Pacific Loons. Yellow-billed Loons showed up two of three years, and just one Red-breasted Loon, which David Narver had reported as occasional in his earlier study, made an appearance in those years. Perhaps the estuary or the headwaters at Black Lack would have been a more productive place to look for the latter two species. (Photo: August 20, 2016)

Loons of The Lake

Of all the wild creatures which still persist in the land, despite settlement and civilization, the Loon seems best to typify the untamed savagery of the wilderness.
Edward Howe Forbush, Game Birds, Wild-Fowl and Shore Birds, 1916

Often solitary, mysterious and romantically wild, it seems fitting that this project should begin with genus Gaviidae, the loons. We encountered our initial Chignik loons, a group of four Commons, in early August shortly after our arrival at The Lake. We had made our first hike to the mouth of Clarks River, three miles along quad trails that cut through willow and alder thickets and across rolling tundra, berry bogs and savannah-like meadows. Fireweed, yarrow, geranium and goldenrod were in full bloom, and electric flashes of yellow darting through brushy thickets offered tell-tale signs that warblers hadn’t yet migrated south. Along the way we took note of ripening blueberries, sampled the last of the salmonberries and measured our boots against the tracks of the Chignik’s massive Brown Bears – some of the largest in the world, we had read. Salmon parr flashed in air-clear pools at stream crossings and the prints of foxes, moose, wolves and Sandhill Cranes gave evidence that we were hardly alone in this sweeping landscape rimmed by snow-capped mountains.

Walking in the footsteps of giants. (September 24, 2017)

Two miles into the hike the trail curved down to a sandy lakeside beach. With huge paw prints coursing up and down the shoreline, the beach had the appearances of a Brown Bear superhighway. Vibrations transmitted through the sand by our own footsteps set the shoreline water into rippling motion as schools of salmon flipped their caudal fins and scurried for the safety of deeper water. Out on the lake, a pair of harbor seals popped up and gave us studied looks before slowly sinking out of sight.

This is amazing! we agreed.

Like River Otters, Red Foxes, and Black-capped Chickadees, ever-curious Harbor Seals can’t seem to help but pop up for a look when something new comes into their domain. Chignik Lake’s seals are not strictly lacustrine as tis the Lake Iliamna population. However, in nearly every month there seem to be a few around. (March 9, 2019)

And then we spotted them: loons! Swimming together as they worked along the shoreline and occasionally diving to feed, they seemed unconcerned by our presence . At the time, the notion of making a multi-year study of The Lake’s birds was only barely beginning to form in my mind, and, as luck would have it, I had not brought my camera along on the six-mile round trip hike. Too bad. August was young and the birds were still wearing their distinctive chess-board breeding plumage. Their bright red eyes caught the sunlight as we watched through binoculars.

And then an odd thing happened. The loons began swimming closer to us. And closer. It was as though they were curious. We’ve had foxes, coyotes, otters, ermine, bears, whales, porpoises, Salmon Sharks and even a wolf engage in this behavior, and anyone who has spent time around chickadees knows that they often can’t help themselves from coming in to examine whatever has come into their territory. But loons? The very symbol of wilderness mystique? This was a new one for us. Soon, we no longer needed our binoculars. Even a simple pocket camera might have recorded a decent photograph. The soft morning light was perfect. Barely a ripple creased the lake’s calm surface.

As I bemoaned the fact that I had nothing to shoot with, Barbra consoled me with words of wisdom.

Just pet the whale.

Pet the whale… Nat. Geo. photographer Joel Sartore’s advice to sometimes set the camera aside and enjoy the moment you’re in. What a moment it was. Welcome to Chignik Lake.

Fireweed gone to seed. August 19, 2016.

Previous Article: The Chigniks – Avian Diversity and Change in a Remote, Unique Environment

Coming Next: Red-throated Loon

*For a clickable list of bird species and additional information about this project, click here: Birds of Chignik Lake

© Photographs, images and text by Jack Donachy unless otherwise noted.

Portrait of a Sailor in Morning Light


Enjoying piping hot noodles and charcoal-broiled smelt with Cass on an iced-over lake near Mt. Fuji, c. 1983

Each one of us here today will at one time in our lives look upon a loved one who is in need and ask the same question: We are willing to help, Lord, but what, if anything, is needed? For it is true we can seldom help those closest to us. Either we don’t know what part of ourselves to give or, more often than not, the part we have to give is not wanted. And so it is those we live with and should know who elude us. But we can still love them – we can love completely without complete understanding.
                                               ― Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

     —————————————————————————–

It is a condition of the human heart that we sometimes are given to invest deeply in friends and lovers who show potential for being who we want them to be, but who in reality aren’t there. And so we allow ourselves to imagine them as we wish them, teased along by hints and flashes of those things we desire. I think all of us who knew him thought of him this way. We each had an image of who we wanted him to be, and sometimes we allowed ourselves to believe that that is who he was. I wanted him to be an Edward Hopper diner on a quiet corner at 2:00 AM lit by a single streetlamp, fingertips stained with New York Times newsprint, a bowl of hot chili topped with pungent freshly diced onions, a cup of black coffee, a sailor’s dress whites, a table at some hole-in-the-wall in a Philippine barrio, early morning, a warm bottle of Coke, the sun already turning the day balmy and full of promise…

     —————————————————————————–

A Sailor’s Lullaby

As far as I could determine, Cass’s sole preparatory measure for shifting from life as a sailor stationed in Japan to becoming a private citizen living in country was to stock Aleck’s futon closet with hard liquor at U.S. Navy Exchange prices. But with Aleck’s help, he found a job teaching English to Japanese businessmen and housewives, a gig he met each day with a combination of indifference, resignation and disdain. The work was not difficult, it paid decently, and he ended up staying with the language school that first hired him for about five years. In that time, he mastered enough Japanese to call out “Excuse me!” and to order whiskey and water on ice. All other communication needs were addressed through a combination of speaking English slowly and loudly or through hand gestures. So, for example, he’d walk into a noodle shop, look around, and call out “Sumimasen!” Once he had the attention of a cook or waitress, he’d point at a bowl a customer was dining from and then to himself – to his own nose, specifically – and sit down. Witnessing him use hand gestures to ask for deodorant in a pharmacy was… memorable. His dread fear of having to deal with Japanese barbers became legendary.

Japanese society can be rather insular, and although the residents of that country are kind and polite, it generally takes a while to get comfortable living among them. Cass stayed with it though, and by the time he left he had worked his way down the coast from Yokohama to Tsu and modestly up his language company’s pay scale. He found a spacious older house on Mikawa Bay and was driving up to Nagoya to put in approximately 20 hours of teaching each week.

In addition to teaching English, he was doing a bit of grill cooking at a small restaurant run by an American, and he claims he was pulling down another 300,000 yen a month–a handsome chunk of money–as a carpenter’s helper installing aluminum siding on houses. His stories about the money he was making were undoubtedly embellished, but it is a fact that he was beginning to enjoy a comfortable life. He’d even allowed himself get serious about a woman. It surprised all of us when he abruptly left, though as it turned out a couple of years later, he was not yet done with Japan. Other stories for other times, perhaps.

For now, he went back to his hometown in upstate New York, confident he’d left a bridge or two unburned there and certain he could get a good job. The year was 1991, so Cass was about 38. Unfortunately it turned out that the most agreeable employment he could procure was as a temporary with Kelly Secretarial Services. Cass became a “Kelly Girl.” Through their agency, he landed a job in a Metro Life Insurance mailroom where he was tasked with heaving heavy bags of correspondence around between stints at a computer typing in clients’ addresses. For this, he earned the not-very-princely sum of five dollars an hour which, if you do the math, you’ll see works out to an annual salary of… next to nothing. To supplement his income, he signed up with the local navy reserve unit, and thus one weekend each month allowed himself to be subjected to whatever his commanding officer considered to be a worthwhile use of time.

He was building a frail house of cards and it came crashing down when, while on military maneuvers in the woods with his navy reserve unit (?!), he tore up his ankle. So much for his career throwing around mail bags. The navy paid for reconstructive surgery and gave him a few thousand dollars in compensation. After that, he returned to Japan, married the woman mentioned above, and used his navy settlement money to help her open a bar and grill.

None of it lasted…

…I had known Cass in better times. Jet black hair, broad shoulders, slightly raised cheekbones and strong, steady hands, he was older than me and always in control. He knew more than I did, important things about literature, about drinking, about life. The first time my wife Maki met him, which was long before I met her, he impressed her as being among that dying breed we used to call “a gentleman.”

I can’t remember which lake it was, but midwinter while we were serving aboard the USS Blue Ridge, Cass and I traveled to one of the five lakes that form a loose semi-circle around Mount Fuji. We didn’t do much. We just went up to be off the ship and to look around. It snowed almost the entire time we were there, big, feathery pieces of frozen down and the lake itself was locked beneath a solid white blanket. Fishermen were cutting holes in the ice and jigging for smelt. Lucky ones were occasionally pulling out a trout.

We stayed in a minshuku, a small, family-run inn Cass had booked. From the inn we walked the mile or two along a mountain road into the local village, the name of which, like the lake, I have long since forgotten. Along the way we slid open the wood and glass door of a tiny restaurant, ducked our heads and went inside for a bowl of hot noodles and a broiled fish. The proprietress seemed surprised at a couple of foreigners, but she smiled and with a kerosene heater stoking the room it was a good place to warm up. After the meal we settled the bill, went back out into the snow and the calm, and continued walking and talking, our misty breaths hanging in the winter air. Eventually we managed to find a bar.

It had been good, just to be out walking in the snow with more coming down, smoking cigarettes and talking about the navy, the future, writers we liked, and life in Japan.

Cass chose the bar.

I’m probably misremembering it, have probably made it more than it actually was. But I recall that it was up on the second floor of a building facing the village’s lightly traveled main street. We took seats at the end of the bar, and from a picture window spanning most of a wall to our right we could see the lights of the streets, other businesses and further out houses, the frozen lake illuminated in those lights. It was a good place to drink.

Two young women were working there. I didn’t know much Japanese, but it was clear that they were talking about Cass, and I didn’t need any language to know they were discussing what a sharp figure he cut. I was a little jealous. And I was proud of him. I was proud to be his friend and honored that we were up in that bar together, enjoying the Scotch and the cigarettes and the warmth and the good conversation while snow piled up outside.

I have been fortunate in my life to have had maybe a handful of thoroughly perfect days, and that was one of them. It was late by the time the bar closed. By now the snow had stopped and our heads cleared in the crisp winter air as we began walking up the street toward the inn.

Close to the village the lake was still lighted by street lamps. Ice skaters decked in colorful parkas, scarves and hats had shoveled the snow off of a cove, their soft voices, gentle laughter and the click and glide of their metal skates on ice clean and quiet against the night. A cab pulled up next to us, snow crunching under its tires. The rear door swung open and we decided to make it easy on ourselves. The driver turned toward us and spoke. Cass stated the name of the minshuku, the driver replied with a sharp hai, nodded and began driving.

Back in our room we had another drink and then crawled into our futons. For awhile we talked about the evening, the bar, the young women working there, the possibility of coming back in spring to fish the lake. Eventually the conversation drifted into musings about what our lives would look like when our enlistments were up, pleasant thoughts. Pleasant dreams.

* * * * * *

You know how it is. The scent of kerosene, the little song a tent zipper makes, even, perhaps, a specific slant of light… There is a certain music a frozen boardwalk makes as you walk along it that, I understand now, will always transport me back to Chignik Lake, and I cannot take in the aroma of a sweet potato baking without finding myself in the home where Maki grew up, an image of her mother bustling about in the kitchen. Our minds contain synapses wired to memories that the slightest touchstone can trigger…

And so it was yesterday as I was rereading the story above. Our iPod was plugged into a brick-sized Bose speaker next to my desk. I was mostly ignoring the music until a rendition of a well-known song in which the dulcet tones of Chris Botti’s trumpet accompanied Mark Knopfler’s vocals. I broke from my reading to listen, not sure why this particular song was holding me until Knopfler came to a gentle line that flooded over me and took me back to a place and a day and a small moment in that day…

…Maki was early in her pregnancy with Maia and the English language company I’d been gainfully employed with chose that juncture in my life to close its doors, dismiss all employed there, and leave me frustrated, angry and a bit desperate. It was August, hot as blazes by mid-morning and humid enough to make every stitch of clothing down to my socks uncomfortable… Back of my neck getting dirty and gritty as I pounded the streets of Tokyo in a damp t-shirt and cloying tie and jacket.

Doors close. Doors open. That’s the only way to look at such matters, so I had set my sights high, determined to turn my situation into an opportunity to make more money for less work with a better company.

Two interviews the previous day had gone only so-so. Maybe I’d get an offer in a day or two. Maybe I wouldn’t. But it was a new day and in the morning’s final hour I was walking out the door from an interview with the best of the three companies where I’d been offered a position on the spot. Half the hours, a shorter work year, more pay and they were even willing to spring for an apartment on the shores of one of Japan’s top bass-fishing venues.

In that instant, the interviews and outcomes from the previous day became irrelevant. I shook hands, first with the owner, then with the head teacher, then all around.

Head up. One foot in front of the other. Keep at it. Sometimes things work out.

It was broiling hot and I could imagine – and could imagine I could feel – the grime accumulating around the inside of the collar of my white cotton shirt as I followed the crowded sidewalk back to the subway station. But as the weight from the recent days lifted, I began feeling high. I needed a drink, just to get straight.

I ducked into a modestly sized establishment and stood for a moment in the air-conditioned comfort of the place while my eyes took in a clean room of unoccupied wooden chairs and tables. It was pleasant.

A woman appeared. My Japanese was barely sufficient to make out that she wouldn’t be serving food until later.

I fumbled around for the vocabulary to convey to her that it was OK, that I just wanted a beer.

She motioned with her hand that the seat was my choice.

Sometimes I think that I never loved Maki, but when I think of that day, I’m reminded that I did, very much, though not in the way I allowed myself to love Jane and, later, to love and be loved by Barbra.

I didn’t know very much about any of that back then. But I loved Maki and I was glad to have good news to bring to her. I knew she’d be proud of me, and relieved, and happy for me for the part about the fishing.

As the first beer began to even me out, I pulled a pen from my briefcase and began writing on a paper napkin. I don’t remember what I wrote… probably a few lines of poetry. When I finished the first beer, I motioned for another and in short order a second big, icy mug of Kirin lager was set before me. Those were the two best beers of my life.

It felt good to be drinking late in the morning, everyone else at work, dealing with the heat and schedules and people. Drinking like that is a kind of freedom I suspect few people are permitted – or permit themselves – to enjoy. I was lucky. I knew I was lucky.

Music began playing quietly through speakers situated around the restaurant. I put my pen down and let it wash over me – all of it, the pleasant alcohol buzz, the music, the coolness, the new job, marriage, a baby on the way. It might sound strange, but I barely knew Louis Armstrong’s What a Wonderful World. Suddenly I was aware of it playing in the background. When he sang the lines…

I see friends shaking hands, saying, How do you do?
They’re really saying, I love you.

…I thought of Cass. My father had told me about the importance of a good handshake. He had even shown me how to do it with a firm grip and solid eye contact in a formal manner.

But it was Cass who taught me how to shake hands in friendship. Same firm grip my father had instructed me in, same importance placed on eye contact. But all of it allowed to linger an immeasurable moment longer, and all the shoulders-held-high breath-sucked-in formality dispelled with.

In Cass’s teaching, you simply let go. You offered a hand, or took a hand offered, you shook, and you permitted yourself to express sentiments such as “Good to see you.” “Good to be talking with you.” Good to be drinking with you.” and “Friend.”

He had moved beyond the transactional formula men are taught as boys and replaced it with art… something to be experienced, felt, moved by. There were times when I thought of Cass as a genius, or at at the very least of possessing within him genius. I was not alone in this thinking. I doubt any friend of Cass’s experienced one of his handshakes and ever again thought of the thing as he had BC… Before Cass.

He taught me how to shake hands, and how to drink whiskey, and he had been the first person with whom it was satisfying to discuss literature, and dreams. I found myself thinking that among all the people I knew or had ever known, he would appreciate the moment I was in – drinking early in a cool bar on a beastly hot day, free, for a little while, alone… happily, gloriously alone, the future unknown, unknowable, promising, bright.

My friend… Cass.

What we need is not the ability to live longer. What we need is the ability to live multiple lives simultaneously.              – Cass C. Swider, c. 1953 – 2020

JD
Newhalen, Alaska

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.