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

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

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

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

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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. 

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.