Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Triplets

Chignik Lake Brown Bear Cubs
Triplets

The hundreds of thousands of salmon ascending the Chignik River each year nourish everything from bears to birds to berries. Each gleaming Pink, Red, Silver, Chum and King returning to its natal spawning grounds might be thought of as a nutritional brick – keystones to the fecundity and biodiversity of the Chignik drainage. All of us can support healthy salmon ecosystems – and the bears, eagles, orcas and other wildlife that depend on wild salmon – by making a commitment to not consume farmed salmon and to instead purchase wild-caught salmon. While it is true that wild-caught salmon generally costs more than farmed salmon, by purchasing wild fish value is accorded to the clean, free-flowing rivers they need in order to thrive. Think of the extra money spent as a contribution to these triplets and similar wildlife. And remember: If it doesn’t say “wild” on the market label or restaurant menu, the salmon is farmed. Almost all Atlantic Salmon in the marketplace – certainly all that is sold in the U. S. – is farmed.

The living room, dining room and bedroom windows of our home sit just 30 yards from a sandy beach on Chignik Lake. From June through September, Brown Bear sightings are virtually daily events. Even on the few days when we don’t actually see any Brownies on this bear thoroughfare, we find evidence of them in the form of freshly cast footprints. With so many bears in such close proximity to our house, Barbra and I can often get good photographic captures from our windows – safe for us and safe for the bears. Such was the case on June 22, 2020 when we noticed a familiar sow with her triplets on the beach. (Nikon D850, 600mm f/4, 1/250 at f/6.3, ISO 500)

Chignik Lake in 29 Photos: Bursting

Chignik Lake Fiddlehead FernBursting

Seasonally, the Chignik calendar for spring, summer, winter and fall fits well with the actual dates of winter and summer solstice and spring and autumn equinox. So, while back in my native western Pennsylvania I thought of summertime as starting at the beginning of June, here at The Lake it doesn’t feel like summer until Chinook Salmon begin to enter the river in late June. The main exception to this view of seasonality at the Lake is that our summers are a bit truncated. Autumn comes early.

I made this photograph on June 4, 2019 on a hike to Clarks River – a trek made memorable by our first bear sighting of the year. With the school year having finished weeks ago, we had been going out every day, soaking up as much of our beloved countryside as possible before our scheduled move to Newhalen later in June. Chignik Lake’s school enrollment had dropped below 10 students; the school board had voted to close the school and transfer Barbra. A strange mix of springtime joy and melancholy stirred within our hearts. We did not want to move. But perhaps the understanding that we soon would be leaving created in us a deeper appreciation for the beauty we were surround by.

Willows had just begun to leaf out, and the year’s first flowers were emerging – salmonberries, wild geranium, pink lousewort, delicate purple violets, cinquefoil and lupine. Heavy buds hung from iris and chocolate lily stems. Fireweed was just beginning to push up through the soil in thin red shoots. Our avian spring migrants had returned, and the hike was alive with the songs and calls of swallows, thrushes, sparrows, warblers, yellowlegs, gulls and cranes. Just a few days prior, on May 28, Donny had caught the year’s first Sockeye Salmon in his net. Eagles had begun to post sentinels along the river, watching for more fish to arrive. My memory of the hike is of warmth, but I can see from a photo I took of Barbra that we were still wearing substantial coats and gloves.

While Barbra was photographing alder catkins, (the long, golden-yellow flowers that hang from male trees), I turned my attention to the tightly furled fiddlehead ferns in the above photo. My mind was more on birds than plants, so I had affixed my wildlife lens to my camera and had even attached a teleconverter. But when I looked through the viewfinder, I liked the image so I composed the shot. There’s nothing like a long lens for creating bokeh. (Nikon D850, Nikkor 600 mm + 2.0 TC = 1200 mm, 1/25 at f8, ISO 650)

Birds of Chignik Lake: Willow Ptarmigan – Once Abundant at The Lake; Now Nearly a Cryptid

Willow Ptarmigan male

Hmm… I wore white slacks something like these to my high school senior prom. I think they are better suited to this dapper male Willow Ptarmigan. While on a backcountry backpacking excursion in Denali National Park a few years ago, we had an opportunity to observe and photograph Willows in frame-filling portraits like this. The male’s “potato! potato! potato!” call woke us each morning in a breathtaking landscape we shared with carpets of wildflowers, rushing glacial rivers, Grizzlies, Dall’s Sheep, Caribou, Moose, Wolves and Wolverines. (Denali National Park, June 9, 2017)

In choosing photographs for this project, I try to use pictures taken of local birds and, to the extent possible, to use my own captures. At the same time, I strive to select at least one photo for the article that clearly depicts characteristic markings and coloration of that species. Sometimes that’s not possible. I have yet to get any photograph at all of the Gyrfalcons that occasionally cruise through our valley. Clear captures of a few other species I’ve positively ID’d have eluded me as well – Northern Harriers gliding in an unphotographable distance, a Saw-whet Owl who evaded being photographed through high winds and rainstorms and his own secretive habits during a brief visit to our village being among examples.

Willow Ptarmigan nest eggs

We startled ptarmigan from their nests several times while hiking through willow thickets in Denali. The best procedure is to give the nest a respectable berth and continue hiking, but on this occasion I took the opportunity to snap a quick photo – with a telephoto lens and not disturbing the vegetation surrounding the well-concealed eggs. The hen soon returned. Willows may lay as few as four or as many as 14 inch-and-a-half to two-inch eggs. (Denali National Park, June 7, 2017)

The Willow Ptarmigan presents a somewhat different challenge.

We’ve never seen one here at The Lake. Or anywhere near The Lake.

Nor heard one, though we are familiar with their calls.

Nor found their scat, though we know what that looks like and have searched likely places for it.

willow ptarmigan scat

Willow Ptarmigan scat… in case you were wondering… (Denali National Park, June 14, 2017)

No one else has seen a clue of this species around here in recent years either, though everyone agrees that they were once abundant. “We used to sometimes find them in the swamp (marsh) right in the center of the village,” a guy my age told me. “Yeah, they used to be everywhere,” another friend observed. “Especially around Black River and Upper Lake.”

Not anymore. Whether they were locally shot out (they are famously unwary), overcome by  disease or simply no longer find the habitat here suitable is uncertain. In recent years they have been absent, and there are enough eyes looking out for them that if any were around, it would be known.

Willow Ptarmigan unwary

They’re not guarding nests. They’re not tame. They haven’t been baited. They’re just Willow Ptarmigan being Willow Ptarmigan, and as Barbra could as easily be approaching with a 20 gauge shotgun as with a camera, they’re illustrating a susceptibility to being locally extirpated by hunters. They aren’t merely “dumb.” Ptarmigan have been known to exhibit playful behavior with each other and they’re well adapted to the harsh environments they thrive in. But perhaps they trust the camouflaging qualities of their plumage – which becomes white during wintertime – a little too much. (Point Hope, Alaska, September 2, 2013)

And then, just a few weeks ago one morning while Barbra and I were out exploring after a fresh carpet of snow had been lain down, there they were. Not the birds themselves, but tracks. Unmistakable. Miniature three-toed snowshoes gently pressed into the powdery snow. Ptarmigan. No cryptozoologist on the trail of Bigfoot could have felt their heart soar higher than did ours at the finding. We stood rock still and listened. We watched, our eyes peering as far up the trail as we could see and into every little pocket and open space along the way searching for movement, a dark eyeball, anything. We quietly followed the tracks, not even daring to whisper till they abruptly disappeared. We continued our hunt in ever broadening circles, eyes sharp for a bird we knew would be as white as the snow itself this time of year.

No birds.

Yet.

But maybe they’re coming back. Oh, happy day!*

Willow Ptarmigan hen on nest

The portent of good things to come – and a scene we’d like to find near The Lake: a Willow hen brooding her eggs. Members of the grouse family, Willows are the only grouse species in which the males regularly assist in raising the young. (Denali National Park, June 8, 2017)

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

Willow Ptarmigan Lagopus lagopus
Order: Galliformes
Lagopus: Ancient Greek Lagos = hare + pous = foot: hare foot, for its heavily feathered feet which, as with hares, allows the ptarmigan to more easily walk on snow
lagopus: as per genus definition above

Status at Chignik Lake: Now rare, but as Willow Ptarmigan are seen elsewhere on the Alaska Peninsula, could repopulate in the future

David Narver, Birds of the Chignik River Drainage, summers 1960-63: Common around Chignik Lake; Abundant around Black Lake

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

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

*From Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2. Bardolph: “Oh Happy Day! I wouldn’t even trade a knighthood for my new, good fortune.”

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik: Western Sandpiper – Elegance in a Tiny Being

Rufous scapulars and golden-brown highlights make the Western Sandpiper among our prettiest little shorebirds. Check out the tiny spoon at the tip of this little sandpiper’s down-curved bill. Such elegant detail in a tiny being. (Chignik River, July 24, 2020)

We had irregularly been encountering flocks of anywhere from dozens to perhaps a couple hundred small shorebirds on fishing trips to Devil’s Flats. Obsessed with putting flies in front of salmon and char, I had difficulty breaking away to attempt photographs of the little peeps. But as days passed and July headed toward August, I knew I’d better get with it before the visitors migrated out.

Chignik River Western Sandpiper

I am occasionally taken aback with photographic evidence of just how modest some of my field estimations of numbers in flocks can be. I’d been saying “dozens” when we encountered these sandpipers, but there are well over 100 birds spilling out of this frame and there are still more birds in a separate flock nearby. If you’ve got a screen large enough to not result in eyestrain, it might be interesting to see how many birds you come up with in the above picture. (Photo by Barbra Donachy, Chignik River, July 24, 2020)

Yet, even equipped with the right photographic equipment and good intentions, it wasn’t until the evening of a day late in July that Barbra and I finally got our shots. The fishing had been good, but the birds had been no-shows. We’d called it a day and were heading back to the skiff when the peeps finally arrived. Suddenly 200 or so birds were winging their way up the river, heading straight for the gravel shores of the island where we’d beached Buster. We immediately dropped our fishing gear into a loose pile and began setting up to shoot as the birds lit down along the rocky shoreline.

western sandpipers chignik river

At an average length of just 6½ inches – only a quarter of an inch larger than a junco – these birds presented us with the usual challenges in photographing, wary, tiny, ever-moving wild birds. We found that by crawling slowly and keeping vegetation between ourselves and the feeding sandpipers – tufts of tall grass, burdock, willows – we could approach fairly close without disturbing them. For a short while, they scurried through the river shallows and rocks bobbing their heads and feeding frenetically. At times they appeared to be using their bills to pick something minute from the water’s surface; at other times they jabbed and probed between rocks; and at still other times they seemed to use their bills as a small plows, pushing them forward to stir up the silty bottom, chirping and cheeping with enthusiasm at the smorgasbord they were finding. For a little while, there was quite a lot of busy activity.

And then they did something that astonished us. Almost as one, the feeding stopped, the chattering quieted, and the little birds seemed to disappear. Before we knew it, most of them had nestled into comfortable places among the rocks, tucked their bills beneath a wing, and closed their eyes. I’d never considered shorebirds roosting after a meal as do other birds, but of course they must. Had we not known the birds were there, I doubt we’d have noticed them. Suddenly, the many times I’d been walking along a shoreline and was startled by a flock of peeps exploding into flight practically under my feet came into focus. Even a falcon passing overhead might miss these birds at rest. It is their movement that gives them away.

western sandpiper sleeping Chignik River

Of course, not all of the birds slept at once. Always a few remained vigilant, continuing to feed and looking about them as they did. However, we’d learned something that day, and on subsequent outings we tested ourselves by carefully looking over the ground near any actively feeding birds. At times we were able to find additional birds that were roosting, birds that in the past we would have missed.

Western Sandpipers flight Chignik River

We stayed with the shoot as long as we could, but by the end the sunlight had gone from this part of the river and a chill was seeping into the air. Who knows what prompts avian decisions? At some point the sandpipers lifted into the air and flew back downriver. I read a short essay on how it is that they manage to fly together, banking and turning in unison without colliding into each other. But I still don’t really understand it, which is well enough.

All things come to an end, and so it was with this day. Our Sockeyes for the year had already been caught, cleaned, filleted and freezer-packed, so on this day we had successfully cast to the river’s Dolly Varden Char and Pink Salmon, and whether foul-hooked or fair, a few Reds had found our flies as well. It was early still for Silvers, but we searched anyway and in so doing took note of a few King Salmon which we failed to entice. Jacob’s Ladder, Yellow Monkeyflower and River Beauty were near their peak, signs of active bears were everywhere, and on the way home I got nice photos of our fledgling Rough-legged Hawks.

The range map indicates that these sandpipers are migrants, on their way south after nesting further north. As we’ll be able to begin skiffing the river as early as we want to this coming year, an objective will be to keep a keen eye out for when these birds arrive on The Chignik.

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

Western Sandpiper Calidris mauri
Order: Charadriiformes
Calidris: from Ancient Greek kalidris or skalidris, a term Aristotle used for some gray-colored shorebirds1
mauri: for the Italian botanist Ernesto Mauri

Status at Chignik Lake: Common on Chignik River gravel shorelines and bars for a few weeks in summer

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Common in Spring & Fall; Uncommon in Summer; Not reported in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Click here for the: Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

1From the article “Calidris” in Wikipedia, which sites Jobling, James A (2010). The Helm Dictionary of Scientific Bird Names. London: Christopher Helm. p. 84. ISBN 978-1-4081-2501-4.

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Birds of Chignik: Ruddy Turnstone – Birding, Boating & Procuring Fuel in the Alaska Bush

ruddy turnstone chignikThe Ruddy Turnstone’s harlequinesque plumage might seem impractical – until one finds them in a scene such as this, seamlessly blending in with an array of varicolored seaweeds. (Chignik Lagoon, July 27, 2020)

The village of Chignik Lake was out of gas. It happens from time to time, one of the generally minor inconveniences living in this remote community entails. All of our fuel, gasoline as well as diesel and propane, must be barged or boated upriver from The Bay or The Lagoon. When a handwritten cardboard sign on the village’s lone gasoline pump says “Out,” it’s out. There is nothing to do for it but pick a day when the weather is fair and a high tide makes the river navigable and make a fuel run. With gloriously long summer days upon us and all kinds of wildlife viewing, berry picking, fishing and general exploring beckoning, we needed gas for our hondas and the scow. And so on a favorable daytime tide, we packed the back of the scow with bright red plastic jerry cans and skiffed the six-miles downriver to Chignik Lagoon. And since you never know what you might see along the way, we brought along cameras as well.

It was just before high slack-water when we beached our boat at The Lagoon. Barbra and I carried the first of our jerry cans the short walk up a little slope where we were met at the gas pump by Jeremy. He turned on the pump for us, Barbra phoned our credit card information over to the village office, and after a few trips back and forth we had the tank on our boat as well as all the spare cans filled. No problem.

But you’ve got to keep an eye on the tide.

Chignik Lagoon Ruddy Turnstone

Ruddy Turnstone in non-breeding plumage – possibly a juvenile. (Chignik Lagoon, July 27, 2020)

With our chore behind us, we set about attempting to photograph the shorebirds we’d been noticing. A pair of dippers were flitting in and out from under the hull of a rusty barge on the beach and a few Least Sandpipers were working the shoreline, but a group of shorebirds with rich plumage and brilliant orange legs drew my attention. Although the tide was now dropping, with a jet-drive engine powering our little boat we were confident we’d have no problem making it back upriver. Nonetheless, we should have thought to push it off the beach as the tide pulled away. The double-hulled boat is deceptively heavy; if it doesn’t have water beneath it, it is a bear to move.

I didn’t quite get the photographs I wanted of the Ruddy Turnstones, but I managed some nice documentation shots. It was Barbra who thought of the scow. “We need to get going!” she exclaimed with some alarm in her voice. “Look at the boat!”

It was almost, but not quite, high and dry. Oh boy. This was going to be work. Fortunately a passerby happened along on his honda. As is almost always the case around here, upon seeing our plight he jumped off and lent a hand. Inch by inch we swung the bow seaward. We said thanks, pushed off, and Barbra assumed the steering wheel, fired up the engine and we began the return trip toward home, another “learned by error” piece of savvy acquired as we expand our skill-set in this way of life.

Ruddy Turnstone Chignik LagoonAfter a brief stopover at the lagoon, these birds will be on their way south again. New Zealand? Australia? Some seldom seen Pacific Island? The migrations shorebirds and terns undertake boggle the mind… (Chignik Lagoon)

Based on the range map (below), it appears to have been happenstance that we ran into the Ruddy and Black Turnstones we encountered that day. Ruddy Turnstones that breed in Alaska and Siberia migrate northward from Australia and Pacific islands in spring, then return south via Alaska’s Pribilof Islands, the Aleutians and the Alaska Peninsula. So these were post-breeding migrants. As is the case with Semipalmated Plovers, the adults embark on the southerly migration first; the chicks don’t fledge until after the adults have departed and are therefore left to make the journey over many thousands of miles of the vast Pacific Ocean on their own.

How do they know where to go?

As their name indicates, turnstones employ their wedge-shaped bills to upend pebbles and other debris as they search for invertebrates. When nesting, insects, particularly mosquitoes and midges, figure heavily in their diet, but they also consume berries, vegetation and even carrion and the eggs of other birds.

This is a species in decline. Coastal development, plastic pollution and overfished horseshoe crab populations (some turnstones rely on horseshoe crab eggs as a major food source during migration) are among the culprits. The horseshoe crabs, in case you’re wondering, are used as conch and eel bait by commercial fishermen. Seems a waste… as are plastic bags, plastic bottles, and discarded cigarette butts.

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

Ruddy Turnstone Arenaria interpres
Order: Charadriiformes
Arenaria: Latin arenarius. arena = sand; inhabiting sand
interpres: Latin for messenger

Status at Chignik Lake: Occasional as a post-breeding migrant along the shorelines of Chignik Lagoon and Chignik Bay

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

Alaska Peninsula and Becharof National Wildlife Refuge Bird List, 2010:
Uncommon in Spring & Fall; Rare in Summer; Not reported in Winter

Aniakchak National Monument and Preserve Bird List: Present

Table of Contents and Complete List of Birds of Chignik Lake

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

For a list of reference materials used in this project, see: Birds of Chignik Lake

Take a Honda Tour of Chignik Lake, Alaska

As part of a project we’ve been working on, we’ve decided to take interested readers on a tour of our village. So Barbra put a GoPro on her head, fired up her Honda, and we went on a short land cruise. I’ve feathered in a few photos to provide an idea of what The Lake looks like when it’s not an icy-cold, winter-brown November day (when we made the video).

Imagining something you love through another’s eyes can be… well, eye-opening. It struck us how “empty” our village might seem to folks who take things like stores, government buildings, traffic signs, and bustling sidewalks (or any sidewalks) for granted. So, rather than the vibrance of an urban community, imagine instead the rhythms and energy of a community where you know everyone – literally, everyone. Where, instead of watching for oncoming traffic, you watch for ambling brown bears. And where the small community store is a convenience, but in reality your freezer is stocked with salmon from the nearby river, halibut, cod and crab from the nearby sea, moose and caribou from the surrounding land, and gallon upon gallon of hand-picked blueberries, raspberries and wild cranberries.

Enjoy the video and let us know what you think! (Oh, by the way, did I mention we have a position open for a health aide?!)

Silver to Gold: October Fly-fishing on the Chignik

male Coho Salmon Chignik River Alaska

Sea-green shoulders gone to bronze, sliver flanks tinted rose – October on the Chignik

Chignik River Alaska

Found the hint of a honda trail overgrown with willow, alder. Hacked it open with anvil loppers and a handsaw, rode in as far as possible, parked, hiked to the crest of a hill blanketed in moss-like crowberry and ankle-high low-bush blueberry, tiny leaves candy-apple crimson, took in the view. Bear trail worn deep into the berry flat. Centuries? Millennia? Willow and alder thick, had to stoop, then crawl. Small creek, nearly hidden, then the bear trail again. Bear scat packed with berries, disc-like salmon vertebrae. Paw prints. Large, medium, small cubs. Otter scat. Fox scat. The river. Gulls crying, eagles gliding, kingfishers rattling, so many salmon ascending the shallow riffles, their splashing like a cataract. Retraced steps. Hacked out the trail thinking of fly rods, camera gear, companions. Fresh bear pile at the trailhead – must’ve heard or smelled this human and turned back. Morning’s work.

Fireweed Cotton

Next morning. Frost, fly rods, icy fingers. We pause on the hill crest, listen for bears, watch the brush below for movement. Breathe deeply. Sift the damp air in cold noses for bear scent, tap cans of pepper spray secured in wading belt holsters. Mist curling, rising, sun peeking over mountains. Gulls, kingfishers, magpies, chickadees, downy woodpecker. Thin, wispy murmurings… kinglets? Interludes of silence. Near silence. Always the gentle language of the river, primal score to everything here, song. New bear scat, prints punctuated by five sharp claw marks piercing ice-laced mud by the creek.
   Creek mouth, muddy cove. More bear tracks a foot under water. Wade in, cross the channel behind Dolly Island, shoals of startled salmon wake the water into soft, liquid surface folds ahead of us, gulls cry and lift from a rocky bar.

Salmon & Fall Reflection Chignik River Alaska

We follow a bear trail among a maze of bear trails across the island, through fireweed gone to cotton, yellow grasses, russet burdock husks, gray-brown cow parsnip seed crowns sunlit, wet with dew, glistening spider silk. Steamy breaths precede us as we stride toward our place along the stony shoreline. Yellowing cottonwood leaves. We have come here before, always by scow, noisy engine. Different hiking in. Quiet. Intimate. Assemble rods, thread line through guides, choose flies. Looking intently at the water, at first only reflections appear. We relax our vision to see past the surface, into the water, finding bottom. Stones. Then salmon. Lots. Males flanked in crimson, pink, maroon; females tarnished silver, blue metal, coppery backs.

female Coho Salmon Chignik River Alaska

The salmon are plentiful, but catching is not a given. Lifeless, finger-sized fish scattered here and there across algae-slick orange-brown bottom rubble – char, salmon parr, sculpins, sticklebacks. Some bitten through. Most whole. Salmon no longer feeding sometimes snap at small fish in their path, each day in the river teeth growing longer, sharper. Annoyance? Testosterone aggression? Memory of joy cutting through schools of anchovies, sand lances, herring? Or is it something more practical yet more mysterious… an instinct to eliminate whatever might later prey upon the salmon’s progeny, an itch in their jaws only scratched by the snap of a small fish’s spine, a tiny skull crushed?
   Flies are chosen with these thoughts in mind. We lack the decades – or centuries – of accumulated experience some possess. Our choices are guesses. Bright flies. Flies that pulse enticingly in current. Pink, chartreuse, strawberry, plum, marine blues and greens, streamers that sparkle and dart like panicked fish, flies that breathe with rhythm and the illusion of life even when held steady against the current. Double check knots. Flatten barbs. Step into the river as quietly as deer.

Coho Salmon in Fall Color Chignik River Alaska

From the silver of summertime to the colors of autumn… they’re gorgeous fish. It may be true that pound for pound, no species of salmon fights harder than Chinook. Hard to say. The kype-jawed buck Coho in this photo made five spectacular, cartwheeling leaps and two long, blistering runs.

Coho Salmon Pink Popper Fly

Streamers are most effective, but small wet flies and even poppers take fish.

Fly Fishing Coho Salmon Chignik River Alaska

In this, our fourth year on the river, the flats above Devil’s Nose have drawn us. Sockeyes in June and July, Pinks and Kings in July and August, Silvers from August through October. Dolly Varden char whenever salmon are present. Steelhead pass through here. A few. The river is the road connecting the three Chignik Villages; an occasional boat cruises by. Seldom another fisherman, even in summer. In fall seldom becomes rarely.

Coho Salmon Dill Sauce Chignik River Alaska

Winter soon. Months of dark and absence. Fly-fishing days of summer and fall relived over meals of salmon and bottles of wine… It is a time when speculation, plans, hopes for future seasons begin to take form. Newly fledged hawks, baby owls, sows and cubs, massive male bears chasing down spawning Reds, upcountry hikes and flowers, the wolverine at the mouth of Bear Creek, the big Chinook we saw lace reflections together.

Fly Fishing Salmon Chignik River

Terminal dust – summit snow marking the end of summer. A cloud you might surf, if only… Alders clinging to green, willows giving themselves to gold. Shafts of sunlight illuminate a shaded pool. Illuminating salmon. False cast to measure the distance. Back cast to load the rod as a powerful spring, then the forward cast. Quick, calm upriver mend. Strip, strip, strip… Eyes searching for the bit of purple and flash pulsing at the end of the leader. Scarlet flank catches the light as a buck salmon turns to follow. Anticipation pulls knees into a crouch. Lean forward, hopeful. Line abruptly taut. Quick strip followed by another to be sure, rod lifted into a satisfying arc, alive, water erupting in a geyser. Mind suddenly empty, free, thought vanished except for this moment of being. October on the Chignik.

Devil's Flats Chignik River

*   Upriver   *

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 arrive 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 that 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 small, only inches above thick, spongy mats of the 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 our present, 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 Owl siblings waiting for a vole or two from their parents.

Abundance.

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