We Alaskans

Chuck and the Lake Clark mystery reef

LAKE CLARK — It is almost a given that if I visit my neighbor up the lake, Chuck Hornberger, I'll learn something. Chuck is savvy and well-seasoned in homestead living. I once explained to him that I had been walking around in the forest in a bay midway between our cabins and had spotted a standing dead tree that was straight and tall. I circled my arms to show him the size and mentioned where I had parked my skiff.

He took a sip of coffee and said, "Yeah, I know that tree." And I'm sure he did, because he went on to give me a history on almost every moss-covered stump in the area. I'm surprised he didn't have nicknames for each of them.

Observation 101

I suppose awareness has more to do with a person's innate sensibility to changes in one's environment than with the environment shaping the person. This seems true whether the setting is urban or rural. Neither cluelessness nor brilliance knows gender, age or race. Curiosity and awareness — spiced at times with a healthy dose of mentoring in the art of paying attention, are key.

I've met a few people who would likely not notice if one morning Mount Susitna appeared on the other side of Cook Inlet, or if Ester Dome near Fairbanks turned into a shopping mall overnight. (OK, if there was a 50 percent off sale at the mall, maybe.)

Or on the other end of the spectrum are folks like Chuck who seem to take in every change around them. I suspect he has a photographic memory — at least when it comes to trees and stumps at Lake Clark. Quite possibly his gift extends to the location of rocks along the shoreline and reefs in the lake — those hard nasty objects that are sometimes unkind to outboard motors. Chuck has pointed out a few prop and lower-unit eaters to me in the past. Even with all that good advice, I've had to straighten and file a prop or two over the years.

I do need to tell one story on Chuck though.

Mystery reef

Lake Clark's water level has an average annual fluctuation of about 9 feet. One important aspect of this is that in late fall, winter and early spring before the lake starts to rise, many rocks and reefs are exposed that wouldn't be a hazard to navigation in the high-water summer months. My brother-in-law once recorded all the reefs on the upper end of the lake as I flew him around in my Super Cub.

Years ago in winter, Anne and I took advantage of the low water and frozen lake to move a few large exposed rocks from the area where we park our skiff. We dragged three huge boulders with our four-wheeler onto the ice of our bay. When the ice melted they would safely sink into deeper water and no longer have the potential of collecting aluminum from boat hulls or props.

In the weeks that followed our repositioning of those boulders, it snowed and the wind blew. Hardened drifts wrapped around the rocks and made them look like a natural part of our bay.

One day Chuck drove his four-wheeler down on the ice to visit. We hadn't seen him in a long time. As he slowed to a stop he kept glancing over his shoulder at those rocks, and the first thing he said to us when he shut off his machine was, "Is that a reef?" I sensed disbelief mixed with a dash of panic. I imagined he was thinking: How could I have missed THAT all these years? Perhaps he envisioned how, in the summer, this mystery reef could have easily taken out a lower unit as he motored into our bay unaware.

A kinder person may have been quicker to tell the truth, but there was a perverse satisfaction in seeing someone so much more aware of his surroundings than I experience a brief moment of self-doubt. I entertained the idea of innocently saying something like, "You didn't know about that?"

But then I told him. I couldn't quite bring myself to say something cocky because Chuck was no greenhorn. I thought about the time, walking with a hunter along a beach on the Alaska Peninsula, that my companion stopped and asked me, "What's the elevation here?"

I paused, kneeled down and peered out at the ocean as if I were seriously considering his question. I took a long look up and down the beach and back to the expanse of the Pacific Ocean, "Oh, about 2 feet," I said. That was one time I couldn't stop myself.

 Steve Kahn lives on the north shore of Lake Clark. He is the author of "The Hard Way Home: Alaska Stories of Adventure, Friendship and the Hunt."