Exploring Bear Glacier by Kayak

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Icebergs at Bear Glacier, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Crackle swoosh boom! …. The sounds of a melting and calving glacier. Twelve kayakers awed by the ethereal blues of house-size icebergs floating in a glacial lake. We sat quietly, in communion with this living glacier until one large splash of falling ice broke the spell. We were in Alaska, far from my home in Florida.

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Paddling around the icebergs

 

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Brian enjoying the view

We paddled to Bear Glacier on our last full day of a week-long trip to Resurrection Bay. Our home base was the Kayakers Cove Hostel, about a 12-mile paddle from Seward, on the Kenai Peninsula. During our week there, we watched whales, otters, and sea lions and explored caves and rock gardens. With Levi Hogan of Turnagain Kayak, along with Dale Williams of Sea Kayaking USA, Tom Noffsinger, and Tony Hammock, we practiced rescues, rock gardening, and strokes along the rocky coast.

Our weather was spectacular, mostly clear and sunny, which meant we traded rough conditions for terrific views. Kevin and I had done the Resurrection Bay trip in 2015 with rougher conditions, so this seemed like an entirely different experience. A combination of sea swell, tide, and wind direction dictated each day’s activities. Last year, the winds mostly blew from the north, so we headed out towards the open waters of the Gulf of Alaska. This year’s winds blew southerly, offering a different set of explorations.

Towards the end of the week, Levi announced that conditions were favorable for Bear Glacier, and we leapt at the chance to kayak among icebergs. We would paddle the 10-ish miles to Bear Glacier, then return by water taxi in two shifts, six paddlers and six kayaks on each trip.

Bear Glacier
Bear Glacier from Google Earth

We launched at 9 a.m. with drysuits, helmets, and extra food and clothes – just in case. As we passed the southern tip of Fox Island, Levi checked for confirmation of our pick-up. We had little or no cell service at Kayakers Cove—a wonderful cyber-vacation, but missing a text from Joe, the boat captain, would have resulted in a long, cold, and unexpected paddle home. As we paddled around to the east of Fox Island, we moved to the middle of the channel to ferry glide across and surf the wind swell. To quote Tom Noffsinger, “When asked if you want to surf, the correct answer is always ‘yes’”. I agree. The wind and swell gave us an easy ride across Resurrection Bay, and we soon reached Callisto Head.

As we paddled around Callisto Head, Bear Glacier appeared in the distance. Resurrection Bay gave us some small swell, and we played among the rocks along the way. Navigating a 17’ kayak through rocks can be like threading a needle, and a fun challenge with the right swell. Levi reminded us that fiberglass NDK boats and rocks do not mingle well and warned us not to go over any overfalls, where swift currents flow over exposed rocks. A severely damaged boat would be dangerous in this remote area. Soon after, I misjudged a swell and flew towards an exposed rock. Fortunately, an opposing swell covered the rock, and I sailed over it unscathed. I did not make that mistake again.

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Bear Glacier and a visit from a seal
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Ed playing in a tidal race

The entrance to Bear Glacier Lake was still several miles away. As we paddled across, seals and seal lions popped their heads up, curious about our strange crafts, and played in our wake. The mouth of the Bear Glacier River created a tidal race where we surfed in the waves. This water was cold—glacial melt.

After we played, we landed our boats, carried them up and over the rocky ridge, and launched again in the slower and deeper section of the river. This shallow braided river is the only access to Bear Glacier, so only those willing to paddle or walk (or pay an exorbitant helicopter fee) get to see the glacier. (In 2015, Kevin and I saw the Aialik Glacier on a Kenai Fjords tour.)

Resurrection Bay Map
Resurrection Bay (Photo credit: http://www.wildernessimage.com)

We eddy-hopped our way upstream, where house-sized and larger icebergs floated in the lake. Although we were still at least a mile from Bear Glacier itself, its presence enveloped us in the sights and sounds. We paddled carefully around the floating ice, knowing that our helmets offered little protection from falling chunks.

I sat in my kayak, mesmerized, but I wondered about its future. What will Bear Glacier look like in twenty years in an era of rapidly retreating glaciers? In India, Gangotri Glacier, the source of the Ganga and sacred to Hindus, has receded dramatically in recent years. In the late 18th century, Gangotri Temple sat at the foot of the glacier, but by 1992, when I visited, pilgrims trekked 12 miles over two days from the temple to Gangotri Glacier.

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Retreat of Gangotri Glacier (Photo credit: http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=4594)

Though Alaska seems remote from Florida, retreating glaciers and melting sea ice contribute to the rising sea levels that erode our shores and flood our seaside cities. Maybe Alaska and Florida are not so far apart after all—a baked Alaska means a soggy Florida.

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Sea lion haul-out in Resurrection Bay
Driving the boat
Driving the boat home

We paddled back towards the river, carried our boats back across the ridge, then headed towards our pick-up point. Our captain Joe ferried us back in two groups and took us past a sea lion haul-out. I was fortunate to be in the second group, leaving me with more time to relish this exquisite beauty and to play among the rocks. Back at Kayakers Cove, we relaxed over wine and fresh-caught fish, cleaned and caught by Joe, demonstrating Alaskan hospitality. Bev and James treated us to their amazing fish-cooking talents that evening. Our week in Resurrection Bay was filled with highlights—great paddling and great friends, but our trip to Bear Glacier stands out among these highlights.

 

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Author: Whitney Sanford

Writer, research, teacher and outdoor enthusiast.

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