Saturday, July 11, 2015

Paddling amongst ice blocks at tongue of Bear Glacier

July 9 - Bear Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, AK - the modest aluminum skiff, rigged as a landing craft with a dropping bow ramp putters slowly up to the south boat ramp in Seward promptly at 7:00am. Our departure is timed with the high tide 40 minutes from then that will permit us to cross over the gravel bar at the mouth where the Bear Glacier drainage river meets the sea shortening our hike to camp.  A gleaming white cruise ship towers at the end of the finger docks over the myriad of small boats in the harbor. It's scale is totally out of place when viewed against the modest houses and small craft resting at dock, but when viewed against the natural landscape it begins to make some sense.  A parabolically swooping 1000 foot coal loading conveyor rises off the rail siding close to the water and terminates high at a large tower used to load coal ships bound for Asian pacific rim ports, and looks like an amusement park ride out of context.  Unfortunately, the ramp drops a steady stream of coal debris  into the water below when it is in operation and has succeeded in acidifying the inner harbor sufficiently to preclude any sort of shell fish population from thriving.  This news strikes me as odd, since there are plenty of sea otters about.  I wonder what they are eating or if the coal is really that bad for the water.  Still, the harbor looks beautiful this early hour and once out of the breakwater, the dual 150 Hp 4-strokes are fed a full throat full of fuel, and we leap ahead, planing on the surface, leaving a swooping wake behind.  

Occasionally we pass a gang of sea otters floating on their backs, and they seem to watch us as thoughtfully as we watch them.  No alert, or surprise, and certainly no hustle to dive seems to disturb the mutual observations.  With so much sea room, and unpopulated and unoccupied shoreline, I guess that they feel secure.  

We run down the length of Reserection Bay with a small handful of commercial fishing charters, bristling with long poles and long handled nets and antenna, each with a small huddle of hopeful fisherman smoking or drinking coffee from paper cups in the stern cockpit while the sole pilot manages the wheel protected in the cabin.  A pod of Dahl porpices  leaps in front of the boat in several graceful hops as we round the heads and make our course south towards the fabled fjords of the aptly name Misty Fjords National Park.  Shortly after passing the first point, our captain points the boat directly for the bank, and we motor swiftly as the swell grows with the shrinking depths. Before I know it, we are surfing down a small breaking series of waves, with the wheel hauled first one way, then the next to keep us off the wall, but still in the relatively deeper channel of the river's discharge. In the blink of an eye, we are through it, and the water smooths, and we are in the lagoon, motoring slowing to the steep gavel bank separating the river from the sea.

We are instructed to walk along the spit, upriver, while our bags are shuttled the next step in a water jet powered john boat with shallow draft to a spot where the current lessens, and the water deepens.  About 3/4 of a mile on, we jump on board and are shuttled up river to our base camp on an alder cover island.  As we putter along seeking the deepest channel, like a salmon returning upstream to spawn, our interest is aroused, as we see a growing number of fairly good sized ice bergs over the trees on the far side of the island.  On our side of the island,  rounded chunks of ice float by making a solid clunking sound as the thin hull makes contact.  

We jump ashore in the shallow in our tall boots and pull the boat up the bank, and I immediately notice the temperature of the water through the rubber and wool of my socks.  This is a cold runoff stream close to the glacier, with temperatures here hovering below 40deg. f.  

After a quick camp orientation, we are instructed on how to properly don a dry suit, and we thoughtfully layer up, tuck and zip our various layers, making sure the gaskets are tight against skin, and grab food and gear for our first foray into what is becoming a very magical place.  

After 15 minutes of paddling we are past the island and have full view of the bay full of floating ice.  The chunks vary in size from small brash ice as small as baseballs to monolithic battleships the size of small apartment buildings.  Everything is in slow motion, and the 700 foot deep lake allows the wind to rearrange the ice continuously.  Plus, over time, the sun, lake water and dripping melt water reshape and split the bigger pieces which invariably roll to a new balance points.  Everyday the ice looks differently.  There is a steady and somewhat unsettling cracking, booming, and crashing sound which bounces around the lake basin and surrounding mountains so by the time it reaches us in the small but stable kayaks we really don't know from where to expect the rolls or wave possibly generated by the iceberg replication and evolution process.  Sometimes we witness the actual separation events, but they generate almost no wake, but other times a wake seems to roll by from no source at all.  After another 15 minutes the tongue of the Bear Glacier comes into view- stretching for more than 2 miles along the shore of the lake.  The ice slowly is pushed downhill by the its own mass and the Harding ice sheet far above and is ejected into the lake non-stop.  Even as the overall heavily faceted split, and fractured ice face retreats, it is still pushed irrevocably forward, causing the front pieces to separate as they loose their support from below and crash into the deep end of the lake.

Most of the frequencies of light are absorbed by the ice leaving only the blues to pass through and the rock hard untethered islands  glow with a supernatural presence even when the sky is overcast.   After an hour of paddling we reach the Glacier's face and pull out on the black sand shore on one side to observe the magnificence of it all without struggling with the stress of paddling through the ice, and thinking about the 38 degree water. Our small protected bay soon fills up with bash ice , much like a  bucket of crushed ice dumped into a sink full of water as the wind shifts a bit and ice which had been compressed and held in place behind a large rock was displaced.  The seals bark and bicker with one another as the flow on which they are resting is carried closer to the glacier on some weird eddy, until, finally, when it bumps against the towering cliff face they jump,off as a group looking for a piece of ice moving more appropriately.

After a long break on the shore we pack up and slowly push through the ice flow, using our delicate fiberglass kayaks like icebreakers.  Very slowly we proceed, so the streamlined bows push the ice aside rather than ram into it like bumper cars. Before long we are away from shore, and out of the dense ice, easily floating downstream and down wind from the massive ice sheet and it thin tongue of glacier reaching the water.  The clearest smoothest ice seems to erupt in a popcorn sound as we float by, and the bigger pieces often groan, or click. The biggest rumbles are from the really big bergs as     chunks slide off the end or drop from the eroded overhangs just above the water.  We daydream and imagine likenesses of the uncountable chunks of ice, dragons, swans, airplane, spaceships, all seem to have landed in this magical soup and are floating round with us headed in a parade towards the sea.

Here is a map of the route so far......

map of journey so far:
map of route -live

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Fantastic Photos and Story!!! D&M