Bear Glacier

August 3, 2021, Continued

We continue to catch up with our logs of last season...

This is 2 of 11 log posts covering The Glaciers of Kenai Fjords expedition.
Dr. Bruce Molnia in the lagoon at Bear Glacier. (Photo: Kim Angeli)

Arriving Bear Glacier

We cut southwest across Resurrection Bay and rounded Callisto Head. The visibility was good over here, with broken clouds at about 1,000 feet with higher clouds visible above them. Bear Glacier was an enormous river of white and blue ice, stretching south up to the horizon at the far end of the valley. Between us and the face of the glacier was a large lagoon created by the moraine, a long rocky sand bar in front of us left by the retreating glacier, with huge icebergs trapped between the glacier and the moraine. The mountains on both sides of the valley were sharp, green, and lush. It looked something like Hawaii, except of course for the icebergs.

We anchored just off the moraine, on the west side of Callisto Head, just west of the mouth of the small river coming out of the lagoon. The mouth was narrow, about 15 yards across. Surf broke on rocks behind us, but we were in the clear, and dropped anchor in 35 feet of water.

It was much colder than it had been out on the open water. It had dropped from the high-50s to the mid-40s. The cold air was flowing down from the glacier, across the ice-packed lagoon, right to us, and we could feel it.

Up the River

We lowered the Scout, our 13-1/2-foot-long aluminum boat with an outboard jet, and five of us – me, Bruce, Shawn, Kim, Chris – and Bella our short-legged dog, got in and headed up the river. Bruce, Kim, and Shawn all had large black cameras hanging on straps around their necks, Bruce and Kim with Nikons and Shawn with a Canon. The Nikons had GPS pods clipped into the flash shoes on top to automatically tag each photo with the latitude and longitude of where the photographer was standing. Camera phones have an internal GPS that does this automatically these days, but we needed better lenses and more pixels.

The tide was flooding and not far from high when we crossed the surf line and started upriver. The river turned sharply left and widened, then narrowed again to about 60 yards wide and a foot or two deep. The current was quick. The Scout only had a 30-horsepower outboard and with the heavy load of five men it couldn’t get up on a plane. It felt pretty slow.

“Yeah, I designed this boat, I said.

There was silence. Then Bruce asked, “How much does it weigh?”

Ouch. The boat wasn’t too heavy; the outboard was too small. But the outboard has a jet pump that shoots water out the back and not a propellor sticking down and hitting rocks, and it was because of the jet that we were able to get up the river at all. Propellors don’t work in skinny water.

One mile from the mouth, the river branched. Straight ahead, the main channel was clogged with chunks of ice. The fork to the right was shallower but clear of ice. We turned right. A few hundred yards further the water got shallower, ankle deep, and we still weren’t planing. I had everyone get out and I pulled the boat over the riffles. Then we all got back in and headed up the lagoon toward the face of the glacier.

The Lagoon

We went by icebergs as big as houses. Big houses.

There was a lot of smaller, broken ice all around us. We could hear a constant popping, like slow popcorn. “That’s the ice effervescing,” he said. “Some people call it ‘bergy seltzer.’ It’s the air pockets that have been formed under multiple atmospheres of pressure, breaking through as the ice melts.” Chris said it sounded like the bergs were thinking.

Our first photo stop here at Bear Glacier was on the shore of an island halfway up the lagoon, still about a mile from the terminus. Bruce pointed to a spot on the beach and I ran the Scout onto the sand. Bella jumped out over the bow and we all followed.

Kim, the keeper of the records, took the white binder out of his knapsack and Bruce found the photo he was looking for. He had taken it himself 17 years ago. Even that recently, we didn’t have GPS that would record locations with the photographs. GPS was used only for the historical spots. Bruce held the photo up between himself and the glacier. This wasn’t the right place. Not exactly. We all looked at the picture, then the glacier and the mountain peaks and the draws on the far side. The peaks didn’t line up perfectly. We started up the beach, heading north, rechecking the photo against the skyline every twenty-five yards or so. At least we knew the right spot was on the beach and not ahead of us in the water or behind us on the other side of the island. This helped. Finally, even with the clouds clipping off the peaks of the ridge, Bruce, Shawn, and Kim all agreed we were in the right spot. From Bruce’s old photo, we could see that the glacier was back more than a mile from when he was first there. He could calculate by exactly how much later, but for now, he and Kim both took new photographs. These were our first trophies.

This was a good set because the trimline was stark. That’s the horizontal line on the distant side of the valley, bare rock below and vegetation above. It shows how high the glacier was in recent times, having scraped away the vegetation. It was hundreds of feet above the lagoon, the glacier terminus far back up the valley. The trimline told us, too, that when the oldest photos we had were taken, back in 1909, the spot where we were standing was under all that ice. We’d have to go back to the moraine to retake those older photos.

After the shots, Bruce checked his camera’s GPS and it wasn’t working. A few minutes of fiddling and a battery change didn’t help. Shawn finally brought out a handheld GPS (one of two they carried to double-check the locations) and Bruce took a photo of the little monochrome screen, then Shawn read the coordinates to Kim, who wrote them down in a notebook, then Bruce wrote them down again directly on his old photograph. This is science.

We got back in the boat and headed off toward the terminus. I began to get nervous, though. When we left the Endeavour I thought we were only taking a quick look, and hadn’t brought any of our survival gear, not even a radio, just the rifle. I was also getting cold. We turned back.

We wanted to try to find the upper end of the other branch of the river, the one we didn’t take coming in, and go back that way. This was harder than we thought. We were threading our way through icebergs, getting stopped as they pinched off the open water, trying again, going back. Finally Bruce suggested we go all the way around and hug the shore of the moraine on the far side. Big ice needs deep water. The shoreline might be navigable. He was right. We made our way through the smaller pieces of ice down the river to the branch and headed back out to the Endeavour.

- William Urschel