Big Holgate and the Bear

August 4, 2021, continued

[Note from the present. It's March 6, 2022.

The Alaska Endeavour season starts Tuesday morning when we leave Petersburg for the three-day trip to Sitka, where we’ll meet up with our friends from the Alaska Whale Foundation to help them track and film bubble-feeding humpback whales just back from Hawaii. There’s a page on our website that describes that expedition.

Then, on March 20th, we’ll head down to Wrangell, pick up our team there, and head out to remote Coronation Island to find the wreck of the Star of Bengal. Our sponsors of this expedition will be invited to two live, interactive broadcasts from the boat. The first live event will be at 6:00 PM (Alaska time) on March 23, the evening before we depart Wrangell. We’ll talk about the mission and what we expect to find. The second live event is in the morning we get back, at 8:00 AM March 30th, when we’ll share what we found. Become a sponsor for a donation of as little as $250 and ask your questions! We’ll be recording these sessions and will post them on the site later in the spring.

Then, on April 7 at 7:00 PM Alaska time, we’ll have another live broadcast, this one with Dr. Bruce Molnia, the leading expert on Alaskan glaciers, who will present his findings from our expedition to the Kenai Fjords last August. He’ll give us the most up-to-date data on how quickly the glaciers are melting, whether the rate is increasing or decreasing, and what it all means. This live broadcast is open and free to everyone. There is a sign-up link on the 2021 Kenai Glaciers expedition page on our website.

Now, back to the past....]

This is 5 of 11 log posts covering The Glaciers of Kenai Fjords expedition.

At the terminus of Holgate Glacier: Urschel, Molnia, and Dilles. (Photo: Kim Angeli)

Holgate Arm

Our first stop was at Three-Hole Point, a sea arch, only a mile and a half away. This jut of land has a rock formation that used to have three vertical holes (windows) in it, all in a row. Bruce has a photo from 1909 showing all three holes. It’s an historic, not a scientific spot. The top of the outermost hole has broken off – no one is sure when – and today it’s more like Two-and-a-Half Hole Point.

We crossed back to another point with a good view up Aialik Bay of several glaciers and ticked off a handful of the reshoots. We motored out a mile and got a few more before heading north up the bay and turning into Holgate Arm.

Holgate Arm branches off Aialik Bay to the northwest. It’s about four miles long and roughly a mile wide with steep, mostly wooded sides. It’s a classic glacier-cut fjord. Holgate Glacier comes in at the head and Little Holgate Glacier comes in from the left. There is a steep haystack of an island about a hundred feet high between the two. We motored in and anchored about a mile from the end, the terminus of “Big” Holgate on the north side of the arm. The water is deep there, but I found a high spot so we wouldn’t have to put out and recall a lot of chain.

Holgate Glacier had receded only a bit from its 1909 position, Bruce said, but now from his earlier photos in the binder, he could see that it had actually advanced a little since his last visit. Little Holgate Glacier, on the other hand, next to it, was almost gone. There was a bare, rocky canyon with only a remnant of the glacier high up in the back.

We lowered the Scout and I ran Bruce, Shawn, and Kim over to the beach on the side we were on and dropped them off. Bruce didn’t think there were bears here, and I agreed. The sides were too steep and there wasn’t much to eat. That, and we didn’t see bear tracks or scat on the sand. I kept the rifle with me and went back to pick up Patsy and Chris, who were launching the two kayaks off the swim step. They got in the Scout and we towed the kayaks across the arm to the haystack island, almost at the foot of Little Holgate’s valley. Way back in the canyon there was a huge flume of water coming down off the ice with a roar that echoed off the rock walls.

I went back over and picked up the three men, who had found the spot they were looking for and had taken their photos, and brought them back to the island. The kayakers arrived, we ate lunch on a tiny boulder-studded beach, and then Chris decided he wanted to climb to the top of the rock island. It was steep, mostly bare granite. Up he went, out of sight, Bella right behind him. Then Patsy followed him up, then Bruce, then Shawn in his big yellow boots, then Kim. I stayed down with the boats.

Little Holgate

After lunch we took the three small boats over to the empty canyon of Little Holgate. Bruce had a photo spot there. One of the photos in the binder was of him, a younger man, standing in front of a tooth-shaped rock and pointing to a tunnel in the face of the glacier. His son, Michael, had taken the picture in 2006. Having a landmark in the foreground helps to locate the right spot, but it also helps convince people you’re on the right spot. The glacier is gone, melted back, and there’s no tunnel anymore. But we found the rock, Bruce took his pose in front of it, and we took the picture.

Bruce didn’t say much about it, but I imagine he felt the passing of time. He was the same man in the same spot fifteen years later, older, but still here and doing the work.

We took the boats up to the face of Holgate Glacier, which still comes down to the water – a tidewater glacier, they’re called – landed the boats off to the side and walked up to touch the face. It was deeply blue and incised with crevasses dozens of feet from top to bottom. We could feel the cold radiating off the face. Patsy had to talk Chris out of walking into an ice cave. We got the GPS position we needed and took the photo, then got back in the boats to move down the beach for another series.

The Bear

Bruce was out of the Scout first, holding the bow. Kim stood up, lost his balance, and started to fall back into the water. Shawn snatched the camera out of Kim’s hand as he went in. It wasn’t deep, but Kim fell flat on his back and was soaked.

Patsy and Chris had made it down to us by now, so I took Kim back to the Endeavour to change clothes. He went below and I waited for him on the aft deck. I lit up a cigar.

A few minutes later I heard yelling. I couldn’t make it out. I walked around to the other side of the boat and saw Chris walking like Frankenstein, trying to signal something. Then I heard “BEAR.” And there, coming down the beach toward the group, was a large black bear. I had the gun with me; they didn’t even have bear spray.

Kim appeared and we got quickly into the Scout and zoomed over, putting the little boat between the bear and our people. I got out and Bella ran over to me, carefully keeping me between her and the bear. The bear didn’t even slow down. He ambled along, right by, far enough back from the water to make it clear he wasn’t interested in us. Not one bit. His coat was perfectly black, and I could see the muscles under his skin working with every step. He passed us, made his way to a gulley, and disappeared. I hadn’t even raised the rifle. My cigar was still lit.

On to Slate Island

Back on board the Endeavour we headed southeast down the arm and I noticed that Holgate Arm faced directly out to sea, far down long Aialik Bay. The sky had cleared by now, and the ragged snowy peaks of the cirques on both sides led straight out to the open blue ocean.

Just before turning north at Holgate Head we spotted more black bears on the beach, a sow and two cubs out in the evening sun. We brought the bow of the Endeavour almost up to the sand, watching them from our bow, until they had had enough of us and wandered back into the brush.

Out on the bay, headed north, the water was green but not too milky. I had the pilothouse doors open. The sun was dancing on the water, reflecting onto the top of the pilot house. There were flocks of gulls working the water. Baitfish. I could see larger fish on the sonar. Salmon, probably. I thought about stopping to drop a line, but I was having a moment with my dog. Bella was lying in a patch of sun next to me on the pilot bench. I was petting her head, her eyes closed, totally at peace. The motor made an easy rumble at 1300 RPM. No major exertions. Just the colors, the water, the life.

Pedersen Glacier came into view. Now, it’s a hanging glacier, way up high – a thousand feet? – spilling over the mountains like a slow-moving waterfall of blue ice. A few decades ago, barely a moment in ice time, it was a valley glacier, nearly three miles longer than today.

Patsy was in the back, cooking up tamale pie for dinner. I could hear muted voices of people talking about ideas, interested in what each other had to say.

We passed by the entrance to Pedersen Lagoon on the west side of the bay. When Bruce was first here more than 30 years ago, his crew was able to get their boat, the Growler, with a six-foot draft like the Endeavour’s, up into the lagoon. But a lot has changed in glacier land. Even though it was middling high tide, I couldn’t find a way in. So we continued north, crossing the submerged moraine left by the Aialik Glacier in its last push, and found a spot for the night at the south end of Slate Island, between it and the mainland, in 40 feet of water.

Anchoring in Ice

There were some large chunks of ice floating by, coming down from Aialik Glacier, which was around the corner ahead of us. Big ice is a problem when you’re anchored. It isn’t that it will bang against the hull. It might, and it will make noise, but it won’t be moving fast enough to cause damage. The problem is that it can drift up against your anchor chain – without touching the boat or making a sound – and lift the anchor right off the bottom. Then, you, the chunk of ice, and your anchor go drifting silently out with the tide.

I set the anchor watch alarm, which sounds off if our GPS location changes, and went to bed.

- William Urschel