Imagine for a moment that you're on a dingy boat being taxied through the choppy, blue-gray waters of Resurrection Bay. It's the middle of July, yet the temperature on the water is a numbing 40 degrees, with a strong wind stinging your face. Seagulls are flying alongside your boat, and so is the occasional eagle.
Surrounding you are people near and dear. Maybe your brother, your parents or an aunt and uncle, a favorite cousin and family friend. They're all smiles and optimism as you head south from Seward toward the famous Harding Ice Field and the 40-odd glaciers it's spawned. They're on an Alaska adventure with you, destined for Kenai Fjords National Park. And you're their resident Alaskan, with an excellent trip planned to Bear Glacier, the largest glacier in the park, a sea kayaker's Mecca where massive icebergs shaped like submarines and upside-down axes float, so many shards of broken glass in a protected bay of blue water.
Bear Glacier is an otherworldly place, a vaguely lunar, primordial landscape. A glacier with "racing stripes" that slide into the lake. We were dropped off -- with several trashcan liners full of tents and mummy bags, drysuits and paddle-oars, a rickety camp stove and waterproof matches, an old earmarked copy of "The Gambler" and a satellite phone -- on a remote black-rock beach. The captain said he'd be back in four days' time to get us, told us to watch out for bears, and to look for the hidden cache of sea kayaks just around the cove.
The valley created by the massive, retreating Bear Glacier is distinctly U-shaped, a broad, lush green floor with young spruce and some older birch that comes in handy for rain protection and fire building. Icy fresh drinking water cascades down one cliff face. A wild place with wildflowers as tall as 4 feet near the falls. Nestled in the U, the camping is protected from the sometimes-fierce, subarctic winds off Resurrection Bay. You can hear the surf pounding shoals that protrude into the bay, but it's all beyond a longshore bar that separates you from the rough seas. The bar is known to produce some surf-worthy Alaska backwash, or at least that's what our outfitters at Adventure Sixty North told us.
Instead of risking life and limb in the surf, we opted to kayak in the protected cove and on through a channel, to a lake of seawater, glacier melt and bobbing icebergs that laps up against Bear Glacier. Two-person kayaking with drysuits and some trail mix made for leisurely days. Hiking on the glacier brought us above the lake and allowed us to see spotted seals sunbathing on these amazing, flourescent icebergs that looked as if they'd been lit up from the inside with pale blue globes. And the sounds -- the sounds of water everywhere, melting, lolling, crashing. Dripping and sloshing, tinkling and falling.
Aside from a few other campers and naturalists across from us, camping on the glacier, you'd never know a human being had ever been there. This is the Alaska I imagined when I first toyed with the idea of moving here: a wild, remote, white and blue island with more animals than people, surrounded by dark water and ice.
Visiting Bear Glacier
The exertion required to pull off a memorable Bear Glacier getaway isn't demanding. Anyone in reasonable shape and health and of sound mind, from juvenile to senior, can and should make it a destination on any Alaska itinerary. The adventurous souls along with me on this four day, three-night stay ranged from 14 to 75. Prepare well and make lists -- of what you can get by with for as many days as you'd like away from the world of men (and women). Staying warm, dry and hydrated are the most important considerations.
Guided tours of Bear Glacier are also available if a do-it-yourself adventure seems like too much planning. A few popular guides include Adventure Sixty North, Alaska Kayak, Backcountry Safaris and Bear Glacier Tours. Inform yourself of the surroundings and prepare thoroughly for the unexpected. Regardless of whether you surf, kayak, climb crevasses, bird watch or merely laze around, reading and relaxing in pristine nature, you're sure to enjoy your time there.
Contact Eric Christopher Adams at eric(at)alaskadispatch.com