Undiscovered Alaska-Bear Glacier Lake

By Michael DeYoung

One of the challenges of being a photography guide and tour leader is finding new and undiscovered amazing places to photograph and manage the risk of maintaining protection and not seeing a location get trampled.   Alaska still has many amazing locations that are relatively uncrowded and lightly photographed.   This is due to it’s remoteness, extreme conditions and high cost of transportation.   One location, only a short distance from the Kenai Fjords National Park gateway town of Seward has now become one of my all time favorite locations and I am now in a position to share this amazing gem with others.

A friend photographing sunset with icebergs from an island that is an easy 20-minute kayak paddle from camp on Bear Glacier Lake.

I first saw Bear Glacier in 1990.  This massive glacier that flows off Harding Icefield was easily seen from any of the industrial tourism boats traveling south in Resurrection Bay to many popular points within Kenai Fjords National Park.  The glacier and lake itself was always difficult to access keeping visitation only to the hardiest of wilderness travelers.   While on assignment in 1998 for Alaska Tourism, a local pilot flew me around in a Piper Supercub on floats for some aerials and ground images in beautiful evening light but the lake was so full of bergs it was too risky to land even for a Cub!

Ten years later, we finally returned and hired a water taxi service to take us to the mouth of the river that drains Bear Glacier Lake.  You can only get there on a high tide and the beach shoals up fast so the waves have to be right.  We got in fine but risked being stranded longer than planned if he couldn’t return due to adverse weather and waves.   It turned out to be a stellar 3 days and we had no problem returning to Seward via water taxi.

You can paddle to the end of Bear Glacier Lake, then make a short steep hike up the terminal moraine and get a commanding bird’s eye view of the face of Bear Glacier, the lake, the surrounding verdant peaks and in the background left is open water of Resurrection Bay and the Gulf of Alaska.

From our drop off point, Lauri and I lined our canoe upstream and ferry hopped from eddy to eddy for a mile until we reached the lake.  We camped and photographed two nights on an island and it was pure photo bliss.  Steep verdant green mountains surrounded us, with varying hues of blue in the iceberg choked lake.  Reflections and warm light were everywhere.  Nature’s white noise machine could not be more soothing.  The calving glacier and collapsing bergs crashing into the lake sounded like thunderstorms.  The ever present sound of surf pounding the mile-long beach was in nearly constant stereo with nesting gulls calling in the short summer nights.

Aerial view of the lagoon that drains Bear Glacier Lake on the Kenai Peninsula looking at Calisto Head into Resurrection Bay with Fox Island seen in the background. The spit separates the river and lagoon from the beach where waves and surf are frequent. This was a very calm and low surf day.

Now a colleague has established a remote camp with semi-permanent Weatherport tents, kayak equipment and a helipad.  With helicopter access, transport and pick up to Bear Glacier Lake is now much more reliable and far less weather dependent than boat access.  Another outfitter brings in a handful of clients in for day kayaking and stand up paddling trips but that’s about it so far.  It is still lightly visited, and a drop-dead gorgeous location.

Friends exploring Bear Glacier Lake in a tandem sea kayak with icebergs and the mountains of the Aialik Peninsula, Kenai Fjords National Park.
Helicopter landing above Bear Glacier Lake on the Kenai Peninsula, a short ride south of Seward.

Last July I had the best, most fun and productive shoot of the year there.  On the 4th of July, the outfitter Ron and his dog Nutka, myself, my wife, Lauri, and two dear friends from Anchorage had miles of gorgeous coastal wilderness to ourselves.  For two nights we had the magic and legendary “midnight sun” light Alaska is known for. We were lucky.  This is a wet place which is why glaciers, North America’s largest non-polar icefield and rain forest exist here.  Even in the rain, it’s a magical and amazing location.

Friends of mine photographing sunset over Bear Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park from a remote camp at Bear Glacier Lake.

I am not into sensationalism but there is no doubt that Alaska’s tidewater glaciers are shrinking and Bear Glacier is no exception. This will be a stunning location for a long time and even without a glacier, but it’s current character of a massive glacier face and a protected lake strewn with icebergs who’s shapes and character change daily will continue to diminish.

A summer sunset over the peaks of the Aialik Peninsula from Bear Glacier Lake with icebergs in Kenai Fjords National Park.

With modern reliable heli transport and some basic backcountry amenities now present I can now pioneer this magical place as a photo destination while the dynamic glacier lake character still exists.   The sounds and smells are enough reason to visit, but the visual beauty of Bear Glacier Lake will leave a lasting impression on you and lure you back.  You can leave Alaska, but Alaska NEVER leaves you.  I hope this place stays protected and pristine for generations and beyond.

Morning mist and icebergs in Bear Glacier Lake.

Michael DeYoung is an Instructor with Arizona Highways PhotoScapes

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