Our next stop was Seward, the gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, where we were planning a 2-night kayak camping trip at Bear Glacier to paddle around a lagoon filled with icebergs. Yes, somehow Bryan had managed to convince Lisa to come along for a second backcountry kayak camping trip. And, to make things even more interesting, the matter of waste disposal was even trickier here. If you thought the intertidal flush was bad, wait until you find yourself in a place where you have to use a RESTOP 2 for your bathroom needs. From the company’s website, this ingenious product is a “gas-impervious ‘bag within a bag’ design to safely contain and neutralize human waste.” The part they don’t mention is then having to pack out every used bag, the logistics of which concerned us a bit.
An Inauspicious Start (and Nearly End)
Just before we arrived, there had been a “GLOF” (glacial lake outburst flood) at Bear Glacier Lagoon. Basically, a glacier-dammed lake had released a bunch of water into the lagoon, causing the water level to rise by a few feet. It was so catastrophic that it washed out a very large section of the beach and carved a new channel to the ocean, resulting in major permanent changes to the lagoon. Here you can see the new channel that resulted from the GLOF:
Our plan was to take a water taxi from Seward and land at the beach in between Bear Glacier Lagoon and the ocean. However, it was very windy, rainy, and the seas were rough, so our boat wasn’t able to drop us off on the first day we had planned for our trip. We decided to cut our trip down from two nights to one, and see if the weather improved the next day. If not, plan B was to get dropped off by helicopter instead.
As it turned out, the weather did not permit a boat ride the next day, so we decided to go for the helicopter ride. Time to pack up all our dry bags again – fortunately we had perfected our kayak-camping packing list in Glacier Bay. And even better, this time we did not need to actually transport all our gear in the kayak (and up and down and up and down the beach, over and over again). Rather, we would set up camp once and just go out with our kayak for leisurely day paddles.
We had one waterproof bag designated for all our important documents – passport, money, credit cards, etc. Lisa got this bag and put all her vital documents in it, then passed it to Bryan. “I put my passport and stuff in here – can you add yours and then pack it up?” Bryan nodded and grabbed the bag, and Lisa headed off to continue with some other task. Bryan went inside and packed up his pack, then came back out to the car to reorganize.
A few minutes later, Lisa came back and asked Bryan, “OK, did you pack the document bag?” Bryan gave her a blank stare. She tried again. “The bag with my passport?“ Bryan continued to give her a blank stare. “I don’t have it.” Lisa stared at Bryan in disbelief. Bryan stared at Lisa in disbelief. There was a lot of disbelief. But what there was not was a bag with Lisa’s passport in it.
“Where did you put the bag that I gave you? It had my passport in it!” “I don’t remember you giving me a bag.” “I gave it to you!” “Uh-oh.” “What do you mean, uh-oh?” “I don’t remember you giving me a bag. I have no idea where it is.” “I GAVE you a bag with my PASSPORT in it!” “Yes, I believe you, but I don’t remember anything about it.” “Oh my god.” “Well, we’d better go look for it.”
So we headed back into the hostel and retraced our steps, but no passport appeared. The next step was to tear apart the car, pulling everything out and searching through every bag, pocket, nook and cranny in a desperate attempt to retrieve the passport.
By the time we tore apart the car for the second time, and re-checked the hostel for the second time, we were both in full-on panic mode. Lisa started crying. Bryan was puttering around muttering over and over again “how could I be so stupid?! Well I guess that’s it. I guess it’s all over.” It was unclear whether he was referring to the Bear Glacier trip, the Alaska trip, our relationship or his life, but something really bad had happened and was about to happen.
Adrienne, the woman running the hostel, came out to see what the commotion was about, and we explained to her our problem. She said no one had turned in a passport, but went to double check. Bryan was convinced at this point that he had left the document bag out somewhere, someone had stolen it, that Lisa was going to kill him, and that it was all his fault.
Then, as we started talking through what we would have to do to get Lisa a new passport, Adrienne came back out to the car to tell us she had not found anything. And then she smiled and asked us “what is this?” while pointing to something on top of the car, obscured from our view by the open trunk door. It was the document bag. With Lisa’s passport. There were few times in his life Bryan had been so relieved. With that, we were off to Bear Glacier.
Bear Glacier Kayak Camping
After getting dropped off by helicopter (which turned out to be quite a spectacular experience in itself), we were greeted by Ron, the owner of the camp at Bear Glacier. Ron had a camp with several wall-tents for sleeping, a kitchen tent with a variety of cooking equipment, and an outhouse, all surrounded by an electric fence to keep the bears away. Pretty glamorous, right? Well, the way we had planned it, we would be renting kayak gear from him, but we were going to camp on our own (and use our RESTOPs) to save some money. Fortunately, Ron generously offered to let us use his facilities anyway. So we didn’t have to poop in bags after all! (Though Bryan thought that maybe we still should, just to have the experience). (Lisa thought Bryan was welcome to do whatever he wanted). But we did opt to set up our tent outside of his fenced camp, as we felt bad about using all of his facilities without paying.
Of course, there was no reason to camp too far away from his camp, as it is preferable if someone can hear you scream in case you are mauled by a bear in the middle of the night. So we set up at a nice overlook nearby with a fantastic view of Bear Glacier Lagoon.
Once we got settled, Ron caught us up on the effects of the GLOF. There had been a river running out from Bear Glacier Lagoon to the ocean, which until a few days ago had passed right below the camp location. The lagoon water level had been a few feet above the high tide line, and had continuously drained into the ocean through this river. But the GLOF had cut such a big swath out of the beach that the water level in the lagoon was now at sea level, a few feet lower than it had previously been, and the river was completely dry. So instead of launching and landing our kayak at the base of the camp, we had to walk it out a few hundred metres to reach the water. But at least this time we didn’t have to haul all of our camping gear (as we had in Glacier Bay), so we just took our time and it wasn’t too bad. Before we knew it, we were ready to launch! We were happy to get out on the water to escape the bugs and take off our head nets (which we were putting to good use for the first time on our trip).
We got out on the water late in the afternoon, with lots of fog around. Ron warned us not to get caught out in the middle of the lagoon when the fog came in, so we kept in sight of shore. And we knew to get no closer to any iceberg than 3x its height or width, whichever was larger, as the part of the iceberg you see on the surface is only 10% of the whole thing, and they are prone to flipping over without warning. As we had no desire to be overturned in a kayak in 1 degree C water, far from any help, we kept our distance.
That turned out to be difficult to accomplish, since there were icebergs absolutely everywhere. But we figured things out and had a very enjoyable evening paddle.
The next morning we woke up to great weather and were treated to this view while we packed up our campsite:
Kayaking involved more icebergs, seals, and eagles. But it’s easier to show in pictures than to try to describe.
After paddling around and visiting the glacier (we approached to the safe distance of half a mile), it was time to leave. We had tentatively planned to get picked up by boat, if the weather permitted. We discovered that we would have to walk about a mile down the now-dry rocky riverbed to the best potential pick-up point, rather than getting on a boat at the camp. Even worse, we still weren’t 100% sure the boat would be able to pick us up at all, given all the recent changes to the area.
We had to time the boat pickup with high tide, which was around 15:00. The only catch was that if we got there and discovered that the boat actually wouldn’t be able to get us, we would need to get taken out by helicopter instead. Sounds easy enough – except that the helicopter would need to wait for low tide to land. Ugh. But the boat was $220 cheaper than the helicopter. And the boat captain thought he could do it, so we decided to take our chances.
We borrowed a marine radio from Ron to facilitate communication with the boat’s captain, and set out for the beach, hoping for the best. Unfortunately, we hadn’t really anticipated a long walk with all our gear, so it wasn’t packed in the most efficient manner for said activity. Our dry duffel bags were great for packing into a kayak, but not so much for hauling on foot over tons of rocks.
It was hot, and walking over endless river rocks while awkwardly carrying everything was a real slog. Once we got there, we waited with trepidation, until we saw a small water taxi come to the mouth of the river. It gingerly made its way through the now shallower river inflow, as we hoped that it was indeed our boat, and that it would make it. After a few kind of sketchy looking bits, it made it, and we were picked up!
Kenai Fjords Tour
Our other activity in Seward was a day tour to Northwestern Glacier with Kenai Fjords Tours. Basically, 8 hours on a boat with nothing to prepare for and food and water provided. All we had to do was take our seasickness meds and have fun. It was very nice not having to plan anything and we really enjoyed the trip! Great glacier action, tons of seals on icebergs, humpbacks, orcas, puffins, sea lions and a few sea otters.
We put together a video of our Kenai Fjords trip, which is up on our YouTube channel.