Ice-dammed Bear Glacier Lake in Alaska, located above the popular sea kayaking spot of Bear Lagoon frequented by outfitters out of Seward, has vanished in the proverbial blink of an eye.
Located 7 miles above the terminus of Bear Glacier, the 300-foot-deep lake drained from approximately November 4-13, according to reports from the national park service in Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park. While it’s happened before, this time they were able to capture its retreat via park cameras. Time lapse photos show the unnamed lake at Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park start to shrink around Nov. 4 and was gone by Nov. 13. A giant crater now marks the spot where the lake once was.
“Bear Glacier intersects another one about 800 vertical feet above the lagoon, and the ice blocks it off, filling it with water,” says Trevor Kreznar, of Seward’s Liquid Adventures, which offers jet-boat-accessed sea kayaking and sup trips to iceberg-lined Bear Lagoon, about an hour’s boat ride out of Seward. “Then the water rises until there’s enough that it floats the ice and then it all rushes out underneath. It gets sucked out like opening the plug in a bathtub.” (Kreznar advises that Bear Glacier Lagoon is a dynamic environment and not for people without extensive experience; Liquid Adventures offers trips daily May-September.)
An Instagram post from the park service states: “We posted about a Glacial Lake Outburst Flood from 2019. Well, it happened again! This ice-dammed lake is located about 6.5 miles up from Bear Glacier’s terminus. These events have occurred in winter in the past, but this was the first time we have been able to observe the lake draining in winter with our time-lapse camera. The first of these images is from Nov. 4, the second is from Nov. 10, and the last one is from Nov. 14.”
Outfitters such as Seward’s Liquid Adventures/Exit Glacier Tours have long shuttled clients to the lagoon below the lake via jet boat, where they unload sea kayaks for day and overnight paddling tours among icebergs. (PaddlingLife even joined in on one in 2017.) Kreznar said the outflow didn’t affect their operations this year, a sit occurred in November after their paddling season had ended. And since the lagoon below is much larger, it absorbs the extra water. “It’s nothing too catastrophic — it takes a while to drain because it has to go under the glacier,” Kreznar says. “But if it happened while you were in the lagoon, you’d definitely want to get yourself out of there.”
The park service remains concerned about boat navigation in Resurrection Bay, which the glacier’s waters feed. While the initial flooding danger has abated, “a navigational hazard from ice released into Resurrection Bay persists.” (A 28-foot-long iceberg was observed in Resurrection Bay near the outlet of the lagoon.) “It is expected that small to large ice chunks which could cause significant damage and/or injury to boat traffic will be distributed throughout Resurrection Bay indefinitely,” the report says. “Boaters in marine waters should be extra cautious to avoid hitting ice.”
Park scientists are researching the nature and frequency of glacial lake outburst floods (GLOF) at Bear Glacier. Once the draining begins, such a lake can release nearly 3,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water per day, the park report said.
In a September Facebook post, the park noted previous floods appear to have been caused “when the ice-dammed lake’s surface water elevation reached 887 feet (2018) and 832 feet (2019).”
This year the lake topped out at an elevation of 775 feet and was still rising when the glacier dam broke. The lake rises each year due to a dam created by glacial ice, the park service says. When the lake gets high enough, it “lifts” the ice dam and starts draining down-glacier, flooding Bear Glacier lagoon below.
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A Firsthand Report of Paddling Bear Lagoon
Paddling amongst icebergs in a freshwater lake? Try a day in Bear Lagoon paddling (either SUP or kayak) among massive icebergs on one of the coolest, most surreal trips you can do in Alaska. Your trip starts at the headquarters of Liquid Adventures/Exit Glacier Tours, one of two outfitters licensed to operate in Bear Lagoon, in downtown Seward, where you’ll don drysuits and rubber boots. From there, you’ll climb aboard a jet boat before motoring out along the right side of Resurrection Bay toward Kenai Fjords National Park.
After an hour or so, you’ll round a far point, where your captain will slow the engines and negotiate a shallow shoal leading up the Bear River. The jet boat only draws four inches of water, and this is the only way to progress farther upstream.
Once through the beach break, you arrive in fresh water, protected by the ocean waves to the left by a large terminal moraine regurgitated by Bear Glacier. (As is the fate of all receding glaciers, soon the sea water will break through the moraine and envelop the 700-foot-deep trench left by the glacier, creating yet another fiord — but for now, it’s still a freshwater, iceberg-riddled lake.)
A couple miles up the river, you’ll veer to shore, where the company has its kayaks stashed. From there, you hop in and paddle the rest of the way up the river to the lagoon. And that’s when you’ll see the ice; a wall of assorted icebergs coalescing at this far end of the lake, pushed here by underwater currents streaming out of the glacier on the lake’s far end.
Adjectives like “surreal, magical, other-wordly” will swirl around off your tongues like the currents plinking against the bergs, whose sculpted curves take every form imaginable, from giant whale tails and gargantuan swans to dragon backs and steam ships. Mesmerized for hours padding among the glacier’s remnants, you’ll likely be so transfixed as to lose all track of time until, too soon, much like the receding glacier itself, it’s time to go. Turning back to where the river empties out of the lagoon, you’ll know that there’s still a place where magic still exists on our planet.