On Icy Waters

(from the April 2015 issue)

The author stand up paddles along with the co-owners of Seward’s Liquid Adventures, Chris Mautino and Pam Sousa, through the mists of Bear Glacier Lagoon in Kenai Fjords National Park.

Seward’s otherworldly stand up paddling.

[by Dave Shively]


There is only one destiny for the frozen arch above me. It will finish melting, and then it will fall between the two icebergs that it spans, splashing violently into the frigid 32.1-degree waters in front of Bear Glacier, directly where I’m floating.

Pam and I paddle under it anyway. We line up to the entrance, and plug a series of hard strokes to make it a fast pass, not wanting to waste any time in the potential impact zone. But before we’re clear, back in the safety of open water, neither of us can help but steal a quick look up at the massive blue marble bridge looming above us. The barely liquid drips that should be warning us to stay back sting our sun-drenched faces as we slide silently beneath.

It’s too strange a view not to look. This particular ice formation will never occur again. And when we regroup with Pam’s life and outfitting partner Chris and my photographer friend Robert, we each try our best to describe what has caught our attention passing through the iceberg maze at the edge of the glacier. It’s a futile task. We make the comparisons of children staring into clouds (“Oh, look, a sphinx…I see a rabbit there!”). Still it’s too hard to process the layers of striated lines, the structural impossibilities, the hidden waterfalls cut within the melting bergs, and the seals slithering by it all through the brackish water. There are just not many good labels for the scene: surreal, not of this world, dream-like, crazy. Chris offers, “like the planet Superman’s from.” I settle for “mystic” as a fog moves into the protected lagoon like a wall of smoke. Visibility diminishes in a matter of minutes, obscuring our route through a row of smaller bergs resembling jagged teeth as the horizon disappears into the gray.

Pam Sousa, co-owner of Seward-based Liquid Adventures, pictured here paddling through the bergs in Bear Glacier Lagoon, takes customers on guided stand up paddleboard and sea kayaking tours in Kenai Fjords National Park.

This is our second day exploring the lagoon’s ever-changing array of shapes. Chris Mautino and Pam Sousa are using Robert and I as test-case guinea pigs to see if overnight stand up paddling trips are a feasible in the area, hoping to offer a similar trip to guests through their Seward-based outfitting business
Liquid Adventures.

Well immersed in the coastal Southern California cradle of this booming sport, Robert and I were willing and eager to document a trip north to a state with such unlimited potential for stand up paddling adventures. With more coastline than that of the rest of the United States combined, Alaska’s opportunities seemed endless for every imaginable aspect of this young and trending sport: open-ocean downwinders, self-support overnighters, river trips, sea tours, alpine lake explorations, bore-tide surfs, even fishing missions.


“It’s easy to feel the breeze shift off the glacier with hairs raised on the backs of our necks. Chris reassures us that the glacier’s slow march to the waterline is at a low-enough angle that we don’t need to worry about sections falling from the wall…”


We had a three-day window. So Chris, a Southern California native himself and a career guide who has been leading sea kayak tours on the Kenai for the last 13 years, suggested Bear Glacier. There, he explained, camping on a moraine that separates the waters at the foot of Bear Glacier from one of the Seward region’s best southern exposures to the Pacific, you get the rare combination of the potential for both world-class flatwater day-touring and surf.

With only a dozen high-quality summer surf days, however, we weren’t too surprised to arrive to only ankle-high waves lapping the rocky berm guarding the lake-like Bear Glacier lagoon. But after a long journey from car to bus to plane to taxi to train to truck, we step off the last water-taxi leg and onto a board more than ready to paddle. We catch the tiny waves to the beach of volcanic slate pellets and up to the camp that Chris has set ahead of us on the rocks.

The lagoon at the toe of Bear Glacier is filled with enormous icebergs such as this one, which have calved off from the main body of the glacier.

He tells us how lucky we are to have a break in nearly 20 straight days of rain, as well as access to the lake, where the ice was too thick to enter just two weeks prior. We toss up our tents, zip up our drysuits and head into the labyrinth. As we approach our first grouping we’re interrupted by an abrupt BRROOOM that thunders across the water from a half-mile away, where a church-sized chunk breaks off a giant berg. Surprisingly, no ripples appear to shake us from the boards. It’s easy to feel the breeze shift off the glacier with hairs raised on the backs of our necks. Chris reassures us that the glacier’s slow march to the waterline is at a low-enough angle that we don’t need to worry about sections falling from the wall; it’s these smaller chunks rolling in the shallow lagoon water that are dangerous. Best to stick close to the bluer, thicker ice. 

I keep that in mind the next day after the fog clears as fast as it arrived. I approach the towering glacier wall for one last look. I revel in the silence, hear the sound of my breath only broken by the occasional groan of compression deep inside the ice. I try to visualize a single water drop beginning to slide, snowballing into others, cascading into a rivulet of water cutting through the frozen rock face.

That same perspective of relative size hits me on our return to camp, looking up at the cauldron of steep mountains rising straight up from the lagoon. The view south opens to the vast Pacific, where two humpback whales plan to momentarily block our paddle out to the water taxi home the next day—one final reminder of just how small we are.

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