Bear Cove, Kachemak Bay

Bear Cove, Kachemak Bay

by | Apr 6, 2022

Bear Cove is a small embayment on the Kenai Peninsula that extends southeast for 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from the southeastern coast of Kachemak Bay between Bear Island to the south and Chugachik Island to the north, about 57 miles (92 km) south of Kenai and 18 miles (29 km) northeast of Homer, Alaska. The local name was first recorded on a 1912 cartographic field sheet by Daniel F. Higgins and Rufus H. Sargent of the U.S. Geological Survey. The Kenai Peninsula extends about 150 miles (240 km) southwest from the Chugach Mountains and separates Cook Inlet to the west from Prince William Sound to the east. The name ‘Kenai’ is derived from the Native Athabascan Kenaitze band which historically inhabited the upper inlet. Kachemak Bay is an estuary of several rivers, some descending from the Harding Icefield, and the embayment extends about 38 miles (61 km) northeast from Cook Inlet. The tidal range in Kachemak Bay is mixed semi-diurnal and averages 16 feet (4.8 m), with extreme tides ranging over 30 feet (9 m). The ocean circulation of Kachemak Bay is restricted by a spit that extends southeast for 4.4 miles (7 km) from the northern shore, separating the inner bay from the outer bay. The water column of the inner bay including Bear Cove is strongly stratified with less dense and warmer freshwater overlying more dense and colder saltier water. The geology of the northwestern coast of Kachemak Bay is strikingly different from the southeastern coast as a result of repeated glaciations and the Border Ranges Fault that is roughly aligned with the axis of Kachemak Bay. The northwestern coast primarily consists of Quaternary glacial sediments overlying rocks of the Beluga Formation comprised of nonmarine, weakly lithified sandstone, siltstone, mudstone, carbonaceous shale, coal, and minor volcanic ash. The southwestern shore, and particularly the lands surrounding Bear Cove, consists of rocks from the McHugh Complex which is mostly greywacke and conglomerate from the Early Cretaceous to Late Jurassic which are several miles in thickness. Geologists interpret the conglomerate and massive greywacke to be of turbiditic origin. The McHugh Complex around Bear Cove also has folded and upended layers of basalt and radiolarian chert with the radiolaria ranging in age from Middle Triassic to Early Cretaceous on the geological time scale. The modern landscape is largely a result of multiple glaciations during the Pleistocene. These ice expansions occurred when climatic conditions changed about 30,000-25,000 years ago leading to greater snowfall and cooler cloudier summers that favored the preservation of winter snowfall and the formation of glacial ice. As glaciers grew, they flowed out of their upland sources and spread out across the lowlands, scouring bedrock and spreading glacier-derived sediments. Ice streams coalesced to form broad lobes and sheets that eventually covered or nearly covered the Cook Inlet basin. When climatic conditions changed again starting about 20,000-19,000 years ago the expanded ice masses became unstable leading to glacial thinning and recession back to their alpine origins. The region was deglaciated about 10,000 years ago and humans began migrating to the area about 9,000 to 8,000 years ago.

There is archaeological evidence of maritime cultures about 6,000 years old from Kodiak Island and the Pacific coast of the Alaska Peninsula, and there are indications of early maritime hunters in Kachemak Bay from about 4,000 years ago. An archaeological site on Chugachik Island at the entrance to Bear Cove indicated seasonal human habitation from about 2,800 years ago. These people hunted harbor seals and harbor porpoises from the bay and marmot from the land. There is some evidence of beluga whales being consumed as well as Dungeness crabs. Bottom-dwelling fishes such as halibut, cod, sculpin, and starry flounder, were presumably taken with hook and line. In the 18th century when Russian fur traders arrived in Cook Inlet, much of Kachemak Bay was in the territory of Dena’ina Athabaskans. These people had adopted the material culture of the Pacific maritime Aluttiq and used skin boats and harpoons to hunt sea mammals. Archaeological work at an ancient village site near Halibut Cove called Soonoondra, about 10 miles (16 km) southwest of Bear Cove, suggests that the Dena’ina occupied Kachemak Bay for the last 1,000 years. In 1786, Grigory Shelikhov sent a party under Vasilli Malakhov to attack the Dena’ina in retaliation for their part in a battle on Shuyak Island in the Kodiak Archipelago. Malakhov established Fort Alexandrovsk in English Bay at present-day Nanwalek near the entrance to Kachemak Bay. In 1789, Gerasim Izmailov entered Cook Inlet and explored Kachemak Bay, and an island in Halibut Cove is named after him. In 1794, the Russians attacked Soonoondra and took many young girls and women back to the fort, and kept them as wives. European diseases eventually decimated the Dena’ina, and along with cultural changes, their population dwindled. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, both Dena’ina and Euro-Americans in Kachemak Bay fished for Pacific herring on a small-scale subsistence basis. Herring spawned in the extensive eelgrass beds along the shores of the bay including Bear Cove. In 1914, the first commercial herring fishery opened and the industry grew slowly until 1917 when the U.S. government successfully introduced a new method of processing herring called Scotch curing. In 1918, the industry boomed largely because of the new curing method, and there were 15 herring salteries and reduction plants in Kachemak Bay. From 1919 to 1926, the number of plants in Lower Cook Inlet increased to 32. The fishery ended in 1928 when the herring population collapsed and never recovered. Possible causes for the collapse include overfishing and pollution of the spawning areas. Bear Cove and other shallow embayments in Kachemak Bay once had extensive eelgrass beds, an essential habitat that supported a high abundance and diversity of marine fishes and invertebrates. Eelgrass also provides other important ecological functions such as oxygen production, nutrient recycling, erosion control, and contaminant filtration. In Alaska, eelgrass is often the preferred spawning substrate for herring and provides a rearing habitat in spring and summer for many other commercial and forage fish species. The herring crash was ecologically catastrophic to Steller sea lions, seals, porpoises, beluga whales, and many species of birds that ate large quantities of the fish as well as eggs deposited on eelgrass in the spring.

Several prominent pioneer Alaskans homesteaded the land surrounding Bear Cove beginning in the late 1940s including Harold and Roxy Pomeroy, and Ted and Elsa Pederson. Much of the land surrounding Bear Cove has since been subdivided into over 150 small parcels that are mostly undeveloped except for few seasonal and vacation residences and one oyster farm. Harold Pomeroy moved to Alaska in 1949 and later became director of the Alaska Department of Civil Defense and the first chairman or mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough. His wife, Roxolana (Roxy) Skobelska was born in 1924 in Ukraine. She studied at the University of Vienna and was a courier for the anti-Nazi underground during World War II. After the war, she worked as an interpreter for the Allied occupation of Austria. In 1948, she emigrated to the United States and in 1949 moved to Alaska. She and Harold had a sawmill and small farm on a Bear Cove homestead and sold timber and vegetables in the Homer area. They moved to Soldotna in 1963 and later to Anchorage. Ted Pedersen was born in 1905 on Samalga Island in the Aleutians, the son of Captain Christian T. Pedersen who was a well-known Norwegian whaler and fur trader. His Aleut mother died in 1906. After completing his education, he worked as a lighthouse keeper at Cape Saint Elias on Kayak Island and Cape Sarichef on Unimak Island. He married his second wife, Elsa, in 1942 and the couple homesteaded at Bear Cove in 1945. He later worked as a marine pilot in the Aleutians until 1985. Elsa was a prolific writer and often published in Alaska magazine, national publications, and for the Anchorage Daily News until 1995. In 1988, the Aquatic Farm Act was signed into law authorizing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to issue permits for the construction and operation of aquatic farms. The Pacific oyster or Japanese oyster is native to the Pacific coast of Asia and has become an introduced species in North America, Australia, Europe, and New Zealand. Oyster farms in Kachemak Bay such as Early Tides Seafarms in Bear Cove use lantern nets suspended from surface floats to keep oysters constantly submerged so these filter feeders have continuous access to a natural high abundance of plankton. Although native to warmer waters, the Pacific oyster in Alaska can achieve similar growth rates to other locations in the Pacific Northwest and be commercially successful because of the dense plankton blooms. Read more here and here. Explore more of Bear Cove and Kachemak Bay here:

About the background graphic

This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2022 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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