By Clark Fair
Every year, thousands of tourists and other travelers stop at Tern Lake, at the junction of the Seward and Sterling highways, to gawk at terns or swans, to photograph waterfowl, to capture the reflection of the surrounding mountains, or simply to stand in awe of this freshwater jewel glistening in the summer sun. Most of these visitors to the lake are blithely unaware, however, that half a century ago this body of water was basically just a marsh, and that it was not always named Tern Lake.
In the late 1940s, when tour bus driver Willard Dunham used to haul passengers from the steamships docking in Seward’s harbor up the rough new Seward Highway, one of his regular stops along the way was what was then called Mud Lake because it was—despite its attraction to terns even then—little more than a spongy bog.
In fact, a 1915 reconnaissance map of the area depicts no body of water there at all.
Today, Tern Lake sits at a confluence of asphalt ribbons and alpine valleys. Travelers can drive west toward Seward, north toward Anchorage, or east toward Soldotna and Kenai. To the west lies Trail Lake and Trail River; to the north, the upper Quartz Creek and Summit Creek drainages; and to the east the lower Quartz Creek and upper Kenai River drainages. Tern Lake itself is drained by the narrow, meandering waters of Daves Creek, which parallels the Sterling Highway east until it dumps into Quartz Creek and continues toward Sunrise Inn on lower Kenai Lake. Tern Lake is fed largely by snow melt from the surrounding mountains, chiefly Wrong Mountain, just west of Crescent Lake.
Daves Creek and Tern Lake form high-quality spawning and rearing habitat for chinook, coho and sockeye salmon, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden char, slimy sculpin and round whitefish. These fish in their various stages attract predators such as the terns, and the flora in the lake and along its perimeter attract browsing moose and feeding, dam-building beavers. Because of the lake’s location, it is an ideal spot for wildlife viewing, and throughout the summer camera-toting passersby can be seen sliding from the seats of their vehicles parked in the large turnout along the lake’s northern shore.
Even back in Dunham’s day, the lake was an attraction because the terns were so plentiful. “I’d stop at Mud Lake and let (the tourists) watch the terns—feeding, chasing ducks, and nesting,” Dunham said. “And the terns were always there. Loads of ‘em, and they were great to watch.”
Dunham, who arrived in Seward as a teen-ager in 1943, drove one of three 1937 buses that his boss had purchased from Washington State Transit and had shipped north to Seward. Up and down the graveled highway, Dunham carried 27 passengers at a time into the Cooper Landing area. Each trip—a two-way distance of approximately 110 miles—took almost eight hours to complete, including sight-seeing stops, and Dunham made this trip twice a week, every Tuesday and Thursday throughout the summer months of 1948, ’49 and ’50.
“We used to pick up the passengers and sell trips to what was called Henton’s Lodge at that time—where they cross on the ferry and the combat fishing is now. Henton’s was the Sportsman’s Lodge. That was the end of my trip.”
Along the way, Dunham stopped in Moose Pass or near Crescent Creek to see if any miners were on hand to perform a demonstration, spin a few yarns, and give a spiel to the tourists. He also turned in at Lawing to show them Alaska Nellie’s place, and he pulled in for a few minutes at Our Point of View above Kenai Lake. Dunham also fed his patrons—usually a cold beef sandwich, some chips and hot coffee at Henton’s—before turning back toward Seward.
It was a good gig, Dunham said, until a few tour-bus competitors arrived in Seward and took away some of his business. Until then, he said, the tours had been going strong, and the tourists had especially enjoyed the terns at Mud Lake.
Of course, Dunham said, tourists weren’t the only ones who enjoyed the Mud Lake area. He said that it was fairly easy to circumnavigate the lake on foot in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and he was among a number of men who used to pack in their shotguns to get at the abundant waterfowl. “I used to do a lot of duck hunting in there,” Dunham said. “It was a great fall place because the flocks came up through the canyon there. When the weather was bad or socked in on either side, they would land in Mud Lake because it was a great place to feed.”
He also recalled that moose hunters occasionally trod the bogs to nail a feeding bull. “I remember one time some fool shot a bull over there. It went in about belly-deep in the water, and he had a helluva time. Finally, he was just going to leave it, but we forced him to go get a boat and go get it out of there.”
Over time, the Tern Lake basin has continued to fill, and some topographic maps now show it to be nearly three-quarters of a mile long in places, although it is dotted with tiny mossy islands, making it difficult to fully appreciate it size when standing at lake level.
Although the outlet of Daves Creek was altered when the Sterling Highway was constructed in the late 1940s, and changed somewhat again when the highway was realigned in the 1960s, Dunham believes that these changes don’t fully account for the lake’s growth. He does, however, believe that a combination of nearby roadbeds and building construction may have altered the water table.
He also believes that melting pockets of glacier ice in the surrounding mountains have gradually filled the Tern Lake basin.
According to Cooper Landing historian, Mona Painter, the “driving force” in changing the name of the lake from Mud to Tern was a Seward resident named Luella McMullen James, who owned an apparel store named McMullen’s on Fourth Avenue in Seward. James also owned a summer cabin on lower Kenai Lake, and she didn’t think that “Mud” adequately suited the beauty and all it had to offer.
The change became official sometime in the 1960s.
This article originally appeared on Clark Fair’s blog in 2010.
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Clark Fair, a lifetime Alaskan now living in Homer, grew up on a homestead in the Soldotna area. He is a former high school English teacher and journalist who now does freelance writing and photography and works part time for Kenai Peninsula College.