Portage Pass Trail: Footsteps into the past
Hopping over the gray, weather-rounded boulders and cobbles down to the sandy shore of Portage Lake, we were following an important route of miners and much earlier, Alaska Natives and Russian fur traders. But looking out at the lake and the hulking face of Portage Glacier on its far shore, we knew our view was much different than that of those early pioneers. Instead of a three-mile-long lake, a fjord, the glacier was right in their face — a towering cliff of ice that filled a good portion of the valley to a depth of several hundred feet.
In the 1890s, when the Alaska gold rush brought in the first big influx of non-Natives, steamships entered Prince William Sound’s Passage Canal and docked at the foot of Portage Pass, where Whittier is now. The ships dropped off prospectors who were headed for gold strikes near Hope and Sunrise on Turnagain Arm, Sixmile Creek and other sites on the Kenai Peninsula.
The fortune seekers hauled their supplies 1-1/2 miles up and over Portage Pass, which had been gouged out of the earth long ago by a lobe of Portage Glacier. By the time the prospectors entered the area at the turn of the 19th century, ice had retreated far enough to allow access from tidewater through the Pass. But after crossing over the pass they were confronted with the steep east face of the glacier. Scaling it and hoisting up their gear required ropes and pulleys. They then hiked a beaten path across the ice through Portage Valley and rambled down to Turnagain Arm.
While some followed a roundabout route to the south around the Arm, some built ships and braved the fierce tides of Cook Inlet to reach Sunrise, Hope and other locations. According to The History of Mining on the Kenai Peninsula by Mary J. Barry, in early 1896, Sunrise was a small settlement of about a dozen log cabins.
The journey through Portage Pass, down through Portage Valley and to Sunrise covered about 30 miles. According to one account, the trip took 17 days.
Sunrise grew rapidly at the close of the 19th century as successive waves of gold stampeders arrived at Turnagain Arm. By mid-summer 1896, Sunrise was reported to have several stores, a brewery, two saloons and two restaurants.
A shrinking landmark: When someone asks me my age, I can generally evoke a laugh when I say that I was around when Portage Glacier was a lot bigger. When I was in high school back in the 1960s, for example, the glacier stretched nearly half way across the lake. In 1993 it retreated out of sight of the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center. Today, the only way to see it in summer is to hike the Portage Pass Trail or take the boat cruise, which departs from the west side of the lake just past the Byron Glacier trail. In winter the lake’s ice conditions often allow one to ski to the glacier.
To get to the Portage Pass trailhead, drive through the tunnel and take a small gravel road right less than ¼ mile after coming out at Whittier. As you face west, Portage Pass is an obvious landmark. The trail begins at its base where there is a small parking area.
The trail to the summit of the pass is gradual and amounts to a 750-foot elevation gain. You’ll see hanging glaciers, waterfalls and have a great view back over your shoulder at Prince William Sound. Coming over the pass, the incredible mass of Portage Glacier fills your vision. From the top of the pass it’s about ½-mile down to the beach. The U.S. Forest Service has significantly improved this portion of the trail.
As it is in glacier country, weather is quite unpredictable. Even on a blue-sky summer day, take along an extra layer and rain gear.
For at least part of the Portage Pass Trail, modern-day sojourners can say they are following the footsteps of Alaska’s early pioneers. But not as you descend into Portage Valley and approach the lake. At that point 100 years ago, those intrepid travelers no longer walked on terra firma. They entered a world of ice — and lots of it.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and columnist who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank, email [email protected].