Face to face with Portage Glacier

Thursday, April 18, 2013 - 11:11
Portage Glacier

Skiing was nearly effortless as I glided across Portage Lake, its smooth surface covered with a firm crust that allowed my metal-edged skis enough purchase to kick forward with ease.

April 5 was the last in a string of bluebird days that were sure to end soon. A  few other folks were enjoying the bright sunshine, appearing in the distance as small black dots as I peered out across the lake’s expanse. Drawing closer, I noticed that some were skate skiing and dashing quickly toward the lake’s far shore.

“These are the kind of days in the year that you can count on one hand,” I thought to myself.

Several years ago when I skied across the three-mile-long lake with a friend, a storm blew up quickly and lashed us with 40 mile-per-hour headwinds on the return trip. This time weather was idyllic.  I was in no hurry to reach the end of the lake where I could see the glacier.

Portage Glacier was a local name first recorded in 1898 by Thomas Corwin Mendenhall of the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey — so called because it is on a portage  route between Prince William Sound and Turnagain Arm.

Hundreds of years ago the glacier filled the entire Portage Valley, a distance of 14 miles, and was connected to what are now five separate glaciers.

When I was a teenager we could see the glacier’s face from the parking lot, and as it gradually retreated around the bend over the past half century, large icebergs littered the fjord it left behind. Today, tourists and other visitors catch a commercial boat from the lake’s southern shore for a glimpse at the retreating ice massif.

The blue, mangled face of the glacier reared up in front of me as I rounded the bend, beckoning me to ski closer. The lake ice was solid and I could see old tracks leading directly toward the base of the towering ice wall.

On that earlier trip I mentioned, we attempted to ski very close to the glacier, but  the ice was much thinner and less stable. When I shoved a ski pole down into open water, we quickly decided it was time to get the heck out of there.

Even with stable ice conditions on this day, I kept my distance from the glacier’s face — about 500 yards.

Two orange tents were pitched on the lake’s far shore — a nice camp location at the glacier’s edge. I wonder if the campers were aware snow was forecast for the following day. With clear blue skies in every direction, you’d never know a change of weather was afoot.

The campers were equipped with a tripod and were taking some extreme close-up photos of the glacier. Out on the lake, a few black dots moved about in random directions.

I sat by a snow-caked rock above the lakeshore and enjoyed some lunch.  Relaxing in the warm sun, I was entertained by a few ptarmigan that had landed about 30 feet away and were engaged in territorial clucking. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a snowshoe hare scamper hurriedly down a snowy hill and disappear into a ravine. Coyote tracks that barely left indentations in the hard snow crust — obviously quite fresh — could have been the reason for the hare’s apparent nervousness.

With the firm crust on the lake, even a clunky classical skier like me made good time. It took about 1-1/2 hours to cross the lake and about the same to return. I’m sure a good skate skier could have done it in about 1/3 the time. But on a day like this, what was the hurry?

Fat-tire bike tracks crossed the lake, but with its surface so firm, there was no conflict with skiers. Some people were simply walking across the lake.

Glancing at the mountains on the drive back to Anchorage along Turnagain Arm, their snow-caked slopes shining in the afternoon sun like satin blankets, I was reminded of how strong my bond is with Alaska — especially after a recent trip to the dry and parched U.S. southwest.

“This is my country and will always be,” I thought to myself. “Our winters are long, cold and dark, but then a day like this comes along.  Nothing compares to a day like this.”

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank, email [email protected].

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