The Portage Glacier, between Girdwood and Whittier Alaska, is most commonly experienced from the comfort of a short one-hour cruise across Portage Lake from the Begich Boggs Visitor Center. Travelers flock to the boats each summer to catch a glimpse of a glacier first-hand and lean out over the rails hoping to witness ice calving into the lake from the terminal face of the Portage. This is an easy afternoon activity for those wishing to catch a first glimpse of an Alaskan Glacier, but I had something a little more adventurous in mind. If I’m going to see a glacier, I want to get right up close and touch it, to explore the ice and it’s miraculous features at arms reach, not from quarter mile away on a boat with a hundred other people.
When I came to the visitor center, I was searching for information on the Byron Glacier, potentially to make a half-day hike out and photograph the nearby glacier. The rangers, as usual, tried to convince me hiking to the actual glacier was not practical, or at least not recommended. They did however point out the Portage Pass hike, which I had heard of only in passing, which started from Whittier and led up over the pass and down to the far end of Portage Lake. No trails navigated the shore of the lake from one side to the other, due to incredibly steep rocky terrain, and even the road into Whittier required the use of the 2.5 mile long Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel (the longest highway tunnel in America) to enter or leave the small town. The hike up and over the pass granted views of a number of small glaciers as well as the Portage Glacier from the shore of the lake. Looking over the map of the trail, I decided to spend the day hiking to Portage Lake and attempt a crossing to the glacier of the same name, as well as perhaps the Burns and Shakespeare Glaciers nearby. Of course, the rangers said you couldn’t get to any of them on foot, but people tell me that far too often – I would have to see for myself.
The Anton Anderson Tunnel into Whittier is a single lane, shared by vehicle traffic in either direction as well as the Alaska Railroad, delivering passengers along the scenic train ride from Girdwood to Whittier. Traffic is allowed through in each direction only once an hour; on the hour into town and on the half hour out – with the occasional delay for the train to pass through when necessary. I had 40 minutes until the next pulse of traffic was allowed in, so I picked up a breakfast of a bagel and cookie at the nearby lodge, the only food for miles around, and waited in line with the rest of the traffic to enter Whittier. At 15 mph, the 2.5 mile tunnel takes some time to drive through the Chugach Mountains into Whittier at the head of Prince William Sound. The Sound often holds it’s own weather separate from that on the mainland side of the tunnel. Today I got lucky, as I emerged into daylight with only a few clouds overhead. As the saying goes, “The weather’s always shittier in Whittier.” But as I set out from the trailhead the day was absolutely perfect for a long hike. The locals seemed to agree, as I saw more people out on the trail than I had ever seen around town – presumably they all stay indoors most days hiding from the weather. Families and people of all ages were out hiking, though traffic eased up a lot near the summit of Portage Pass.
|Portage Pass summit and Portage Glacier in the distance|
It seemed most people turned around here, but there was hardly even a view! Sure Portage Glacier could be seen in the distance, as well as the nearby Shakespeare Glacier and several tall peaks, but from what I had heard the trail maintained it’s easy slope all the way down to the lake, just over two miles from the trailhead. It seemed a shame that anyone turn around here. Before I continued down, I spent a short time wandering near the pass and spotted what looked like a trail leading toward the Shakespeare Glacier. I decided I would wait until the way back to explore that route, being much more excited about the Portage and Burns Glacier near the lake.
|Shakespeare Glacier from Portage Pass|
The total trip from trailhead to lake read 2.2 miles on my GPS, taking only almost exactly an hour and having gained and again lost only around 200 feet in elevation. I was surprised by how little I had heard of this hike and how few people I would see at the edge of the lake that day. For such an easy hike it granted some incredible views! I highly recommend the trail to anyone visiting or living in Alaska.
|Field of sweet pea on the shore of Portage Lake|
After a shallow stream crossing, I skirted the lake toward where the map said the Burns glacier terminated into Portage Lake. I knew from my conversation with the rangers at the visitor center that the glacier had receded some distance, but I had no idea how far that really was. On the southeast shore, I met two guys with a tent set up, having spent the night listening to the Portage Glacier calve into the lake nearby. They even reported witnessing an avalanche high up on the peaks in the distance. Quite the exciting campsite!
As the two packed up camp to head out, I followed the large river, undoubtedly the outlet of the Burns Glacier from the looks of it. Entering a forest of alder, the river quickly led me to a large impassible waterfall.
|Waterfall from above, after scrambling around to the next ledge|
From here, my day got a lot more interesting. I headed up into the thick alder, squeezing and pushing my way through the dense branches uphill, roughly following the river. After some time, I emerged into an open rock shelf and spotted a cairn nearby. A trail? Of course, someone has to have been through to the glacier. Researchers or explorers must have marked a trail through the miserable terrain to get to the Burns. I fumbled my way up the overgrown trail by watching for trail tape and the occasional cairn the rest of the way until I spotted the glacier over the younger plants of the more recently deglaciated terrain.
|Finally the plants are getting shorter! A bit of trail tape marks the route to Burns Glacier|
Finally emerging into flat rocky terrain, I was granted a spectacular view of the face of the Burns Glacier and a massive exit moulin spilling out all the water of the raging river next to me.
|Ice cave where the river exits Burns Glacier|
Stunned by the size of the massive cave the river was pouring out of, I was determined to give some sort of scale to my photo. I set up my tripod and ran as far as I could in 10 seconds before the camera’s self-timer went off. It took a few tries to get close enough for some effect but also to be standing still when the camera snapped the photo. Sometimes I wonder why I don’t just always carry my infrared remote for this sort of situation…
|Standing in front of the ice cave and recently collapsed ice|
Satisfied, I walked around the left side to find a more gentle slope to climb up onto the ice for some proper exploring. I strapped on my crampons and scampered up the slope. I spent only a short time poking around the glacier but saw plenty of moulins, undoubtedly draining into the massive river running below the glacier to the large cave I had just stood by. Crevasses close to the terminus were wide but shallow. On the far side of the glacier I found a thin bridge of ice over a tunnel, likely carved out by a stream running in from the mountains above.
|Deep moulin on Burns Glacier|
|Curvy moulin drainage|
|Crevasses looking down Burns toward Portage Lake|
|Ice cave/tunnel under thin ice bridge on Burns Glacier|
|Burns Glacier Terminus from glacier-left side|
From atop the Burns I could just see the ice of the lower Portage Glacier when I got an idea: Instead of following the trail back to the lake and crossing the river down low like a reasonable person, I would traverse the Burns, then follow the mountainside around to access the Portage Glacier. Then I could follow the ice of the Portage down to its terminus and cross the river along the shore of the lake to regain the trail back toward the Pass. I exited the glacier on the far side from where I had started, thinking the hardest part, surely, would be finding a way across the deep, ice-cold Burns river once back on the lakeshore. I made quick work of the rocky section beyond the Burns Glacier, looking back I felt like I had covered a good distance in around 20 minutes.
|Looking back toward Burns Glacier|
Then came time for the alder bashing. Alder bashing is what Alaskan’s lovingly call bushwhacking through alder, and it often gets so thick you have to muscle your way through, often coming out looking and feeling like you’ve been into a fight with someone much stronger than you. After 40 minutes I was completely exhausted from squeezing between alder, climbing over and through branches, getting stuck and held off the ground only by my backpack straps multiple times, and occasionally slipping down the steep slope, but quickly caught by the same alder I was struggling so hard to move through. That’s when I looked to my GPS and found that I had traveled 0.15 miles… about 800 feet. In 40 minutes. The estimated half mile to the Portage would be suicide. If I even could make it through it would take hours, and this terrain was just asking for a broken ankle or twisted knee, with the terrain making an exit near impossible and rescue, without a chainsaw, equally improbable. I had stopped in what looked to be an avalanche slide path, the alder broken down through a rocky chute cut amongst the forest. This was my chance to drop back to the river without backtracking all the way around. The chute was loose rock all the way, and quickly became slippery when I passed a small spring pumping water into the rocky gully. My emergency exit seemed to be working as I got closer to the lake’s elevation, but that quickly ended a few hundred feet from the river when the terrain flattened out and the slide path ended. I was again surrounded by thick alder, and fought my way toward the sound of the river ahead. When I finally exited the alder I was a mere 15-foot river crossing from where I had begun the hike to the Burns Glacier. The way up had taken me just over an hour, and the way down well over two hours. What a short cut!
|Looking up the dry avalanche path on my descent|
|The narrow line just left of center shows the avalanche path I scrambled down|
I had wasted a lot of time, and had over four hours to drive that night (after getting through the tunnel) to be back to work the next day. I would have to keep my visit with the Portage Glacier short.
|Portage Glacier from the shore of Portage Lake|
I walked the rocky shore to near the base of the glacier, but the terminus looked pretty scary. It held massive amounts of ice in broken vertical walls, a result of the water below and ice calving off the cliffs into the lake. I decided on a route up the rock near the left side of the glacier that had looked quite steep from the other side of the lake. I found it an easy scramble to a place where the glacier was just a mellow slope and had a few blocky sections with cool features. I snapped a few photos but didn’t even bother to put on the crampons to walk up the glacier, as I was still unsure how long crossing the river would take.
|Serac on the lower Portage Glacier|
I returned to the river entering the lake from the Burns Glacier. It was running high, cold and fast. I threw large rocks as far as I could into the river to judge the depth, and didn’t care much for the result. It looked deep. I walked the length of the river back to the waterfall and saw no easy way over. Staying dry would mean scrambling/alder-bashing all the way back to the Burns Glacier and traversing back over the way I had come. Probably a 2-3 hour endeavor. I resigned to getting wet, found a long sturdy stick and took my pants off so they would be dry when I got across, but put my boots back on without socks. I wanted my feet as dry as possible after I got across, but didn’t want to chance crossing barefoot and slipping on the rocks in the swift river. Plus, slowly picking my way across with bare feet would mean more time in the water versus getting out quickly and warming back up before hiking out with damp boots. If all went well, damp feet for the hour-long hike out would be of little consequence. I had packed a drybag for my camera, which would now be shared with my clothes and jacket, so that if I fell over, or if the river was deeper than I thought, I would still have dry clothing to put on even if my pack got wet. The first couple steps were cold, but not as bad as when the water was as deep as my belly button. The swift, freezing water threatened to push me down and sweep me into the iceberg-filled lake below, but with a tripod in one hand and hiking stick in the other, I kept three points of contact and moved one side step at a time until it became shallow again, then I ran up the opposite bank to bask in the sun before getting dressed again. I threw the stick back across thinking if anyone else found themselves on the wrong side of the river it would be a helpful tool to cross back to safety.
I returned to the far shore where the trail came down and sat to enjoy the view. I had hoped to witness a calving event from the Portage Glacier but had no such luck.
|Iceberg floating in front of Portage Glacier|
It suddenly registered in my mind that the way out of Whittier the tunnel is open on every half hour, not on the hour, meaning I had 45 minutes to the next pulse, or an hour and 45 to the one after. Remembering I had to drive for four hours still, I jumped up and jogged the trail as much as I could, skipping the Shakespeare Glacier and arriving at the trailhead just 40 minutes after leaving the lake. Since I was a short distance from the tunnel I made it just in time to see the sign change signifying a train delay.
|Alaska Railroad train heading toward the Whittier Tunnel|
I sat for another 20 minutes while the train passed through the tunnel and reflected on how crazy Alaska is. The idea that an hour long, very popular hiking trail can put a person so close to absolute wilderness and in the absence of almost any other person is just incredible. The tunnel opened and I began the long drive back to camp at the similarly wild Matanuska Glacier, just minutes from the highway. Alaska really is amazing!
Interesting note: in 1914 the Portage Glacier flowed as far as where the Begich Boggs Visitor Center now sits. It was named Portage because it previously provided an easily traveled route from Prince William Sound into the Turnagain Arm. If you visit, look out over the lake and imagine that one hundred years ago the glacier that you can’t even see around the mountain stretched all the way across the current location of the lake to where the visitor center is currently standing.
Burns Glacier Statistics:
Type: Valley Glacier
Location: Kenai Mountains between Portage Lake and Blackstone Bay
Source: Whittier Glacier
Length: ~2 mi estimate – judging by the old maps and the location the terminus is now
Width: ~1/2 mi est.
Access: Portage Pass Trail, then bushwhacking/poor trail south along the river.
Portage Glacier Statistics:
Type: Valley Glacier
Location: Kenai Mountains and Chugach National Forest
Source: Carpathian and Byron Peaks
Length: 6 miles
Width: ~1 mile est.
Access: 2.2 mi Portage Pass trail to the lake viewpoint, getting to the glacier is another mile and not-so-fun river crossing. Not recommended. See also Portage Glacier Cruise online for an easier trip!