Late Sunday, while out on a lazy afternoon drive, I made the very spontaneous decision to undergo a winter expedition to Portage Glacier. Okay, “winter expedition” sounds a little dramatic since venturing out to the glacier entails merely walking across a frozen lake for 4 miles and returning. Total elevation gain: zero feet. Total time: about 2 hours.
I decided to go on my spontaneous hike shortly before sunset. I didn’t have a hat, gloves, water, basic survival skills or common sense. But I did have a camera, so I took off.
Portage Glacier is in the corner of Portage Lake about an hours drive from Anchorage. The glacier is tucked around the bend of a mountain, and isn’t visible during the walk across the lake. Atop the lake was a layer of snow with a straight trail packed hard by walkers, cross country skiers, dogs, sleds and bikes.
An Anxious Hike
Halfway out on the lake the sheer enormity of the place came into perspective. In all directions majestic peaks soared above me and although I’d walked maybe two miles, it looked like I’d crossed a small state. Distance is deceiving when there are no trees or landmarks to offer a sense of scale.
I was totally alone on the lake. The whole expanse took on an eerie, ominous silence, save for the occasional disconcerting cracking of ice. Portage was home to one of the most dramatic and destructive earthquakes known to man, the Good Friday Earthquake in 1964, about 50 years ago to the day.
Irrational thoughts spread through my mind. I gauged how close I was to the shore in case an earthquake struck and the lake split open, looking for the best escape route. Of course in the event of a huge quake, there would likely be avalanches, so I had to consider that.
I thought to myself: What if for some reason I get lost and have to stay the night on the ice? I felt comforted by the fact that the bears were still hibernating. At least they won’t eat me, I thought. Then I heard a wolf howl in the distance.
Then I realized I had no cell service. That was comforting. It was getting cold and dark. I seemingly had a considerable distance to my goal, to the glacier. I looked back at the parking lot, barely visible in the distance, and pressed on, the arctic explorer that I am.
I reached a bend in the lake and I thought the glacier has to be right around the corner. With childlike enthusiasm I skipped ahead, but alas, the corner gave way to more rock and ice but no glacier. I decided to turn back. The glacier must be a considerable distance away, I reckoned.*
I walked back across the frozen expanse, defeated. Soon, Portage Lake will be just that, a lake, and the only way to access the glacier will be by boat. My chance to the see the glacier was gone.
On the drive home I stopped in Girdwood and ate the best cheesy-jalapeno hot dog ever to ease my pain. Arctic exploration builds up hunger.
Portage Glacier Winter Hike Success
Haunted by my failure, the next day I kidnapped my wife and we headed to the glacier. Hiking to the glacier is much more fun and less nerve-wracking with a companion. Kristi walked in front of me, serving as my canary in the coal mine. If she fell through a soft spot in the ice, that would be a good indication for me to turn back.
After walking for nearly an hour, we reached the point where I retreated the day before. We walked another 100 feet or so and were greeted with this stunning view:
Glaciers, for lack of a better term, are awesome, and Portage did not disappoint. We snapped our obligatory jumping photos and turned back. I happened to be prepared with gloves and a hat this time; Kristi wore jeans and a sweater. She had warmer clothes but she had to make a fashion statement at the glacier. Girls.
Heading back, Kristi decided to run since she was freezing. This allowed me to stroll along, happy in my thoughts. I was able to truly enjoy the scenery without the anxiety of being there alone.
But then my thoughts ran wild: maybe she shouldn’t be running. Maybe her running up there is putting pressure on the lake and causing a crack for me to fall in. What is the best route to the shore if this thing opens up?
And damn I’m hungry. I need one of those cheesy hot dogs.
*The glacier was right around the bend
Portage Winter Hike Photo Gallery
Click on any photo to open a slideshow view
Do you prefer to hike alone or with people?
Have you ever been lost in the wilderness in the winter and had to fight off wolves for survival?
Jeff these are incredible shots. As a long time climber I am adamant about not being alone in the wilderness and basically I am a chicken. Haven’t had to fend off any wolves but definitely been in some areas with a group where the Grizzly bear scat was still steaming.
I don’t ever go into the backcountry alone, but I almost always hike in the front country in Denali on my own. There are normally other hikers in the area and in some places there is cell service. But it can still be unnerving.
Coming that close to fresh bear scat is definitely unnerving!
We were hiking out from Mt Assiniboine. Several days later there was a bear attack and the guy managed to survive by getting his bear spray out when the bear had him down. The trail was closed following. You think?!
The other night I was hanging out with a park ranger and two veteran tour bus drivers and I heard the 4 funniest stories involving bear spray that you can imagine.
I have posts to follow soon. Bear spray does work, both on bears and a busload of tourists, I learned.
Oh my. Looking forward to those posts Jeff!
How exciting to complete your self imposed challenge and what lovely shots – all I can say is that nowadays not for me but wonderful to enjoy the story and photos
It was a sense of accomplishment making it back. Had I not returned, I’d have been haunted by it.
It’s nice to hear you are focusing on the beauty around you and not distracted by irrational fears! I enjoyed the humour.
It must be special to be so close to such amazing scenery. Great photos.
It is nice to be surrounded by this beauty. Yesterday I moved from Anchorage to Denali for the summer and the mountain was out the entire drive. Mt. McKinley, or Denali by the native name, is a sight that never gets old.
AMEN .. and do have a Wonderful Summer. Looking forward to reading all about it.
Thanks Marilyn. With all the snow everywhere, summer feels a long ways off!
Nice photo’s. I wouldn’t walk alone if possible, especially if I don’t know the area. Also the mind races with feelings of impending doom when on your own, better to have someone to talk to about your fears. It’s always reassuring to have a friend or relative question your sanity.
True, it is nice to have someone to keep you grounded.
This is absolutely amazing!
I would often prefer to be alone while taking many of my wildlife photos but sadly that is not possible as we live in tourist area. 🙂
Do you have any spots you can go to avoid the groups? I have found that walking over 1/4 of a mile or climbing up over 25ft in elevation separates me from most of the hordes 🙂
I always feel like that when I’m hiking: our destination must just be around this corner … and then just more trees, mountain, rock, etc.
I’m also the canary when hiking and sometimes bait too: when hiking in bear infested woods and swimming in shark infested waters. I’m probably doomed.
That is payback for your husband having to carry your stuff – you have to be bait for bears.
Ugh. I knew that would come back to haunt me. You’d think since he was carrying everything, I’d be able to outrun him, but exercising on a regular basis has given him an advantage. Perhaps I should go for a jog around the block?
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Hysterical, Jeff! You had me cracking up from beginning to end. This does sound like a awesome way to spend a winter afternoon. I’m very jealous that it is right outside your doorstep!
Alaska has a lot of really cool places to visit. The summer is so short that it is hard to do it all then, but luckily places like Portage are accessible in the winter.
Appreciate your info and the comedy. LOL I’ll be heading out there today 2/20/2017, Lord willing with success.
Good luck! I hope you enjoy that amazing spot.
As I stated in my previous post, I did go on the winter hike over the frozen lake to Portage Glacier. I’m heavy and had no snow shoes or skis, and wearing just running shoes (not a good idea).
My feet feel through and into freezing cold lake water MANY times, not I did not give up. Towards the middle and beyond the surface hardens and is less of a pain (if you are a light person, you’ll be fine).
Made it, took lots of photos, then headed back INTO the persistent cold harsh winds towards the shore.
I wimped out and headed for the road (had to pass through tunnel), to my truck.
I was picked up by a nice fella which dropped me off at my truck. I have photos……my pants and shoes were covered with large, softball sized ice balls from the repeated dips into the icy waters. Hahaha
Word to the wise, wear extra socks, waterproof boots and bring a face mask to protect against the windsame on the return trip. 🙂
Thank you for the feedback! The lake was frozen much more solid when I want, and I did it in April. Glad you survived, even with wet feet.