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?