Portage Glacier, an Alaskan journey in time
Portage Glacier across the two miles of lake. Surrounded by towering mountains that plunge straight into the water. Nature’s splendour right in front of me. Old friends we are, meeting once in a while. Today Gibbs will paddle his way up to greet the glacier again.
Portage Glacier is an Earth time travel
I am not so much planning as listening and analyzing – sensing with my skin the temperature of the air and force of the wind, feeling for distant unseen weather patterns and divining their impact, or not, on the day. It was a deeper warmth kind of day, the kind that can be rare in South Central Alaska. A warm that goes quietly into the bones, not intensely hot like a scorcher in Death Valley or a melty soaker in the humidity of Boston. It’s the kind of warm that settles deep onto the day and will not be swayed by a capricious wind or doused with sudden showers. It’s a day that clothing for modesty sake is all that is required. I like the feel of the lightweight shirt and the surfer length shorts. Or maybe the lack of feel that made my contact with the elements more immediate.
A retreating glacier
Portage Glacier is the second most visited tourism destination after Denali National Park. In the early 1960s you could drive to the end of the five mile road from the Seward Highway turn-off, and bump right into it. End of the glacier, beginning of the glacier fed stream that meandered to Turnagain Arm, with its load of silt to add to the gray gritty waters. When I was a teen, 10 years later, you could still see the glacier down at the far end of the lake, a mile and a half away. Winters we would climb on the icebergs two stories high and peer into their blue depths.
Nowadays that giant mass of snow, compressed by gravity as intensely as Miles Davis muscular cheeks blowing a very long note, was around the corner, out of sight. A tour boat, The MV Ptarmigan, does five daily one hour tours in the summer. I won’t embark, as I’ve set my mind to getting there on my own power. That way I will have the luxury of getting up close and personal on my own time.
A glacier is one of the most sublimely practical and extravagant things Nature does.
Why? Because Glacier. Because there is something about the vastness of those untold trillions of snowflakes floating and piling and getting denser and denser under their own weight that makes me feel humbled and bigger at the same time. Because I like taking pictures of beautiful aspects of Nature. And a glacier is one of the most sublimely practical and extravagant things Nature does: practical to store 68.7 percent of the world’s freshwater in ice and snow, most of which is in the form of icecaps or glaciers. This is only about 1.7 percent of the Earth’s total water. Oceans are bigger than glaciers. What a great working system, keeping all that freshwater chilled, fresh. A slow drip system, delivering water to all life on Earth – it needs to continue. This fridge uses no electricity but it does require maintenance.
Our freshwater fridge is having some difficulties…
Many glaciers are retreating, as is the Arctic and Antarctic ice pack, a lot. What does that mean? That there is not enough snow, Glacier food, to replace what is being lost in the warming months. More warming and less snow =more melt, less glaciers. Our freshwater fridge is having some difficulties. Portage Glacier has receded miles, though the last handful of years it has advanced and receded alternately, holding its ground.
A deep, cold lake to paddle
I make the final decision as I drive past the end of the lake and see low waves with smooth surfaces, no riffles dancing around. Usually, downdrafts from the snow fields and glaciers and the weather from Prince William Sound and the Turnagain Arm wreak havoc on these waters. It’s a go. I decide that I will shorten the trip by ½ mile and cast off near the tour boat dock, the rocky beach towards the glacier. Parked, I grab all gear, including the large pack with the un-inflated board in it. Several groups of tourists waiting for the next boat ride lounge on the sun warmed rocks. The waves are so small that the typical slapping sound is a gentle wet murmur. I stow the board bag, pump the blue board I had rented from SkiAK yesterday afternoon. This moment of launch had been a blue glimmer then.
Strange. I had forgotten how deep the lake, 800 glacier carved feet at its deepest, and how cold. I love swimming in cold water, something I learned camping on the shores of the Arctic Colville River. No showers there. Today swimming was something I wanted to avoid. No dry or wetsuit. Just last week, a seasoned sea kayaker and son had to be rescued when weather surprised them on a calm day like today, tipped them over. Too cold to do anything but hang on until the Ptarmigan’s engineer could get the skiff out to them. They couldn’t be rescued by the big boat, too rough. The rescuer himself told me this at the end of my journey.
On the water, I meet up with two kayakers, a father and son. I offer to photograph their adventure in exchange for the safer option of having some company. We travel near each other, the father takes some shots of me as well. They provide some great perspective against the backdrop of the lake and eventually for the grand giant Portage Glacier.
Alaska is home to approximately 100,000 glaciers according to an estimate from the Alaska Almanac, covering about 10% of the entire state according to the NSIDC or National Snow and Ice Data Center. Much of their information comes from NASA satellite photography. 616 of them have names, says the USGS Geographic Names Information System online data base.
I had settled into a rhythm. Paddle, pressing through my body into my feet, use my whole body rather than just arm movements to surge forward. It was a nice board. I had some light barefoot style shoes that gripped well. Kneel, swivel the dry bag on my waist to the front. Undo the seal, remove the camera, take photos, replace the camera, fold over the seal on the dry bag, latch and swivel the pouch to the back of my waist, stand back up and regain the stability found while paddling.
Turning the corner, seeing the glacier so vast, blue and white, large wrinkles of crevasses stretching further than I could see, burst a bubble of joy inside me. You know how heavy a bucket of water is? That is a lot of buckets of water, a lot of heavy pressing on the Earth, on my awareness. This initial burst settles to a sense of inner space even larger than the glacier. I hold it inside of me, fresh. This is the power of being in Nature, of getting close to a glacier. I would kiss it soon, but for now I simply perceive it, sensing like I had sensed the distant weather patterns earlier.
And luck is with me. I find a small alcove in the near sheer smooth gray rock rising straight up out of the water. It is the base of a large mountain that had long lines from rocks pressed by the weight of ice, gouging, making the rock flour that becomes the silt of Turnagain Arm’s grey gritty waters. I watch as my kayakers came around the corner several hundred yards behind me. Their spirits expand and revel in the view as had mine, a palpable thing. The father proud to offer such an experience to his son who has never seen a glacier, and the son surging ahead of the father to be first near the glacier, wanting to forge his own way. I take pictures as they paddle past. Getting closer than they really should as glaciers often calve, shedding large chunks of ice to form icebergs. Large waves can be generated from this. It seems stable, safe. They brightly bob, posing in front of the hundred feet high wall of the glacier’s terminus (the front end of a glacier), arms triumphantly raised. Then they just sit and absorb for a while, the glory of Portage Glacier.
Into the Glacier Blue
Back to my board, I paddle close, then veer and park again towards the east. This massive grey rock was a cliff, but smooth with ledges like sidewalks. I found a way up and got close, touching, peering into crevasses. The ice crystals of a glacier, this glacier, can be as big as baseballs with very little sediment in the ice. The red and green bands of light are absorbed. The blue band of light has little to reflect it back, thus the deep looks into the blue light.
I imagine I can hear the quiet munching of Ice Worms eating bacteria.
I like the small details. I like all the facts, the grandiose adventure. I mostly come for the song though: the clack clack of some shifting rocks catching a ride on the surface, the dripdripdrip of water feeding our ecosystem, the hush of no brush or plants of any kind to wave in the slight breeze almost always coming from glacier. I imagine I can hear the quiet munching of Ice Worms eating bacteria. This song has other notes, heard with other senses. I love the cold touch of the ice on my fingers and cheek. It’s slickness. The little bumps where some small stones are emerging. I am full of this. I have made myself large enough to contain it.
The waves have come up.
Light is departing slowly on this long summer day. My kayak friends have left. I opt for expediency and cut straight across bay in front of the glacier. The waves have come up. Not quite two feet. I am glad I have this particular board as the more I press into it, the better it cuts through the waves. I reach the far side below darkened cliffs that I will follow back to my car. The waves became following, a bit of actual surfing.
Feeling tired now, but still holding the glacier inside balancing the warmth of the evening, I beach. Deflating and packing up the board, I remember the gate, probably locked now. I may be stuck here the night. But no, the friendly engineer for the Tour Boat Ptarmigan is working late. The gate is open, as am I. I smile the whole drive back. Bringing with the glacier’s gift of pristine vastness home.
- All About Glaciers, National Snow & Ice Data Center (NSIDC)
- Graphic: Dramatic glacier melt, NASA, Global Climate Change, Climate resources
- Alaska Geographic, Alaska’s parks, forests and refuges
- Glaciers in Alaska (where and when to go), on www.alaska.org
- Begich, Boggs Visitor Center, Chugach National Forest
- Alaska Trekker, Portage Glacier
- Portage Glacier Cruises
This article was written by Grant Gibbs (IG @grantak). Edited and published by Marina, Treeline Tales.
About the author:
Grant Gibbs is a lifelong Alaskan. Photography is a newfound passion. It meshes nicely with a love of outdoor adventuring shared by his very athletic dog, Jane. You can find more photos of Alaskan adventures @grantak on Instagram.
Images: courtesy Grant Gibbs