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Portage Glacier

Portage Glacier-1/16/2004

Glaciers are so cool. They are unlike any other natural structure on earth, and are seldom so accessable as they are here in Southcentral Alaska.

The weather had been extremely cold for a very long time, there had been no snowfall anywhere in the area for weeks, and strong winds had blown much of the snow off of the lakes, rivers, gravelbars, ridgelines, and other prominent features of the landscape. Dick called me the morning of the 16th with an idea to hoof it across Portage Lake to check out the Portage and Burns Glaciers. It sounded like a good plan to me, so I packed up my skis and we headed out to the lake.

I have heard rangers suggest that Portage Lake, especially near the glacier, has a tendency to develop pretty thin ice due to the lake's depth or something. I hear it is a very deep lake, multiple hundreds of feet at its deepest. I also have it on good authority that the ice very close the the glacier is a very dangerous place to be since it can become unstable due to the movements of the glacier. Also, massive icebergs sometimes break off from the undersides of the glacier and come bursting up through the ice like some giant submarine surfacing for a peek above the water. Given that the conditions had been warmer, or the duration of our cold spell shorter, I would perhaps have thought twice regarding the ranger's advice, but since I saw several ski tracks criss-crossing the lake ice near the visitor center, I reasoned that the ice would probably be fine. Indeed it was.

We headed towards the point where Byron Peak cuts into Portage Lake, and made good time across the ice. It was blissful skiing conditions, as most of the snow had been blown off of the ice, and the snow that remained was hardened like a groomed ski-trail. We made a short stop at a couple of small icebergs jutting from the ice, then continued onward until we stood face-to-face with Portage Glacier. We could easily see how dangerous the ice directly in front of the glacier was. There were areas of open water, cracks with condensation steam rising from them, places where seracs had obviously calved off and cratered into the ice, and lots of very thin-looking spots. Most disturbing of all were the places where the ice had been lifted by some force underneath, sometimes bulging to a height of six feet or more. Some icebergs had even managed to penetrate the ice from beneath and now stood as monuments to their own impressive power.

We walked the bredth of the glacier, taking pictures and making various comments to express how awe-struck we were with the ruggedness and beauty of the towering seracs. Every few seconds, the whole east end of the lake reverberated with the sounds of the glacier's movements. Huge cracks and moans reminded us of how very much alive the Portage Glacier is, despite its dramatic retreat in the past fifty years or so.

Soon, we found a spot where the glacier's recent recession enabled us climb onto the beach and physically access the glacier ice. We spent a few minutes pawing and probing at the glassy ice, took a few more pictures, and headed back onto the lake.

The Burns Glacier was rather a dissapointment, as not even a single crevasse was visible under the snow. However, the whole event was so amazing, its hard to label any part of it a disappointment. We made as straight a line as we could to the car, stopping along the way to take a couple pictures of Byron Glacier before the sun set.

We soon reached the warmth of the car and headed back home.

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