Portage Glacier: a relic of an older time when titans sat in quiet contemplation of their vast, frigid kingdoms. But their era is quickly ending. In the wake of climate change, traditionally cold landscapes face the need to tolerate the rising heat, yet one thing that cannot adapt to heat is ice. So these titans are drawing their last breaths as I write this, some with a terminal illness much sooner than I’d like to admit.
Formerly expansive, Portage Glacier reached the sea on the Turnagain Arm presumably near the time when Captain Cook found the dead end to the Prince William Sound. Portage joined with his brothers, Byron and others now dead or name-unknown-by-me, to form one massive glacier that carved the Portage Valley, giving way to the gorgeous u-shaped slopes of the mountain range. Now he rests in seclusion from his kin, tucked behind the crook of a jutting mountain: out of sight and out of mind. I took personal guilt answering one stranger’s question about his location: “he’s not visible from the road any longer,” I admitted, adverting my eyes, “but his brother, Byron, can be seen on a short, flat hike. The strollers should make it at least half way down the trail and you can see him from that point.” Myself, on the other hand, had the blessing to paddle out to Portage’s realm and meet the titan in person many times.
The paddle to Portage is nothing exceptionally difficult. If you’re unfortunate, on a clear day, the winds will pick up savagely on your return home, and this is why I’ve always preferred the paddle on the coldest and wettest of days in winter (in summer, every asshat and their aunt is on the lake, taking the dying day cruise and paddling boats that are meant for pools (because that’s smart: frigid water, 5 miles of paddling, no shoreline, and plastic K-Mart coffins make for a great equation)). Plus, call me old fashioned, but I still respect my elders.
Nonetheless, what woes may be given should be told, so prepare for wind, waves, and hypothermia. Should you paddle on a day that I prefer, you’ll find yourself much hungrier than normal as you burn through calories to stay warm the closer you get as he traps the cold around him. Furthermore, in the worst of cases, don’t forget that he is actively doing glacier things. In other words, if you get to close, don’t come crying to me when he calves on you or your comrade and crushes someone.
Follow either edge. The southern shore is the traditional leeward side of the lake, but wind has no agenda and may blow as it pleases. The northern shore is prone to avalanches in winter and spring that trigger by your voice, and while this is breathtaking, I’ve seen them gain uncomfortable reach into the water. Ravens swirl in the chaos above the collapse of snow and ice. Just keep your distance. Should you aim for the shadow of the southern mountain, Portage will take you by surprise as he suddenly looms into view. And in his presence, you will feel small. I consider myself to be one of vague religious superstitions, beliefs in higher powers and the like, etc, but there is certainly something greater than ourselves when you dwarf beside 100 feet of ice: ice that is moving and whispering in a tongue we’ll never understand.