I’m not sure at what point in human evolution we began to fear isolation. It’s lovely! Our constant need to be around and to be accepted is driving us further away from our roots. Spend some time in the lonely corners of the world – locked in the throes of winter or simply bereft of contact – and one will gain an appreciation for simplicity, and, consequently, a fondness for overlooked qualities and blessings in life.
Hiking the Portage Valley in winter grants the adventurer a taste of these things. There are cut trails to choose from, though, depending on the year, one might find these trails are buried deep under snow, yet I’m fairly certain there are no regulations on wandering off trail, as long as you are respectful of the area… so wander away. Often times, the sky matches the ground, offering the bizarre illusion that if you think it true enough, you might not be able to tell which way were up and which way were down if it weren’t for the inevitable rush of blood to your head.
Portage Lake and the Turnagain Arm rarely freeze as they did once upon a time. Climate change has warmed the area enough to make parts of Alaska – dare I say – vaguely pleasant in the winter (though it’s still bloody cold and it’s still dark). Ice clings to rocks, and the only colors present are shades of black, brown, white, and blue. The whole image is a pristine example of winter’s isolation. Moose and ravens are the common life to view, trudging in the cold, and pine grosbeaks and pine sisken break up the monotony of sight and sound with splashes of vivid red and gentle songs.
And, of course, there are the giants to see if you can find a way to their bellies.
The Trail of Blue Ice offers glimpses of thick old growth forests, fertile bogs, rushing creeks, and the healing land where glaciers once thrived. Full of rich silt, the earth is a northern oasis in an otherwise salt-and-ice-struck land where few plants may thrive. But such is the cycle of a glacier. As a glacier dies, it tears away at the rock, providing a unique opportunity for less picky plants to set roots and stabilize the earth. As these plants age, secondary growth, the conifers, move in and create a thick forest.
Nearby, the trail to Byron Glacier is a quick journey, and nothing too difficult either. Just shy of 1.5 miles roundtrip, the path is accessible to almost anyone, allowing our youngest and oldest to revel in his presence before he departs. Once connected to Portage Glacier, Byron is also quickly dying, receding deep into his belly as a mere clinging glacier (a type of glacier that is, in most cases, the final stages before it dies, named for the fact that it is “clinging” to the mountains that survived the previous Ice Age’s onslaught).
But don’t let his inevitable fate fool you. One will eventually approach a sign that warns to be wary of venturing off trail. Take head of the warning. Walking the river’s belly is simple enough – particularly easy if there’s a thick snow pack – until one realizes what’s beneath the ice. Glaciers tear up the earth beneath them. In their wake, they leave massive boulders that form deep caverns where a formerly stable snow patch could easily collapse deep into the earth. Additionally, I had the unfortunate experience of triggering an avalanche while attempting to reach Byron himself. He is well guarded as you get closer, and I’ll tell you… avalanches are terrifying.