The Portage Glacier is retreating rapidly. In 1986, the U.S. Forest Service built a visitor’s center at a spot on Portage Lake with windows to showcase the face of it, only to have it retreat around a bend in the lake by 1993. Since then, it has melted back so far that it can barely be seen from the road on the other side of the lake today. Its race to extinction is followed by many other glaciers in Alaska.
I thru hiked the Pacific Crest Trail last summer. This year’s summer vacation was for my wife Katie to choose and Alaska was the pick. Much of her reason was to see real glaciers before they're gone. Last week we paddled to the Aialik Glacier, forty miles south of Seward, with our friends Dwynne and Roman and a paddle guide. The day after, we hired another guide from Exit Glacier Guides we fitted crampons and helmets and hiked up and onto the Exit Glacier, part of Kenai Fjords National Park, just north of Seward.
The drive to the Exit Glacier’s trailhead passes not mile markers, but year markers. Beginning long before the end of the road, they show where the glacier was a hundred years ago, when it nearly filled the large valley through which we drove, then seventy-five years ago, and right up to the present. This is another glacier in full retreat.
The hike began easily enough over a level, paved walkway suitable for wheelchairs and non hikers, passing more year markers that show when the ice last sat in what is now a young forest. The trail soon branched to the right however, onto a steep and scrambly path through a boreal forest of birches, aspen, spruce and alder. Passing through the edge of the timberline forest, we eventually moved out onto the sub-tundra flower gardens that are blooming all over Alaska in July. A mother black bear and her two cubs were feeding on a far slope. Quite a few people make it this far to a stunning viewpoint overlooking the glacier, a vast ever so slowly moving dirty white mass, slivered with deep blue crevasses, jumbles of frozen cliffs, boulders of ice, and water flowing everywhere over its surface.
From this vantage we could clearly see the path of the ice flow. It takes years to bend itself over large protrusions in the underlying rock, and like its cousin, a river rapid, or a waterfall, seems to pull itself apart over the obstruction, opening huge gashes in the surface -- the blue crevasses -- and creating mountains of frozen chaos. After making it over one of these “falls” the ice passes onto an area of depression in the rocks, slowing the glacier’s movement, and the crevasses are pushed back together, compressed, forming a relatively smooth surface, only darkly etched lines showing where the great gashes had been years before.
It’s a total climb of over two thousand feet, in the stretch of two to three miles, to a small “secret” trail that hooks to the right and down over one “lateral moraine” after another, where the melting sides of the glacier have created parallel lines of hills from the sand and rock it has left behind. The vegetation on each of the moraines became younger and younger the closer we got to the side of the glacier. As we had earlier approached the glacier by car, we had seen the forest growing younger the closer we got. It is the changing age of the trees that allows the precise dating of the glacier’s retreat.
We donned helmets and crampons at a vegetationless, rocky patch of dirt on the side of the glacier, a spot that allowed safe access onto an area of compression, where the crevasses have been squeezed together to form a relatively smooth surface to walk on. Our guide, Hernan, pointed out the small trails that had been used as recently as a year or so ago, that were now far from the ice, which is retreating several hundred feet per year at its terminal face.
The last hundred feet or so to this spot had caused a dramatic change in the weather. Just a short distance up the trail it had been warm, more of the wonderful weather we’ve had in Alaska. At the edge of the glacier the wind was howling and cold, as the ice created its own wind, the chilly air draining off its surface to the valley below. It was like stepping into a winter storm on a sunny day. We put on every bit of clothing we had brought and figured ways to keep our hats and hoods on under our helmets as we suited and cramponed up for the walk over the glacier.
It’s not level on the ice, in fact it’s quite steep, but the crampons did their job and we were able to walk up the long frozen side. I wouldn’t attempt this in boots. Hernan was a true mountain guide, giving all of us instruction in basic crampon and ice walking technique, and he came equipped with rope and rescue equipment in case of an accident. But we didn’t have to climb in and out of crevasses to take a hike here. We stayed above it all, hiking around and over the tops of any obstructions and watched others ice climbing on cliffs created by the ice falls.
Dwynne’s commented on how dirty it was on the edge of the ice, which carried the rockfall and blowing dust of many years in its slow travel to the valley below. All of this will eventually be left in either a lateral moraine along the side, as in the hills we had just hiked over, or in a terminal moraine at the very end of the glacier, forming hills and hummocks as the ice melts and leaves the debris behind. Part way up the trail Hernan had pointed out several small half moon shaped hills in the river bed that were terminal moraines created in 1992 and 1995 respectively. They were a long way from the ice face today.
Water ran everywhere over the surface of the glacier, in rivulets and in large streams, creating waterfalls and turquoise pools, rapids and ice caves, or plunging straight down in “moulins” deep holes leading to the bedrock beneath the ice. These steams, like the numerous crevasses we stepped or jumped over, became bluer the further into the ice they went. Here is the great difference between the appearance of a glacier and that of a permanent snow field. Snow is white no matter how far you dig into it and a glacier is intensely blue, almost glowingly blue, in shades and hues that deepen and darken the further in one goes.
The shapes of the carved ice features were strange and marvelous, fantastically sculpted formations that glowed with an aquamarine heart. Slits and troughs, chasms and crevasses were smoothed, through the vagaries of ice melt, into beautiful slippery walls diving deeper than we could see. Jumping over them was scary, as the wedge at the bottom would surely create a squeeze that would be nearly impossible to get out of even with ropes. If the fall didn’t kill you the freezing wait for rescue surely would, and these weren’t bad as crevasses go.
The arctic wind continued to blow on this beautiful sunny day, and we were tired when we took the steep walk down off the side and back onto dirt. As we hiked away we took off layer after layer of clothing until we were back to warm weather hiking attire, but we looked out on the expanse of ice with different eyes, having seen with an intimate proximity the sculptured beauty of its surface.
Two days later we would visit the Portage Glacier just for a look across Portage Lake to the little bit of its edge that is still visible from the road. It’s shrinking fast, and the Falcon Guide to Hiking Alaska has this to say: “Portage Glacier is in good company with glaciers and other kinds of ice all over Alaska. Glaciers are shriveling, permafrost is thawing, sea ice is retreating, and the Arctic ice pack is shrinking, all at barely believable rates, and all in synch with rising temperatures in the North. Since about 1970, the average year-round temperature in the state has jumped five degrees, and winter temperatures have risen by eight degrees in part of the state. The leap in warming is already well within the range of climate scientists‘ predictions of how much the entire earth will warm by the end of the century.”
“In the realm of global warming, Alaska is the ‘panting canary’ in the mine, and Portage Glacier is a good illustration of what’s going on.”
I’m not an ice hiker by background or skill and the years of postholing across the snows of the Sierra Nevada’s Western Divide are nothing like walking over ice that is thousands of years old. But tramping across the ancient glacier, seeing its melt forms and the luminous beauty of its iridescent blue core, lends a new poignancy to the speed of its retreat, and the impact on us all from a warming world. The urgency for action and change is clear.
"Man, man; you ought to have been with me. You'll never make up what you have lost to-day. I've been wandering through a thousand rooms of God's crystal temple. I've been a thousand feet down in the crevasses, with matchless domes and sculptured figures and carved ice-work all about me. Solomon's marble and ivory palaces were nothing to it. Such purity, such color, such delicate beauty! I was tempted to stay there and feast my soul, and softly freeze, until I would become part of the glacier. What a great death that would be!"
Alaska Days with John Muir, by Samual Hall