We disembarked the Island Princess at Wittier and boarded the bus that would take us to our final excursion on our Alaska adventure, a visit to Portage Glacier.
Like the Mendenhall Glacier, Portage Glacier is inland, on the other side of a range of mountains from Prince William Sound. To link Wittier to Anchorage, a tunnel was built through the mountains. It’s long—2.5 miles—it’s dark, and cars share it with trains. It is also one way, controlled by lights at either end that change about every half hour, so the bus driver had to schedule his departure time from the dock area to fit into one of the 30 minute openings.
It’s a leap of faith to go into this tunnel, because it takes ten minutes to go through it, if the traffic is flowing smoothly, and during that time you are deep inside the mountain with no easy way out. The driver chatted through the whole length of the tunnel probably to keep our attention on something other than the low ceiling and rough hewn walls that surrounded us.
Portage Glacier is located just on the other side of the tunnel. In fact, you can see the tunnel opening from the visitor center area. At one point, before there were roads, the path over the mountains to Prince William Sound included a section over the glacier. Hence the name, Portage Glacier.
Portage Glacier is part of a protected area called the Chugach National Forest. Like most of the glaciers we’d seen, Portage is retreating. A long time ago, probably around the same time George Vancouver was naming Glacier Bay a bay because of the wall of glacial ice around the water, Portage Glacier filled the whole valley it is in. The valley is land now, with a lake and the glacier that feeds it as a center point.
Portage Lake is large and deep enough for a boat to ply the waters and sail right up to the edge of the glacier, much to the delight of tourists like us. There were clouds in the sky, but blue too, a big change from the weather in Wittier and our last two days at sea. The little boat had two decks. The lower was enclosed and the upper completely open. We chose the upper deck and spent most of our time hanging on the rail (along with an awful lot of other people—the boat was crowded). At one point a deck hand pulled up some water in a bucket to show us how cold it was and also so we could see how fine the glacial silt was. Children crowded round. Some adults held back. I plunged my hand in. It was cold.
We puttered around the Portage Glacier for a half an hour or more. It was an amazing experience. The temperature lowered noticeably as we neared and there was a chill wind off of the ice. Portage isn’t as large a glacier as say Margerie in Glacier Bay, but the colour in the ice was amazing and being up close in a smaller boat, it still felt huge to me. Too soon we were pulling away from the glacier and heading back to the dock. Like many of the places we visited during our Alaska cruise, Portage Glacier was an unexpected pleasure and well worth the visit.