‘Like slow motion’: Anchorage man captures video of massive block of ice calving at Portage Glacier

[Above: Jason Rouch Jr. made this video of ice calving at Portage Glacier on Saturday, April 11, 2020.]

The sound of ice cracking was faint at first.

Then it grew louder and louder, increasing in frequency. Anchorage resident Jason Rouch Jr. — who was hiking at Portage Glacier on Saturday morning and preparing to photograph the glacier — felt like “something intense was about to happen.”

That’s when a gigantic mass of ice the size of a house calved from the glacier, sending up a cloud of snow and shooting out rippling waves under the frozen surface of Portage Lake.

In a video made by Rouch, the thunderous crash of calving ice is followed by the sound of water pushing up broken chunks of ice along the shoreline where Rouch stood.

“It just fell and it seemed like slow motion," Rouch, 25, said in an interview Saturday. His Facebook video of the dramatic calving event has been viewed more than 21,000 times, with more than 1,400 shares.

Portage Glacier is one of the most accessible glaciers in Southcentral Alaska. It’s about an hour drive south of Anchorage, and in winter, people ski, bike, skate or walk across Portage Lake’s frozen surface to catch a glimpse of the glacier.

But Portage Lake, located within Chugach National Forest, isn’t regularly patrolled by rangers, and the U.S. Forest Service doesn’t monitor it in winter. Both the glacier and lake are on public land, and visitors are subject to all the hazards associated with walking on lake ice, in addition to the unpredictability of glaciers, which move and calve ice year-round.

Spring snow

Earlier Saturday, Rouch, a supervisor with the U.S. Census Bureau whose work in rural Alaska has been put on pause by the coronavirus pandemic, had met up with a friend for a socially distant adventure walking toward Portage Glacier. Rouch had been out on the ice there before, in addition to multiple summer trips.

With an early start, the two of them had the glacier to themselves for about an hour, enjoying the quiet and solitude under blue skies. They stayed back to give themselves “plenty of distance” from the glacier, knowing that falling ice was a hazard to watch for, Rouch said.

He wanted to get closer to the glacier to take photos — Rouch grew up in Ohio, and “most of my family, they don’t really understand the size of these things" — but he wanted to do it in a safe way.

Then he remembered some advice he received recently: Rouch had gone to Portage Glacier two days earlier with his toddler. “Nothing crazy happened” that day, but afterward, a friend told him that when the glacier ice calves, it can create waves under the lake ice that cause the surface to crack and buckle upward.

With that in mind Saturday, he approached the glacier with caution, making sure he was on a strip of ground — not frozen lake — near the middle of the glacier, staying as far back as he could.

As soon as he set foot on land, he started to hear the cracking of ice in front of him. And then, the crash of tons of ice careening down.

“It was like a pure adrenaline rush," Rouch said. “I was like, oh my gosh, is this really happening?”

Portage Glacier lake ice calve calving

As waves kept rippling under the lake’s frozen surface, Rouch checked on his friend, who had stayed behind. She was OK.

“She said it looked pretty darn intense from where she was,” Rouch said.

They were both scared at first, but then they shook it off: “We were still safe, we were uninjured,” Rouch said.

They talked it over, sharing “some thoughts of thankfulness." Rouch in particular said “it’s kind of a miracle” how he’d gotten advice just the previous day that helped keep him from getting too close to the glacier.

[2019 video: Portage Lake ice rolls alarmingly after glacier calves]

The close call, while it was a gut-check of sorts, hasn’t dampened his enthusiasm for the outdoors. He thinks people should get out for fresh air as much as they can under a statewide stay-at-home order, but they should be careful: “Whatever you do, use caution and be smart about it.”

He still believes Alaska is one of the best places to be if you like being outside. As for the possibility of future trips to Portage Glacier, he said, “I don’t think I’m going to be going out there anymore."

The Girdwood Fire Department weighed in on Facebook on Saturday, sharing Rouch’s video and reminding others that it doesn’t have the capacity to carry out a rescue with multiple casualties on Portage Lake.

“All Portage Lake recreationalists should be prepared for a backcountry Self Rescue situation with Spring ice conditions,” the department said in its post.

It looked like more ice was still poised to calve at the glacier, Rouch said Saturday, describing ice blocks weighing tens of thousands of pounds.

“If people are going to go out there, they should use caution,” Rouch said. “I would say, 1. Keep your distance away from the glacier, and 2. I wouldn’t travel alone if you do go out there.”

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Vicky Ho

Vicky Ho is the ADN's managing editor. An avid hiker and skier, she also wrote Cautionary Tales, a column about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors. Contact her at vho@adn.com.