PORTAGE -- Longtime Southcentral residents may remember catching views of Portage Glacier from the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center in Portage Valley. There's still plenty of ice to see there -- parts of Explorer, Middle, Byron, Burns and Shakespeare glaciers are visible -- but around 1994, Portage Glacier itself receded out of sight around a corner of land.
You can still see the glacier, but you have to work for it. Either hitch a boat ride on the M/V Ptarmigan (operated by Portage Glacier Cruises; $39/adult, $19/child) for a narrated tour of the lake and close-up views of the glacier. Or earn your views the old-fashioned way: With your feet.
From a tiny trailhead in Whittier -- really just a dead-end road -- an old gravel road ascends about 800 feet in less than a mile, cresting at the pass. On a clear day you can see the glacier from there, gleaming blue in the distance, with striking views over Prince William Sound's Passage Canal behind you.
From the pass, it's an easy 1.5-mile descent on a tidy U.S. Forest Service trail, offering near-constant views of the glacier as you wind down to the broad, flat lakeshore. But that hasn't always been the case. When I first visited this place with a friend about 10 years ago, we were confronted by an unbroken wall of alders.
I remember bending down under a gray, drizzling sky and examining a worn bit of ground that might have been a trail. But at that point, not even a belly crawl would get us through the tightly woven bushes that had taken over. The only open space was a creek that bounced and splashed down through the bushes, surrounded by a jumble of water-smoothed stones.
Few signs of people
It didn't take long for us to give up any pretense of bushwhacking and use the rocks around the stream as stepping stones, balancing our way downhill for about a mile to where the creek deposited its water -- and us -- on the shore of the lake, staring at the same mass of blue ice that you can see today.
The only signs of people we saw that day were a couple of tiny, broken twigs dangling limply from branches that overhung the creek; for all we knew, we were the only human beings in the valley. Combine that with the gray mist and a gentle, insistent wind off the glacier, and it was one of the most bewitching places and times that I've ever witnessed.
Last year, when I caught renewed rumors of a trail through the pass, I expected more of the same. What we actually got was pelting rain, wind so strong it made us stagger, and so much water rippling down the rocky trail up to the pass that it almost qualified as a creek. Clearly, we should have checked the FAA webcam for Whittier before departing.
We did find trail signs at the pass, but they had been blasted flat by the wind. Unsure which of the narrow foot trails they'd originally pointed toward, we turned our backs on glimpses of the distant glacier -- swirling in and out through gaps in the clouds -- and beat a sodden retreat.
Take three: I pulled up to the trailhead by myself on a sunny, blue-sky day with barely a hint of a breeze. If I hadn't experienced the swirling wind, rain and clouds the week before, I'd have been tempted to underestimate the pass's potential for violent, schizophrenic weather. When I first topped the pass and caught sight of the glacier, I couldn't help but yell. Never before had I seen it gleaming in the distance on a perfectly clear day. No matter how many times you see it, that sort of view still socks you in the gut -- in a friendly sort of way that asks, "Are you paying attention yet?"
That's when I realized that the valley -- and the pass -- are no longer the lonely places they once were. In fact, the tundra slopes on either side of the pass were dotted here and there with people: Lounging, reading a book, or just chatting... and staring at the crazy lady standing in the middle of the trail, talking to herself.
I pulled it together and followed the trail signs that, now righted, steered me past a broad, shallow tarn and down to the lakeshore. My old staircase of a creek was audible but only came close enough to touch once, brushing up against the trail just before said trail took a steep, uncharacteristically straight descent to the beach.
Wide, broad lakeshore
It's tempting to mourn the passing of a time when a few twigs were the only visible indicator that other people were, or ever had been, nearby. But the beauty of the place hasn't diminished one bit -- in fact, I think sharing makes the views even better.
On a recent trip with the Alaskan Wild Women hiking and backpacking group -- a women's only group dedicated to time on the trail -- 15 of us worked our way down the trail and sat on the beach, listening to the glacier boom and crack across the water.
You'd think a group that big would make a crowd, but the lakeshore is far broader and wider than it looks from the pass, shrinking other hikers -- and us -- to tiny, animated stick figures in the distance. I think there's plenty of room for all of us.
As long as they don't make the parking lot any bigger.
Lisa Maloney just can't stop hiking. She's the author of "50 Hikes Around Anchorage". Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go . . .
• Trailhead: Take the first right turn (across the railroad tracks) as soon as you come out of the Whittier tunnel, then follow the brown U.S. Forest Service signs. Parking is extremely limited, so carpool if you can.
• Approximate Length: 5 miles round trip.
• Elevation Gain: 800 feet
• Highlights: Don't forget to turn around and look back on your way up the pass; the views of Passage Canal are amazing. Once you hit the pass you have near-constant views of the glacier, plus many waterfalls tumbling down the distance valley walls.
• What's the weather?: Check the FAA webcam for Whittier at http://avcams.faa.gov/sitelist.php to see what the weather actually is on the other side of the mountains (as opposed to depending on forecasts).
• Bonus: Don't forget to visit the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center before or after your hike; long-time locals may be surprised to hear that it contains all-new exhibits and a new movie that discuss all aspects of Portage Pass, Portage Glacier, Prince William Sound and the surrounding area. Admission is $5, free for those under 16.
• Bonus II: You can visit the beach along Portage Lake with non-motorized watercraft; put in at Bear Valley, just before you enter the Whittier tunnel, and hug the eastern lakeshore to stay out of the way of the M/V Ptarmigan on its five daily glacier cruises.