The route from Anchorage to Portage, on the Seward Highway along the northern shore of the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet, is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful and scenic drives in the state (if not the entire country). The mountains of Chugach State Park rise steeply from one side of the road, while on the other side the even taller mountains across the Arm are reflected in the water’s smooth surface. On June 18, 2017, we drove this stunning road to visit Portage.
We began our day of exploration at Portage Glacier. Back in 1911, Portage Glacier reached all the way to where the Visitor’s Center is today. It has since retreated, leaving Portage Lake in the area it carved out, but even as recently as 1984, it was still possible to see the glacier from the Visitor’s Center. Today, the glacier has retreated so far into the valley that the only way to view it is by boat.
So, we took a one-hour sightseeing cruise to the glacier on the M/V Ptarmigan, accompanied by live narration from a US Forest Service ranger on board. We sat on the open upper deck of the ship, which afforded us great views even though it was pretty darn cold!
The captain brought the ship right up against a cliff face where a waterfall cascaded down the wall. (The masts and other hardware you’ll see in the video below are on the ship’s bow.)
We were surprised to see a young black bear standing to the left of the waterfall, curiously checking us out.
As we continued across Portage Lake, we approached the toe of Portage Glacier, a massive, moving river of ice several miles long and hundreds of feet thick.
The captain brought the ship as close to the face of the glacier as possible, although we had to maintain a safe distance so that we didn’t get in the way of any calving ice.
While we watched, the glacier “calved”, dropping huge chunks of ice from the glacier face into the cold water below it.
The water was full of mini-icebergs–called “bergy bits” if they’re under 16′ high, and “growlers” if they’re under 3′ high–that had calved off of the glacier in the previous few hours.
After the ship returned us to the dock, we went on a short hike to nearby Byron Glacier.
Like Portage Glacier, the Byron Glacier has retreated dramatically in recent years, and is now a “hanging glacier” up in the mountains.
We couldn’t walk all the way to the toe of Byron Glacier, because the path was blocked by the remnants of a snow avalanche the previous winter. Although we saw some people up on the snow, the park rangers had advised against going up there without crampons and ice-climbing gear, which we didn’t have.
As we walked away from the glacier, we passed along the creek formed by the huge volume of water melting from beneath the river of ice.
Our final stop in Portage was at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. The AWCC is a sanctuary for injured, orphaned or endangered wild Alaskan animals. It’s not a zoo, but rather 200 acres of large spacious habitats for animals to feel at home and display their natural “wild” behavior. For example, “Snickers” the porcupine was raised as a home pet (yes, someone thought it would be a good idea to have a pet porcupine–um, big nope) before being relocated to the AWCC.
Many of the other animals were found sick or injured, often unable to walk or eat, before being brought to the AWCC. The center nurses them back to health, and releases them back into the wild when possible. However, some animals cannot be returned to the wild, either because they’ve become habituated to humans (making them potentially dangerous if they were released) or because they never had the chance to learn the skills they would need to survive on her own. In this case, the animals receive a permanent home at the AWCC.
We especially enjoyed the opportunity to watch the brown (grizzly) bears up close, including one who was scratching his back on a pole:
Among the other animals we saw at AWCC were several moose, a pair of arctic red foxes, a musk ox, a herd of caribou, a herd of elk, and a herd of nearly-extinct Alaskan wood bison that the center is tending to help repopulate the state.
Just before we headed back to Anchorage, we walked a short distance on a boardwalk, where we were treated to spectacular views of the Turnagain Arm, looking northwest from its tip.
Portage was a beautiful place! Although we enjoyed it as a day trip from Anchorage, there are a few campgrounds and RV parks in the area, and if we were going back, we might stay in the area for a night or two to soak up more of the scenery.