Before ice-covered Portage Lake east of Alaska’s largest city came alive this week, skater Paxson Woelber heard the ominous crack of a glacier near its head as did the acquaintance standing next to him.
“The guy I was with booked,” Woelber said.
Woelber instead turned his camera toward the sound. The thousands of pounds of ice falling off its face were far enough away he didn’t think he and three nearby friends were in any real danger no matter how big the wave developing beneath the lake ice.
“Before the wave got to us, we were just standing there,” he said. “We talked it over: ‘We’re going to go up and down. We can ride this out. We’ll be OK.'”
As the ice rippled toward him, however, he admits to having some brief second thoughts.
The unseen water split the smooth surface ice into big plates as the underice wave rolled beneath. The plates shook as if in an earthquake. Water shot from the cracks that opened between them.
“It was kind of wild,” Woelber admitted. “It was unnerving.”
And then it was over. In some ways now, he said, the video looks worse than the reality that passed in less than a minute.
“We stayed on this ice for half an hour or more,” he said. “After it stopped moving, it was just there. If you watch that video, it’s possible to believe the entire lake was a shifting thing….but it’s a big lake.
“I skated off” onto unfractured ice not far away, Woelber added. He is convinced there were others far away on the miles-long lake that day who never knew what happened.
The event also led Woelber and his companions into a discussion of what might have happened on a busy weekend with a lot of people on Portage Lake and some of them sure to be close to the face of the glacier either to say they did so or to get that classic “before-you-die” photo of Alaska uniqueness.
Had the ice calved on Sunday, he said, “almost certainly people would have gotten killed.” With sunny blue skies on the weekend, the glacier only 50 miles from Alaska’s largest city attracted a mob of the curious.
Parents with children sauntered along lake within the shadow of the 10-story ice. People climbed around on the crevassed face itself. Woelber said he saw Facebook photos of people touching the face of the wall of ice and balancing in front of it atop basket-ball size chunks of newly refrozen ice that had obviously been created by a previous calving.
“I don’t really get it,” he said. “I don’t get what people are thinking.”
It’s obvious, he added, that near the spot where a sizable piece of the glacier falls onto the frozen lake, the lake ice is immediately smashed into cubes – not cracked into plates. Anyone near the glacier then would end up in the frigid water.
If they didn’t get hit and killed by the falling ice itself.
Falling ice is little different from falling rock. A 32-year-old woman was crushed to death by falling ice after she ventured into a Byron Glacier ice cave only about a mile southwest of the Portage Glacier last summer.
A 28-year-old Italian tourist was killed in March of 2015 when ice from the Lake George Glacier about 25 miles east of Anchorage fell on her. A 21-year-old Anchorage man barely survived after wandering into a snow cave adjacent to the Byron Glacier in July of 2016 only to have it collapse on him.
Snow is lighter than ice, and friends were able to free him before hypothermia set in. “He is very lucky,” emergency medical technician Terry Kadel said at the time. Kadel was one of the team called to treat the man.
To date, most of the Alaska deaths from falling ice have come in the summer. But with winter-accessible glaciers north and south of Anchorage becoming big sightseeing destinations both for Alaskans and a growing number of tourists, concerns are growing about the year-round dangers.
So many fat-tired bike riders are now flocking to the Knik Glacier at the head of the Knik River 50 miles northeast of Anchorage this year that complaints have arisen about parked cars and trucks clogging the Knik River Road.
Forty-five miles south of the city, the Skookum and Spencer glaciers in the Placer River valley are on nice days crowded with snowmachine riders, fat bikers and cross-country skiers. And then there’s the Portage Glacier down ice-covered Portage Lake at the end of the Portage Road in a popular Chugach National Forest recreation area.
Many have this winter voiced the same fear as Woelber that someone could be killed by falling ice. Venturing close to the face of a glacier is a little like playing Russian roulette.
The odds are good – 83 percent to be exact – that the hammer of the firearm involved will fall on an empty chamber. But the consequences of bad luck are extremely high; you’re almost certainly going to die.
Woelber said he wouldn’t mind if his video attracted the attention of a large audience.
“I understand we were in a bit of a pucker worthy situation,” he said, “but we were safe. We were pretty far away. It was fun to go through that.”
Had they been closer to the glacier, it would have all been different.
“We could have been in way, way more danger than we were,” he said. “If this scares people, I don’t mind.”
CORRECTION: This story has been modified from an earlier version to more accurately reflect the conversation between Woelber and his friends after the ice stopped rolling.