The season for getting up close and personal with the glaciers nearest Alaska’s largest city has arrived, and some are wondering if this is the year one of them claims its first kill.
The Knik, Skookum and Spencer glaciers – all of which have become popular destinations for snowmachine enthusiasts, fat-tired cyclists and nordic skiers – pose some risks, but the Portage Glacier about 45 miles southeast Anchorage appears most likely to notch the first fatality.
Nearby Byron Glacier has already killed one woman. Minnesota school teacher Brittany Katherine Boegel, 32, went exploring the inside of an easily accessible ice cave near the glacier in July 2018. It collapsed and the weight of ice falling down on Boegel crushed her.
A six-year-old boy and a man at the scene at the time of the collapse were also reported to have suffered minor injuries from the spray of ice chunks after the collapse.
Portage has no easily accessible ice caves, but it might have an even greater danger: An active face of ice that towers five to 10 stories above Portage Lake.
When a massive chunk calved off that glacier last year, it ruptured the lake ice and spawned an under-ice wave that started the lake’s frozen surface to rippling and scared the bejesus out of people on the ice a quarter of a mile away.
“Glacial calving is one of those events in which everyone slaps their cards on the table at once,” Paxson Woebler, one of those people would later observe. “You’ve chosen where you are; the glacier has chosen what it will do; and there’s nothing you can do to change it.”
On the ice for a bridal shoot (where but in Alaska?), Woelber did what photographers instinctively due. He turned a camera on the developing events. In this case a video camera.
The video of the rolling ice caused quite a stir when he posted it on social media. Then it made headlines.
None of that seemed to deter the adventurers. In the days after the incident, photos popped up on social media showing people playing on and around the calved mountain of ice refrozen in the lake. Other photos showed people posing in cracks in the face of the glacier itself.
The power of images
A picture is worth a thousand words, it was said in the centuries before the internet. The valuation might now have increased to 5,000 words or more.
Few of the social media posts of people behaving dangerously beneath the face of the glacier were met with comments wondering “what were you thinking?” Most drew reactions observing “that’s so cool,” or “I want to do that.”
People were this year anxious to get on the lake and head for the glacier as soon as the surface froze in January. Skating, skiing, fat biking, snowshoeing or hiking to the glacier – pick one depending on snow and ice conditions – has now become something of an Alaska fad.
“The colder winters in the past were actually much better for ice thickness and access,” Woebler said Sunday. “I think the reason for the explosion of traffic to the face of Portage Glacier really has to be social media and awareness.”
Photos on social media seem to have trumped any concerns about safety. Why wouldn’t they? You can see people you know who hiked right up close to the glacier and, well, they didn’t die.
Once the U.S. Forest Service thought the danger of waves from calving ice so great during the warm season that boating was prohibited on the lake in the summer. Chugach National Forest officials only lifted the ban in 2010 after the glacier retreated far up the lake from its original position.
Still, they restricted water access to a 300-foot wide corridor along the lakes northeast shore about a mile from the glacier’s active face. At the time, the agency noted that “during the winter, when the lake is frozen, wind-powered and non-motorized use is not restricted by this order.”
Up until then, however, Portage Lake remained little visited in winter. Occasionally, cross-country skiers ventured onto the lake to follow a historic Alaska travel corridor through Portage Pass to the tiny, Prince William Sound port of Whittier or, when conditions were right, skate ski to the southern end of the lake.
“55 Ways to the Wilderness in Southcentral Alaska,” a famous guidebook in the days before the internet, warned that “skiing on Portage Lake is tempting thought potentially dangerous….Do not travel near the ice cliffs of Portage Glacier; in the winter the glacier may calve from the bottom, sending waves that break up the lake ice near the glacier.”
And then Portage Lake was discovered.
“Stay off the lake ice in the winter. Periods of freezing and thawing throughout the winter make the ice very unstable.”
Once a bunch of people start pedaling, skating, skiing or just running around on the ice, a lot of other people take the warning as mere advice and ignore it, though there are thin ice dangers.
“Falling through thin ice on Portage is definitely a risk…as the ice thickness can change quickly,” Woelber said. But people seem at least somewhat cognizant of this danger common to ice-covered lakes everywhere.
Whether they are actually prepared to deal with falling through is unknown. Woelber said he doubts many are carrying ice picks with which to claw out of a self-made hole in the ice.
“They might save your life if you ever fall through the ice,” Cabela’s advertises of the picks it sells. “Wear the Polar Ice Picks around your neck. Should you fall through the ice, with a pick in each hand, you can use them to dig into the ice and climb out of the freezing water. Ends clip together for safe storage.
There is no tool, however, that will protect against hundreds or thousands of pounds of falling ice, the danger of which most people appear unaware despite well-documented deaths.
Three European tourists were killed by ice falling from the Valdez glacier in August of last year. Boegel’s death happened the year before. A 28-year-old Italian was crushed to death in 2015 when a chunk of the Lake George Glacier fell on him about 40 miles east of Anchorage.
The National Park Service paid to settle a lawsuit with a California man whose wife was killed by half a ton of ice falling from the Exit Glacier in the 1990s. The woman was doing what a lot of people do at Portage Glacier – posing for photos near the ice.
Her husband, who was acting as the photographer, charged that the federal agency hadn’t done enough to warn people of the danger. The glacier was subsequently roped off to keep visitors at a safe distance, and the Park Service now regularly posts warnings on ice dangers.
Elsewhere, everyone is on their own to make risk assessments they may or may not be qualified to make.