Continuing the saga of fat-tire biking that we began several weeks ago at Eklutna Lake, Chugiak’s Jeff Worrell and I challenged frozen Portage Lake on Jan. 2 under a clear sky.
The sky and everything around us, however, was obscured by a dense, ever-present, low-hanging fog that stretched from Portage Lake all the way to Anchorage. Fortunately, the gloom dissipated as we approached the glacier’s massive face, offering great views of ancient ice that is bluer than blue.
As reported by Chugach National Forest rangers, the lake was solid for human travel but wind scoured, meaning there was smooth, clear ice interspersed with patches of snow. Under these conditions it would be difficult to cross country ski, but perfect for biking, ice skating and even walking with cleats.
As soon as we arrived at the Portage Lake parking lot and began unloading the bikes, eight cars loaded with fat-tire bikes pulled in and began disgorging their many occupants. We set out ahead of the group, following the shoreline on the southwestern side of the lake because of the fog.
We were delighted there was no wind in this notoriously windy area, and taking our time, we reached the glacier face in about 30 minutes, only a few minutes ahead of the large group.
Glaciers create their own weather, and in front and above the mass of ice the murkiness suddenly cleared – the only location in the entire area with visibility. I hastily pulled out the camera and popped some photos.
Noting to Jeff how far the glacier has receded, I mentioned to Jeff, “It appears large to us, but it’s lost a lot of its mass. Back in the 1960s when we looked at it from the parking lot, it stretched about one-third of the way across the lake.”
After the group arrived and explored the area, Jeff offered to take their photo with their camera. In no time at all, they were gone and we just about had the place to ourselves, save a photographer on the end of the lake using a drone to take close-up photos of the glacier.
We thought about building a fire for a lunch break, but dry wood would have required tromping some distance through deep snow. We found a spot near some calved icebergs that had drifted away from the glacier when the lake was open water. The bergs were now frozen in place, stranded until next spring’s breakup.
Instead of following our tracks back the way we came, we decided to explore the other side of the lake. In the gloom, we became disoriented for a while but soon found our way back to numerous tracks that led to the parking lot.
Ghostlike, the sunlit mountain tops were peeking in and out of the opaque fog, reminding us that at least somewhere, the sun was shining.
In addition to fat-tire bikers, we saw one rider on a mountain bike with studded tires, a pair of ice skaters and at least eight people who hiked across the lake.
On a previous trip when the wind was blowing, I watched the deft maneuvers of windsurfers/skiers, or ice parasailers, crisscrossing the lake with big sweeping turns. One wind skier even climbed up into Portage Pass, skillfully tacking into the wind.
A tour bus was in the parking lot when we arrived, and we soon met several smiling Japanese visitors. They enthusiastically took our photo as if we were celebrities or serious Arctic adventurers. Perhaps it was the fat-tire bikes that drew their interest. I told them I was sorry their view of the mountains was completely obscured by fog, but with big smiles, they remained jovial as they boarded the bus.
“I guess we are celebrities,” I said to Jeff as we loaded the bikes onto his car rack. “I guess,” he shrugged. “Maybe we’ll have a few minutes of fame in Toyko.”
Editor’s Note: Frank E. Baker is a member of the ECHO News team and an avid, experienced outdoorsman. He and wife, Becky, a retired school teacher, live in Eagle River.