Portage, 1905. Edward A. Spencer didn’t like the news he was hearing. As timekeeper for the Alaska Central Railroad, he needed to stay on schedule and an avalanche had covered the tracks. It would take several days to clear the snow. Stuck at Portage, Spencer hated the thought of waiting days to get to Moose Pass, 20 miles down the line. Rail workers needed to get paid, and Spencer had their money.RUminating over a cup of strong coffee, Spencer remembered hearing of a glacier route that would allow him to bypass the avalanche-blocked section and hike to Moose Pass. It was November, so limited daylight and cold temperatures would make the trip risky, but Spencer fi gured he could make the 30-mile glacier trek by going light and fast—with only his basic gear and the cashbox on his back.
Spencer never made it to Moose Pass.
One year later, searchers found his body in a crevasse near Milepost 53 of the railroad—but the cashbox, fi lled with $4,000 ($80,000 in today’s money) was never recovered.
More than 100 years later, I stood on the shore of Spencer Lake, looking at the glacier that swallowed the railroad timekeeper and later received his name in remembrance.
The icy massif has receded almost a mile, depositing moraines, boulders, a lake and tons of fi ne, sandy silt in its wake. A ring of 4,000-foot-tall pointed Peaks surrounds me, making the glacier look like an attractive route out of this natural amphitheater. I didn’t fall for the illusion that took Spencer’s life, though. What looks like a smooth sheet of ice gradually climbing up and over a mountain pass is really a crevasse- riddled maze.
Behind me, patches of alder are broken by sprightly bunches of tall fi reweed and northern geranium, and the beach is lined with giant icebergs marooned in the shallow lake water.
Trying not to appear greedy or morbid, I search the bergs, freshly broken from the glacier’s face, for the timekeeper’s box of cash melting from its frozen embrace.
Unlike Spencer, who took off on his ill-fated, wintertime glacier trek without so much as a map or lantern, I got to the glacier by riding the Alaska Railroad’s Chugach Whistle Stop Train on a blue-sky August day with friends in tow. Boarding the train in Portage, we chugged 15 miles through alder-socked, black-bear-inhabited, marshy terrain that no sane person would ever want to hike. As the train rambled along, I met members of an Anchorage family who were taking their third Whistle Stop trek that summer.
Each time out-of-town guests came to visit, the locals packed a picnic lunch and took everyone on a daylong rail trip through the historic Loop District and Grandview—some of the most scenic and inaccessible portions of the Kenai Peninsula. I had no doubt they were doing this trip in style—their picnic lunch included copious amounts of cheese and crackers supplemented by wine from the onboard cafe.
With a toot of its whistle, the train deposited my group at a rustic board-andbatten mini-depot with informational kiosks and bathrooms. Spencer Glacier is the first of five planned whistle stops created by an Alaska Railroad-U.S. Forest Service partnership to open up remote portions of the 5.4 million acre Chugach National Forest and provide access to 35 miles of linked trails and established campsites.
Most of our fellow train passengers disembarked and immediately stepped onto buses, an odd sight considering the closest road was more than 15 miles away. In an effort to make backcountry trips more accessible, Chugach Adventure Guides has hauled in buses to get their clients from the train to the shore of Spencer Lake—a two minute ride— where they board canoes and river rafts for an up-close glacier experience.
With our inflatable packrafts in our backpacks, we decided to join Adrienne Moretti, a Chugach National Forest ranger, on a guided hike along 1.2 miles of a three-mile trail. As we walked along the flat, graveled path, signs denoting where the face of the glacier once stood, demonstrating its rapid retreat over the past century. Even without the signs, I could see clear changes in the vegetation As towering cottonwoods and patches of paper birch near the train platform gave way to less-established areas of scrub brush, berries and flowers closer to the glacier. Moretti showed us how to identify intrusions of quartz in the rock— signs that miners used in the early 1900s to determine if there was gold in the area. At the edge of the Placer River, where Spencer Lake drains toward Turnagain Arm, she opened a small Tupperware container packed with glacial silt— bedrock that has been ground down by the crushing force of moving glaciers— and explained how sunlight reflects off The fine, gray sand suspended in the water, giving the lake its turquoise color.
At the shore, we sat on benches made of repurposed railroad ties and tracks, envious of the groups who were paddling 30-foot canoes toward the glacier’s face.
Moretti bade us farewell and returned to the train platform. With only 2½- hours between drop off and pickup, visitors have to keep an eye on their watches if they want to get home the same day.
Our group continued on the hiking trail as it skirted the lake toward the dirt-covered Toe of the glacier. We donned crampons and grabbed our ice axes for a short jaunt on the brown-crusted ice. After a few hops over plate-size, bottomless ice holes—yes, I checked each one for Spencer’s cashbox—we decided the lake was a better place to take in the glamour of the glacier valley. In the early evening light, we inflated our packrafts and set out for a paddle through the floating bergs, down the Placer River and toward the Seward Highway. After a short spurt of easy whitewater, we floated under a railroad trestle and entered the broad, Ushaped Placer River valley. Beavers splashed their tails as we inspected massive cottonwoods—chewed to the core by the bucktoothed rodents—and wound our way southwest toward the highway and our cars.
Giving up all hope of finding Spencer’s cashbox, I knew I would not be going home with a treasure of cash, but I felt rich nonetheless.