Trail Finding

A return journey to Portage Pass.

[by Lisa Maloney]


I had heard a rumor of a new trail —one where there hadn’t been a trail before, leading from Whittier up to Portage Pass, then down the other side to Portage Lake and Portage Glacier. I had done the same route almost a decade earlier, looking for a trail that didn’t exist at the time, and remembered it well.

A narrow, rock-cobbled Jeep track had led up to the 800-foot pass, then splintered into a web of game trails—faint tracks disappearing into a dense thicket of alders, willow shrubs and salmonberry bushes. The alders in particular had been a problem, I remembered; they grew horizontally outward, inches from the ground, then jutted upward like enormous unfinished fishhooks.

We had cast about on first one of the splinter trails, then another, looking for the magic ticket that would take us down to the lake. A steady drizzle fell from the droopy gray sky, and the glacier was a dense blue-white shadow in the distance that didn’t seem to be getting any closer.

We eventually found another type of path—a creek. The sound of it was nearly lost in the distant chug of Whittier’s ever-present waterfalls. Using the rounded stones that sprung up up out of the water as an improvised staircase, we followed the small stream down to the lake.

We made a game of spotting different types of animal signs: the torn-off twigs, high up, left by a browsing moose; the sharply-chiseled, close-to-the-ground leavings of snowshoe hares; and a broken branch dangling by a thread over the middle of the creek, the only sign of people that we would see all day.

About a mile after the pass, the creek deposited us on the gravel beach of the lake. Even through the overcast skies, the glacier loomed large on the other side of the water, frozen in a perpetual tumble of blue ice.

To this day, I still consider it to be one of the most beautiful places I have ever been.

Hearing the rumors of a new, clear trail to the bottom, it was an easy decision to go back. But on the first try we were met by high winds, low visibility and sideways-blowing rain in the pass. We retreated, taking some small comfort in the fact that even though it’s only 800 feet above sea level, Portage Pass is notorious for this type of weather.

A week later, as I started up the trailhead under bluebird skies for a second try, two forest rangers came walking down the path toward me.

“Hey, is the trail really brushy?” I ask the first. He gives me an odd look.

“It was,” he says, just as the second ranger comes into view toting an industrial-strength weed whacker.

And he was right: Things had changed. This time, as I crested the pass and looked down on Portage Glacier, there were a few people perched on the nearby slopes to watch my jaw drop. It was still amazing, but where there had once been only shoulder-deep bushes leading down to the lake, there was now a narrow, clearly marked trail weaving back and forth through the brush.

And yet at the bottom of the pass, after winding past a couple of small tarns and down to the lakeshore, I found the same water still lapping at the same gravel shore under the glacier’s silent supervision. A few new bumps of stone were showing where the glacier had pulled back a little bit from the water’s edge, but the familiar ice-blue tumble was still there. The only real difference was passing a couple families, kids in tow, on the beach where before I remembered only gravel. A Portage Glacier Cruises boat motored very slowly in the lake, tiny against the glacier—a waterborne block of people who had come to see the ice, just like me.

I had finally found the trail I started looking for years ago. But I’d also come to realize that for me, the search was as important as the discovery. So now the only question was: Where to next?