An out-of-state visitor reported to Girdwood Fire and Rescue that he fell through ice at Portage Lake on Wednesday, but was able to rescue himself and walk to his car.
The incident served as a stark reminder of the dangers of traveling on the frozen glacial lake, about an hour’s drive from Anchorage. Portage Lake — which isn’t regularly patrolled by rangers and isn’t monitored by the U.S. Forest Service in winter — has grown in popularity over the past few years and has drawn more visitors than usual during a pandemic-fueled outdoor recreation boom.
The man said he fell through ice to water up to his waist or chest but was able to pull himself out and walk to shore, where he trudged through heavy snow and bushwhacked to get back to the parking lot, according to Michelle Weston, fire chief at Girdwood Fire and Rescue.
“He did not need assistance. He was just calling to say, hey, it was really sketchy,” she said.
Weston said she wasn’t sure how far he was from shore, or the exact location he went in. She believes the man may have been near the outlet of Byron Creek, where the ice could have been thinner.
“The sheer ability to get yourself out, he must have been relatively close” to shore, she said.
She decided to post about the incident on Facebook because of the hordes of walkers, bikers and skiers that descend on the wild ice at Portage Lake this time of year.
“The parking lots are packed to the point where it’s hard to even get emergency apparatus in there,” she said. “It’s a case of everything is just getting loved to death with COVID.”
Girdwood Fire and Rescue has been called to the area to respond to injuries and other emergencies this winter, Weston said. It’s a 20-30 minute drive from Girdwood. Most people fat biking, walking or skiing across the frozen lake don’t realize a full water rescue on the ice would likely involve a helicopter, Weston said.
Chugach National Forest has warned recreation users to be cautious about going out on the lake, especially when new snow covers the ice. Usage is definitely up this winter, said spokeswoman Michelle Putz.
“Even when Portage Lake is frozen, the water is still flowing from the base of Portage Glacier to the outflow at the other end of the lake,” said a February Chugach National Forest safety advisory. “This flow can cause varied ice thickness and instability in ice strength.”
Members of the public take ice measurements occasionally, but the Forest Service doesn’t regularly measure the ice thickness on the lake, Putz said.
People need to make “good personal choices” about their fitness, experience level, preparation and other considerations, said Tim Charnon, district ranger for the Glacier Ranger District.
Weston said she understands why so many people want to visit Portage Lake: It’s stunning.
“I don’t blame them,” she said. “It’s fabulous. But hey, watch the ice conditions and be prepared to self-rescue.”