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paddleboarding glaciers alaska

Paddleboarding Portage – Glaciers & Icebergs

The idea here was simply to escape and save a little cash.  At this point we’ve spent the past several weeks with all kinds of family and friends (both new and old) all across Alaska.  Our budget for the Kenai Peninsula was pretty much gone…no, if I’m being completely honest we actually blew that budget before we left Seward!  After a little research we found a little Wild Camping pull-out near Portage Glacier (complete with a private pond) and we thought; lets relax, work a bit, inflate the SUP and paddle.  Turns out we ended up with a beautiful and free campsite along with an unexpected adventure that didn’t cost a dime!


Over the years we’ve been practicing our Stand-Up Paddleboarding skills on every lake, ocean and river we can get on.  But there’s something we can do in Alaska that we haven’t been able to attempt in the lower 48: paddle on a glacial lake, through icebergs and float by the face of a glacier.  The excitement, intimidation and sheer joy we’ve experienced on this paddle was surreal, and to have an intimate look at a giant glacier while standing on such a small board really made us feel tiny!

Portage Glacier & Portage Lake

The Glacier earned its name because it is the portage route from the Turnagain Arm to the Prince William Sound.  The lake is around 100 years old and was created by the rapid retreat of Portage Glacier.  There are no fish in the lake due to the large deposits of silt.  Sadly, the glacier has retreated so far into the valley the best view comes by boat, in fact you can’t even see the glacier from the Begich Boggs National Forest Visitor Center, which was just built in the mid 80’s.

paddleboard alaska glaciers

paddleboard alaska glaciers

The Experience

In the past it was illegal to paddle on Portage Lake due to the risk of rolling icebergs and the consistent calving of Portage Glacier, but now the National Forest allows people to launch non-motorized vessels from the viewpoint and parking area on the northeast side of the lake, just past Placer Creek.  Precautions should be taken when approaching icebergs, when you hear the cruise ship heading your way and of course near the face of Portage Glacier.

The round trip took us about six hours, but if we would have started earlier in the afternoon we could have easily spent an entire day paddling around the icebergs and waiting for the crack, pop and rumble of the calving glacier.  If you plan well you can even hike up a portion of the Portage Pass Trail where you’ll get stunning views of the glacial valley, sadly we didn’t have enough time for this.  I won’t go into detail about the trip, that’s what the video is for, but I will tell you this paddle is one of our favorite experiences from our time in Alaska.  The fact you can safely do this adventure on your own, and you can do it for free, makes this experience even sweeter!

paddleboard alaska glaciers

paddleboard alaska glaciers

paddleboard alaska glaciers

paddleboard alaska glaciers

Our Gear and Paddleboard

You don’t need much to make this trip, other than a little experience, a vessel and some snacks, here’s what we had with us to complete this paddling adventure:

  • Inflatable SUP – Our Stand-Up Paddle Board is a really nice one that is reinforced with Kevlar to keep its structure.  I can’t say how other iSUPs will perform but we have been told by many it will slowly deflate when they go from land to the nearly freezing water (this is pretty much the norm in AK).  A hard sided kayak would be fine too but I would not recommend an inflatable kayak or one of those basic ocean kayaks with the holes in the bottom (or anything where you must sit in water while you paddle).
  • Booties – Nikki wore her SCUBA Booties, I left mine in the RV which was a bad idea.  They’re not a necessity but it’s nice to have warm feet.
  • Dry bags – A waterproof dry bag is a must when paddling.  We have two different styles that work well, one is an Extra Large Vinyl Dry Bag that can take a beating (we’ve had ours for over 5 years) and then we have a few smaller Lightweight Dry Sacks made from Ultra-Sil Nylon for our cameras, phones, etc.  The most important thing I can recommend here is purchase a quality brand and make sure it says “waterproof” and not water resistant, over the years we’ve made the mistake of buying an off-brand dry bag that didn’t last, and when a dry bag gets a hole it no longer stays dry.
  • Cameras – A small waterproof camera like the Sony Action Cam or the Olympus Tough is perfect for this adventure.  If you’re willing to risk it like we did, a nicer camera like our Sony a6000 makes for better photographs and video (especially with the Shotgun Microphone) but it’s still small enough to manage while out on the water.  If you wanna go all out they do make waterproof cases for the a6000, but I’m not sure what it would do to the audio recording quality.
  • Personal Floatation Device – Often it’s the law to have a PFD on board, and sometimes it must be attached to your body.  We have the belt style PFDs because they don’t get in the way while we’re paddling and that way we always wear them because they’re comfortable.  We also have a basic PFD cushion that can be used for flotation if necessary, but the main benefit is it gives your butt some cushion and keeps it off the board, therefore keeping us dry and warm.
  • Emergency Kit – It’s always good to have a small Emergency Survival Kit with a Mylar Blanket when you head out into the wild, especially when you’re paddling on nearly freezing water.  Spending a few bucks on a kit like this could literally save your life in a wilderness emergency situation.
  • Pack Towel – In case you get a little wet or your gear gets a few drops on it, a small packable quick-dry towel comes in super handy.  We use ours all the time for paddling, hiking or when heading to the river or beach, you never know when you’ll accidentally get wet.

It’s always good to dress in layers as the Alaskan weather can shift at any time, packing rain gear is smart and a purifying water bottle like our Camelbak All-Clear, or the LifeStraw Bottle, provides unlimited drinking water supply.  A few lessons learned:  I wish I would have had a gimbal for our cameras, a wind muff for the shotgun mic and I should have risked the Action Cam and used it without the cover since the camera itself is splash proof.

Whittier Alaska

The saying goes “Everything is sh*tt*er in in Whittier!”  We heard this over and over throughout our trip, so we’d pretty much blown off the need for a visit, plus me being a cheap a** I didn’t want to pay the tunnel fee just to go to some crappy tourist town.  Nikki and I discussed visiting Whittier for several days and finally we decided it’s our due diligence to ourselves, our Alaska Bound series and our readers to visit this town and report back whether or not it’s worth the time (and money) to pass through the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel.  I’m happy to report we loved the place!

whitter alaska harbor

Before you even get to Whittier the tunnel has its own appeal and accolades: At 2.5 miles it’s the Longest tunnel in North America, there’s only one lane and its shared by cars and trains, it’s ventilated by jet turbines and it’s the first tunnel to be designed for -40 Fahrenheit temperatures and 150 mph winds.  The cost is $13 for a car (or small RV) round trip, sure it’s more expensive than the Golden Gate Bridge, but we’re in Alaska, where everything comes at a premium.

Once we arrived in Whittier we drove straight to the Cruise Ship Terminal to see if one of those behemoths had landed and luckily for us it was a ghost town.  We stumbled upon a little coffee shop called the Lazy Otter where the young barista was so excited to pull espresso for a couple coffee snobs she gave us a giant biscotti on the house!  Coffee in hand and 2 pastries in our pockets we made our way up the hill to explore.  Driving past the historic Buckner Building, an abandoned US Military Dwelling, and down Shotgun Cove Road until the pavement ended and the road caved into a stream.  There we hiked a bit scoring a plethora of wild berries and a lovely little waterfall.

whitter alaska

waterfall alaska

We headed west stopping by Lu Young Park to watch the salmon attempting to jump upstream to spawn, it was quite the sight to see as we marveled at the sheer determination of those fish to make it up the mini waterfalls and through the strong current of Cove Creek (below is the calm part of the creek).  We also saw a porcupine and some other small wildlife hanging around the park.

spawning salmon alaska

Further to the west, all the way to the dead end of Reservoir Road, we picked up the Horsetail Falls Trail.  We’re still not sure exactly where Horsetail Falls is (we did see a waterfall or two off in the distance) but the hike is beautiful and it ends with stunning views of the small town of Whittier and the Prince William Sound.  We spotted a family of Ptarmegian and one just would not get off the trail, I swear those little guys have no fear of humans!  As usual, Nikki picked way more wild berries than we could carry (she still has blueberry stains in her handbag)…I swear if wild berries were a drug she’d have to go to rehab!

hiking whitter alaska

hiking whitter alaska

whitter alaska

We had hoped to round out our day by hiking a portion of the Portage Pass Trail, however the sun was heading for the horizon and the last tunnel access out of town is around 11pm…and I surely don’t want cough up the cash to pay for a hotel here.  With 20 minutes to kill we drove down by the airport and realized there’s free wild camping right here on the water!  How great is that!  If you decide to pay the Motorhome fee to use the tunnel (currently $22-$38 for larger RVs and towables), you can offset some of the cost by staying here for a night or two: GPS 60.779888, -148.717530

Where We Parked It

This is a sweet spot right off Portage Glacier Road. However there was a notice posted that said something along the lines of “Leave No Trace in order to keep this area available for public use.”  I’m guessing people leave their trash lying about so who knows how long the National Forest will allow people to camp here.  There are a few other options for pull-outs and there’s a couple of paid National Forest campgrounds on route as well.

free camping alaska near whittier

One night we had a tent camper in the forest within ear-shot of our RV and another night we had a small class B at the other end of the pond, but it still felt nice and remote.  It’s a short drive, or bike ride, to the Begich Boggs Visitor Center, and just a little further to the tunnel entrance to Whittier.  There’s also an extensive hiking trail that picks up just across Portage Glacier Road from our campsite.  Here’s the GPS coordinates for our exact spot: 60.792714, -148.900751

 

Would you ever paddle this close to a glacier or an iceberg?  Maybe you’ve already done it yourself?  Think we’re crazy for doing it altogether?  What’s your take on Whittier and Portage?  Please share your thoughts, tips and experiences in the comments below.

 

Road Report

Fuel Prices – In general the least expensive fuel is found in Anchorage so make sure to fuel up before you hit the Kenai Peninsula. You can get decently affordable fuel near the turnoff for Girdwood/Alyeska.
Road Conditions – Perfectly smooth roads this time of year.
Weather – Highs near 70 with lows near 50.  Intermittent clouds here and there but overall the weather was nice and comfortable.
Dates Visited – August 4 – August 6

See all our Alaska Travels and Tips here: #AlaskaBound

 

Famous for my "how-not-to" videos, and typically the man behind the camera, sometimes I’m forced to be here in the “spotlight”. When you see my face you’re probably reading something more technical than adventurous, but either way I do my best to tell it like it is and infuse my opinions into the commentary…after all this is a blog and not MSN.

Comments (39)

  • jim

    You guy’s seem to like being up close and personal with a glacier and so do we. We have put our Feathercraft kayak in our RV and have camped [not to be confused with campering] in front of many tidewater glacier. So we get your excitement of being around them.
    Although I have to disagree with your recommendation of what boat to use up there. Skin + Folding kayaks are great. Good inflatables are almost as good then sit on tops providing you have a wet or dry suit. I wouldn’t use a paddleboard unless I stayed close to shore. Any kind of wind more than a breeze and or some chop I think you would be in the drink. But then again I never have been on one but they certainly look like that stability in anything but calm waters would be a problem.
    Maybe you should go to Glacier Bay in your new boat. You wouldn’t regret it. It’s awesome.
    We put up a few You Tube videos of us camping in front of Hubbard glacier. Maybe these will want you to get another taste of glaciers. Search – Hubbard glacier kayak timelapses or – icy bay kayak
    We’ve learned a lot from your videos. Thank you. JIM H

    reply
    • I know our stand up paddle board doesn’t look stable compared to a kayak but it is! Fisher boards are amazing. You would be surprised at the water we can handle on that board. As for Glacier Bay, its one of our all time favorite trips. We did a week long primitive kayaking trip through Glacier Bay (no guide, we took classes in preparation) and it was incredible. We saw lots of wildlife and glaciers and no other people for over a week. Just incredible! However, I think we would need a different boat for that kind of trip. 🙂 One day!

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  • Jerry

    Great to read and see your Alaska adventures.I stumbled onto your blog while doing my never ending study of gas v diesel Mo Hos. My wife Stevie and I are long time Alaskans (circa 1965). We spent the last two summers hosting at Williwaw and Black Bear camp grounds. Both are just off the road to Portage/Whittier. I was hoping you two had stayed at one of these Chugach National Forest campgrounds. Stephanie and I loved our hosting experience. I highly recommend these camp sites for all campers RVers and Tenters. The rates are low and seniors with the right National Forest discount cards get to stay for half price.

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  • Janice Zieke

    I’m a California RV’er who joined my sister, who lives in Juneau, and four of her women friends to kayak to Berner Bay, where we spent two nights at a Forest Service cabin. Amazing experience! Next trip to Alaska you should explore what Forest Service cabins have to offer.
    ..and I agree with you, I’ve been to Alaska numerous times, and will return again!

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  • Been reading your blog and watching the wonderful videos for months now. Feels like I’ve seen them all, and some multiple times. You guys are just so entertaining! The film making and photography are just stunning, and in this paddle board with icebergs edition you’ve really knocked it out of the park. Thank you for all you do and share with the rest of us stuck in more conventional lives! We love it!

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    • Welcome Gary and so glad you liked this one! It was a lot of fun to relive the adventure through the editing process. There is so much to see and do in this world so we have to take advantage of every opportunity. Hope we run across you one day out exploring too.

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  • Kim Nowell

    This was a great video and always enjoy every video. You always give great ideas. I would love to paddle that close to a glacier and hope we can some day when we make this trip. Epic!!! Thank you so much!!

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  • Janet Peterson

    Just an FYI I did receive some email from Compendium? I never subscribed and never knew of this website till today when I checked my email. I had an email for Compendium…spammy maybe? Just an FYI… I love you guys, a real dream life you are living. We hope to do the same someday soon!
    Best wishes, Janet

    reply
    • Not sure about the email but Campendium (the camping site) is legit and worth checking out. You should be able to easily unsubscribe but do check them out for locating campgrounds especially free sites. We have been entering a lot of our finds there and leaving reviews. Its a great RV community resource that’s free (and we all like free).

      reply
  • I love that shot of your rig! I hope you don’t mind, but I had to add your post to Campendium: https://www.campendium.com/portage-glacier-road

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  • Epic is a good word here!

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  • Great video! Here is a shot (from a climb up Bard Peak in 2009) that shows your route: http://crust.outlookalaska.com/Skiing2009/Kelley_PortageLake_2009_corypano.JPG

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  • There are so many videos that just don’t hold our attention for 2 minutes, let alone 12. Yours are always guaranteed to keep us rapt from start to finish, and this one was no different. Epic!

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    • Awe, thanks for hangin’ in there with us! All of our Alaska videos seem to be 10+ minutes no matter how much we cut them down!

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  • Camping through my eyes

    Loved it. Thank you for the Alaska adventure.

    reply
  • Richard Hubert

    Hello Wynns!

    Thanks for yet another great post! Also really appreciate all the photos – seems like you are attaching more and more. You must be having fun with your newer photo gear.
    I see that you are still north of Cambria right now. Looks like you will be going through Santa Barbara on the way down. Lots of really good biking there – one of my favorite areas.
    Have you determined a place to stay in the LA area yet? Been thinking about your request for camping suggestions and from our knowledge of the area still recommend O’Neil Regional Park in Trabuco Canyon (an OC county park, not a State park – so it’s a lot less $$). We think the location is fairly convenient to the LA area and beaches, yet this park is a lot quieter and more peaceful than many. ($20/nite).
    Anyway – when you do get down here would love to help show you some of Laguna Beach. And if you are still around here before Christmas can tell you the best ways to see (and photograph) the Newport Beach Holiday boat parade.
    Have fun!

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  • Hey Wynns, I’m really glad you got to do the Portage Glacier paddle. We were there during exactly the wrong weather conditions (wind, rain) so couldn’t do it. What we DID get to do was kayak the Bear Glacier (out of Seward), and that was a day to remember. Just the week before, a small quake hit the area and the glacier was still calving, the lagoon was full of icebergs, and all of everything seemed to be in-motion. Truly an exciting trip — you can read more in my write-up on my blog at http://www.divver-city.com/blog/2015/08/09/ice-fog-and-kayaks/

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  • John Timmons

    Here’s more of a techie question … I’ve been impressed with the quality of your audio when you’re shooting “on the go”. Are you wearing lavaliere mics, or is the audio picked up strictly from the camera mic?

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  • Every time I start one of your videos in my office, Don comes out of his office to enjoy with me. Really loved this one guys, thanks for sharing!

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  • Mako B

    Beautiful scenery and a great adventure! You guys are killing it! I’ve seen glaciers on an Alaska cruise – your adventure is much more my speed (as in your own pace).

    Alaska by RV is on my list once I get away from work life and a need for an internet connection and cell phone signal. We are full time but limited on vacation and bound to a computer and internet connection daily. This is on the list though!

    I will say to be careful around those glaciers. We had one calve when we were a 100 yards or so away and had a 6 foot swell rock our boat and everything around us. Pretty crazy how much water that ice can move when it hits from falling. Thanks for sharing!

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  • susan

    kudos to your bravery! Beautiful but very frightening – hypothermia and no one around to help if you accidentally went in. I bet it was a very exciting experience – and your camera angles gave the up close and personal experience. Thanks again for your wonderful postings!

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  • Thanks for sharing the pond with me (I was the one in the Class B). It was a pleasure to finally meet you and your feline companions, and my kitty enjoyed the encounter as well. This was one of my favorite campsites in all of Alaska, and I ended up staying for five nights. It got a bit more crowded on the weekend, but it was still a beautiful and peaceful spot.

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  • John S.

    Love the photos.
    Love the video.
    Love the blog.

    Thanks for sharing your adventure and posting your thoughts.

    reply
  • The Brodie's

    It’s been good following your stories. We will be full timing after the first of the year. Looking forward to visiting alot of the same places that you guys have been.

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    • Super exciting! Are you going to Alaska your first year?

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      • The Brodie's

        No it won’t be the first year. We are working on getting our thousand trails elite package with Chad the broker. And selling everything and finishing up with my business. So now I have to start blogging more and not just reading post . We are on our second Fleetwood motor home. Also good to read on some of the gadgets that you guys talk about. I will be ordering some of them and will pass your name on. Keep on doing what you do we enjoy it.

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  • William (Bill) Weaver

    Alaska is just one adventure after another. Looking at the looks on your faces was like two kids who had lashed together some boards and made a raft and were going off to explore the world. Oh you kids. I have been up close to glaciers and floating ice in Alaska on different size boats, but never on a board. The smaller the boat, the more dramatic the experience. That is as low in the water, other than swimming, as you can get. Thanks for taking us along.

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  • Dorothy

    Thanks for sharing. I looks like a great place! Also thank you for sharing some of the gear you used. It’s great when you look at something in a video and know just how to order it.

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  • Constance Condit

    Suggest for your emergency bag you carry “Sol Emergency Bivvy sacks” instead of mylar blankets. They are tougher and you can crawl inside to stay warm. This is especially important around cold water when you need to remove wet clothes and warm the entire body.

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  • Thom Colby

    Awesome SUP video….

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    • Thanks! By far the coolest place we have ever paddled…pun intended!

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  • Joe the computer guy

    Not quite sure I enjoyed that as much as you guys but it is close!
    Thanks for sharing

    reply

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