Mark Earnest's Clacier Discovery Trip Report

By Mark Earnest

Glacier Discovery Train to Spencer Glacier & Float Tour
Sunday, September 3, 2006

Whittier to Spencer Glacier and Return

The day begins with something almost unheard of in Whittier for the past six weeks … sunshine! Whittier's rainfall total for the month of August was nearly 30 inches. With family visiting from the Lower 48, we decide to celebrate our good fortune by taking the Glacier Discovery Train to Spencer Glacier for a day of rafting, in style. Spencer Glacier is located near Mile 54 of the Alaska Railroad, about one mile from the tracks.

We arrive at the passenger boarding area at Whittier with plenty of time to spare. The Glacier Discovery Train loads and offloads passengers at a seasonal, tent-like structure across from the cruise ship terminal and marina. For railfans, it is located near Bridge F1.2 (parallel 126-foot open timber trestle bridges that cross Whittier Creek) and a 3-track grade crossing that provides access to beautiful downtown Whittier.

Before long, GP40-2 3009 comes into view, leading the small passenger consist into the boarding area. Conductor Wade Sherwood hands us our tickets and we climb aboard. In addition to #3009, our train consists of Baggage 111, Coach 210, Coach 209, Dome 525, and GP40-H 3013. (Locomotives for the Glacier Discovery Train for most of the 2006 season has been provided by GP40-2 3010 and RDC 711; the RDC was in service for the Alaska State Fair run to Palmer and rumor had it that 3010 was on temporary freight service duty. Missing from the normal Glacier Discovery consist was Cafe Diner 353.)

After a few minutes, we start down the track toward Mt. Maynard and the 2.5-mile (13,300-foot) Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel. Unlike the two dozen or so vehicles waiting in the Whittier staging area for the tunnel opening, we proceed through at a comfortable 30 miles per hour. In addition to the combination rail and road driving surface, another noticeable difference since the tunnel was retrofitted to accommodate vehicle traffic in 2000 is that the tunnel is now illuminated. Here are some other interesting facts about the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel:

Five minutes after entering the tunnel, we reenter daylight, pass the Bear Valley vehicle staging area, cross the stunningly beautiful Bridge F5.7 (a 238-foot open timber trestle structure also known as Placer Creek Bridge—not to be confused with the Placer River Bridge which we encounter later), and immediately enter a shorter (4,912-foot) tunnel through Begich Peak referred to as Portage or Turnagain tunnel.

Construction of the Port of Whittier and access by railroad to bases in Southcentral and Interior Alaska were part of the U.S. Military buildup in Alaska during the early 1940s. Whittier was viewed as a safer and more strategic and efficient Port than Seward. It took tunneling crews 309 days, averaging 25 feet per day, to complete the Passage tunnel (later renamed in honor of Anton Anderson). Parenthetically, Anton Anderson was Chief Locating Engineer for the Alaska Railroad and head of the Whittier construction field office and oversaw work on the dock, rail yard and track connecting the tunnels. More than 525,000 pounds of explosives were used to remove nearly 100,000 cubic yards of rock. The tunnel was “holed through” on November 20, 1942. On April 23, 1943, the rail line connecting Whittier to Portage Station was officially operational.

We more or less follow Portage Creek which flows through Portage Valley and ultimately to the old town site of Portage (Mile 64.0). Certainly one of the highlights of the trip for me is passing the four-track siding just east of Portage. The ARR uses that siding for staging or storing numerous freight cars and cabooses. Cars on the siding can be easily seen from the Seward Highway, but they are far too distant to observe in much detail. What we are treated to on this occasion were numerous ex-troop transport cars converted to MOW service, 60-foot insulated blue box cars, an ex-Navy double door box car, an ex-Army tank car painted in MOW silver, and several 41- and 65-foot gondolas built in the 1940s partially filled with scrap metal. Hidden from view are several Pacific Car & Foundry Center Cupola Steel Cabooses. The siding is veritable living museum.

We maneuver through the Portage “wye”, where we pick up additional passengers and rafts for the Spencer Glacier that were stored overnight. Portage was at one time a thriving little town that was logistically and economically linked to Whittier. One of the interesting historical features of Portage is the vehicle ramp that was used to load vehicles of nearly all shapes and sizes, often including trailers towing boats, onto flatcars for the 12.4-mile trip to Whittier. However, with the opening of the Anton Anderson Memorial Tunnel, the Alaska Railroad discontinued the Whittier rail shuttle between Portage and Whittier after 55 years of service.

The following is an excerpt from the 1988 – 1989 ARR Portage/Whittier Shuttle Schedule regarding safety information for flat car training and detraining:

Sound advice indeed.

Portage was greatly impacted by the Good Friday Earthquake that devastated much of Southcentral Alaska in 1964. The earthquake was originally assigned a magnitude on the Richter-Scale of between 8.4 and 8.6, but was later upgraded to a magnitude of 9.2, or approximately 80 times more energy than the 1906 San Francisco quake. Although the epicenter was approximately 30 miles east-northeast of Whittier, the U.S. Geological Survey notes that ground shaking was felt as far away as Virginia. The tectonic movement of the plates during the 1964 earthquake was quite dramatic. On one side of the fault, the ground rose as much as 38 feet, on the other the land dropped. At the western end of Turnagain Arm, including Portage, the ground sank about eight to ten feet, submerging the land with salt water.

One of the more visibly striking features of Portage today is the “ghost forest,” which consists of trees that were killed as a result of salt water infiltration of the groundwater and from tidal flooding. Other structural remnants visible from the railroad include a dilapidated horse stable and cabin. Tidal-flat silt and sand deposition and plant growth have already restored much of the landscape that the 1964 earthquake destroyed. For example, the flats supported new meadows and thickets by 1973 and new spruce trees by 1980.

Gently rising in elevation from sea level at Portage, we travel the short distance to our drop point at Mile 53.7, prior to the Placer River crossing and Tunnel areas. There the seven rafters and our guide offload. My youngest child is allegedly too young for the rafting portion, so he and his older brother continue to Grandview.

We hop aboard a bus and travel down a short unimproved dirt road to a tent camp where we have lunch. After soup, sandwich and desert, we make the short hike to Spencer Lake where we receive pre-float instructions and split into two groups. Our guide paddles us out to Spencer Glacier. She is professional and knowledgeable, so we get a chance to discuss the geology and history of the region.

We float to within a few dozen feet of house-size icebergs that are grounded in the lakebed. We paddle into the river's mouth and drift downstream to Placer River Bridge, located at about mile 52. It consists of a 133-foot through-truss bridge and two 14-foot I-Beam spans, supported by concrete abutments and timber piers. We continue to a nice spot along the river to stop and for a break. Once back in the raft, the trip continues downstream to the take-out.

We re-board the train and head back to Portage, where we drop off passengers and rafts, and head back to Whittier. We stop along Portage Creek to view a huge bull moose and spawning salmon. We have extra time for wildlife viewing because we need to time our arrival at Anton Anderson Tunnel to slip between vehicle openings. Passing through Bear Valley we observe many adult trees snapped in two, with their former tops all laying on the ground pointing in the same general direction. Our Conductor informs us that this is the result of extreme wind gusts blowing down from the glacier wrecking havoc with the trees covered with heavy wet snow and ice. It should be noted that the design specifications for the new tunnel facility allow for operations in temperatures down to minus 40 degrees F (-40 C), winds up to 150 mph (240 kph), and snow loads of 220 pounds per square foot (10.5 kpa) – and that is for outside of avalanche zones!

We arrive safely back in Whittier at about 6:00 pm.

As advertised, the raft portion is a gentle float tour among the icebergs at Spencer Lake and down the Placer River (no experience necessary, suitable for all ages and abilities, and good for families with young kids five years and older). If you're looking for whitewater, you should definitely look elsewhere, but if you're looking for a relaxing float in a magnificent glaciated mountain setting nestled between two train rides on the Alaska Railroad, it is worth the price of admission. The rafting portion is provided by Chugach Adventure Guides dba Class V Whitewater, in conjunction with the Alaska Railroad, under permit from the U.S. Forest Service.

image GP40-2 3009 leading the Glacier Discovery Train arrives at Whittier at 12:35 pm with Baggage 111, Coach 210, Coach 206, Dome 525, and GP40-H 3013.
image Inside Anton Anderson from the dome of ex-Montana Rockies Rail Tours (MRRT) Dome 525 exiting Whittier at 1:00 pm.
image Passing by the four-track storage yard just outside Portage at 1:15 pm featuring an old tank car and ex-Navy box car, which was built by Pressed Steel, Thrall, Pullman Standard sometime between 1943 and 1957. What a treat for us freight fans!
image The 41-foot gondolas #13312 & #13347 with a load of scrap were built by Mt. Vernon Car Manufacturing Co. in 1943. They were purchased from D&RGW in 1947.
image Tank cars and miscellaneous MOW equipment including ex-troop transport cars converted to an outfit tool car (1306E), outfit flat car (0047), outfit water car (1569E), and outfit bath car (1000E).
image Entering EART Block near Portage.
image View from EART Block. Note the dead trees which are typical of the Portage area. They are casualties of the 1964 Good Friday Earthquake when the ground in this area dropped up to eight feet, thereby allowing salt water to infiltrate the root systems through groundwater and high tides (other areas in the Prince William Sound rose an incredible 38 feet!).
image Art picture alert! Quick, skip this one to get back to the really good stuff.
Oops…another art pic - this one with dead trees. Don't know how this one slipped in.
Backing into Portage at 1:35 pm.
Say goodbye to 3013 and hello to our next mode of transportation at 1:55 pm….
image Spencer Glacier and Spencer Lake.
image Rafting around ice chunks from the glacier at 3:05 pm.
image Approaching Placer River bridge at 3:25 pm.
image Placer River bridge pier.

What a welcome sight! #3009 heading to our rendezvous site.

image #3013 and our traveling companion raft.
image #3013 is idling while we paddle up.
image There are even e-z steps for the rafters.
image The end of our wonderful float trip. Conductor Sherwood lends a hand to the rafters at 5:00 pm.
image Back to the good stuff: passing MOW cars on our return from Portage to Whittier at 5:30 pm.
image Here are three sixty-foot PC&F insulated box cars, led by 10821, mixed in with non-interchange 41- and 65-foot gondolas. The ARR purchased 35 of these distinctive box cars in 1965.
image This 70-ton, 65' mill gondola (#13841) was built by Pressed Steel Car Co. in 1944 and was acquired by the ARR in 1947.
image Two more of the 65' mill gondola, including #13828.
image One last view of the freight cars on the multi-track siding outside of Portage.


© 2006 Mark Earnest