Habitat of Williwaw Fish Viewing Site
The Williwaw Fish Viewing Site provides a great opportunity for visitors to get a taste of the "young" habitat of a glaciated valley. View this page to learn about the geologic history, vegetation, wildlife, and recreational opportunities in Portage Valley.
Glaciers -- advancing and retreating. Glaciers -- calving on a lake or perched high on a mountain. Glaciers -- gleaming blue in the distance or cold and icy at your fingertips. You can experience glaciers in all their wonder in Portage Valley!
Portage Glacier is the most well-known of the valley's five glaciers. During the last 80 years the glacier calved large icebergs into Portage Lake as it retreated. Now that it is at the eastern shore of the lake, Portage Glacier has formed a magnificent vertical face that still calves ice into the lake. You can experience Portage Glacier up close and personal from the deck of the Ptarmigan tour boat.
You can also explore landscape features that Portage Glacier created in the valley. The steep mountain slopes of this U-shaped valley were carved by the glaciers in an earlier period of advance and retreat. Explorer Glacier can be seen high on the mountain slope on the right hand side of Portage Glacier as you drive into the valley. Stop at the turnout at mile 2 to photograph this beautiful hanging glacier high on the mountainside.
Meltwater from the glaciers deposits gravel, creating the flat floor of the valley. Portage Glacier deposited a gravel ridge called a terminal moraine during its advance in 1893. The Begich, Boggs Visitor Center sits on this moraine. You can walk the short Moraine Trail to learn more about this glacial feature.
In addition to the dramatic effects of glaciers, nature has sculpted the landscape with other impressive forces. For example, winter avalanches and summer landslides create vertical scars down the valley walls. These slides erode talus (loose rock) from steep slopes and deposit it on the valley floor.
Wind is the major climatic force in the valley. As air masses with different pressures equalize between Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet, high winds roar through Portage Pass. These winds have peeled asphalt from the parking lot, ripped roofs off buildings, lifted boxcars off tracks, blown people off their feet, and torn loose sections of tracks and ties. You can see the evidence of constant winds on trees and shrubs -- they are bare of branches on the side facing the strong winds.
The effects of the Great Earthquake of 1964 can be seen at the mouth of Portage Valley. The land at the mouth of the valley on Turnagain Arm subsided 6 to 11 feet. The town of Portage was permanently flooded and the buildings abandoned. You can see only remnants of its buildings across from the depot on the Seward Highway. Trees growing along Turnagain Arm were flooded by saltwater when the land dropped. These dead trees are still standing as a "ghost forest."
The extensive mudflats along Turnagain Arm are also a glacial feature. Glacial silt from glaciers throughout the area is deposited at least a thousand feet deep in the Arm. Massive tidal fluctuations of up to 38 feet constantly grind and shift these silts. Be aware -- the mudflats are treacherous acting like quicksand!
Life in the Valley
This glacially-created landscape forms the foundation for a variety of habitats. After a glacier retreats, lichens (a combination of algae and fungus) first colonize the exposed gravels and rocks. The lichens create more favorable conditions for plants, who next colonize the landscape. As this succession of plants continues, eventually large trees such as black cottonwood and spruce start growing where once only glacier-scoured rock existed.
With the growing community of different plants, comes a wide variety of wildlife. Brown and black bears can be seen in the valley. Mountain goats are sometimes spotted high on the bare, rocky cliffs above timberline. The valley is home to many moose, who are best seen in winter browsing on their favorite food -- young willows. A patient and observant person may also spot smaller animals such as porcupine, river otter, mink, weasel, wolverine, coyote, wolf, marten, marmot, snowshoe hare, and red squirrel.
Birders can find many species of interest in the valley. Bald eagles are common, including some nesting pairs. A variety of shorebirds, such as common snipe and yellow legs use the valley. Seabirds including arctic terns and gulls also can be seen in the valley. In summer, songbirds such as juncos, sparrows, wrens, thrushes, and magpies are frequently seen. Alaska's state bird, the willow ptarmigan, can be viewed on the high slopes above the valley floor.
Some waterfowl call Portage Valley their summer home. They nest and rear their young along river channels. The Moose Flats Day Use Area has a short boardwalk trail along ponds where you might spots some of these ducks.
Portage Valley is a migratory freeway for birds flying between their southern wintering areas to their summer grounds in western Alaska. Portage Pass is the primary route through the rugged Chugach Mountains between Prince William Sound and the Cook Inlet area. During the fall and spring migrations, long wedges of geese, ducks, and cranes fill the sky -- their calls echoing between the valley walls.
People also use Portage Pass as a transportation route. Before Portage and Burns Glaciers began their latest retreats, Denai'na Indians, Chugach Eskimos, and Russian fur traders travelled across these glaciers, using them as a "portage" between the sound and Cook Inlet. Today, a railroad and a road provide the transportation link.
The streams of Portage Valley provide spawning habitat for all five species of Pacific salmon -- king (chinook), pink (humpback), chum (dog), red (sockeye), and silver (coho). Dolly Varden char also migrate into many of the spawning streams. A good place to view red and chum salmon during the spawning season is the viewing platform at the Williwaw Salmon Viewing Site. There are also several ponds with fishing platforms located in the valley. Be sure to follow the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations.
Perhaps the most unusual life form in the valley is the legendary iceworm. Yes, they really do exist! These mysterious creatures feed on pollen grains and red algae on the surface of glaciers. They prefer temperatures near freezing, and move from the surface to deeper in the ice to find their preferred environment as air temperatures change and sunlight comes or goes.
Recreation in the Valley
The hub for recreation in the valley is the Begich, Boggs Visitor Center on Portage Lake. At the center, you can learn about glaciers and their effects on life and the landscape. The center is open daily in summer and on a limited schedule the rest of the year. Forest Service interpreters at the center are available to answer your questions, provide programs about interesting features and phenomena in the valley, and conduct special nature walks. The award-winning film Voices from the Ice provides a spectacular view of the many glaciers and wildlife of the Chugach National Forest.
An exciting way to experience Portage Glacier close-up is to take an hour-long cruise on the motor vessel Ptarmigan. A Forest Service interpreter on board narrates the trip, pointing out wildlife and landscape features, as you watch for ice calving at the spectacular face of the glacier. The MV Ptarmigan is operated by Grayline of Alaska-Westours under a special use permit from the Forest Service.
Camping is available at two campgrounds -- Williwaw which is a fully-accessible campground that can accommodate large RV's; and Black Bear which is a rustic campground enjoyed by tenters.
You can warm up with a bowl of soup and other tasty food at the Portage Glacier Lodge next to the visitor center. The lodge also offers an extensive selection of fine gifts. The lodge is privately owned and operated under a special use permit from the Forest Service.
Visitors can hike on several short trails, including the Moraine Trail, Byron Glacier Trail, Williwaw Nature Trail, and at Moose Flats Day Use Area. More trails are planned for future construction in the valley.