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It’s not uncommon to hear an exasperated Angeleno express that she could never survive in L.A. without a car. In Alaska, you’re likely to hear that same expression, but about a helicopter or train.
I learned this firsthand while in Anchorage, where I boarded the Alaska Railroad for a day trip to Spencer Glacier, a backcountry whistle stop accessible only by train. Located in the Chugach National Forest, the glacier and its surrounding lake can be reached via a private charter train or the Glacier Discovery train, which travels from Anchorage to Grandview with stops in Girdwood, Portage, Whittier and Spencer Glacier along the way.
I visited in the fall, on the last day of the railroad’s season, when the lake had experienced its first freeze. From the mouth of the river, the icy water looked cloudy — unable to reflect the orange foliage — though bright icebergs provided an alluring contrast.
Eyeing the kayaks and ice sheet, I was relieved I had chosen to tour the lake and glacier via raft instead. After a safety briefing by Ari Stiassny, owner of Chugach Adventures, we donned our life jackets and boarded our rafts. My local guide, Corey — all muscles and red, flowing hair — cut through the thin ice with ease, as though his paddles were scissors.
When not listening to Corey’s stories about calving glaciers and life in Alaska, I realized another bonus of choosing a raft over a canoe or kayak: We were able to get closer to the glacier and icebergs and take all the photos we wanted. Whether tall or wide, jagged or lumpy, each chunk of glowing blue ice communicated something new about our wild surroundings. I wasn’t alone in wonder, either. Sometimes our raft grew quiet, each of us pacified by the placid lake and its possibilities.
Spencer Lake is only accessible via the Alaska Railroad. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
The Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop is located in the backcountry of the Chugach Forest. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Once at Spencer Lake, visitors can choose to kayak, raft, canoe or even hike the glacier. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Rafts are able to get closer to the icebergs and glacier, and require no physical work. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Chugach Adventures is one of the tour operators running tours in the lake. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Chugach guide Corey shows off his rafting skills. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
Getting up close to icebergs is a highlight of a day here. // © 2017 Mindy Poder
The day excursion is perfect for nature lovers who also want to try out the Alaska Railroad. // © 2017 Mindy Poder