Portage Glacier Cruise Celebrates 30 Years
By Marc Donadieu
Glacier City Gazette
On June 30, Portage Glacier Cruise celebrated the 30th anniversary of its first cruise on Portage Lake. Past and present employees were invited aboard MV Ptarmagin for a special late afternoon voyage to Portage Glacier.
The hour-long cruise began by heading to the western side of Portage Lake to see waterfalls. Relief Captain Matt Kugler brought the vessel right up to a waterfall’s rocky face so passengers could feel the spray. Then we were off toward Portage Glacier, which has receded quickly from when it used to be visible at the Begich Boggs Visitor Center next to the lake.
There was a bit of haze in the air from the Swan Lake fire on the Kenai Peninsula on an otherwise warm, clear day. As we pulled up to the glacier, passengers and crew were offered sparkling cider and cake for a toast.
Some large, recent calving was evident with jagged chunks of ice melting in the lake at the glacier’s foot. Large slabs of blue ice on the glacier’s face seemed poised to calve at any moment. After another stop in front of the glacier, it was time to return.
After the cruise returned to the dock, the Gazette spoke with MV Ptarmagin’s current Captain Marcelle Roemmich. She has been a captain on the vessel for six years.
“I started off as a deckhand in Prince William Sound ten years ago,” Roemmich said. “I was doing it as a summer job. I really loved being out on the water, and I loved being based out of Whittier. I had some great captains who mentored me and encouraged me to go on and get my license. After I had enough sea time, I decided to get my captain’s license.”
She loves her job and likes working outdoors. She meets new people from around the world everyday. Passengers are excited to see the glacier, especially when it calves.
“There have been some times we’ve seen some really amazing calvings that will rock the boat,” she said, “and I have to turn the boat into it pretty fast and tell everybody, ‘keep three points of contact’ so they don’t rock too much. A few times we’ve seen black bears swimming in the lake and climbing on the glacier as well.”
She cited the trip as an easy, inexpensive way to see a glacier.
“There is a lot of value in this trip,” Roemmich said. “It’s a great way to see a glacier up close and not have it take up the whole day. It’s cost effective too. You can spend a lot of time in Portage Valley doing different things and enjoy this area.”
The Gazette also spoke with Retired Captain Tom Callahan, who came along for the anniversary cruise. He was MV Ptarmagin’s Captain for 22 years from 1996 to 2018, and he was a captain for many years before on a variety of vessels.
Callahan graduated from college with a history degree and thought he would be a teacher.
He worked two summers on Mississippi River tow boats, followed by a summer on a Great Lakes passenger ship before entering the Coast Guard’s officer candidate program. He served there 10 years and earned his commercial captain’s license.
In 1996, Callahan was looking for work away from water, so he applied to be a bus driver at Holland America. On his first day training, a man looked at Callahan’s resume and said he needed to be on a boat not a bus. Since the captain of MV Ptarmagin was already leaving, Callahan took his place. He recalled a few highlights operating the vessel.
“We saved a couple of lives on different occasions,” Callahan said. “We had several rescues. We didn’t lose anybody. There are kayakers out here now. They didn’t used to be. Even paddle boarders. We had several incidents where they went in the water. If it weren’t for my crew, they wouldn’t have made it. One time a plane landed in the lake in trouble. He came down right beside us, and we had to take care of him.”
Callahan misses working now that he is retired, this summer is his first not working since he was 11 years old.
“I made about 17,000 trips up to the glacier. I circled the globe three times on Portage Lake. What I liked most about it was talking to the people, visiting with visitors from all over the world.”