The Great Alaskan Earthquake of 1964

Recollection of an Adventure on Portage Lake

American Association of Petroleum Geologists (AAPG)
Mike Mitchell
Mike Mitchell

I remember exactly where I was when the quake hit: Standing on the ice of Portage Lake.

The ice shook so hard I couldn’t run – I could only stand where I was and fight to stay on my feet. 

What I remember most vividly about the quake is the sound. A great rumbling came from the earth, the very air seemed to vibrate and across the rumble came the sound of the ice cracking. Big booming sounds, coming from the south toward Whittier, seemingly passing directly underneath me, then shooting on to the north.

Six-hundred feet of cold, gray glacier water below me and nothing but the sky above.

When the shaking finally began to subside, the sound of the breaking ice was replaced by a new sound coming from above – I looked up and there were snow slides coming down every mountainside. I started running toward the middle of the lake.

My colleges were out there near a hole we had drilled through the ice to find out how deep the lake was. As I ran, it began to snow big, dirty gray snowflakes. We met in the middle. Good-fortune! No one was missing. No one had been hurt. Some excited talk about how the hole in the ice alternately spouted water and sucked air when the quake hit, but we wasted no time in deciding our first priority was simply to get off the lake!

The dark of night was with us as we neared the shore. It was then that we realized we had, indeed, been fortunate to be far out on the ice when the quake hit. Giant, jumbled blocks of ice, with water in between, lay between us and the shore. But we were not to be deterred. We tied ourselves together with a rope and set out across this no-man’s land in the dark.

Suddenly someone shouted: “It's moving! It's moving!”

At that moment, for me, it was like the universe changed gears. We all stopped in our tracks and looked, as if for the first time, at what was happening around us.


Broad slow motion waves, higher than a man, were rolling onto shore and we were right in the middle of them, standing on automobile size broken pieces of lake ice that were rotating with the rise and fall of the waves ... suddenly you could hear the ice crunching and grinding, the water gurgling.

We beat a hasty retreat back toward the middle of the lake. We then decided to circle to the east and look for a spot where we could get across the moving ice along the shore.

In Bear Valley, maybe a mile from the big waves, we finally made it off the lake. By that time we were all cold and getting hungry. Nobody wanted to spend the night in the open! We decided we would try to walk out through the train tunnel. We had no flashlight, but we thought we could follow the tracks in the tunnel or the tunnel walls. 

Inside the tunnel, you could hear the earth; it was making a noise – a noise so low you sensed it as a vibration in the rock as much as a sound in the air.

But it was not the otherworldly blackness in the tunnel and the strange earth-sound that made us turn around once again.

Ssssiit, crack!

“What's that?”

Ssssiit, whomp!

"Oh, God! It's rock falling from the ceiling."

I remember the pounding in my chest with that realization.

Walking back out of the tunnel was perhaps the scariest part of the day. I’ll never forget that strange sound/vibration coming from the solid rock inside the mountain. Nor will I ever forget the sudden, heart pounding fear of being smashed in the head by a rock falling through the dark.

Back outside, someone said they thought they remembered a small cabin near the entrance to the second tunnel. So we started to walk along the tracks in that direction. It was then that we noticed a red glare in the sky over the mountain toward Whittier – a flickering reflection dancing on the bottoms of the clouds.

As we walked along, we began to discuss "What was it that had happened to us?"

We gave serious consideration to the idea that Anchorage might have been hit in a nuclear attack. And if that were so, maybe all our families and friends were gone.

There was a small cabin at the entrance to the second tunnel to Whittier. The man who opened and closed the doors to the tunnel when the train would come through lived there with his wife and baby girl. The first thing we asked was: Did they know what had happened?

They didn't know. They had a radio but had not been able to pick up anything but a couple brief snatches of emergency civil-defense type talk since the ground shook.

We tied a cup to a long string and hung it from the ceiling. Then we sat around and talked and drank coffee and watched the cup on the string swing every time an aftershock would come rumbling through.

Late that night, when an Anchorage radio station finally came back on the air, we learned that Alaska had been struck by a great earthquake.

In the morning, a helicopter scouting damage to the Alaska Railroad gave us a ride over Portage Creek back to our camp. That afternoon we hiked out to the now-severely damaged Portage Cafe, near the junction of the Seward Highway and Portage Glacier Road. Late in the day, a military helicopter picking up people stranded by the earthquake gave us a ride back to Anchorage.

The five of us had a once-in-lifetime-experience (?) that we were lucky to survive. From the perspective of a budding geologist, I could not have asked for a more dramatic first-hand experience of geology in action!

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Editor’s note:

Field studies are usually routine for undergraduate geology students, but on March 27, 1964, Mike Mitchell, then a senior geology major at Alaska Methodist University (AMU), two other students from AMU and Anchorage Community College (ACC) and Art Kennedy with the U.S. Forest Service were in the field working on a research project with professor Ruth Smith (Schmidt?) from the geology department at ACC when they experienced the Great Alaskan Earthquake – at magnitude 9.2, it is the most powerful earthquake in recorded U.S. history. Mitchell’s memory of the earthquake that rocked south-central Alaska remains strong as the event’s 50th anniversary approaches.

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