By Jenny Neyman
Welcome to the weather in between: The frenzy of hunting and fishing seasons have cooled, and frost heaves and freeze-thaw footing are putting the chill on hiking, biking and other trail pursuits. Temperatures tell us winter is here, yet the change in season hasn’t yet brought enough snow to make a go of skiing, snowshoeing, sledding, snowmachining or dog mushing.
What’s an outdoorsman or -woman to do? Pining for snow or reminiscing over summer is living in the future or past. Why not embrace what’s available here and now, and make nice with ice?
“It’s a beautiful day, and it’s perfect ice-skating ice. No snow, it’s nice and smooth, this is great,” said Kelli Creglow, of Sterling, out with her husband, Chris, kids Jacob, 13, and Katie, 11, and Ally, their German shepherd, on Sunday.
Chris has a plane and can access sites off the beaten, road-accessible path, but the family decided to stay close to home for their first winter lake expedition, packing up a sled with skates, warm layers and ice-fishing equipment and heading out on Scout Lake.
Even though it’s near their house and their common destination for canoe fishing in the summer, Scout Lake still took on an exotic, almost otherworldly feel Sunday, with the sun blazing in a clear sky overhead and glinting off the bare, clear, frozen water under their feet. If it weren’t for a light sheen of dust and the occasional crack, encased lily pad or other imperfection in the ice, skating could almost feel like an escape from gravity.
“We were just checking out all the air bubbles that are trapped, layers and layers deep. We were stopping and
rubbing the ice and looking at how far down the farthest air bubble is we could see. It’s pretty cool,” Kelli said, as she, Katie and Ally returned to where Chris and Jacob were bobbing fishing lines in holes they’ve augured into the ice.
Of course, the illusion of floating is bludgeoned into reality immediately if and when fleshy matter meets the unyielding lake surface, but skating conditions have been near perfect lately for even beginners to get — and keep — their skating legs under them.
A high-pressure system lingering over Southcentral Alaska has held with cool, dry air, freezing the peninsula’s smaller to midsized lakes to a safe, solid 5 to 10 inches deep, and leaving their surfaces glassy and clear.
“I think this would be a good place right now to bring even a little kid to learn to skate, because a lot of times the wind will blow and the ice will get washboardy, and it’s a lot harder to learn how to skate on washboardy ice,” Kelli said. “This is so smooth you could grab one of those little chairs and stand a little toddler up with it and push them and they’d take off with something to hold onto. This is a great time right now to learn to skate if you’ve never done it before,” she said.
Kelli plays Rusty Blades recreation league hockey, after learning to skate about 10 years ago, and Chris prefers ice fishing to ice skating. Both Jacob and Katie have been skiers and transferred those skills to ice skating relatively easily, but there was one ice newbie in the party Sunday. Even with four appendages to utilize for mobility, Ally the 2.5-year-old German shepherd was still finding the slippery surface a bit of a scramble.
“She doesn’t know quite what to make of it,” Kelli said.
“She wiped out when she first ran on it. We were kind of anticipating that. She’s new to the ice without snow on it,” Chris said.
Being a shepherd, though, Ally would not be deterred from keeping up with her flock.
“She feels like she has to lead the pack, even on the ice. Even though it’s hard for her to run on it she tries to be in front,” Kelli said. “That’s the only time I can ever beat her is when I’m on skates.”
Not far down the road in Sterling, Raefael Vega was introducing his black Lab, Harlo, to the ice on Longmere Lake.
Vega grew up shooting pucks with his buddies in the winter on various lakes around the area — Scout, Sports and Longmere, primarily. Vega said he was hoping a couple of friends would show up to join him Sunday, but in the meantime was turning Harlo into an amiable hockey partner, shooting balls with his hockey stick and throwing a disc for her to scrabble after.
Whenever her retrieval path took her close to shore she skittered off the ice and jetted across the firmer footing. But she couldn’t resist the lure of toys to chase and inevitably launched herself back onto the glassy surface.
Vega has been living in Oregon the last few years and has taken the opportunity of returning to Sterling for work this fall to make up for lost winter recreation time.
“Hiking, camping, snowboarding — all the great stuff in Alaska,” he said, listing some of his preferred activities. Skating is among them, “If it’s nice out and the ice is good. There’s not much (ice) in Oregon. In the mountains, but there’s not a whole lot of lakes, and they’re way out. It’s way more accessible here.”
Sunday was his first time out skating for the year. He’d heard from people in the area that the ice was plenty thick — a report clearly verified by a four-wheeler driving past him.
“Pretty much any of the lakes right now are good for skating, since we don’t have any snow. Just make sure you check the ice, make sure there’s no overflow or fall-through spots,” he said.
Over on Scout Lake, the ice was a firm, stable slab from the deep water offshore all the way through the grassy, shallow shoreline. If potential skaters had any trepidation over the weekend, four-wheeler tracks in the dust across the surface were a reassuring sign.
“I’m the safety coordinator,” Chris said. “The cracks looked at least 5 inches deep and then we drilled and it’s 9 inches, so that’s plenty thick.”
Plenty thick for pulling up a chair to an ice-fishing hole and waiting for a bite. And waiting some more.
“I caught one rainbow so far but it’s not knocking them dead by any means. I don’t know if it’s the spot we’re in or if it’s the bait,” Chris said.
His preferred setup is shrimp, “which I don’t have today,” he said. Instead, he was fishing with a little minnow lure, while Jacob was bobbing with a Wooly Bugger, “Which is what we use here in the summertime and kill them,” Chris said.
Chris said he prefers to ice fish in lakes stocked by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, of which Scout Lake is one. Almost on cue, Chris’ line gave a tug and he pulled up about a 6-inch-long rainbow.
“That’s a trophy, huh? Well, there are fish in here — two in an hour. Boy it’s hot today, really picking up,” he said, releasing the fish back into the hole, so the family could watch it dart off into the depths beneath the ice.
“Luckily I have something else planned for dinner tonight,” Kelli said.
Make nice with ice
- Anyone looking to try out skates before snow flies has many options to choose from across the central Kenai Peninsula. In Kasilof, Johnson Lake is an easily accessible option. In the Kenai-Soldotna area, Mackey Lakes, Sports Lake, Headquarters Lake (behind the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge office) and ARC Lake by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Landfill are all easy to get to. Nikiski has more lakes than one could easily shake a hockey stick at, with Island Lake, Wik Lake and Daniels Lake being some of the most popular. In Sterling, Longmere and Scout Lake have public access close to the Sterling Highway, and several more lie a short drive down Swanson River Road. A little farther drive out the Sterling Highway gets skaters to options in the Skilak area, including Watson, Egumen, Kelly, Peterson, Bottenintnin, Engineer and Hidden lakes.
- Always verify ice safety for yourself. Many factors influence how quickly lakes freeze to a safe thickness, including lake size, depth and the presence of springs or stream inflow and outlets. Larger lakes with streams flowing through them take longer to freeze, such as Skilak and Kenai lakes with the influence of the Kenai River flowing through. And remember that lakes don’t always freeze evenly, so even if a tested area is safe, a pressure ridge or some other instability could cause weak ice in another.
- When visually inspecting ice, light gray to dark black ice could indicate melting ice and should be avoided. A mottled or slushy appearance usually indicates unsafe, “rotten” ice — generally from dirt and plant materials surfacing from a thaw. White to opaque ice generally means water-saturated snow has frozen on the surface, and could be weak from being porous due to air pockets. Blue to clear ice is the highest-density, safest surface to be on. As the saying goes, “thick and blue, tried and true. Thin and crispy, way too risky.”
- To visually gauge ice thickness, look for air bubbles under the surface or cracks to see how far down they extend. Chip or auger a hole into the ice to be on the safe side, looking for a thickness of a minimum 4 inches, with 6 being preferred.