Every time I fly over the northwestern corner of the Kenai Peninsula, I marvel at the number of lakes that make up the Swan Lake and Swanson River Canoe Routes and think about ways to explore them. Ways that don’t involve hiking in hip boots on soggy trails in the rain with a full pack on my back and canoe on my head while being tormented by mosquitoes.
Call me soft, but I like to travel fast and light and mosquitoes drive me absolutely insane, so I’ve pretty much given up on traveling deep into this wilderness from May to October. I have the utmost respect for those dedicated canoeists out there who paddle and portage the system during the summer months, and I’m sure they have fantastic experiences, but it’s just not for me. Fortunately, however, summer always ends in Alaska, and when the lakes finally freeze, the Swan Lake and Swanson River Canoe Routes open up to skaters. Then, wild ice season begins.
There are a number of roadside lakes up Swanson River Road and out Swan Lake Road that are great for ice skating and are easily accessible to anyone with a vehicle and a pair of hockey skates. If you want true roadside skating, you’ll need to head up Swanson River Road at least as far as Weed, Dolly Varden and Rainbow lakes. Park your car, put on your skates, step onto the ice and go (after you’ve checked the thickness of the ice, of course).
Other lakes on Swanson River Road, such as Mosquito, Silver, Forest, Drake and Skookum lakes, require a short hike in to get the goods. These lakes are beautiful, slightly removed from the truck traffic on the road and can be great fun when the conditions are good.
If you want to really explore the Swan Lake and Swanson River Canoe Routes that depart from Swan Lake Road and link multiple lakes together in a wide-ranging tour, you’ll need some specialized skating equipment that will allow you to tackle the many portages more efficiently than you can with hockey skates.
Constantly lacing and unlacing your skates with frozen fingers and changing into hiking boots and back into skates for the portages, or — yikes — hiking in skate guards? No. To get deep into the system to the truly wild ice in a way that’s fast and fun, you’ll need Nordic skates.
Nordic skating was developed in Sweden (långfärdsskridsko), but it is also quite popular in Norway (turskøyting) and Finland (retkiluistelu) and is slowly catching on in Alaska (obscurenichesport). Nordic skating is all about going far and fast with a minimal amount of effort.
Imagine effortlessly gliding through a blurring landscape at dreamlike speeds with the freedom to go in any direction you choose and you’ll have some sense of Nordic skating. It’s always exhilarating and when conditions are perfect it can be downright euphoric. You’re not just walking on water, you’re flowing across the top of it catching wolves by surprise.
Nordic skates aren’t really skates as much as they are long, hard steel blades (50 centimeters or so) with cross-country ski bindings mounted on top. You use warm, comfortable Nordic ski boots and clip into the bindings as if they were skis. Your heels, and your mind, remain free. Since clipping in and out of the bindings takes mere seconds, you can go from skates to boots and back to skates in less time than it takes to say, “I love portaging these mosquito-free trails without a canoe!”
Nordic skates allow you to cross large lakes in a matter of minutes, unclip for the portage, hike the trail in your ski boots, and then clip back into your blades when you reach the next lake. After a few tours this fall, I’m fairly certain that when the ice cooperates, Nordic skating is the most efficient way of exploring the Swan Lake and Swanson River Canoe Routes. It’s also extremely fun if you like to go fast and spend time in the wintry woods far from the madding crowd.
As the smaller lakes on the peninsula started to freeze up in late October, I planned my first mini-tour off Swan Lake Road. If you intend to spend any time in this area, summer or winter, Daniel Quick’s book, “The Kenai Canoe Trails: Alaska’s Premier Hiking and Canoeing System,” is invaluable. For skaters, Quick’s book is useful because it has the depths of most of the lakes in the system.
Since small, shallow lakes freeze before large, deep ones, you can research which lakes will freeze first and plan accordingly. As I drove past Dolly Varden Lake on my way to the Nest Lake trailhead just before Halloween, there was open water visible from the Dolly Varden campground. After driving a few miles down the road and making the short hike to the shoreline of tiny Nest, however, I found stout ice 4 to 5 inches thick.
I generally only skate if the ice is 2 inches or thicker and I base my estimations of thickness on the spidery cracks that stretch across the lakes like frozen veins. I don’t carry an auger or a drill (too heavy) and I always assume that I could go through the ice at any time.
For this reason, and because I generally skate solo, I never step out onto ice without a pair of ice claws (isdubbar is the Swedish term) for self-rescue. Ice claws are basically spikes with handles that will allow you to haul yourself out of the drink should you be unlucky enough to go through. I made mine out of wooden dowels and nails and, fortunately, I haven’t had to use them yet.
After one slow lap around Nest Lake to check the thickness of the ice, constantly looking down and slightly ahead, I did a couple of quick crossings and admired the views of the Kenai Mountains. I then unclipped from my blades near an obvious portage and hiked on the frozen tundra next to a creek with open water over to Duckling Lake.
Since Nest Lake isn’t a part of the canoe route system proper there are no marked portages, but if you like maps as much as I do, route finding between these relatively unexplored lakes is part of the fun. You really get the sense that you’re going where few people ever go, though there are plenty of animal tracks.
After a couple of circuits on Duckling Lake, I unclipped again and hiked over to Kayak Lake, which has some nice nooks and crannies to explore. From Kayak Lake it was another short portage on frozen ground over to Willow Lake, and after a few laps there I headed back to Nest Lake. I was definitely dawdling while ogling the beauty of my surroundings, yet this little tour of four different lakes still took less than two hours.
It really is astonishing how fast you can travel on quality ice and how enjoyable it is to move gracefully (most of the time) through this terrain with warm, dry feet. Best of all, there are no pesky mosquitoes.
After a brief warm spell in early November where lakes across the peninsula experienced some thawing, things got cold again by the middle of the month and the larger lakes visible from Swanson River Road began to freeze all the way across. Buoyed by my success at Nest Lake, I decided it was time to see Swan Lake.
It was Black Friday, so with a curious mixture of Tchaikovsky and Steely Dan running through my head, I set out for the lake that Quick describes as the “granddaddy of all lakes” in the Swan Lake and Swanson River Canoe Routes.
As I signed in at the East Entrance trailhead I wondered how many people had ever visited Swan Lake under their own power without a canoe. A few Nordic skiers and snowshoers, perhaps? The odd trapper?
Incidentally, there are active traplines in this area and at least some of them are marked. For this reason and a couple of others (open water and high speeds) I leave my dogs at home, despondent, when heading into this neck of the woods.
To get to Swan Lake you have to cross Portage Lake (one minute), Portage Lake No. 2 (30 seconds), Birch Lake (two minutes), Teal Lake (one minute), Mallard Lake (one minute) and Raven Lake (one minute). The portages between the lakes generally take five to 10 minutes, with the longest portage — between Teal and Mallard — taking 15.
If you do the math, you can see that a Nordic tour out to Swan Lake requires about five to 10 minutes of actual skating (if you skate directly from portage to portage) and 30 to 40 minutes of hiking. All of the portages are clearly marked with brown signs and it was always a bit of a thrill to see the sign on the shore (yes, I’m easily amused).
Ultimately, I made it out to Swan Lake in a little over an hour after stopping to take some pictures at various points along the way.
Swan Lake is a very large lake and the ice cover did not inspire confidence when I arrived. It was clear and without cracks around the edges — obviously new ice — making it difficult to determine how thick it actually was, and there appeared to be wet spots a few hundred yards offshore. Open water? Being the conservative solo backcountry traveler that I am, I decided to turn around and take a more leisurely tour back on the ice I knew was safe.
I skated the perimeter of each lake and paid closer attention to my surroundings instead of simply shortcutting from portage to portage. I was amazed at how busy some beavers have been clear-cutting the aspens on Raven Lake and I finished up with a few swooping laps on excellent ice at Birch Lake just as the skies partly cleared, revealing a breathtaking view of the pink-hued Kenai Mountains.
The day after Black Friday it snowed. White Saturday. Deep snow typically signals the end of the skating season — at least until the really large lakes like Skilak and Tustumena freeze up later in the winter. But I wanted to get out for one more tour on the canoe routes before the new snow bonded to the ice below, so I headed up to the West Entrance of the Swan Lake Route on the last day of November for some powder skating.
One to 2 inches of new snow on top of the ice is definitely still able to be skated. It looks really cool as your skates slice through the snow to the ice below, but be warned — the snow hides cracks, lily pads and other things that can send you crashing down hard and in a hurry. It also makes it impossible to determine the thickness of the ice just by looking, so it helps if you know the history of the ice beneath the snow before you set out.
There was a truck parked at the West Entrance trailhead that Sunday morning, and under ordinary circumstances I would have kept going to an unpeopled spot in search of solitude, but I figured the truck’s owner was probably ice fishing and I had my heart set on skating to Spruce Lake and possibly connecting over to Swan Lake by way of Trout Lake, so I set out following their sled track.
It became immediately apparent that this tour was not going to go as smoothly as my first trip out to Swan Lake. There were the aforementioned lily pads, barely visible as slight bumps beneath the snow, which sent me lurching more than once. There was also open water at every portage, which required a bit of navigation to avoid turning the experience into a triathlon (skating, hiking and swimming).
In addition, snow now covered the rooty trails and manmade plank boardwalks, slowing the hiking speed from carefree cruising to careful walking. The snow also packed up into the toe pieces of my ski boots and into the bindings on my blades, which slowed the transitions. Luckily, the isdubbar is the perfect tool for clearing this snow out and I continued on, albeit at a slower pace.
After passing two fishermen trying their luck at open water near one of the early portages (and doing quite well from the looks of it), I noticed fresh ski boot tracks on the portage beyond them. The tracks went out and back and the return tracks were only hours old. Amazing! Someone had Nordic skated this route earlier in the day. It must have been the one truck I saw heading out on Swan Lake Road as I was on my way in.
Now I was curious. Who was this person and how far did they go? I followed their tracks across Canoe, Contact, Marten and Spruce Lakes to the portage to Otter Lake. I noticed they were using poles and that they kept going on to Otter. I decided I wouldn’t be going any farther in that direction and skated back on Spruce to see if the tracks re-emerged at the Trout Lake portage.
Sure enough, it appeared that this mystery skater had linked up Otter, Rock, Loon, Swan, Cygnet, Konchanee, Gavia and Trout Lakes before making their way back to Spruce. Clearly, a Nordic stud (or studette) had passed this way.
As I made my way back to Swan Lake Road, I was energized by the fact that someone else had been out Nordic skating on this particular day, in this particular place.
Someone thought it would be fun to do a Nordic skating trip on the Swan Lake Canoe Route in the snow on the last day of November. And it was.
Pete Snow is an education professor at Kenai Peninsula College who likes to skate on wheels, blades and skis, depending on the surface conditions of the planet.