Skating Skilak Lake
A 40-mile wild ice overnight on the Kenai Peninsula
January 31-February 1, 2023
Wild ice is notoriously fickle and fleeting. Would-be skaters might clear their schedules, pack their bags, and drive hours in the dark only to pull up to a lake to find open water, unnervingly thin ice, overflow, or ice smothered by a thick blanket of snow.
But this uncertainty only makes it more thrilling when you pull into a parking lot to see mile after mile of sublime, clear, skateable ice stretching off into the distance. On wild ice skating trips, the rush of excitement starts the second you confirm with your own eyes that skating might—just might—be possible.
From January 31 to February 1, 2023, Tim Treuer, Sarah Bobbe, Sarah Bahan and I skated about 40 miles over Skilak Lake, on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. We were joined the first day by Hannah Brewster, Jack Matthews, Drew Cason, and Wanda the dog. Several of our group had been watching Skilak for several years, waiting to pounce on a skating opportunity. The lake’s size and chaotic weather make the window there especially elusive, but in late January the conditions suddenly clicked. As is often the case, Luc Mehl and his crew caught it first, and we were right behind.
We knew we only had one day with a good forecast until new snowfall was predicted to move in. After a flurry of short-notice planning we piled into our cars in Anchorage and headed south, nervous and excited at the rare opportunity to hit one of Southcentral Alaska’s most prized skating destinations.
Day 1: Skilak Lake
We arrived at the Lower Skilak Lake Campground parking lot to see a pale blue-gray sheet of ice on the lake, spread out as far as we could see until it vanished into the fog and clouds. It didn’t just look skateable. It looked incredible. We laced up our boots, followed the siren song to the lake’s edge, and set off from the boat launch.
We headed east-southeast along the edge of the lake, toward a cluster of wind-scraped hills capped by a point called Skilak Lake Overlook. The ice was thick and supportive, and most of the surface was what we would call mixed B-grade. It was a far cry from mirror-smooth, but the light “orange peel” texture made for easy, steady skating with a light audible chatter. There were also patches of slightly rougher ice, refrozen cracks, and areas where air pockets just under the surface created a distinctive “crunching styrofoam” sound below our blades. But problem areas were easy to spot, and the first miles went by almost effortlessly.
The only obstacles we encountered on this part of the lake were small leads and pressure ridges criss-crossing the ice. Leads are caused when an ice sheet fractures and the two sides pull away from one another, leaving a gap of newer ice or open water. Pressure ridges form when two sheets of ice collide, causing the sheets to dive under one another or pile up on the surface.
On the open ocean, leads can be hundreds of feet wide or more, and pressure ridges can teeter dozens of feet over the heads of hapless adventurers. Compared to those, what we found on Skilak were mere babes. But they were still larger and more numerous than what we were used to seeing on smaller Alaska lakes, and they often featured a surprisingly tricky mix of open water, overflow, and both thin and supportive ice. We were glad to have a couple of Swedish ice poles (ski-pole-like implements with a heavy metal tip) to test the ice and find the best crossing points.
After about seven and a half miles of skating, we passed Upper Skilak Campground and began tracing our way around a series of cliffs, islands, and deeply indented bays.
At about 101 square kilometers (25,000 acres, or 39 square miles), Skilak is the second-largest lake on the Kenai Peninsula. It’s about 200 times the size of Campbell Lake, the largest lake in Anchorage, and seven times the size of Eklutna Lake, in Chugach State Park. Skilak’s storm-battered headlands, huge expanses, and ever-changing backdrop of snow-capped peaks made it feel less like we were skating on a lake and more like we were exploring a fjord or inland sea.
We reached a small group of islands southeast of Skilak Lake Overlook, and hauled out at one for lunch.
Small patches of open water lurked around several of the islands. It was hard to know whether these patches were caused by currents, solar radiation on the rocks, or some other factor. Wild ice constantly provides skaters with mysteries, and trying to solve them is always a lively pastime on trips.
After lunch, Drew, Hannah, Jack, and Wanda the dog turned around and headed back to the cars. Tim, Sarah Bobbe, Sarah Bahan and I set off in the opposite direction, across the lake toward Lucas Island. We cruised across the smooth ice in the middle of the lake, threaded a narrow gap between Lucas Island and the mainland, and continued along the shore toward the end of the lake.
On the eastern side of Skilak Lake, inflow from the Skilak River had created a tongue of open water extending several hundred feet out into the lake ice. We avoided it by skating up onto the beach, connecting frozen river braids, and then crossing the river (which was about six inches deep) on a slumping ice bridge.
Back on the lake, we found ourselves on an area where, some time ago, the wind had shattered a thin layer of new milky-white snow ice and pushed the pieces up against the shore. These thin, broken-up pieces had then been encased in the thicker ice we were now skating on. In some places, the pieces overlapped one another, while in others they’d been pushed onto their edges. The surface of the ice here was as smooth as anywhere, but underfoot the pieces formed a variety of unexpected and almost kaleidoscopic patterns.
After we finished taking photos, we continued north along the shore to the Doroshin Bay Cabin.
Even the most in-demand public use cabins in Alaska are often left unreserved during the Nordic skating season. At this time of year, boaters don’t know if there will be open water (and don’t want to deal with the cold either), and skiers and snowmachiners don’t know if they can count on supportive ice. For that matter, skaters can only guess when the ice will come in too. We were happy, but not surprised, that Tim had been able to make a last-minute reservation at this historic public use cabin.
The cabin was rustic and cozy. Tim chopped wood and got a fire going, and soon we were bundled up and hunched over hot meals. I pulled a small diamond stone out of my backpack and did a little touchup work on our skates. I’m not sure how helpful it was, but silty ice (or, toward Skilak River, actual silt) can be hard on blades.
We were tired but upbeat, as you’d expect after a big, beautiful day in the outdoors. But we were all aware of the forecast and went to bed wondering the same thing: what are we gonna find when we wake up tomorrow?
Day 2: Into the Void
Sure enough, we awoke to see big, wet, heavy snowflakes falling softly but steadily in the inky dark outside the cabin windows.
When it comes to skating, new snowfall is generally unwelcome. Snow cover makes it impossible to visually gauge the depth of ice, and it hides tripping hazards like air pockets or cracks. It can also foul up the surface of the ice, making skating slow, jolty, or just flat-out impossible. Heavy snow can even weigh new ice down and push it underwater, or insulate it and cause it to melt out from below.
On a day trip, it’d be possible to test the ice and then retreat back to shore if things weren’t looking good. But right now we were 13 miles away from the car. Would we be able to see the leads? Would we have to take our skates off and walk? If it really came to it, could we hike overland back to the road?
There was no use waiting. We quietly ate breakfast, packed up, cleaned the cabin, trudged solemnly down to the lake, and set out.
After a few tentative strides, we were relieved to find that we could make steady progress as long as we skated cautiously. Sometimes the surface of the ice was velvety and smooth, though we often ran into crunchy ice and had to continually decide whether to continue skating or walk in our skates until we were off it.
Luckily, all of the significant leads were still visible, especially when a skin of liquid water on the ice prevented new snow from building up on them.
The ice improved as we rounded Skilak Overlook and swung west-northwest, and the day brightened from blue to light gray. In the distance we could see the outline of Frying Pan Island and layers of Kenai Peninsula hills fading off into the midwinter void.
After some hours skating through the snow, the parking lot got closer and closer, and then we were there. We ended our trip in what felt like a completely different world than when we’d started, even though only a day had passed. We packed up our skates, brushed snow off our coats, climbed into our cars, and headed for home.