By Jo Christensen
As promised last month, this is the second article on canoeing in Alaska, highlighting differences in canoeing between Oregon and Alaska. Last month, I focused on rivers and whitewater. This month, Iíll look at lakes and quiet waters in The Great Land.
Canoeing Alaska-Part II
Last year in Oregon, at this time, we were busy canoeing the local whitewater creeks and coastal lakes like Takenitch, Eel, and Siltcoos. Here in Alaska, as we approach yearís end, our canoe waters are hidden unmoving below several feet of ice and snow , leaving us to ponder these words from Job:
Out of whose womb came the ice?
And the hoary frost of Heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone,
And the face of the deep is frozen.
In Alaska, it is the glacial past (and present!) and heavy snow and ice accumulation which combine to create a prime setting for the formation of lakes. If Minnesota is the "Land of Ten Thousand Lakes," Alaska must have at least ten million. Well, maybe thatís an exaggeration, but if you look at topographic maps of Alaska, you think the ten million figure might not be far off. One could spend their whole life canoeing lakes here and never come even put a minor dent number available. Although many of these lakes are accessibly only via floatplane, a large number can also be reach by road or via other lakes and sluggish streams with a short portage. There are two developed canoe trails on lake systems within a couple hours drive of Anchorage. The most famous is the Kenai Canoe Trails, located on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The Kenai Trails are one of only two wilderness canoe systems established in the United States (the other is the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in N. Minnesota). A second trail system is Alaska State Parkís Nancy Lake canoe system.
Like her extremely varied topography, Alaskaís countless thousands of lakes are as variable as her landscape. At one end of the lake-spectrum are the dark-watered, usually shallow, irregularly shaped and often nameless "potholes." These come in sets of thousands, sprinkled across the coastal planes and interior valleys, vaguely separated from one another by mounds and humps (deposits left by ancient, forgotten glaciers). With these lowland lakes, itís sometimes hard to distinguish the precise edge of the lake. Often, the open waters gradually transition into standing water wetlands amongst thickets of willow, interspersed with sphagnum and peat, and occasional raised humps covered by birch and spruce trees. Unlike many Oregon lakes which have hard edges, itís sometimes difficult to fine a solid, dry spot around these lowland lakes on which to easily launch and take out a canoe. On these lakes, one usually wears hip boots in the canoe, and finding a dry lunch spot can be a chore. Sometimes youíll anchor your boat, carefully disembark in your waders, stumble through the emergent vegetation, climb on the floating sphagnum mats, and try to keep going on the peat until itís thick enough to support your weight. This summer, I spent many a happy lunch break sitting on a floating peat mat. Itís kind of like a water bed and having a soft mat right after lunch made it hard to be productiveÖ The thing to be avoided in these situations is having a friend climb up on your mat after youíve got settled down. On more than one occasion, my work partner climbed onto my mat after I sat down. His weight added to mine broke through the mat and my lower half was immediately flooded with cold Alaska lake waterÖ
There are hundreds of these lowland lakes in the Anchorage vicinity and the diversity and abundance of wildlife associated with them is a source of constant wonder and enjoyment. The cold, wet underwear following peat-mat collapse is a small price to pay indeed. This summer, I had the opportunity to conduct waterfowl surveys (by canoe) on a few dozen lowland lakes. Moose are extremely common around these lakes, as are bear. Itís also not uncommon to see swans, and several species of loons nesting in the surrounding vegetation. I never tired of hearing the loons call or silently gliding past their nests-a large floating mass topped by a beautiful female loon with her head crouched over, trying to stay out of siteÖ
Unlike the whitewater experiences I described in the last article, canoeing these lakes is peaceful and relaxing, a chance to be a small floating speck under the expansive arctic sky. Still, the critters sometimes produced enough adrenaline to equal the excitement of Alaska whitewater. For example, when approaching small islands, you can frequently be mobbed by angry swarms of arctic turns and Bonaparteís gulls who are protecting island nests. In the Nancy Lakes Canoe Trails, we were approaching what looked like a good lunch spot, but a couple of bears came out of the bushes. Needless to say, we started backpaddling immediately and spent a happy lunch on the opposite side of the lake, sitting in the canoe about 200í off-shore. I also discovered the hard way that these islands are also held in high esteem by moose. In the spring, grizzly bears eat an enormous number of moose calves, and cows frequently take their very young calves to these islands to get away from the bears. Moose are persnickety even on a good day, but a mad female protecting offspring is a force to reckon with. Last June, we casually approached an island in our canoe. Suddenly, out of the brush, a cow moose with hackles standing straight up came charging out of the spruce trees and right into the lake at us. Talk about a heart attack! What saved us was the fact that the water was deep enough to force her to swim. We were able to back away faster than she could swim, and she soon turned back to shore. Minutes later, she led two small, wobbly, twin calves from the bushes and the whole family swam across the lake to the other side. If I hadnít been so shaken up, I would have thought the baby moose were cute.
Another feature of these lowland lakes is that they are often aviation highways, and as a canoeist, you quickly learn to read the intentions of float planes. You hear these coming long before they arrive. Usually the plane circles the lake before landing. If the pilot really wants to come down, or wants to land near where you are, he or she will usually fly right over you. This pointed signal is your cue to get the heck out of the way!
In sharp contrast to the shallow waters of the lowland lakes with no clear edges are the sharply delineated creations of active glaciers. These are the mountain lakes, torturously carved out of the rock of the surrounding mountains by the relentless forces of ice and swiftly flowing water. The products of the glaciersí work-meltwater and sediment -combine to create the jewel-blue waters which fill the glacial valleys. Unlike the lowland lakes on the coastal plains which are set in mostly flat terrain, these lakes are fjord-like. The edge of the lake is usually the beginning of a very tall mountain and floating on the lake feels like moving through a Norwegian fjord. There are a number of these gorgeous glacial lakes on the Kenai Peninsula and northeast of Anchorage along the Matanuska River. One of my favorites is Eklutna Lake, a short 12-mile drive from my house, and located in a big valley in the Chugach Mountains. Unlike most lakes in Alaska, this is a man-made or at least man-enhanced lake
(there is a small dam at the outlet-this lake is Anchorageís water supply). Eklutna Lake is an elongate turquoise jewel set at the bottom of 4,000-6000 ft peaks. The lake itself is not far above sea level, so that gives you an idea of the scale of the mountains immediately adjacent to it. As you canoe up the lake, you are treated to excellent views of Dall sheep on the rocks above, and the small valleys and basins above and around you are home to a number of wolf packs. As you get close to the top end of the lake (about 4 miles), you are treated to views of the Eklutna Glacier. If you want, you can take out and go explore the glacier, or simply wander around in the spruce forest between the edge of the lake and the toe of the glacier. Eklutna Lake exemplifies an important aspect of canoeing these glacial lakes: the water in the lake is extremely, extremely cold. Without a wetsuit, capsizing on even the sunniest, warmest day in the summer could have very serious consequences. Additionally, due to the setting of these lakes (in big mountain valleys), late afternoon winds can also be a problem, creating large breaking waves.
Unlike Oregon, where we canoed both lakes and streams year round (with winter being the prime whitewater season!), our last canoe of 1998 was on October 31st. Clad in two layers of long johns, wool pants, wool sweaters, fleece hats, and toasty socks and mittens, we headed up to Eklutna Lake. Ice was starting to form along the edges, but the depths of the lake were still untouched. The steep mountainsides around the lake were streaked with white snow, but there were still some residual autumn colors: red willows, golden birch and aspen. We had our lunch break in the spruce-birch forest, huddled out of the wind, watching some ptarmigan and fuzzy-footed snowshoe hares nearby. On the trip back down the lake, we noticed several dozen Dall sheep grazing a short distance above the lake shore.
We returned to Eklutna Lake in early December-this time, armed with our backcountry skis, planning to ski along the lake to the glacier. Most of the lake was frozen by this time, and temperatures were barely above zero. We reached the lake just as the sun was starting send a pinkish-orange glow over the tops of the surrounding Chugach mountains. A few minutes later, the light found a break between one of the mountains and reached the water. In less than a second, the entire lake matched the color of the dawn sky, creating an illusion the sky had spilled forward into the valley. As the sun slowly came up, we skied along the lakeís edge, through the spruce trees. We kept thinking we heard a strange "buzzing" noise coming from the lake, almost like the sound made by power lines make. But there are no power lines near Eklutna Lake. The buzzing got louder and louder, and you could feel tension in the air, as if some type of enormous pressure was building. We stopped skiing and just stared around, finally discerning that the buzzing was coming from the icy surface of the lake. Suddenly, something gave way, and for several hundred feet along the lake, there were "explosions" as large chunks of ice and snow at the shoreline flew through the air in all directions. The whole ice cap atop the lake moaned and shifted as still more ice exploded at the edge, totally changing the shape of the shoreline. After a couple minutes of this, everything was completely quiet. Interestingly, a few minutes later, the tension buzzing started again, as pressure began to re-build, and a short time later, there were more ice explosions at the edge of the lake. We never figured out exactly what was causing this, but suspect that the middle of the lake was freezing and expanding, putting pressure on the lakeís edge. But the cause doesnít really matter-the important thing was the opportunity to witness the force of ice and snow-the violent and dramatic forces that give Alaska mountain lakes the shape and characteristics we enjoy during the rest of the year.