In Alaska, the rare thrill of “wild” ice skating


I had been waiting for months when I finally got the call from Alaska last March: there was wild ice.

A high pressure window of about two weeks of cold, clear weather had frozen Portage Lake, the tip of the Portage Glacier, about 50 miles southeast of Anchorage, and was solid enough to skate on its wild (or natural) ice ).

“Skating on Grade A ice under a glacier is truly a 'take off work now and just get to work' type of pleasure, even for us Alaskans,” said Paxson Woelber, owner of skate maker Ermine Skate. , based in Anchorage.

A few months earlier, I had purchased a pair of Ermine Nordic skates, long blades similar to speed skates that attach to the bindings of cross-country ski boots. The compatibility allows skiers to hit remote ice, then switch to blades for skating without changing boots and, as Woelber said, “take you off the piste.”

While figure skates and hockey skates are designed for maneuverability, including changes of direction and tight turns, Nordic skates are designed for distance. Longer, faster blades require less effort to propel, and their stability makes them more tolerant of natural conditions such as bumpy or brushy ice.

But the problem with Nordic skating or any type of wild skating, which is defined as outdoors and on naturally formed ice, regardless of the style of skating used, is finding good ice. Wild ice hunters praise late fall and sometimes spring for icy conditions without snowfall, which degrades the ice.

“That's why it's so magical: It's fleeting,” said Laura Kottlowski, a former competitive figure skater based in Golden, Colorado, whom I called in my search for wild ice. TikTok and Instagram videos of her jumping and spinning on alpine lakes have gone viral, and Ms. Kottlowski teaches her combination of winter mountaineering and ice skating as Learn to Skate Outside.

I've been skating outdoors since I was a kid, mostly on lakes and ponds in the Midwest that I know well. But the type of wilderness Kottlowski and Woelber explore requires advanced ice knowledge and safety equipment.

Preparing to skate in the wildest place of my life, I spent a few hours watching videos in an online wild ice class ($149) conducted by Luc Mehl, a whitewater safety instructor who grew up in Alaska and changed backcountry skiing. for skating. several years ago as a way to avoid avalanche risks. Based in Anchorage, he has become known for his skate safety training and his impressive social media videos of him and other skaters gliding on remote frozen lakes.

When I contacted him by phone to discuss my skating plan, he had just returned from Tustumena Lake on the Kenai Peninsula, where, on an overnight trip, he had cross-country skied eight miles to reach the lake and then skated about 50 miles.

“Part of the reason skating is so rewarding is that it's not guaranteed,” Mehl said. “Because of its rarity, it feels special.”

He advised me to test my Ermine skates on Westchester Lagoon when I got to Anchorage. There, about a third of the skaters carried Nordic blades to circle the large ice oval, which was cleared of snow with long straights.

Accustomed to figure skates, I found the extended models fast but uncomfortable. I mastered a skier's snowplow technique of stopping before attempting top speed. Long strides from side to side sent me flying across the pond, leaning on the edges of the blades to take turns in preparation for more remote ice.

“The indoor rinks have the feel of a Costco,” Woelber said as he, Mehl and I headed out with Taiga, Woelbler's furry Samoyed dog, from Ermine's workshop in a modest office complex in South Anchorage toward Portage Lake, the la next morning.

There was nothing Costco about Portage, a lake about five miles long surrounded by snow-capped mountains separated by glacier-filled valleys in the Chugach National Forest. Under the bright sun, lighter sections of ice reflected the landscape with the addition of a few skaters in the distance.

After carefully walking up a rocky slope and on some crunchy ice near the shore in my cross-country boots, I strapped on the blades. Luc lent me a set of plastic-sheathed ice picks to use as a necklace, which (if I fell through the ice) he could deploy and use to stab him, creating a grip to pull me out. He also provided a stick with a sharp tip, known as an ice probe, to test the ice as we went.

“Two hard stabs in the elbow,” he demonstrated, hitting the ice, “and I know he'll hold me.”

On an ice scale of A to F, we skated what my guides estimated was grade A clear, black ice with patches of grade B that had the texture of an orange peel and some sections of frozen grade C snow. Cracks showed ice depths of between seven and nine inches; Mehl explained that four inches is safe. In the center of the lake was a frozen iceberg, which local children used as an ice slide.

We connected the gentler stretches as we slalomed toward the glacier, joining flawless patches of ice that so accurately mirrored a nearby mountain that the lake looked like a Zamboni had surfaced.

Rounding a patch of land at the far end of the lake, we faced the looming Portage Glacier, suspended in giant milky-blue blocks rising nearly 10 stories above the frozen lake. After much gaping, we continued toward its south face, staring at a new shade of turquoise ice, bright and dimpled by the sun.

Since glaciers can calve in any season, we don't get closer than 200 feet to the face as we nervously watch a hiker reach the ice fall, or the end of the glacier, and take a series of selfies.

On the way back, I tried to hide from the strong headwind behind a wool gaiter and worked much harder to walk. When I reached the shore, the parking lot was packed with skateboarders, fat tire bikers, and families with sleds.

Beside us, dozens of skaters were heading toward the glacier, most on hockey skates, but a respectable 40 percent on Nordic skates. One Nordic skating newbie called it “scary.” Her partner had learned a decade ago from Norwegian friends who she said “know how to get through the winter,” calling it a “game changer” in terms of speed, distance and ease.

“I never could do all the turns,” he said, laughing.

The next day we had another powder day, in skier's terms, meaning perfect, hard-to-resist conditions, which led Mr. Mehl to suggest we try Kenai Lake, a long, deep, zigzagging body of water. on the Kenai Peninsula, about 100 miles south of Anchorage, which he had heard was freshly frozen.

There, beneath a hanging glacier hidden in the side of a mountain and beyond the moose tracks in the snow leading to the coast, was A-plus ice: smooth as a windless day on the water, with the surrounding peaks reflected in a sea-green, mirror-like surface.

“We got feedback yesterday,” Mehl said, equally excited about the conditions. “Today, ice!”

We could see open water about 100 meters away, but we stayed away from it, testing the ice in occasional cracks. In some areas, small waves seemed to have frozen in motion. Others undulated gently like sand dunes. As we explored it on a calm, windless day, the lake began to respond with watery gushes and burps that Mehl said were non-threatening, indicating the natural expansion and contraction of the ice. Other times, tiny cracks ripped through the ice with a laser-like whirr, and at least once the lake mimicked a cow's moo, adding aural wonder to our tour.

In October, Mehl began posting videos on social media of skating on wild, clear ice on snowless lakes around Anchorage. But if Kenai Lake was my last wild skate of 2023, at least I slid into the sunset on top of the ice.

Elaine Glusac is the Frugal Traveler columnist focusing on budget travel and tips.

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