Paddlefest in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

Memorial Day weekend marks the beginning of the short summer season in Alaska, and for the past few years I’ve used this time as an opportunity to explore the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

More than half of this 2-million-acre refuge on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula is designated Wilderness, and includes the Swan Lake Canoe System, a popular destination for paddling and fishing just three hours south of Anchorage. To access this area people often bring a canoe or kayak, paddling across a chain of lakes and carrying their gear and water vessel of choice over a series of primitive trails that connect each lake.

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Photo: A portage trail, connecting two lakes (Alaska Wilderness League)

‘Paddlefest,’ as we call it, became a tradition three years ago, when a group of us took regular canoes on a route down the appropriately named ‘Moose River.’ While the paddling portion of this trip was great fun, hauling heavy canoes on narrow trails was less than ideal. Since that first year, we’ve opted to bring our pack rafts: small, inflatable boats that are specifically designed for river travel. These boats weigh just a few pounds and fold up to the size of a sleeping bag. They have the advantage of being extremely light for portages, but they don’t move nearly as fast on the water – at most, we clocked in at 1.25 mph when paddling across lakes during this trip.

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Photo: Crossing Swan Lake (Alaska Wilderness League)

Over three days and two nights, we covered 24 miles and paddled across 17 lakes. We saw more wildlife than people during our trip, including a brown bear, a black bear, numerous moose, dozens of swans, loons, grebes and other birds. In each case, the wildlife reacted in a way that didn’t cause us concern – the bears noticed our presence and left the area. We gave moose and other wildlife ample room, so as not to disturb them.

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Photo: Moose are beautiful creatures…but keep your distance (Alaska Wilderness League)

The mosquitoes were also out in force; as evidenced by this photo from inside the tent, taken on the first morning! At each camp, and on the trails between each lake, the mosquito populations were quite healthy. I opted to wear a head-net for a lot of the trip – a net you place over your head, made of mosquito netting.

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Photo: Please don’t feed the wildlife…especially the mosquitoes (Alaska Wilderness League)

The Swan Lake Canoe System was a great, accessible way to get out and enjoy the Alaskan summer. The full map of our trip is below, and plans for the 4th Annual ‘Paddlefest’ are already underway.

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