Fall Fun: Canoeing Alaska’s Kenai Wildlife Refuge

Author: Kirsten is a TMS staff writer, teacher, and owner of Alaska’s Take Refuge Canoe, a company offering fully outfitted canoe adventures on the Kenai Peninsula.

As cool air welcomed the greeting of fall in Alaska’s Kenai Wildlife Refuge, a splendor of crystal blue sprinkled with gold beckoned us to jump in our boats and go canoeing!

Our adventure began driving our 12-passenger van and canoe trailer down the Swanson River Road, a fifty minute dirt road rumble with the added excitement of wildlife around every corner. The road was originally created for the Swanson River Oil Field,  Alaska’s first productive oil field, circa 1957.  The Swanson River road stretches 17.5 miles north into a forested, lake-rich section of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, and terminates at the Swanson River. Moose can often be seen feeding along the road early and late in the day. Roadside access to nine different lakes offers a chance to see common loons and other waterfowl, bear, lynx, wolf and hundreds of birds species!

Kenai Wildlife Refuge Canoe System:

The Swan Lake and Swanson River canoe paddling routes are located in the northern lowlands of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge was established to conserve the fish, wildlife and habitats of the Kenai Peninsula in their natural diversity, as well as provide opportunities for fish and wildlife-oriented recreation. The canoe routes are located in a nationally designated wilderness area. The routes are also one of three National Recreational Canoe Trails in America!

We put in at the West Entrance of the Swan Lake Canoe System, where we knew the first three lakes had great trout fishing. These lakes also have fairly short portages, so we had less than 1/4-mile to carry our canoes and gear between them. This is a nice contrast to the longer, mile-long portages that are encountered further into the system.  With the fall colors in full bloom, we found that the hikes were some our favorite parts of the trip. At times it seemed as though we were walking through tunnels of gold, and the scent of the turning foliage was refreshing.

In the crisp, 50-degree blue-bird day, we were well dressed as we paddled from lake to lake. We paused to fish, hike the banks, and to enjoy wonderful wildlife moments.

On Canoe 1 we paddled into what seemed like a beautiful post card setting. We watched a beaver as it jumped from the banks and slapped it’s tail, warning us to stay clear of its home.

On Canoe 2 we watched as a pair of common loons enjoyed the romantic setting together. Their collective song echoed across the lake as we paddled, bringing joy to our hearts and a smooth tempo to our stroke.  A large bull moose also graced us with his presence during our second portage, and then quickly moved deeper into the colors in the opposite direction.

Canoe 3 was most exciting as it provided us with a few wonderful gifts: one black bear grazing the south shore and three 20-inch rainbow trout that we enjoyed for dinner later that night.

It is well known by those who enjoy canoeing that the further back into the system you travel the more wildlife you experience. This makes it difficult to force yourself to turn around after just a few short hours. Paddling the larger loops can take anywhere from three to ten days, and as much as we wanted to keep going, we weren’t prepared for anything longer than a day. This is a heartbreaking reality, and as we looked at the next portage trail sign that clearly pointed the way to Contact Lake, deeper into the system, we wondered what magic the day would have held for us had we continued our journey just a little further.

Collective Alaska experiences have taught us that thoughts of safety should always prevail over adventure, so we continued to wonder as we turned around and paddled home.  After an amazing eight hours of paddling and fishing in one of Alaska’s greatest best kept secrets, we loaded everything back onto the trailer and headed out. Overwhelmed with pleasure yet emotionally, spiritually, and physically exhausted, we shared fun stories all the way home. It was a great day paddling in Alaska!

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