The crisp scrape of steel on a turquoise surface. Towering snow-dusted mountains bathed in golden light. Frozen water clear enough to spot fish and boulder gardens underfoot.
Hundreds of Alaskans were treated to these experiences in recent days when a rare weather window made for near-perfect ice skating conditions on alpine lakes in Chugach State Park. Though many popular skating destinations near sea level remain unsafe, willing adventurers hiked several miles into the backcountry to places that are popular hiking destinations in the summer. The experience of skating on smooth ice in the shadows of some of the range’s most iconic peaks was a worthy reward.
“Since I started skating, these lakes have never been an option,” said Luc Mehl, an Anchorage-based outdoor guide who offers ice rescue classes for outdoor skaters.
Mehl had heard of someone skating on “sketchy” ice at the perimeter of Rabbit Lake five years ago, and not since then. “So what I’m telling myself is that it’s maybe a once-in-a-decade window, but to have it for one week straight, I think is even more exceptional,” he said.
Conditions can change quickly, and adventurers should know how to identify safe ice and carry emergency rescue equipment, experts say. Those who do have found expanded options this year.
“Usually we go on the road system — Rabbit Slough or Finger Lake — but we heard the conditions were amazing, so I’m like, ‘We’re going, I don’t care if it’s a two-hour hike!’” Wasilla resident Kim Burns said during a Monday skating session on Eagle Lake.
Burns had made the trek from Eagle River with fellow skater Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan of Palmer.
“I’m so glad we came,” Burns said as they skated up and down the more than 1-mile stretch of smooth ice, with Eagle Peak coming in and out of view as they moved across the bright turquoise ice with their dogs.
They are part of a large and growing group of Southcentral Alaskans taking advantage of a rare cold, snowless window. Wild ice skating, a term popularized in recent years, becomes an option once temperatures dip below freezing and before heavy snow accumulates. That often happens at sea level in Southcentral Alaska but is a rare treat in alpine areas, where snow often sticks as soon as the temperatures drop.
“It’s a different way to see the country, too, instead of ridge hiking. I hike out here all the time, but I’ve never skated on this lake before,” said Johnson-Sullivan. “It’s a different way to see things.”
Skating on wild ice has grown in popularity in recent years in the Anchorage area, thanks to a dedicated group of knowledgeable locals, a Facebook group where information on conditions can easily be shared, and an appetite for an activity to fill the season that separates hiking from skiing for outdoor enthusiasts.
“The willingness to travel off the road to reach ice just to ice skate — I feel like that’s really just taken off in the last five years,” said Mehl.
“It’s just another way to be out here,” said Johnson-Sullivan. Other Alaskans agree: On a sunny Friday afternoon, Rabbit Lake, a 4-mile hike from the Anchorage Hillside, was packed with large groups, kids playing hockey, and dogs slipping across the smooth surface as they tried to keep up with their owners. Cars lined up by the dozens in the limited parking area.
Ice-seekers have also hiked the 6-plus miles to Williwaw Lakes, including Laura Kottlowski, a Colorado-based skater who traveled to Anchorage to experience the unique conditions and film content to share with her more than 600,000 followers on TikTok.
Nordic skating — which entails using long blades that attach to cross-country ski boots — has been popular in northern Europe for many decades. Mehl said that in Anchorage, the sport was first introduced in the past two decades, allowing local skaters to cover longer distances when conditions allow. The blades come off the boots easily, allowing skaters to walk short portages or traverse rough sections and go farther.
But the smooth ice in recent days has made conditions accessible to skaters of many levels — from Olympians to enthusiasts with little more than a pair of used skates and mittens. Unlike backcountry skiing or biking, the gear cost isn’t measured in the thousands. Wild ice skating is never without risk, but social media can be very helpful in learning when and where conditions are safe.
“There’s a very dedicated community that’s really good about saying, ‘Hey, I just drove by Tern Lake, and it looked like it froze or looked like it was open on the west end.’ So that’s an amazing resource to see what people have already been on,” said Mehl.
Falling through the ice isn’t unheard of. Skaters should look for an ice depth of at least 4 inches, according to recommendations from numerous federal and local agencies. Ice depth can be measured with a drill, an ice screw or an ice probe, and should be measured at multiple locations throughout the ice, not just in one spot.
Mehl also said it could prove lifesaving to invest in a pair of ice picks that can be used by a skater to pull themselves out of the water in case they fall in. Carrying a rope can also be helpful when trying to help a fellow skater out of the water. Bringing an extra pair of clothes can be a good safety precaution.
On Monday, Palmer residents Alisha and David Germer skated up and down Eagle Lake, marveling at the conditions.
“I think all Alaskans are a little manic, because when the sun’s out they have to rush out and get it when they can,” Alisha said with a laugh. “That’s like skating — it’s definitely manic.”