Until Monday night, the combination of chilly nighttime temperatures and a lack of snowfall meant ice skating on Potter Marsh in South Anchorage was ideal.
The 564-acre coastal freshwater and brackish marsh at the southern end of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge is one of the most accessible wildlife viewing areas in Southcentral Alaska. Just a few weeks ago, dozens of trumpeter swans paused in the waters before flying south -- attracting knots of birdwatchers to pullouts along the Seward Highway.
The birds have gone, replaced by skaters wending their way through the shallow marsh bordered by spruce, cottonwoods and alders. Most stick close to the adjacent Seward Highway, where pickup hockey games break out from time to time. But more adventurous skaters can get far enough from the highway that the noise of passing cars and trucks fades. And there's something bracing about zipping along atop a marsh inaccessible during warmer months.
Prepared skaters bring ice claws (which can be purchased at B&Js on Northern Lights Boulevard), a throw bag, and extra warm dry clothes. It's nice to have a crate or chair to sit on, too, while changing into your skates.
The light snowfall won't ruin skating at Potter Marsh and other wilderness skating spots. Some skaters use "Nordic skates," which are popular among Nordic skiers. And your feet are warmer than in a normal skate. Also, the Nordic skates tend to handle rough ice conditions better than standard skates. In Anchorage, these can be rented at Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking.
One advantage of Potter Marsh is that it's shallow – and the ice isn't very thick yet on most bodies of water. Local authorities are advising skaters to stay off for now – even though that hasn't discouraged dozens of skaters at Potter Marsh and a few at the deeper Westchester Lagoon.
A similar prospect for backcountry skating enthusiasts is Rabbit Creek Slough, not far from where the Glenn and Parks highways meet.
"It was unbelievable," backcountry skater Jim Renkert said four years ago after an especially rewarding trip. "Just fabulous, like 30 Potter Marshes strung together."
For safety, backcountry skaters should always:
• Carry ice picks that enable skaters who fall through to pull themselves out.
• Travel with companions (though not too closely).
• Consider an inflatable life vest.
• Pack a waterproof stuff-sack with dry clothes and fire starter.
Contact Mike Campbell at mcampbell(at)alaskadispatch.com