Paddlers’ paradise: Canoeing the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge

Lakes, portage trails and small rivers join together to make the Kenai Refuge Canoe System, which offers nearly 120 miles of trail traveling across 70 lakes throughout the Kenai Wildlife Refuge.


The canoe system draws between 1,000 and 2,000 people annually on day trips or backcountry camping adventures across the lakes in the system.

The canoe system is divided into two trails, the Swan Lake Canoe Trails and the Swanson River Canoe Trails, with the Swan Lake option being the more popular of the two since it offers a variety of trip options.

“You have the west and east entrances,” Refuge Park Ranger Leah Eskelin said. “You can do a two-night, three-day trip two different ways and you still have the Moose River as an option to float out.”

The Swan Lake route covers 60 miles and 30 lakes and can connect canoeists to the 17 miles of Moose River. Access to the west entrance is located at Canoe Lake, at Mile 3.5 on Swan Lake Road. Access to the east entrance is at Portage Lake, located at Mile 9.5 on Swan Lake Road. To get to Moose River during the journey, travel from the east entrance to Swan Lake, heading toward Izak Walton State Recreation Area.

The Swanson River canoe system is markedly more difficult, with 80 miles covering 40 lakes and 46 miles of the Swanson River leading to longer portage times and a more physically demanding adventure. The system can be reached from the Paddle Lake entrance at Mile 12 on Swan Lake Road. From there, canoeists can start anything from a long weekend trip to a weeklong canoeing journey.

Whether taking a short day trip to a few of the lakes or tackling the entirety of the system, canoeists on the trails should be prepared for more than just paddling as they face portages upward of a half mile long between some lakes.

“The thing about the canoe system here is it’s not all paddling time,” Eskelin said. “With this one, it’s about half and half, hiking and paddling.”

Eskelin advises that in preparation for the trail, travelers should ensure they have a canoe with a good yoke — the cross beam in the center of the canoe, connecting the starboard and aft sides. The yoke usually is curved to rest on the shoulders of the canoeist to make carrying easier through portages.

“Beyond that, you need to pack light … and we’re getting to the time of year where bugs are an issue especially where you have so much water. Always keep bug spray,” Eskelin said. “And I like to carry a head net there.”

John Wilson, a canoeing guide with Take Refuge Canoe, said that he’ll often start a day trip on the west entrance of the Swan Lake trails.

“We’ll take a day and go as far in as Spruce Lake,” Wilson said. “You get two water protages, which is pretty cool. You also don’t have to carry your canoe as much, you get six lakes and you only have to carry your canoe three times.”

To do the whole Swan Lake route, canoeists should budget themselves three days to really enjoy it, Wilson said.

“You can tell how remote you are, even just after a 45 minutes,” Wilson said. “You can tell by how quiet and peaceful it is, which is a good change from the rest of the peninsula in the summer.”

The Swan Lake route is also full of wildlife viewing such as swan cygnets, loons, moose and bears, Eskelin said.

“My favorite trip … goes from the west entrance of the Swan Lake canoe route, where there is three lakes,” Eskelin said. “It goes down with an overnight at Spruce Lake and then the second night at Swan Lake. Then you go up to the east entrance of the canoe route at Portage Lake, doing this w-shaped loop.”

As summer turns into fall, the Swanson River canoe route becomes the better trip, Eskelin said.

“The water levels are highest in the Swanson River in the later fall,” she said. “So, Swanson River becomes more popular and has the silver salmon and moose hunting. … Around that time, that area gets a lot more use.”

In general, though, there has been a downward trend in use of the canoe trail systems throughout the years. In 2010, visitors to the canoe systems were numbered between 10,000 and 13,000, a drastic difference to this year’s 1,000 to 2,000.

“I don’t know, necessarily, that there is any pinpointing reason,” Eskelin said. “We’re seeing a lot more stay-cation with families, people spending time with younger kids so there could be a demographic shift.”

Despite the drop, the refuge is maintaining the trails as if 8,000 canoeists traverse the portages each year, Eskelin said.

There is also a slow drying trend that could be increasing portage lengths in the canoe systems, leading to a muddy trail where water had been before.

“There is experiential evidence of that being out there and noticing that you’re walking through mud in places that had been water before,” Eskelin said.

Lake levels, though, aren’t being measured specifically and no impacts have been recorded in the canoe system yet, Dr. Dawn Magness, the refuge’s landscape biologist, said.

“We know that certain lakes are dropping in levels,” Magness said. “Especially the ones that don’t have underground water flow … but it’s difficult differentiating between the seasonal variation that is impacted by snow pack and the larger peat-land drying trend, which is going to be happening over a longer time scale.”

There is no visible impact, though, and the trails are still a fantastic opportunity for day trips and more, Eskelin said.

“The best is Dolly Varden Lake,” she said. “I would challenge anyone to find a lake more interesting. The shape encourages you because you don’t see all of it at once.”

Wilson challenged Eskelin with his favorite choice, Contact Lake.

“It’s the fourth lake in from the west entrance and it has this dogleg to it,” he said. “It’s an interesting shape and a good, natural spot for lunch on the water. It’s always been a good one.”

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