There are a variety of lakes that provide a perfect frozen landscape for lacing up a pair of skates, but two in the Kenai and Soldotna area typically see the most traffic.
Daubenspeck Lake in Kenai and ARC Lake in Soldotna are not monster skating rinks that give the horizon a sense of unlimitedness, but what they do provide is a cozy, intimate atmosphere that turns back the clock for veteran outdoors enthusiasts, and they are the only regularly maintained lakes by the Kenai and Soldotna Parks and Recreation departments.
That means other lakes in the region — Scout, Watson, Longmere and Spirit among them — require individual work on clearing and plowing snow to create a smooth skating surface.
“We see equipment like hockey goals that are out there, and people can move them freely around the ice,” said Kenai Parks and Rec director Bob Frates. “A lot of that is weather-dependent.”
The cool rush of wind blowing by the ears on an uninterrupted plain of smooth ice will give any skater a sensation that simply cannot be re-created on an indoor rink.
“It’s a whole (different) genre, outside skating to indoors,” said Soldotna Parks and Rec director Andrew Carmichael. “The sounds inside, they echo, but sounds outside are muted. It’s like walking in your backyard to walking out on a trail.
“It’s like comparing apples and oranges.”
Carmichael and Frates both help maintain ARC and Daubenspeck lakes, respectively. At Daubenspeck, Frates said his crew usually will wait until the ice is at least 10 inches thick on the 2-acre lake before putting out heavy machinery to clear and smooth the skating surface.
Frates said Parks and Rec will scrape the ice once it’s plowed to set it up for a “hot mop” session, a process that includes using a Polaris Ranger to act as a “miniaturized Zamboni.” Frates said the machine uses a 50- to 60-gallon water tank attached to a 10-foot long pipe that drags behind, releasing room temperature water on the ice, which is then finely spread onto the ice with towels and burlap bags that create that picturesque surface suitable for skating.
“It’s as-needed,” Frates explained. “We try to get out there once or twice a week, maybe more often than that.”
Daubenspeck is the most popular lake to lace up a pair of skates because of its proximity to town — located behind the Kenai Walmart — but is surrounded by trees, giving it an intimate atmosphere for those looking for a quick getaway.
“I like skating out there in the evenings, especially on a cloudless night,” Frates said. “It’s pretty special.”
ARC Lake in Soldotna, named after the Alaska Road Commission in the early 1980s, caters to the same crowd for the same reason. Located across the Sterling Highway from Skyview Middle School, the forest surrounding the lake makes for cozy skating atmosphere, with eagles often flying overhead.
Carmichael said the skating path that outlines the outer edges is about a half-mile in length, ideal for making laps at the skater’s convenience. Carmichael said his crew occasionally hot mops the lake, but for the most part it is a lake free of snow that attracts the crowds.
“We have some broomball equipment for people to take out there on weekends,” he noted.
ARC is a come-as-you-please recreation area, and Carmichael has seen a variety of crowds show up with equipment.
“Last year, one of our employees was driving home and saw that someone had rented a light plant (to illuminate the lake),” Carmichael said. “They had a rip-roaring ball out there.”
As for other skating venues, Carmichael said that the Soldotna Creek Park skating path is a yearly hot spot, depending on weather.
Thursday afternoon, Parks and Rec was in the process of filling up a skating lane in the midtown venue with water. After plowing snow to create berms that surround the 300- to 400-foot skating loop, Carmichael said plastic is laid down over the turf and filled with water that freezes to create a mirrorlike surface ideal for skating.
“It’s pretty cool to be outside,” he said. “When you’re out on a pond in Alaska, where they talk about pond hockey and outdoor rinks, and every school had one, it’s a throwback.
“It’s back to nature in its most basic form.”