While paddling a borrowed Mad River canoe across Contact Lake, my shoulders still stinging from, again, portaging the boat as though it were a heavy tortoise shell, I chuckled.
"What's funny?" my friend Kyle asked from the stern.
"I just realized something. We're on the canoe trails."
Kyle didn't respond, so I turned to face him. We were on the return leg of our weekend expedition on The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Canoe Trail System.
"No wonder there's so much portaging. It's been right there in the name the whole time!"
Kyle shook his head, unimpressed with my over-analysis of the English language. Or maybe he was too weary to comment, instead focused on the daunting task ahead: The next portage meant it was his turn to carry the canoe.
And the trail was only a dozen or so J-strokes away.
Encompassing two systems, 140 miles and 70 lakes, the canoe trails were originally built in the 1960s. The Swanson River and Swan Lake routes are each located in the refuge's northern lowland spruce and birch forest habitat. They can be accessed via Swanson River Road in Sterling.
The trails receive approximately 10,000 to 13,000 visitor days per year, according Rick Johnston, a ranger with the wildlife refuge.
"You can usually avoid the crowds," Johnston said.
Kyle and I put in on the Swan Lake route around 8 p.m. on a clear Thursday in July. The chain immediately lived up to its name as we watched a family of swans glide in the center of the lake. We listened to the loon calls, a bellow that teeters between calming and alarming, and we also listened to the sound of our paddles dripping water droplets before plunking back into the water.
But just about as soon as we started marveling at the placidity of Canoe Lake, we reached the marshy takeout marking the start of our hike to the next lake.
At first we thought it best to keep our gear inside the canoe, each of us gripping one end as we shuffled down the path. But we soon figured out that was not the most efficient method. We chose, instead, to have one person carry the boat on his shoulders, the yoke of the boat balancing on the neck, while the other person took care of carting all our stuff.
The wildlife refuge's website describes the portages this way:
"Most portages are foot trails ranging from a few feet to almost a mile in length. The terrain varies from hills with uneven exposed roots to boggy, spongy ground.
"People choose several ways to tackle portages. These vary from making several trips across a portage carrying canoe and gear separately, to one person carrying a backpack with personal gear and canoe all in one trip."
With our method, the carries were painful because the person we'd borrowed the canoe from forgot to give us the shoulder pads that are meant to line the yoke.
"They're great. They make it real easy," our lender would tell us once we returned. Don't worry, we didn't punch him.
Because they are somewhat demanding, the canoe trails have a way of forcing one to ask that age-old question:
Is this worth it?
Of course, maybe Kyle and I are just wimps.
Johnston said the canoe trails make for a relatively simple, family friendly backcountry adventure.
"When you go on a backpacking trip, you carry the weight on your back the whole time," Johnston said. "With the canoe system, you might suffer a little bit on the longer portages, but at least while you're on the lakes, you have a tremendous opportunity for great wilderness experiences without the weight on your shoulders."
Johnston advised "watching your ounces" and packing "concisely."
The refuge's website provides the following packing list:
Lightweight canoe with padded yoke; lightweight durable paddles; bow line and tie down ropes; personal flotation devices; first aid kit; survival kit; water purification system; internal frame backpack or waterproof dry bags with pack straps; rain gear; rain hat; and layered fleece or wool clothing; hip boots; insect repellent and mosquito head net; sunglasses and sunscreen.
It's also important to plan your route to match the kind of experience you are looking for.
The Swan Lake route covers 60 miles, 30 lakes and provides access to Moose River. The whole passage takes about a week to complete.
Some popular weekend trips within the route include Canoe Lake to Spruce Lake and back, Canoe Lake via Gavia Lake to Portage Lake (north passage) and Canoe Lake via Loon Lake to Portage Lake (central passage). If you're looking to limit portage lengths, stick to the north passage.
The Swanson River route is more demanding, requiring longer portages and more time to explore. But that also means fewer people. The path covers 40 lakes, 80 miles and access to the Swanson River.
In the remotest areas of the Swanson River route, east of Pepper lake, portages are difficult to find and it's recommended that you have a compass.
"This is the true wilderness and can be challenging," the website advises.
Be warned, the portage connecting Gene Lake to the Upper Swanson River requires a difficult 1.5 mile hike, hauling your canoe over beaver dams and log jams.
Maps are available on the refuge's website. The wildlife refuge also has free brochures on the trails. If you're interested in more in-depth information about the systems, you can purchase Daniel Quick's book, "The Kenai Canoe Trails," for $18.95.
Kyle and I chose to travel from the Swan Lake route's west entrance only as far Spruce Lake. We made the Canoe Lakes Chain our camp, opting for a day trip from there rather than changing campsites on the second night.
It was while gazing at the swans shortly after 8 p.m. on that first night that I realized just about an hour earlier I was still in the office. I tried my best to remember that whenever I had to carry the canoe throughout the weekend.
On the way out, we saw a moose and her calf feeding on a shoreline. They let us come to within 20 yards before they disappeared into the brush.
"It's crazy how such massive, beautiful creatures can hide themselves so easily," Kyle said.
I hummed an agreement and couldn't help but think that Kyle might have also been talking about the canoe trails.
For more information, visit: http://kenai.fws.gov/VisitorsEducators/visiting/canoe/canoeing.htm
Andrew Waite can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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