Kenai National Wildlife Refuge
Floating through the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in a canoe narrows the world into a circle of green water, spruce, and birch. You can paddle and hike for days without encountering more than a few other people, your only expense the cost of your canoe and the vehicle that carried you to the trail head. Out there with my older son, I once noticed that, other than his voice, the only sounds I had heard in 2 days were the gurgling of the water and the wind shushing in the birch leaves. You rely on yourself, but your greatest tests are not overly taxing. Trail a line behind the canoe, and when you catch a rainbow trout, land it and make a fire to cook it. Jump into the clear, frigid water to rinse off after a warm day. Float slowly, watching eagles circle the treetops and puffy clouds drift like ships past your little world.
Most of the western half of the Kenai Peninsula lies within the 2 million acres of the refuge -- it's almost as large as Yellowstone National Park -- and much of that land is impossibly remote and truly dedicated to the wildlife. The Kenai River flows through part of the refuge, but the refuge is just a name to the anglers who pursue its salmon. Canoeists will be more interested in the lowlands on the west side, west of the Sterling Highway and north of Kenai and Soldotna. The lakes there are as numerous as the speckles on a trout's back, or at least that's how they appear from the air. From the ground, the region is a maze of lakes connected by trails -- more than 70 lakes you can reach on canoe routes stretching more than 150 miles. It's the easiest way to real Alaska wilderness.
Getting There -- The refuge surrounds much of the land from Cooper Landing at the north to Homer at the south and Cook Inlet to the west. The Sterling Highway and roads that branch from it are the main ways to the lakes, trails, and rivers, and there is no practical way there without a vehicle.
Visitor Information -- Stop in at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center, Ski Hill Road (P.O. Box 2139), Soldotna, AK 99669 (tel. 907/262-7021; http://kenai.fws.gov), for guidance before plunging into the wilderness. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, exhibits natural history displays here, shows a film each hour in the afternoon in the summer, and maintains a 3-mile nature trail. The staff offers advice and sells books and maps that you'll need for a successful backcountry trip. To find the center, turn left just south of the Kenai River Bridge, taking a right turn in front of the building-supply store uphill on the unpaved road. It's open April to September Monday to Friday from 8am to 5pm, Saturday and Sunday from 9am to 5pm; October to March Monday to Friday from 8am to 4:30pm, Saturday from 10am to 5pm. The website also contains detailed trip-planning information for the canoe routes.
Canoeing -- Once known as the Kenai National Moose Range, the refuge's brushy wetlands are paradise for moose, rich in their favorite foods of willow and birch shoots and pond weeds. Moose like to dine while wading. Waterfowl and other birds, beavers, muskrats, and other aquatic animals are common on the lakes. People also must be partly aquatic to explore the lakes, paddling canoes across their surfaces, pushing through lily pad passages between lakes, and frequently hiking in rubber boots between lakes while carrying the canoe and camping gear.
There are two main canoe routes, both reached from Swanson River and Swan Lake roads, north of the Sterling Highway from the town of Sterling. The Swan Lake Canoe Route is a 60-mile network of 30 connected lakes. It meets Swan Lake Road twice, allowing a loop of several days, but most people go in a lake or two and find a campsite to relax and from which to base explorations. If you're more ambitious, an adventure can be had by penetrating many lakes deep into the wilderness, visiting remote lakes you'll have to yourself. It's possible to canoe a couple of days through to the Moose River and ride its current 17 miles over a long day back to the Sterling Highway.
Getting anywhere requires frequent portages of a quarter-mile or so, and more ambitious routes have mile-long portages. You can skip all the portaging, however, by floating 2 days down the Swanson River to its mouth, at the Captain Cook State Recreation Area , joining the river at a landing at mile 17.5 of Swanson River Road. The water is slow and easy all the way.
The most challenging of the routes is the Swanson River Canoe Route, which connects to the river's headwaters through a series of lakes and longer portages. The route covers 80 miles, including 40 lakes and the river float. Both routes have many dozens of remote campsites -- just lakeside areas of cleared ground with fire rings -- and most of the portages are well marked and maintained with wooden planking over the wet areas.
You can rent canoes and everything else you need for a wilderness trip on the refuge canoe routes near the intersection of Swanson River Road and the Sterling Highway in Sterling, where the Finch family operates Alaska Canoe & Campground (tel. 907/262-2331; www.alaskacanoetrips.com). Lightweight canoes rent for $53 for 24 hours. A shuttle service carries canoeists from one entrance to another. They give valuable expert advice, and they rent a lot of other outdoor stuff: kayaks, mountain bikes, rafts, and so on. Call ahead to check on equipment and to reserve. Their campground is fully equipped, too, a good base where you can return for showers and laundry, and they rent a couple of large cabins with full kitchens and TVs, for $150 a night double, plus $10 for each additional person; the cabins sleep eight.
The Finches no longer offer guided trips because they don't think guides are really needed for anyone who knows how to paddle a canoe and use common sense in the wilderness. If you want a guide, they can give you a referral.
If you go on your own, look for The Kenai Canoe Trails, by Daniel L. Quick (Northlite Publishing). The book can be hard to find but is available to order from Alaska Geographic (tel. 866/257-2757; www.alaskageographic.org). This extraordinary guide contains superdetailed maps and directions, and advice on how to plan your trip and fish and camp on your way.
I haven't provided detailed driving instructions for the canoe routes because you'll need detailed maps to go at all. Trails Illustrated produces a good map of the whole area, printed on plastic. A serviceable free map is distributed by the visitor center. There's much more to do in the refuge too, including several upland hiking trails. The visitor center provides guidance and maps.
Camping -- For car camping in a wild, oceanfront setting, remote from the region's fishing mayhem, try the Captain Cook State Recreation Area. The lovely and underused 3,460-acre area faces Cook Inlet 25 miles north of Kenai on the North Kenai Road at the mouth of the Swanson River. There are lots of attractive sites among large birches, trails, beach walking, a canoe landing at the end of the Swanson River Canoe Route, and lake swimming. The state parks camping fee is $10.
There are many campgrounds within the refuge, too, some of them lovely, quiet spots on the edge of uninhabited lakes, such as the small Rainbow Lake and Dolly Varden Lake campgrounds, on Swanson River Road near the start of the canoe routes; and the Watson Lake and Kelly-Peterson Lake campgrounds, on the Sterling Highway between Sterling and Cooper Landing. Get a complete listing from the visitor center. Only two campgrounds have fees: Hidden Lake and Upper Skilak Lake.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.