Lake Clark, and Lake Clark National Park, is a precious pocket of Alaska bound by the Chigmit, Neacola, and Alaska Ranges. The tallest mountains rise 10,000 feet from rugged beaches, and the deepest lake, Lake Clark, is over 1000 ft. deep … big country.
For the Dena’ina, the lake was a cultural hub on the trade route from Cook Inlet to interior Alaska. The Dena’ina name, Qizhjeh Vena, translates to ‘people gather lake.’
Earlier in the winter, a story producer from a reality TV show reached out with interest in filming remote ice skating. I haven’t seen a reality TV show about Alaska that felt genuine (except for Molly of Denali!), so, I didn’t make any promises. But I was monitoring ice conditions anyway, so it was easy to keep the producer updated about skating opportunities.
During March’s amazing high-pressure window (hello Tustumena!), I watched (from outer space) as the southern half of Lake Clark developed ice. Reaching Lake Clark requires an expensive flight, so, I wanted to be confident about the conditions before making the trip. Specifically, I wanted to wait as long as possible for the ice to thicken, but not so long that the ice might get snowed on.
On Wednesday, the forecast showed a chance of snow, a clear-and-cold Thursday, and then snow likely on Friday. In other words, the skating window was now, or maybe even too late. I sent a message to the producer about the immediate window, but the film team was booked until the weekend.
Thursday morning I ate my Cheerios topped with raisins and then tapped the reload icon on the Lake Clark webcam until it got light enough to tell if it had snowed overnight. It had not!
The wild ice game is all about scarcity … conditions are rarely good, and when they are good, they deteriorate quickly. I decided to head out this same day and started packing for a 1:00 PM flight to Port Alsworth. Sarah was in a Zoom meeting, so I texted her:
I went into the house and saw Sarah’s phone on the counter … she hadn’t seen my messages. At 11:00 I knocked on the office door, interrupting her call, and asked if we could do a quick check-in. I explained the window of opportunity and the immediate flight. Sarah checked her calendar, made a few calls to reschedule meetings, and then joined me in a sprint to pack for a three-day trip.
When we checked in at Lake and Pen Air, one of the employees, Rachel, introduced herself and said that she was in my Wild Ice course. We tried to convince her to join us but she was locked in at work (obviously). Instead, she gave us a discount on our tickets! Uh-maze-ing.
I called the TV producer from the airport and explained that we’d get some great footage and meet them at Port Alsworth Saturday (and fly back with them). But the producer explained that they wanted to tell the full story of planning the trip, packing our bags, departing from Anchorage, etc. I hadn’t understood that.
We had to make a quick decision: Stick with our trip plan, even though it would be expensive to pay for our return flights (I asked if the show would cover that cost for recon, but it wasn’t in the budget), or wait until Saturday and potentially miss the window of good ice. We decided on a compromise … we’d spend a single night at Lake Clark, return to Anchorage, and then head back again with the film crew Saturday. We put in our earplugs and boarded the plane.
The flight through Lake Clark Pass is jaw-dropping. I’d skied through the pass in 2008 when we skied from Iliamna to Anchorage, but have not seen it since then. Steep mountains, hanging glaciers, and long, narrow valleys—this region is a real gem.
We started skating right in front of town, and it took some time to find a route around the jumbled ice close to shore. But the ice was thick and strong, 5+ inches. We navigated several pressure ridges to cross to the west side of the lake where we found a few patches of younger ice, crystal clear, with cool rock outcrops under the ice and along the shore. We skated a 20-mile loop thanks to the 8 PM sunset.
I’d packed both a Whisperlite (white gas stove) and JetBoil (canister gas) because we weren’t sure what fuel would be available in Port Alsworth. The folks at Lake and Pen Air let us pick a canister out of the pile of leftovers from previous visitors.
Canister gas doesn’t work well below ~25 ºF because the gas mix segregates and you end up burning gutless butane. Because we were camped along open water, I filled our snow-melting pot with water and placed the JetBoil in the water. This trick keeps the canister temperature above freezing, and it worked well this evening.
In my rush to pack, I’d brought our summer sleeping pad instead of our winter pads. The summer pad has an R-value of 3, compared to 7 for the winter pads. As the temperatures dropped to -7 ºF, it became clear that we were in for a cold night. We put on all of the spare clothing in our skate dry bags (we carry extra puffy pants and jackets in dry bags in case someone breaks through the ice) and stuffed our empty backpacks under the sleeping pad for extra insulation. Even so, we didn’t get much sleep.
I skated another ~five miles in the morning before we packed for our return flight. The return route included stops in Nondalton, Iliamna, Kokhanok, and Pedro Bay. We didn’t mind the extra stops and were able to scout future skate destinations.
We drove to the Big Lake Airport early in the morning to meet the film crew and Jason from Remote Alaska Air Taxi. It was a pleasant surprise to recognize Jason from a flight into the western Brooks Range a few years ago (Ambler River to Kivalina). Sarah remembered that Jason helped us with a literal “food drop.” I double-boxed our food, padded it with crushables (like popcorn), and pushed the boxes out the open door as Jason flew circles over the tundra. It was really hard to open the door even though he was going as slow as possible (air resistance). We pay for these flights by the minute, so I was trying to get everything out the door as fast as possible. I pushed one box out after Jason told me to wait and it ended up perched on rocks in the middle of the creek.
I checked the Port Alsworth webcam from the air and was pleased to see that it hadn’t snowed much. I was confident that the long (40 miles) and skinny (2-5 miles) lake would funnel the wind and blow the ice free of snow, at least in places. This turned out to be correct.
I don’t want to say much about our time with the film crew in case it makes it into their show, but I’ll share that we only had a few hours on the ice, which was disappointing. The film team was awesome, the conditions were good … and I had hoped to cover some ground. There just wasn’t enough time. To make matters worse, the return flight was turbulent, so I was nauseous for most of the evening.
It snowed Saturday night, effectively closing the skating window.
I struggled with our decision to cut the personal trip short to support the TV show. I got a little caught up by the publicity opportunity—a way to reach more folks with safety messaging, and potentially a boost for both Sarah’s and my businesses. I loved the idea of a free flight to somewhere cool, but given a similar opportunity, I’d be more explicit about how much time I’d want to spend at the destination and what we’d do there.
In the spirit of This American Life, I’ll close with a song that fits the theme, but is a slight variation from a more obvious choice.