Alaska in the winter time is very special. If you live here, you really do need to take up a winter sport (or three) to enjoy the six months of cold, snow and ice. I enjoy many methods of exploring Alaska landscapes by self-propelled modes of transport. Skis, running shoes, paddles, bikes and skates! Growing up in Ontario, Canada I am no stranger to ice skating (or just skating as we call it). Moving to Anchorage I was re-acquainted with my ice time roots, channeling my inner twelve year old with a hockey stick in my hand, it was like riding a bike. Anchorage has really cool opportunities for ice skating. Right here in the city there are half a dozen places that are maintained by the municipality to ice skate all winter long. From small lakes to a couple of outdoor ovals, this is a great place to get into skating. The municipality drives pickup trucks onto the ice when it is thick enough and Zamboni’s it with a hot mop. Picture a water tank in the bed of a pickup truck and a large mop doing laps around your favorite little lake. Pretty cool! Ice skating with hockey skates is one way to do it. I got a few pairs of second hand skates at Play it Again Sports, gear swaps and Champion's Choice to outfit the family, and we have enjoyed many years of skating. Getting used to the less than perfect conditions of these manicured lakes is a great intro to building your skills, confidence and curiosity to try out some more adventures on ice.
Several years ago I noticed a few people wearing what looked like some sort of fancy free-heeled speed skates on the lakes. Nordic Skates! For those who aren’t familiar with these skates yet, you indeed wear cross country ski boots, and the blades have nordic ski bindings to clip your toes into. Long flat blades, perfect for expanding your horizons on adventurous ice conditions. Some people wear skate skiing cross country ski boots, some wear backcountry cross country ski boots, and others have a hard boot.
Hale got a pair first, and I stared in awe as he gained confidence and speed circling me in my rocker blade hockey skates doing laps around the pond. I was thrilled to be gifted a pair of nordic skates from my former employer Skhoop back in 2017 and get into the sport. Now there is a local gear builder making great (and beautiful) Nordic Skates right here in Anchorage, Alaska! Check out Ermine Skate directly or shop local at retailers Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking and The Hoarding Marmot. I can’t justify buying a replacement pair yet since I got new ones a few years ago, but I am excited that they exist and to refer friends to these awesome skates that are getting great reviews. Maybe when my kids start nordic skating, they can have my “old ones” and I can finally get a pair of Ermine Skates!
Now, it is one thing to go nordic skating on the lakes in Anchorage, when you have the comfort blanket of the municipality driving one-ton trucks with water tanks on the ice, and local ice reports telling you how thick it is. But, what if you want to expand your horizons? Maybe the next step will be to Potter Marsh, where groupthink and seeing a half a dozen families with kids with smiling faces twirling around the ice gives you an idea it’s probably okay. Afterall Potter Marsh is shallow and right by the road system, right?! The next adventure after that you start to hear about is either Portage Lake or the Palmer Hay Flats. I’ve driven all the way to Portage to find that the lake is open water – not skatable, duh! And I’ve driven all the way to Palmer and found different things – miles of pristine river skating on Rabbit Slough, overflow conditions, tracked and rutted out ice, and great biking conditions (leaving the skates in the car). Could I have been better prepared? Where else is there to go? Even if other people are there how will I know it is safe to go? I know from experience, Alaska adventures, and life, that you definitely should not do something and think it is safe “just because other people are doing it.”
This winter is one of those where I have drooled over gorgeous photos of friends skating near Grewingk Glacier and other places, but not knowing how or when to go there, and a failed Rabbit Slough outing where we literally had to bike, since skating was not possible.
How on earth am I supposed to learn more about this sport and advance to the kind of adventures I dream of safely?
Well, I recently learned that Luc Mehl, the wilderness adventurer and professional outdoor educator we have referred to time and again for planning backcountry adventures year-round has recently developed an online course all about Wild Ice! I know that Luc has been safely and successfully returning from epic wild ice adventures for years, with some of those pictures I mentioned dreaming about. He is a certified ice and swiftwater rescue instructor, has traveled over 10,000 miles of remote Alaska by all methods of self-propelled transport, literally wrote The Packrafting Handbook, is an experienced teacher of safety courses in person and online, and his website Things to Luc At has been a primary resource for planning many of our trips to remote Alaska covering everything from inspiration, to route planning and navigation, to best practices and safety.
Why I signed up for his new online course Wild Ice? I want to know more about the equipment I need to add to my quiver, how to use it, and to overall gain confidence to take the next steps in developing my skills to adventure to new places on ice in the backcountry. I am no stranger to the dangers of adventuring in remote wilderness. Add ice, cold water and Alaska winter into the mix, and it definitely makes me want to know more about safety! One day I’ll go skate beside glaciers and ice bergs, but I literally don’t know what the next step is forward from where I am. I am excited to learn more, and to be as safe and confident as possible in what I carefully choose to do next.
Registration for this course is open now, and you get unlimited access to watch the videos, so you can review each season. I can’t wait to learn more and share about my future adventures on Wild Ice!