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In Alaska, the rare thrill of ‘wild’ ice skating

PAXSON WOELBER VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                In an undated image provided by Paxson Woelber, Laura Kottlowski goes Nordic skating in Alaska.
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PAXSON WOELBER VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES

In an undated image provided by Paxson Woelber, Laura Kottlowski goes Nordic skating in Alaska.

PAXSON WOELBER VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                In an undated image provided by Paxson Woelber, on Portage Lake, Elaine Glusac enjoys the ice with Paxson Woelber’s fluffy Samoyed dog, Taiga.
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PAXSON WOELBER VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES

In an undated image provided by Paxson Woelber, on Portage Lake, Elaine Glusac enjoys the ice with Paxson Woelber’s fluffy Samoyed dog, Taiga.

LUC MEHL VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                In an undated image provided by Luc Mehl, Elaine Glusac on Kenai Lake, a long, deep, zigzagging body of water about 100 miles south of Anchorage, Alaska.
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LUC MEHL VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES

In an undated image provided by Luc Mehl, Elaine Glusac on Kenai Lake, a long, deep, zigzagging body of water about 100 miles south of Anchorage, Alaska.

PAXSON WOELBER VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                In an undated image provided by Paxson Woelber, Laura Kottlowski goes Nordic skating in Alaska.
PAXSON WOELBER VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                In an undated image provided by Paxson Woelber, on Portage Lake, Elaine Glusac enjoys the ice with Paxson Woelber’s fluffy Samoyed dog, Taiga.
LUC MEHL VIA THE NEW YORK TIMES
                                In an undated image provided by Luc Mehl, Elaine Glusac on Kenai Lake, a long, deep, zigzagging body of water about 100 miles south of Anchorage, Alaska.

I’d been waiting for months when I finally got the call from Alaska last March: Wild ice was on.

A roughly two-week high-pressure window of cold and clear weather had frozen Portage Lake, the terminus of Portage Glacier, some 50 miles southeast of Anchorage, and it was solid enough to skate on its wild — or natural — ice.

“Skating A-grade ice under a glacier really is a ‘take off work now and just go to it’ type of treat, even for us Alaskans,” said Paxson Woelber, who owns the Anchorage-­based skate manufacturer Ermine Skate.

A few months earlier, I had purchased a pair of Ermine Nordic skates, long blades similar to speed skates that affix to the bindings of cross-country ski boots. The compatibility allows skiers to get to remote ice, then switch into blades to skate without changing boots and, as Woelber put it, “get you off the rink.”

While figure and hockey skates are designed for maneuverability, including directional changes and tight turns, Nordic skates are designed for distance. The longer, faster blades require less effort to propel, and their stability makes them more tolerant of natural conditions like bumpy or weedy ice.

But the problem with Nordic skating or any kind of wild skating — which is defined as outdoors and on naturally formed ice, regardless of the style of skate used — is finding good ice. Wild-ice seekers extol late fall and sometimes spring for freezing conditions without snowfall, which degrades ice.

“That’s why it’s so magical: It’s fleeting,” said Laura Kottlowski, a former competitive figure skater based in Golden, Colo., whom I called in my search for wild ice. TikTok and Instagram videos of her jumping and spinning on high alpine lakes have gone viral, and Kottlowski teaches her combination of winter mountaineering and ice skating as Learn to Skate Outside.

Wild ice 101

I’ve been skating outside since childhood, mostly on Midwestern lakes and ponds that I know well. But the kind of wilderness that Kottlowski and Woelber explore requires next-level knowledge of ice and safety gear.

Preparing to skate in the wildest spot of my life, I spent a few hours watching videos in an online class on wild ice ($149) made by Luc Mehl, a swift-water safety instructor who grew up in Alaska and swapped backcountry skiing for skating several years ago as a way to avoid avalanche risks. Based in Anchorage, he has become known for his skate safety training and stunning social media videos of him and other skaters gliding on remote frozen lakes.

When I reached him via phone to discuss my skating plan, he was just returning from Tustumena Lake on the Kenai Peninsula, where, on an overnight trip, he had cross-country skied 8 miles to reach the lake and then skated some 50 miles.

“Part of why skating is so rewarding is it’s not a guaranteed thing,” Mehl said. “Because of its rarity, it feels special.”

Skating to a glacier

“Indoor rinks have the ambience of a Costco,” said Woelber as he, Mehl and I set off with Woelber’s fluffy Samoyed dog, Taiga, from Ermine’s workshop in a modest office complex in South Anchorage for Portage Lake the next morning.

There was nothing Costco about Portage, a roughly 5 mile-long lake ringed in snowcapped mountains separated by glacier-filled valleys in the Chugach National Forest. In the bright sun, the clearest sections of ice mirrored the landscape with the addition of a few skaters in the distance.

After carefully hiking down a rocky slope and over some crusty ice near the shore in my cross-country boots, I clicked into my blades. Mehl lent me a set of plastic-sheathed ice picks to wear like a necklace, which — should I fall through the ice — I could deploy and use to stab it, creating a grip to haul myself out. He also provided a pole with a sharp tip, known as an ice probe, to test the ice as we went along.

“Two strong stabs from the elbow,” he demonstrated by jabbing the ice, “and I know it will hold me.”

On an ice scale of A to F, we skated what my guides estimated was clear, black, A-grade ice with B-grade patches that were the texture of an orange peel, and a few C-grade sections of frozen snow. Cracks showed ice depths between 7 and 9 inches; Mehl explained that 4 inches is safe. In the center of the lake, an iceberg was frozen in place, used as an ice slide by local children.

We connected the smoothest stretches as we slalomed toward the glacier, linking unblemished patches of ice so precisely reflective of a nearby mountain that the lake looked as if it had been surfaced by a Zamboni.

Edging right around a thumb of land at the far end of the lake, we faced the looming Portage Glacier, suspended in giant milky blue blocks that rose nearly 10 stories above the frozen lake. After much gaping, we continued to its south face, gazing at a new shade of turquoise ice, shiny and dimpled by the sun.

As glaciers can calve in any season, we got no closer than 200 feet from the face while nervously watching a hiker reach the ice fall, or terminus of the glacier, and snap a string of selfies.

On the way back, I tried to hide from the strong headwinds behind a fleece gaiter and worked much harder to stride. When I reached the shore, the parking lot was overflowing with skaters, fat-tire bike riders and families with sleds.

Passing us, dozens of skaters were now making their way out to the glacier, most on hockey skates, but a respectable 40% on Nordics. One Nordic skate novice called it “terrifying.” His companion had learned a decade ago from Norwegian friends who, she said, “know how to winter,” calling it a “game changer” in terms of speed, distance and ease.

Ice like glass

The next day we had another, in skier’s terms, powder day — meaning perfect, hard-to-resist conditions — prompting Mehl to suggest we test out Kenai Lake, a long, deep, zigzagging body of water on the Kenai Peninsula about 100 miles south of Anchorage, which he had heard was newly frozen.

There, below a hanging glacier tucked into a mountainside and beyond the moose tracks in the snow leading to the shore, was ice graded A-plus: smooth as a windless day on water, with surrounding peaks reflected in a sea green, mirrorlike surface.

“Yesterday, we got views,” said Mehl, equally thrilled by the conditions. “Today, ice!”

We could see open water about 100 yards out, but we stayed away from it, testing the ice at occasional cracks. In some areas, small waves looked as if they had frozen in motion. Others rippled gently like sand dunes. As we explored it on a calm, windless day, the lake began talking back in burbles and aquatic belches that Mehl said were nonthreatening, indicating the natural expansion and contraction of the ice. Other times, hairline cracks shot through the ice with a laserlike zing, and at least once the lake mimicked a cow mooing, adding aural wonder to our tour.

In October, Mehl began posting social media videos of skating on clear, wild ice on snow-free lakes around Anchorage. But if Kenai Lake was my last wild skate of 2023, at least I slid into the sunset on peak ice.

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