Fish culturist enjoys a canoe trail without a canoe

Posted: Sunday, September 02, 2007

ANCHORAGE - As a fish culturist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Chuck Pratt spends his days with trout.

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So what did he decide to do when looking for weekend adventure?

Jump in with the northern pike.

"I've been a surfer, a wind surfer, a kayaker," Pratt said earlier this month. "Being near the water and being wet for fun was normal. This wasn't that much of a leap."

The "this" to which Pratt refers is what may be the first-ever swim of the pike-infested Nancy Lakes canoe route, though Pratt makes no claim to having pioneered the Aquamanesqe idea.

"I don't see any reason anybody couldn't swim this," he said. "I'm not sure that I'm the first. It's too obvious. I'd be surprised if I was the first."

Offbeat being normal for Alaska, that is possible. But rangers for the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area have never reported hearing of this sort of feat before.

Canoeists? Yes, plenty. Winter mountain bikers and runners? Ditto.

Swimmers? Say what?

Pratt does, however, admit he was looking for something different when he first started thinking about swimming the better than 8-mile-long canoe route that spans more than a dozen lakes west of Willow.

"Doing laps (in the pool), being on that treadmill, is no fun," he said. "I wanted to do something I could have fun with and bring my kids along."

Pratt has daughters age 9 and 11 who are already capable canoeists. He figured he'd stroke, and they'd paddle.

So in the midst of the long Alaska winter, from which more than a few strange ideas have come, was born a summer goal. Dad immediately started training.

Though he doesn't much like the pool, Pratt would get up at 5 a.m., jog the mile from his Airport Heights home to the East High pool, swim his laps, jog home, take the girls to school, and head for work. By ice-out in the spring, he was seriously ready for open water in more ways than one. "I swam (Anchorage's) Goose Lake within a day of when the ice went off," he said.

A pencil-thin athlete, Pratt crawled out of the lake shivering and half frozen. He immediately realized he had a problem.

"I have no body fat," he said, "so hypothermia is a real issue."

Before tackling anything bigger than the university district pond, Pratt decided he better get a wet suit to help hold back the cold. He went to Ironman triathlete Dave Kemp to ask for advice. Kemp offered Pratt his wet suit.

"He's not quite as skinny," Pratt said, "but I fit it."

The tight-fitting, second skin of neoprene helped, but Pratt still found himself struggling with Alaska's chilly waters.

"I did 50 minutes in (Summit Lake) and almost got in trouble," Pratt said. "It's super chilled. It took me a while to warm back up after that one, so I was fully expecting to fail (at Nancy Lakes).

"I figured I needed support, too, because I kept getting too cold in the lake."

Enter towering hiker and mountain biker Mark Wedekind.

Having a big guy like Wedekind and his fit wife, Daily News assistant photo editor Anne Raup, along to pack another canoe and extra gear seemed like a first-rate idea.

Everything at the point appeared set, but for one lingering problem.

"I didn't really have a free day," Pratt said. Between family responsibilities and work, he found himself pretty well booked until fate intervened.

His brother-in-law's planned Alaska vacation got delayed. Pratt found himself with an open day on the schedule.

The weather didn't look good, but he noted, "if you wait around for nice, it's never going to happen."

So on Aug. 4, he, Wedekind, Raup and the girls headed north 70 miles from Anchorage to Nancy Lakes.

"In Wasilla," he said, "it was 55 degrees and raining. So hypothermia was my biggest concern. I fully expected to go four or five lakes and get in the canoe, but this was my date to do it."

Nothing had improved by the time the group reached Nancy Lakes. It was still raining. It was still 55 degrees.

Undeterred, Pratt suited up and dove in, figuring "after the first lake, it doesn't matter if it's raining anyway ... (and) in Tanaina Lake, it was warmer than I expected."

Scratch lake number one.

Lake number two - tiny Mile Pond - was a breeze.

Little No Luck and Big No Luck were longer and tougher. "Then I started getting a little cold," Pratt said, but his support team was now getting into the swing of things. They'd paddle ahead to be ready for him at the portages.

"Mark would give me a little cup of hot tea before I got in the next lake," Pratt said. That helped, though Pratt didn't dally long for tea.

"I figured out I was actually better off in the water swimming," he said.

The exercise helped keep him warm, and the lake water might actually have been warmer than the rain falling through the 55-degree air.

"We stopped for lunch at Lynx Lake," Pratt said. "I had soup and another cup of hot tea."

Lynx marks the turn on the Nancy Lake canoe loop. While lunching, Pratt slipped out of his wet suit top, pulled on a fleece and an insulating jacket, and found out that he was warm.

"That's when I figured this was a possibility," he said. "I figured the key was just to keep moving."

And that's what he did. He sped through another half-dozen or so lakes until he was back where the whole thing had begun, the first person - maybe - to have swum the Nancy Lakes canoe route.

"At the end, I was chilly," Pratt said. "I was ready to get out of my wet suit, but I was never hypothermic. I was never where I thought I was in any danger. I was never totally warm, but I was never too bad off."

He has calculated he swam 5 to 5 ½ miles, and "portaged" another 3 or more.

"This wasn't all that hard," Pratt said. "By the end, I was pretty well whooped, but there are people that are doing a lot tougher things out there."



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