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ANCHORAGE - Backcountry skaters Jim Renkert and Bob Butera were poking around the Valley two weekends ago, looking for some promising ice when they stumbled upon a jackpot.
Renkert and Butera were exploring the Rabbit Creek Slough, not far from where the Glenn and Parks highways meet.
They found excellent ice until a couple of miles from the public access point where Rabbit Slough becomes tidally influenced. Silt from below the tidal high water line had blown onto the ice in places, slowing progress. They considered turning around.
That's when they spotted a duck shack in the distance. Let's go at least that far, the skaters decided.
About 10 feet above the creek bed they found some frozen marshland that opened up into miles of ideal backcountry skating.
"It was unbelievable," Renkert said. "Just fabulous, like 30 Potter Marshes strung together."
Wind had blown most grit off the ice, and Renkert glided almost effortlessly on his Nordic skates across the frozen landscape.
"Out there in the sun and wind, it was totally marvelous," he said.
Renkert is among a hearty handful of winter aficionados who smile when November turns cold but the ground remains bare.
They know a heavy October snow can obliterate any thought of backcountry ice skating, but occasionally the snows holds off while a frigid high-pressure system locks in.
This year, skaters made it to the second week of November with minimal snow in Southcentral - though Tuesday's fresh snowfall may wipe out skating in some spots.
And clearly, the skating of 2008 won't match that of 1995.
By early December of that year, temperatures had dipped well below zero with barely a flake of snow. The Susitna and Deshka rivers were frozen, prompting discussions of driving upriver to Skwentna. Runners and skaters explored the Twenty Mile, Portage and Placer river valleys southeast of Girdwood. Skating trips across huge Kenai Lake and the Swan Lake Canoe Route across the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge were planned.
This year has not been nearly that cold, putting such big bodies of water as Portage Lake or Eklutna Lake off limits to skaters. And even in the chilliest winters, open water remains a possibility. Currents, upwellings and even some geothermal springs can set traps to anyone crossing the ice.
For safety, backcountry skaters should always:
Carry ice picks that enable skaters who fall through to pull themselves out.
Travel with companions (though not too closely).
Consider an inflatable life vest.
Pack a waterproof stuff-sack with dry clothes and fire starter.
Doug Van Etten, head of the Anchorage Adventurers Meetup Group, has been leading skating outings for nearly a month - to Jewel Lake, Potter Marsh, Delong Lake, Goose Lake, Little Campbell Lake and others in town.
His favorites, though, have been Mud Lake and Jim Lake near Jim Creek in the Valley. The lakes are just a starting point, he said, with sloughs and ponds connected to them the real prize.
"It's a wetland haven back in there," Van Etten said. "It's a lot more wide open than people think, and hardly anybody knows about it.
"You've got low marsh grass and spruce trees - with Pioneer Peak looming overhead."
But the 6,398-foot mountain is distant enough that it doesn't block the sunlight on blue-sky days.
"That makes a world of difference," he said.
For Van Etten, Renkert and others, the reward of backcountry skating is the ease of moving through the country without post-holing, getting wet or skirting marshland. Terrain once impenetrable is easy to glide across.
"The thing that's addictive about it is the speed, the speed you get for effort invested," said adventurer Tim Kelley, who on Nordic skates skated 27 miles around the perimeter of Big Lake and Flat Lake on Monday - two days after he and friend Cory Smith used skis and Nordic skates for 22 lake and pond crossings on a 26-mile loop in the Nancy Lakes system. "You can be going 20 mph, 25 mph for many, many miles."
And even when snowfall threatens to sharply diminish skating prospects, as it did this week, diehards think back to years like 2004, when a thaw and heavy rainfall preceded midwinter freeze-up.
"We skated for miles and miles on Campbell Creek," Van Etten recalled. Instead of steps of ice often found on the creek banks during the winter, "it froze like glass all at the same level.
"That was one of the most amazing times. Maybe it'll happen again."