Leave it to Alaskan adventurer Luc Mehl to turn something as graceful and elegant as ice skating into a wilderness expedition.
In the dwindling November light last year, Mehl and outdoor partner Greg Mills set out on a long-distance ice skating route along the Arctic Circle in Alaska. They logged some 125 miles over four days across a frozen river, lake, and seashore, linking together the remote villages of Selawik and Kotzebue on Iñupiaq land in the far northwest region of the state.
“I didn’t grow up skating; I’m not a hockey player,” said Mehl, who’s traveled more than 10,000 miles of Alaskan backcountry on foot, kayak, pack raft, and skis. “I started skating because I was looking for something to do in the off-season between backpacking in the summer and backcountry skiing in the winter.
“Fall is the perfect time for skating because it’s really cold outside, all the lakes are frozen, and it hasn’t snowed yet.”
With smooth ice and a consistent tailwind, the pair skated some 75 miles within a single 24-hour period — proving that ice skating is one of the most efficient methods of backcountry travel when conditions line up perfectly.
Mehl calls this “expedition ice skating,“ which is a more intense rendition of the growing sport of backcountry skating or wild skating that has become popular in northern climates around the world. In frigid places like Alaska, Sweden, Norway, Canada, and the northern zones of the United States, people are skating across icy lakes and rivers to reach more desolate backcountry — a winter version of a summer day hike.
Before the snow settles in, Mehl uses wild skating as another way to move through the mountains on multi-day routes.
“Going from a day trip to a multi-day trip on skates is a big jump in exposure,” Mehl said, adding that skating requires extremely cold weather, no snow on the ground or in the forecast, and long stretches of smooth ice. A successful trip takes diligent planning to find both good ice and a weather window without snow on the way.
The 41-year-old started wild skating just five years ago on the frozen lakes around his home in Anchorage. A few classic day trips in the nearby Nancy Lake State Recreation Area gave Mehl the taste of efficiency and speed that ice skating can bring to wilderness travel. He turned those day trips up a notch and added multi-day trips, skating some 40 miles of a 60-mile loop in Alaska’s Katmai National Park and Preserve, followed by a 150-mile mixed skating and hiking route from Bethel to Goodnews Bay, Alaska.
Last fall, in the seasonal doldrums between backpacking and skiing, Mehl started looking for another skating expedition. But this time he wanted a route with fewer hiking miles and as much ice as possible. Checking out the maps, Kotzebue caught his eye.
“Having been up there before, I knew the potential for good quality ice — it’s a large body of water, it’s above the Arctic Circle, and it freezes early,” Mehl said.
Selawik to Kotzebue became the objective.
Selawik to Kotzebue: Planning for Perfect Conditions
Mehl began his usual backcountry planning process. He scoured the internet for information for trip reports and public tracks recorded on Gaia GPS but found none. He checked in with local bush pilots about ice conditions they saw from the air.
“Getting information becomes increasingly more difficult the more remote you go and you have to get creative,” Mehl said. “At one point, I called the village school in Buckland, which is near Selawik, and asked them if the lake was frozen.”
A GIS data scientist by education and career, Mehl turned to sophisticated, near-in-time satellite imagery to find the smoothest ice possible. Two satellite imagery sources — Sentinel Hub Playground and Sentinel Hub EO Browser — showed tails and polygons of black, smooth ice between sections of rough, wind-affected ice on the lake. Mehl marked the smooth ice with waypoints and then imported them into Gaia GPS, creating a near-perfect skating lane from Selawik to Kotzebue.
“We called these the carpool lanes,” Mehl said.
“This was a really novel way to use Gaia GPS, and it worked beautifully,” Mehl said. “It kept us skating on the smoothest ice possible.”
After creating and saving the route on Gaia GPS, Mehl watched the weather and confirmed no new snow in the immediate forecast. In a now-or-never moment, Mehl knew he had to go before Alaska’s fickle weather betrayed his plan.
“I called Greg at 6 p.m. and less than twelve hours later we were on a flight from Anchorage to Kotzebue,” Mehl said, adding that he needed a partner with a wide range of backcountry experience. “In ice skating, I pretty much draw on every backcountry skill I have.”
Gear for Expedition Ice Skating
Nordic skates, as they’re called, don’t compare to the speedy skates at the ice rink. Their crudely fabricated metal blades are thick and long enough to extend beyond the toe and heel of the foot to provide additional fore-aft stability. A cross country or backcountry ski binding can be mounted on the skate’s frame. This design adds versatility, allowing the user to easily switch to ski travel when snow piles up. Nordic skates, without the bindings, cost about $100 to $150, depending on the brand.
Wild skaters carry unique rescue gear: a “throw bag” rope and an ice anchor that can be used to rescue someone who has fallen through the ice.
Overnight skating trips require a complete winter camping kit, including a cold weather tent, sleeping bag, and winter clothes. Mehl usually packs skis to change into in the event a snowstorm sets in and covers the ice. Ski poles provide extra stability when the ice is rough, but Mehl packs them away on smooth ice, so he can skate with his arms free. A paper map, compass, and a planned, saved route on Gaia GPS are key to a successful trip, Mehl said.
The take away: multi-day, expedition-style ice skating requires extra gear and ultimately results in a heavy pack.
Selawik to Kotzebue
Scrambling to take advantage of the ideal conditions, Mehl and Mills arrived in the coastal village of Kotzebue and quickly caught a smaller plane to Selawik to start the trip. Weather conditions looked so favorable that they sent their skis back on the plane, trusting that they’d be able to walk out without skis even if a fluke snowstorm blasted the ice and ruined the skating.
The trip started with 12 miles of skating on rough ice on the Selawik River before reaching Selawik Lake, the third largest lake in Alaska. A moderate tailwind pushed them forward, past a herd of Caribou, and toward their final destination of Kotzebue, over 100 miles away.
They crossed the Arctic Circle three times. Where, at 66.5 degrees north of the equator, winter equinox brings only twilight with the sun failing to rise above the horizon. In November, a month before the shortest daylight of the year, the sun pushed its way above Selawik Lake, staying low as if in a state of perpetual sunset.
Complete darkness set in at 5:30 pm., yet Mehl and Mills continued to skate. Under the dim light from headlamps, the pair glided across the lake, listening for the unmistakable tinny sound of their skates slicing across the smooth ice to confirm that they kept their course on “the carpool lane.”
The miles came easy. With the wind at their back, they skated an average of 10 miles per hour and easily ticked off 95 miles within a single overnight period.
“It made me feel as though we were getting away with something; the conditions were perfect and the trip far exceeded any expectation I had,” Mehl said, noting that he and Mills were prepared to turn around if the route became impassable.
The toe of Selawik Lake constricts and flows into the Hotham Inlet — an ocean bay that lies east of the Kotzebue village. Mehl and Mills continued skating along the long inlet until reaching a decision point: take the ice all the way to the village, adding some 50 miles of skating, or cross the tundra on the thin land peninsula to the west and skate into the village on the frozen seashore.
Mehl had never skated on sea ice and the novelty drew the pair to the coast. Different than the smooth skating lanes on the lake, the ice along the beach was thin and intermittent. On day four with evening approaching, Mehl and Mills alternated walking and skating along the beach but found a good swath of ice that led into the village. They clicked into their skates one last time and glided the last few miles into town, changed into tennis shoes, and stuffed their faces with burgers.
Feeling content with the success of their ice skating expedition, Mehl and Mills contemplated their next move.
“The only thing we left on the table was the option to skate those additional 50 miles on the inlet,“ Mehl said. ”I’d like to go back one day and take that option.“