A New Year’s storm brought a blanket of snow to the Chilkat Valley. But that wasn’t the case for most of December. While skiing near Haines was limited, record low snowfall and a late 2017 cold snap provided ideal conditions for another winter activity: ice skating. The last week of December, a group trekked out to a remote skater’s paradise.
Getting to Chilkat Lake in the winter requires a 26 mile drive out the Haines Highway and an icy turn down Chilkat Lake Road. That gets you to the Tsirku River.
Then it’s over the Tsirku on a snow machine bridge, through some water, down an icy trail, across a field of hoar frost that looks like ice flowers, through the woods, along the bank of Clear Creek, to the edge of Chilkat Lake.
On a cold, clear day, kids and adults are taking advantage of the weather to skate the lake.
“It’s a rare year when it’s good conditions out here,” says Sue Libenson. She and Bill Holton are sitting on the ice, tying up their skates. Holton says he’s been skating for more than half a century.
“For 54 years. I started on double-wide skates at Lakewood Park in Roanoke, Virginia.”
Even after all those years gliding around on ice, Holton says this is one of the best spots.
“This is one of the most exciting places to skate,” says Holton, “probably short of Lake Iliamna.”
Why was the ice so good at the end of December? A couple things came into play. One, lack of snow. According to the National Weather Service in Juneau, Haines only got 2.2 inches of snow last month. The least amount of December snow in the last 17 years. Since the weather service started keeping consistent records for Haines.
The average snowfall for December is nearly 40 inches.
And, after a warm and wet start to the month, things got cold and clear. Temperatures in the last week of December dipped well below freezing, into the single digits and below zero.
That makes for extraordinary skating.
“The clear ice and the wildlife. You get to see otter tracks going across the lake and swans calling. It’s just so beautiful,” says Holton. “And it pumps you up. Gets your lungs full of air, makes you sweat a little bit. And makes you feel better.”
Despite the great conditions, between Chilkat and Chilkoot Lakes, at least three skaters fell through the ice. Everyone made it out safely, but it was a good reminder to remain cautious on the ice, no matter how cold it is, and how easily you’re gliding.