Canoe System


The small lakes and rivers in the northern portion of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge provide excellent opportunities for canoeing along with fishing and wildlife viewing.


Learn about Canoeing in Wilderness 

Tips for Outdoor Safety 

Many small lakes provide excellent paddling for beginning canoeists.   Large lakes such as Hidden, Skilak, and Tustumena often experience strong winds creating dangerous waves requiring advanced paddling skills, specialized gear, and canoes designed specifically for large wave conditions. 

The Dave Spencer Wilderness Unit in the northern Refuge includes the nationally recognized Swan Lake and Swanson River Canoe Routes.  These routes cover over 100 miles of lakes, portage trails, and small rivers.  They offer excellent opportunities for bird watching and rainbow trout fishing.  Group size is limited to 15 people.  Intermediate canoeing capabilities are necessary to handle windy conditions on lakes and safe maneuvering on small, narrow rivers.  Good stamina is required for paddling and portaging, since you portage as much as you paddle.

Swan Lake Canoe Route  

Swanson River Canoe Route  

What to Expect on the Canoe System

The Kenai Refuge Canoe Systems are an amazing opportunity to experience backcountry camping.  Visit our Backcountry Camping page to get tips on camping safely in this remote area.   

Generally, lakes break up in mid-May and stay open until freeze-up in early October. During June through August, temperatures range from a day-time high of 70 degrees F. to the 30's at night. While rainstorms occur throughout the summer, the rainy season is late August through September. 

Hypothermia conditions exist on rainy, windy 40-50 degree F. days or if canoeists capsize in cold water. Know how to recognize and treat hypothermia. Bring a rain suit and layered wool or polar fleece clothing that will keep your body warm when wet. 

Portages traverse wetlands, pass hills, and range from several hundred yards to over a mile. Generally, hip waders work best as footwear. A sturdy, padded canoe yoke makes portaging much easier. 

Biting insects are often present on portages and at campsites. Bring repellent and head nets. 

Fishing and hunting in season are permitted on the canoe system. Visit our Rules and Regulations page for information on fishing in these lakes. 

Quiet canoeing is an excellent way to view wildlife without disturbing them. Loons, bald eagles, various waterfowl, beavers, and moose are the most frequently seen wildlife. Black bear, brown bear, coyotes, land otters, lynx, and wolves are occasionally sighted. 

Please treat wildlife with respect and keep your distance. All bears and moose with young are dangerous. Do not disturb bald eagles or nesting waterfowl. Camping is discouraged on portages and islands. Islands are important resting and nesting areas for wildlife.