Refuge Notebook: A guide to adventures that abound on Kenai National Wildlife Refuge Canoe System

Among the gems hidden within Alaska’s vast National Wildlife Refuge lands, there is an area that has drawn me back time and time again: the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s Swan Lake and Swanson River canoe systems.

I first encountered them as a Boy Scout in the 1970s when Troop 211 took a weeklong venture into these wilderness lakes. While the rest of the Kenai Peninsula-bound traffic continued to Soldotna, Kenai and Homer, we turned right on an obscure dirt road in Sterling and, after a long, dusty drive, entered a lake-strewn paradise.

After slicing through the tea-colored water with our canoes and making several short portages, we settled on a small island in a large lake. And while my dad and the other Scoutmaster relaxed around a campfire, we scouts spent hours paddling, swimming and fishing for dinner.

Many years later, my brother and I took my son into the system just a few days before his first day of school. For three cool, clear September days, we paddled and, along the way, startled swans into flight, watched moose graze the lakebed and encountered only one other canoe.

The area has always been underutilized, and while solitude is one of its attributes, it is a place that more Alaskans and visitors ought to experience.

Alaska Geographic partnered with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge to publish a guidebook for the two systems and encourage would-be voyageurs to explore this remarkable wilderness area: “Canoeing Yaghanen (The Good Land): A Guide to Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s Swan Lake and Swanson River Canoe Systems.”

The Kenai Canoe System is only one of three designated wilderness canoe systems set aside by Congress. It joins the ranks of the famed Boundary Waters of northeast Minnesota and Georgia’s Okefenokee.

The Swan Lake and Swanson River canoe systems cover 100 miles and can fill a weeklong adventure. If you don’t have a week, divide the trip into one or two shorter trips, selecting the 40 lakes connected by the Swanson River or the 30 lakes that the Moose River flows through to make up the Swan Lake Canoe system.

Sterling-based author Dave Atcheson has spent years plying the waters of the system. His experience informs this comprehensive guidebook that includes route suggestions, safety tips and fishing advice, all delivered in Dave’s thoughtful and authoritative writing style.

With illustrated maps, beautiful imagery and an accompanying digital guide, this book will help experts and novices alike explore this true wilderness confidently.

Just reviewing the new book has sparked my desire to return. If you’re looking for a truly wild yet easily accessible experience, I can’t think of a better destination or guide to get you there.

“Canoeing Yaghanen (The Good Land): A Guide to Kenai National Wildlife Refuge’s Swan Lake and Swanson River Canoe Systems” is available at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge store at 33398 Ski Hill Road in Soldotna and online by visiting and clicking on the shop button.

Proceeds from the sale of this book and the other products found at the refuge store support educational and interpretive programs at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

Andy Hall is the Executive Director of the Alaska Geographic Association. Find more Refuge Notebook articles (1999–present) at