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Dozens of small lakes dot the lowlands of the pristine Kenai National Wildlife Refuge. Forty of those lakes are linked together by the Swanson River to form the Swanson River Lakes. The world class canoe trail makes the Alaskan wilderness accessible to both novice and experienced paddlers. The Swanson River Lakes, including Pepper, Paddle, Eider, and Wild Lake, are linked by 46 miles of the 80 mile long Swanson River. The entire system makes up the headwaters of the Swanson River which has its outlet at Gene Lake.
In addition to being surrounded by the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, the Swanson River Lakes along with the thirty lakes that make up the Swan Lake Route are all located within a formal wilderness unit. Regulations prohibit the use of floatplanes and chainsaws and protect the wildness of the area around the lakes. One of the things that make the Swanson River Lakes so unique is that the Swanson River Road connects to the river route in two places. The Swanson River Road was built in 1957 by the Richfield Oil co. and Standard Oil to access the Swanson River Oil Field. Canoeists and kayakers can drive to the route and after just a days paddling find themselves in the heart of the Swanson River Lakes in a truly isolated setting. Basic canoe skills are needed and there are several challenging portages, but nothing is inaccessible. Very quickly visitors will find themselves deep in the wilderness surrounded by gorgeous lakes.
There are well worn trails marked with small brown signs for the portages and although accommodations are limited to primitive camping, there are several lakes with established lakeshore campsites. It is strongly urged that campers use existing sites rather than establishing new ones to preserve the areas wildlife. Visitors are required to abide by "Leave No Trace" rules.
Fishing on the Swanson River Lakes is exceptional, especially past the first few lakes that get most of the fishing pressure. There are healthy populations of rainbow trout and Dolly Varden. Red and silver salmon are abundant in most of the lakes in the system with the exception of Berry, Redpoll, Twig, Eider, Birchtree, and Olsjold. It isn't uncommon for paddlers to be able to troll for fish as they cross the lakes and find they have dinner when they reach the other side.
There is hunting in season around the lakes and over 200 species of birds, so the bird watching is exceptional. There are also plenty of opportunities for hiking and lots of wildlife viewing. It is not uncommon to see brown and black bear, wolves, moose and beavers. Loons, bald eagles, and trumpeter swans also make the Swanson River Lakes their home.
The Kenai National Wildlife Refuge surrounds the Swanson River Lakes. Dedicated in 1941 by President Roosevelt, the refuge was originally called the Kenai National Moose Range. In 1980 the refuge was renamed the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and it was expanded to 1.92 million acres. It is sometimes called a "miniature Alaska" because the refuge contains all of Alaska's major habitat types. It is a significant piece of Alaskan wilderness in a very road accessible area.
The Town of Sterling is relatively near the Swanson River Lakes. In fact there is a shuttle to drop off and pick up canoes as well as canoe rentals. Although the summer can bring thousands of canoes to both the Swan Lake Route and the Swanson River Lakes, there is plenty of room for all of them, and the lakes do not feel crowded.
The Swanson Lakes have a well deserved reputation as a world class canoe trail. With the majestic backdrop of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, a trip to the Swanson River Lakes will not be forgotten.
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