For a pair of paddlers moving fast, checking off all 14 lakes can be accomplished in an afternoon. Going directly from portage to portage -- each one marked by an orange, diamond-shaped sign with a big "P" on it -- the loop can be accomplished in as little as six hours.
"It's an eight-mile loop. It involves 13 portages, which you actually cover 14 lakes, one of them twice," said Alice Miller, who with her husband owns Tippecanoe, a mom-and-pop outfit that rents canoes at the recreation area. "It's real accessible. It's backcountry, but it's accessible to just about anybody."
If you want to take longer to explore all the scenery and wildlife the area has to offer, as photojournalist Zac Gooch and I did, plan on being there for eight hours or longer.
In my opinion, it is just too fun a place to pass through quickly without scouting for wildlife and lingering in the lakes looking for good places to fish.
We were looking for just such a good fishing spot -- the weedy shallows where northern pike like to lurk -- when we spotted our first loon.
It swooped beneath the water alongside our canoe, and we gazed across a boundary that only the loon, with its excellent underwater swimming ability, could cross.
He was clearly checking us out, too. After all, this was his territory we were invading.
In the instant that his blue, speckled body glided by a couple feet off our starboard side, I could see his eye focus on us, two curious guys and a dog riding in an orange canoe.
The loon popped up on the surface about 20 feet away after swimming safely by.
"That was pretty cool," I said to Zac.
We had started the trip at Tanaina Lake by unlocking the canoe with a key Miller gave us. After launching the boat and loading our gear, it was time for my dog, a pit bull mix named Jupiter, to climb aboard for his first ride in a canoe, a feat he pulled off in outstanding fashion by not once tipping the canoe. He also helped carry some of our water and the fuel for my stove on the portages between lakes.
"Everybody carries their own weight on this trip," Zac said as I strapped Jupiter into his doggie backpack.
"That's right, and he carries some of our weight, too," I said.
Carrying the canoe itself -- also known as portaging -- was facilitated by two custom-made handles that bolted onto the bow and stern of the canoe. And while some hardier outdoorsmen will portage their canoes for miles, the longest stretch of carrying on this loop is only about a half-mile.
Following Miller's advice, we decided to take on the lakes in a counter-clockwise approach, which would get the longer portages out of the way first.
While the handles make the short portages much easier, they still pinched our hands enough that, coupled with the occasional mosquito making it to our skin through a haze of bug spray, we took frequent breaks.
We had plenty of time to relax in the canoe, too, sitting silently and casting out fishing lures that landed with a soft "ker-plunk."
The predominant fish there turned out to be northern pike. The pike are a non-native species at Nancy Lakes, just as they are in many Southcentral Lakes. As a result, the pike have overrun the lakes and killed off the trout that were our No. 1 choice for a fresh, hot meal on the trail.
That said, it was still fun teasing our lures in front of the pike and reeling in such a feisty fish. The two that we caught were in Little No Luck Lake, but there were certainly more bites in Big No Luck Lake and Lynx Lake.
Along with pike and loons, we saw a mama black bear and her three cubs as we drove into the fee area. Then, out on the water, we spotted a huge moose on the far bank. An eagle also landed in a nearby tree on another lake, checking us out with the same scrutiny that the loon had shown.
The wildlife viewing opportunities for Nancy Lake State Recreation Area are impressive, but another thing that struck both Zac and I was the drastic differences between the lakes.
"That's one of my favorite things," Zac said. "Every time you get to a new part, it's completely different. You'll get to a dark, murky lake and then the next lake will be crystal clear."
The differences in size and shape also kept the paddling interesting. One lake could be a vast expanse of water with an island in the middle, the water so calm that the sky and surrounding foliage were reflected perfectly on its surface. The next lake might be chock full of weeds -- almost certainly teeming with pike -- and only a narrow ribbon of water through which we navigated the canoe.
"Each of the lakes offers its own personality," Miller said. "Even though they're fairly close together, each one might have different wildlife that visit it, or different birds that nest there, different views -- there's a lot of wildflowers that you'll see. Lots of opportunity for moose, hopefully not too much for bear, but they are out there."
The weather also varied throughout the day, going from intermittent clouds and sun in the morning, to a full-on windy drizzle in the afternoon, to direct sunshine in the evening.
As we rounded the bend leading back to Tanaina Lake, where we had started, we were treated to a slowly setting sun that had dipped just below some clouds.
The rays reflected a golden path leading to the dock on the opposite shore, and after loading up, Zac and I paddled off into the sunset, exhausted from a great day of fishing, paddling and portaging.
If you go:
- Take plenty of water or a water purifier. Extra food also ensures that you'll have plenty of energy, and it can also be crucial if you end up spending more time in the woods than you planned.
- Bring extra layers, as the weather can change without notice. A packable raincoat is a must.
- For any extended trip out of town, take simple survival tools, including a striking flint for making a fire, a space-saving blanket, and the aforementioned water purifier.