Kenai River (Kenai Lake → Skilak Lake)

June sunshine, rafting & a 4 year old!

With a season of river trips in the works we packed up the boat for a shakedown weekend run down the Upper Kenai. The 2017 fishing season had officially opened a few days prior, but the first few days typically are slow fishing and it was nice to have the river mostly to ourselves from Kenai Lake to Sportsman. From Sportsman’s to Jim’s we encountered several boats and the usual throng of people at the Russian River. Not even bothering to pull out the rods we pushed downriver stopping only occasionally to stretch the legs.

Above Sportsman’s Landing. Getting set up for the canyon. Start of the Canyon.

After we passed Jim’s Landing we left all fishermen and boat traffic behind and had a fun drift through the canyon. It was my first time through the canyon and given the reputation was expecting a bit of whitewater – but the canyon is essentially fast class II with only one minor drop. At high water it supposedly gets pushy, but in the low June flows it was a mellow, albeit, speedy float.

Isabelle doesn’t trust my rowing…. … Neither does Koven.

Once at Kenai Lake we fired up the motor and motored a couple miles away from the mouth to a landing with less bear sign. A nice dinner, campfire and night spent staring at glassy waters and then sleep.

The hardest part about rafting with a 4 year old is attempting to explain to them why they shouldn’t get water down their boots.

Hotdogs over the fire. Noodles in the dirt. Evening on Skilak.

Skilak Lake sunset. This photo was taken at 10:30pm. Summer in Alaska rocks!

The next morning we took a short hike around camp and then fired up the motor and motored 6 miles to the Upper Skilak boat launch. The lake was glassy. Perfect.

Isabelle makes these things everywhere she goes. Sometimes she spends hours on them and they’re really intricate, other times it’s just a simple design. Perfect summer morning on Skilak Lake.
Hike above camp. Looking south across the lake.


A few rafting gear notes…


I got over my motor phobia and purchased an outboard motor. This is my first outboard motor and given my propensity to hate all things motorized it has taken me a while to get used to it. I purchased a Tohatsu 3.5hp 4 stroke (long-shaft). Given that my boat is 14′ and a self-bailer I learned that anything beyond 5hp is overkill – and in my opinion, even 3.5hp is borderline. Rev the throttle all the way and the stern dips well underwater to the point where you’re pushing way too much to be efficient. Ease off the throttle and you putter along just fine. Given this I’d say the Mercury 2.5hp or even the Honda 2.3hp would be just fine. That said… the Tohatsu 3.5hp weights 41lbs (without fuel) whereas the Mercury 2.5 weights 38lbs. The Honda 2.3 weights only 31lbs, but I wanted slightly more push.

There are newer propane outboards on the market, and they look promising, but given they’ve only been available in Alaska for a few years I was wary to invest in the newer technology.

As for the long or short shaft dilemma: on whitewater rafts with an upturned stern long shaft is your only option. You could get away with a short shaft if you rig your transom so it sits lower in the water, but if you just go long shaft it sits in the water right away. That said, in a self-bailer your stern will immediately dip well underwater so be wary of going too fast if you’re in shallow water.

As for 2 vs 4 stroke – be aware that Alaska State Parks is phasing out the use of older, two-stroke outboard motors on Kenai and Skilak Lakes.


If you’re only doing an overnighter your cooler choice doesn’t really matter, and since most our trips tend to be shorter trips I’ve always put off purchasing an expensive rotomolded cooler. That said, I did do a fishing trip once where we had meat spoil due to my cheap cooler. And even worse … on our 11 day Yukon trip (with temps in the 80s) the cream spoiled on day 4 and I had to use powdered milk in my coffee. I’ll probably get a nice one eventually and when the time comes I’ll use this awesome Field and Stream review.


The final dilemma had to with the front seat on the raft. Our front bay has a drop bag underneath and I wanted the seat to double as a table. You can purchase a front table / seat from NRS for $300, but they don’t properly fit smaller rafts (our Super Duper Puma frame is 58″ wide whereas the NRS tables are 68″). And so, I decided to make one!

A sheet of 3/4″ marine plywood from Spenard Builders Supply ($80), 4 aluminum table legs cut and sanded plus fittings from Alaska Steel ($100) and a can of marine polyurethane later I set up the tools in the workshop and went to work. Technically the amount of time I spent plus materials would make the NRS table cheaper, but it was a fun project. And in the end I built a table that filled all the space in the front bay, plus the extra place on either side of my second bay (which is a dry box that doesn’t span the entire width of the raft).

Initial cuts. Raft layout. In use!

A few notes:

  • You want 3/4″. My last bench seat was made with 1/2″ marine plywood and I ended up having to build support strips due to flexing.
  • Drill lots of holes for straps. My final table had 8 holes for straps plus a handle for carrying. After a few trips I’ve already decided I’ll be putting in more holes for additional strapping.
  • Cut all corners at a 45-degree angle and then use a router on all edges. You do not want sharp corners when you’re bouncing down a rapid!
  • Go with 40″ countertop height. Technically you could get by with it even taller given that you end up dropping the legs into sand or silt when trying to get it balanced.
  • Apply at least 5 coats of polyurethane. Sand in-between each coat and after the second coat, drop a bag of walnut shells into the polyurethane for extra grit.
  • If you’re worried about weight, you could drill holes in the table legs… but this is rafting so why bother? If you’re flying in then consider using your leftover plywood to build a smaller leaner table that will fit in a supercub.
Final product.

The finished project fits nicely on the front of the raft with the sides coming up and filling the empty space on either side of the drybox. I have not floated heavy whitewater with this setup so I don’t know whether the ridged table spanning two bays will be an issue in a big wave train – but in easy class II+ wave trains I don’t notice the flex at all. The legs are secured via hex keys (which are kept in a bag under the rowing seat) and when not in use I remove them and drop them into the front drop bag. As for seating and packing, I purchased a 13×40 PVC pad from Cascade River Gear for the front seat and rigged a dry bag and my camera box in the empty space on either side of the dry box. Once in the camp the C Design makes for a good cooking area and arms on either side keep people out of the workspace.

All in all, a fun weekend trip in perfect conditions. The Upper Kenai is a pleasant float when the fishing is slow. Once the fishing picks up it turns into a crowded zoo and isn’t near as fun. And given you can be at the put in within 2 hours from Anchorage it makes for an easy weekend rafting destination.