Description - *This information is provided by Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation*
The broad Susitna river Valley, including what is now the recreation area, was scoured by massive glaciers, which once covered it. When the ice retreated some 9,000 years ago, it left a rolling landscape of elongated glacial deposits, called drumlins, dotted with hundreds of lakes and ponds.
State archaeologists believe that people lived in the region soon after the glaciers receded. It is believed that this region was heavily used by the Tanaina Indians, and possibly Pacific Eskimos and earlier man before that. Two prehistoric village sites have been identified just outside the recreation area. The inhabitants of these villages lived from subsistence fishing, hunting and trapping.
The Alaska Railroad was built along the east side of the lower Susitna Valley in 1917. Fires caused by sparks from passing trains occasionally burned in this area. The nearby towns of Wasilla, Houston and Willow grew as more homesteaders settled on the lands opened up by rail access.
Through the years, most of the Nancy Lake area has remained wild and natural. The area is too wet for ideal cultivation and is not mineral-rich, so it has escaped large-scale settlement by humans. Today, those assets make it a prime place for recreation and enjoyment of nature.
- The recreation area’s clear waters are ringed with unspoiled forests, and provide tranquil settings for canoeing, fishing, hiking and camping. In winter, the rolling topography is ideal for cross-country skiing, dog mushing and snowmachining.
Vegetation within the recreation area is dominated on drier sites by white spruce and paper birch, with some aspen interspersed. Wetter forests support stands of the smaller black spruce. Wetter still are the low brush bogs and muskeg swamps, sometimes highlighted by cotton grass plumes.
Large parts of the area have been burned by forest fires in the past 100 years, resulting in thick stands of birch, which precede the older forests of white spruce. Wildflowers abound, from the earliest violets and bluebells, through the last flower on the tip of the tall fireweed. Water-loving plants, such as bog rosemary and wild iris, are found in wet areas throughout the park. Water lilies decorate many of the lake surfaces.
Beginning in late July, the first wild berries begin to ripen. Currants, highbush and lowbush cranberries, and blueberries frequently provide a bountiful harvest. Varieties of raspberry, crowberry and other berries can also be found. Pickers should learn to identify baneberry, which looks edible, but is very poisonous.
In recent years, spruce bark beetles have moved into the recreation area, and the effects of the beetle larvae feeding under the bark can be seen. Mature white spruce are dying, and can be identified by looking for the bore holes of the beetles through the bark on tree trunks. After a few years, the infested trees will die, and will stand until wind, snow load, or decomposition topple them to the forest floor.
The recreation area’s combination of lakes, wetlands and forests create ideal habitat for many mammals and birds. Perhaps most noticeable to the summer visitor are water dwellers, especially beaver and waterfowl. Beavers are active in lakes and ponds throughout the park, and visitors can see evidence of their work. These animals are vital to maintaining critical water levels in the ecosystem; their dams and lodges must not be disturbed.
One of the real delights of canoeing in the recreation area is to be closely approached by a curious common loon. These black-headed master divers with their eerie, laughing call are one of the trademarks of the area. Their smaller, grey-headed relative, the Pacific loon is sometimes seen. Loons sitting on the shore should always be given a wide berth. They come ashore only to nest, and will often desert their nests when disturbed.
Arctic terns are summer residents, returning to nest in the wetlands after wintering some 12,000 miles away in the antarctic. Unlike the loons, these birds are graceful fliers as well as tenacious nest defenders. The canoer or hiker unlucky enough to stumble into a nest site is likely to be repeatedly dive-bombed by screeching terns.
Moose are the most common large mammal in the park, although their numbers are dependent on an adequate food supply. They prefer brushy areas or shallow ponds with tender aquatic plants, as browse in mature forests is beyond even their reach.
Black bears are common throughout the park, but grizzly and brown bears are occasionally sighted. Adverse encounters with bears are unlikely if proper precautions are taken. Sighting a bear in its natural environment is one of the thrills of the back country. Please report any sightings to the park rangers.
Recreation - There are several rustic cabins that are available for rent on a nightly basis throughout the Nancy Lake State Recreation Area. Cabins are located on Red Shirt, Lynx, Nancy, James and Bald lakes. The cabins are insulated and equipped with wooden bunks, counters and wood-burning stoves. Each cabin has an outhouse and an outdoor fire ring.
Occupants need to bring all personal items, including drinking water, and leave the site neat and clean when they leave. It is best to bring firewood, as finding firewood my be difficult. Only wood that is down and dead may be gathered. Use of the cabins is by reservation only.
Climate - The weather in the park is tempered by the relatively warm ocean waters to the south and the Alaska Range to the north, which protects it from the very cold temperatures common to interior Alaska.
Summer temperatures rise into the 70s, with occasional highs in the 80s. Nighttime readings, even in July, may dip into the 40s. Winter temperatures may fall to 40 degrees below zero, and seldom rise above freezing until mid-March.
The first snow usually arrives by late October, about the same time the lakes freeze over. Snow depth in late winter averages three to four feet. Lakes are usually free of ice by late May.
Nancy Lake State Recreation Area is a ninety-minute drive north of Anchorage along the Parks Highway. To enter the recreation area, turn west onto Nancy Lake Parkway at Mile 67.3 of the Parks Highway. From there, the Nancy Lake Parkway travels 6.5 miles southwest to South Rolly Lake Campground; in winter the parkway is not plowed beyond the Winter Trailhead at mile 2.2. The community of Willow lies two miles north of this junction, and has a full range of services for the traveler.