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The Alaska Railroad
In the land of the midnight sun
I hadn’t intended to ride the Alaska Railroad, at least, not at first. My primary goal was to see the midnight sun during the summer solstice on June 20, the longest day of the year. To truly experience 24 hours of daylight, I would have had to cross the Arctic Circle, but the city of Anchorage was as far north as I could get with my frequent flier miles.
With so much daylight, I planned to spend as much time as I could awake, on my feet, and moving. In the 72 hours that I had to travel, about 60 of those hours would be bright enough to read a map and even the dimmer hours would be enough to see the glaciers, mountains, moose, bears, and everything else that Alaska promised.
The decision to ride the Alaska Railroad was easy. Completed in 1923, the railroad runs 456 miles from the southern port town of Seward to Fairbanks through some of the wildest country on the planet. I bought my ticket on the Coastal Classic train for the 114 mile trip from Anchorage to Seward, not just because it was widely regarded as one of the most beautiful train rides in the world, but also because it was simply the best way get around.
All aboard for the Alaska wilderness
The train left the station from downtown Anchorage promptly at 6:45am for the four hour trip, pulling ten royal blue cars with gold stripes, including two observation cars, five passenger cars, a snack car that was surrounded by ceiling-high viewing windows, and a dining car nearest to the front of the train.
Many of the cars looked identical from the inside, but they still had their own distinct personalities, dictated mainly by how the doors opened and closed. On some of the doors you had to twist and pull, others you had to pull and slide, and the third kind opened and closed automatically with the press of a button. Unfortunately, there were never two cars in a row with the same door type, so what you did to exit one car was always different than what you had to do to enter the next. It was particular vexing when you were standing between cars, having just figured how to get out of one car, and now forced to determine how to get into the next, all while watching the ground below you go by at 45 miles per hour.
For the first half of the trip, the tracks run above the tidal mud flats of the Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet, running parallel to the Glenn Highway. The tides in this area can swing nearly 40 feet and are the second highest in the world. In my mind, this deserved to be called “the official picture postcard” section with an unbroken line of snow covered mountains rising sharply from the water’s edge, framed solidly against blue skies.
To come home from Alaska without stories of personal encounters with moose, marmots, bears, and sea otters, would be like returning from Mexico without a tan and the risk of residual amoebic dysentery.
Sharp points of tree-covered land often jutted into the fjords, especially as the train made sweeping curves, creating jaw-dropping photographic opportunities – and it goes on and on like this for nearly 50 miles. I saw three bald eagles flying together, pacing the train at window height on the right hand side over the water, and at least a dozen Dall sheep clustered fearlessly in small groups on the scant ledges of the cliffs high above the train to the left.
The train makes a quick stop in Girdwood, a year-round resort community and winter ski resort, and then passes over Old Portage Station through thousands of dead standing trees. The trees were killed after the 1964 Good Friday earthquake caused the Portage elevation to drop 12 feet, inundating the entire area with water, drowning them.
From there, the train passes the immense Spencer Glacier, the first of three glaciers along the route. Like all glaciers that I would see in Alaska, the basic “glacier white” always had faint but definite blues and reds mixed in, as if they were weakly painted with transparent, colored light. The train then begins the slow climb up through a snow covered area that one of the train staff told me was called the “S-curves” towards Grandview, the summit of the Kenai Mountains.
Watching all the bears go by
To come home from Alaska without stories of personal encounters with moose, marmots, bears, and sea otters, would be like returning from Mexico without a tan and the risk of residual amoebic dysentery. It’s the reason we go to these places. The train’s staff was well aware of this and one of them, Andrea, was paid, in part, to be the official wildlife spotter and announcer over the trains PA system.
Rather than using the terms port and starboard or left and right, she would use the hands of a clock to orient us to possible wildlife sightings, as in, “There goes a black bear running away from the train at 2 o’clock.” Or, “Does everyone see the marmot sitting on the rock next to the train at 9 o’clock?” This would usually trigger “oohs” of excitement from the passengers and waves of them would practically fall over each other as they rushed to the appropriate side of the car, digital cameras at full zoom, hoping to spot the bear or moose that would guarantee them bragging rights for years to come. I was one of them, but all I had seen was the big butt of a black bear poking out of the brush several miles back.
At one point, the train slowed down to a crawl in a thickly wooded area with a wall of spruce and alder trees growing right to up to the edge of the tracks. When Andrea told us that we were stopping to allow two bears to get off the tracks, we all leaned forward in our seats, hanging onto each second of silence, ready to react to her next announcement. Not one, but two bears! On the tracks! Will they move to the right or the left side of the train? This was my chance to see not only a bear’s butt, but maybe a nose, an ear, a muscular shoulder; if I was lucky, with five or ten more partial sightings, I might be able to claim that I saw a complete bear.
Tentatively, Andrea came back over the speaker and said, “The bears…are on…the…left!” Everyone surged to that side of the car, but both bears managed to vanish into the alder brush without a trace. It was clear that, as a rule, only the engineer and a few chosen staff members in the front of the train saw all of the good stuff.
The last 45 miles pass two more glaciers, including the Trail glacier that feeds the Trail River and Trail Lake. On Kenai Lake, about 20 miles outside of Seward, I saw my first float planes; four of them were tethered nonchalantly to a t-shaped dock next to a small house along the lake, looking as unpretentious and as commonplace as rowboats.
We slowed as we neared Seward, first passing houses, trailers, and outbuildings, and finally store fronts and warehouses. The train pulled up to the tiny wooden Seward train station and we stepped out into a light, misty rain. As I hoisted my pack onto my back and started walking towards town, I noticed that there was nothing but knee-high weeds growing out of what was otherwise bare soil in front of the locomotive. The train had literally stopped within inches of the end of the line.
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