July 6, 2015 – Fairbanks Alaska to Denali National Park – Today was a grand adventure on the Alaska Railroad from Fairbanks to Denali and back. I spent most of the trip on the outdoor platform watching the scenery, Gold Star class was worth the upgrade for this short trip. We spotted several moose and trumpeter swans, most with this season’s young. A quick walk around the visitor’s center area gave me an idea what to expect when I came back. Lunch at the park, a nice dinner on the train, topped off with great conversations with other travelers. It was a hot day and the trip back was slower as the tracks had expanded, but no worries there was wonderful scenery and great company.
I’ve always been fond of trains, but I am usually watching them pass by, not riding on board. This day trip gave me a chance to see the country from a different perspective and without dividing my attention with the road and other plans. It will be a long full day, but relaxing and pleasant. The weather is perfect, blue sky and particularly warm, the temperature will reach 90 degrees today. The wind direction has us out of the smoke today. Its a day for postcard photos.
The day started out at the Fairbanks depot of the Alaska Railroad Corporation at 7:20am ready for an 8:00am departure. I had scoped out the parking area the day before and talked with my Fairbanks hosts to ensure it wasn’t a bad place to leave a car for the day. There was plenty of easy parking. After a simple check-in I had some time to spare so I wandered back out front. There’s an interesting little track maintenance car out front. The two yellow signs on it appear to be reproductions of it’s spec sheets, but there wasn’t much in terms of history that I saw. Later I did a little research and found that it was built by a company Fairmont Railway Motors, it is the A6-G1 model powered by a Ford six cylinder gasoline motor boasting 85 horsepower, it appears to harken from the 1980’s.
Indoors, in a separate room of the main lobby I spotted a model railroad and diorama. Operated by the Tanana Valley Model Railroad club it appears to be staffed by the club during the summers while the southbound train is boarding. I didn’t actually discover the exhibit until time had almost come to board, so I only did a quick walk through.
Out on the boarding platform I dutifully donned my “Alaska Railroad Goldstar Service” pin. I was told that I should wear it so that the staff could more easily see that I was in the right place. It is a nice souvenir.
Boarding for the train is aided by flags stationed near the appropriate entrances bearing letters. I was to proceed to “A” entrance, where I was met by our steward, greeted and directed upstairs. The Gold Star cars are taller than the other cars. The upper floor is set with double seats on both sides with an aisle down the middle, and windows that arch overhead to the middle of the car. Seating is pre-assigned, and it looked rather like they start seating from the front and fill backwards. I had booked only a day or two earlier and I was in the last occupied seat, a little ahead of the middle of the car. Folks who booked together were assigned to a row together, but those traveling alone were set solo in a bench. I left the middle armrest up, and the little time I spent there was plenty comfortable.
Each seat has an airline style table that folds down, and I put it to good use with a cup of icy soda water. Drink service was not at your seat but rather at the steward’s station near the rear of the car. There’s plenty of leg room much unlike today’s airliners. With more than half the car open it was clear that if you wanted to spread out that wasn’t going to be an issue, but they wanted folks to take their assigned seats for the start, probably so they could be sure everyone was on board.
At the back of the car is a two part sliding glass door that leads out to the open air platform. On a hot day like to day it was very comfortable. A little wind swirling around, but not a constant blast. The door was a little funny in its operation. It had a bit of a delay before it started to open and was pretty slow when it did. The switch was a rubber covered bar at the left side of the door, and it looked like a “touch” switch. But it really required a very strong push, and in just the right place, neither of which seemed intuitive to anyone who used it. Then, the fact that there was no feedback for a correct activation, and that the door didn’t start moving right away lead folks to try looking for other switches. One person actually reached up above the door and activated the “keep the door open” switch instead. I spent most of the trip on the platform, and helped quite a few people discover and activate the switch. After realizing that the door was a little odd we would then share a moment of shared amusement. Especially the folks who didn’t speak so much English.
As we left town the sights passed by outside quickly. We passed through the railyards, and past various industrial businesses. A staff member was talking on the public address system from time to time, telling us about things we should we should out for. We passed the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) including the notable white building of the Museum of the North. As we passed by the UAF farm, the staff member told us we should look for reindeer. She then asked if we knew the difference between reindeer and caribou, and of course at least one person said “reindeer are domesticated caribou” and she said, yes that is the correct, but you were supposed to have answered “reindeer can fly”. A safe bit of eye rolling humor. I have to believe they have been provided a script, because we got much of the same narration on the return trip (same joke too), but I will say that both staff members had enough practice with the material that it seemed to be quite natural an unscripted, in addition to being informative and interesting.
Breakfast was being served in the lower levels of the car, but they don’t have space to seat everyone at one time. They invited the folks at the front of the car down first, and my turn was to come later. So I went out to the platform to watch the world pass by without glass between me and it. The speaker on the platform wasn’t as loud as it might have been, so I apparently missed my opportunity to get breakfast. No worries, I much preferred the time on the platform. I asked another traveler later about what all I missed, and it seems that it was nice enough but rather average and not a big worry to have missed.
Shortly into the trip we passed through the town of Nenana. The staff member described the Nenana Ice Classic, a local event marking the break up of the river ice, whose 100th anniversary is 2016. A large quite conspicuous “tripod” (called such but actually has four legs) placed on the river ice is attached to a clock on shore, when the ice beneath the tripod starts moving a clock is stopped. There is an official betting pool where people select dates and times when they think this will happen. The pool is a non-profit charitable gaming association and the proceeds benefit many volunteer and non-profit organizations.
Our route headed southeast in the same general direction as the Tanana river, but a good five miles away to the north. At the town of Nenana we cross the river but have to descend quickly to get under the George Parks highway. To do this the rails sweep out a long hairpin on the east side of town and then back to the river’s edge to get under the highway at it’s highest point where it too crosses the river. This more than doubles the distance which the track has to make this descent so the grade is not too steep. From the town of Nenana we start traveling upstream along the river with the same name as the town. This is nearly due south and we are headed now towards the east end of the Denali mountain range.
The Denali range sweeps a nearly east-west line across the state. In the middle of this shallow arc the tallest of the mountains is Denali at 20,310 feet tall. Unlike most other mountains on the west coast of North America, Denali is not a volcano. It is a huge block of granite that has been pushed up, which scientists call a Granitic Pluton. Shortly after my visit the name was officially changed back to Denali from Mount McKinley. We were quite lucky to get a glimpse of distant Denali on the horizon, more often than not obscured by weather.
Along the trip we pass through a lot of forests of varying types. Where the permafrost is shallow the forests have smaller trees, and larger where there is more active soil on top. Rain and melted snow can’t seep into the frozen ground, so it pools up and drains slowly to the rivers. The rivers of the plains are wide and meandering, twisting and braiding, leaving sandbars and islands in their midst.
As we pass through the flats we spotted several Moose two of which had a young calf with them. The train would slow and stop when one was spotted but our car was near the front so we our view was a bit more fleeting. We also spotted several trumpeter swan pairs. They come to Alaska to nest and raise their young, and we spotted at least one pair who had their brood swimming along with them. We also slowed to get photos of a old sod roofed miner’s cabin near the track.
As we approach the mountains and enter the Nenana River Canyon, and the river becomes wilder and churns gray with silt. In the canyon the tracks wind back and forth often with a steep drop on the river side and a steeply rising wall on the other. Gracefully swinging back and forth we get views of the tracks ahead and both the front and rear of the train itself. Partway up the canyon we pass under the Parks highway and look up at the bridge above. We arrive at the station in Denali National Park and this is the mid point of my trip.
Arriving in the park around noon this train will continue its trip south. The north bound train will arrive later and depart at about 3:45pm. So I have about three hours to spend here in the visitor’s center area. Most of the park is accessed by bus trips that take the better part of a day. So that really isn’t an option today, but there’s a nice place to grab a burger and a visitor’s center to explore. More about these things in a separate post.
The station has several nice covered waiting areas with a lot of benches. I found a nice one and waited out of the heat of the sun until I heard a train horn in the distance. It took a while before the Northbound train showed up, but by then plenty of folks had followed my lead and were standing by waiting to see it. The yellow and dark blue of the train is a grand compliment to the green and light blue of its surroundings on this sunny afternoon. Flags are rustling in the breeze marking the various entrances to the cars and after folks have disembarked we are let on to the train.
Knowing what was coming from the morning trip, I was ready at the right time to take different photos on the trip back. This time the car behind us was shorter and we got an interesting perspective looking back over its top. As we left the canyon and entered the flats I headed downstairs to get my dinner. It is after all part of the Gold Star package. When I arrived in the dining car the tables were empty and the steward suggested a half booth that would seat two people side by side. Soon other groups came and were settled at the two four place tables, and a single lady arrived at the two place table directly across the aisle.
At the table directly in front of me was a mother and her young daughter and a male friend who was a bit older. As the two adults engaged in their conversation the young daughter started turning around and sneaking a look at me sitting behind her. She was wearing a pink engineer hat that I gathered had been given to her just today and she used the brim to hide behind as if I couldn’t see her if she couldn’t see me. I was eating my dinner and played at not noticing her. She seemed so very interested in watching, I made a game of being quite proper in how I used my silverware and napkin. Cutting small bites and setting the knife down, switching the fork to my right hand and laying it down after using it. The parents didn’t seem to notice and this went on for a while. Then I played at sneaking a look at her, looking away quickly when she would look at me. This became a bit of a two way game, and it eventually caught the mother’s attention. She apologized for the disturbance, but I waved it away.
About this time another group came in, a mother and her teenage daughter. They joined the lady sitting across from me at the two place table. The daughter sitting on the mother’s lap, comfortably but squeezed into the tight space. Shortly after this a teenage boy arrived, her son. Seeing the arrangement, it was pretty clear there was no where for him to settle in and he stood around uncomfortably, unsure what to do. The mother seeing this suggested “Perhaps this nice man wouldn’t mind you joining him at his table?”, which in turn started a several hour long conversation between the young man and I.
I had my desert while he had his dinner, and we talked about all sorts of things. It was very clear that he was not only listening and paying attention but was able to convert his curiosity into polite and interesting questions. Who am I to turn down an invitation to tell stories? The heat of the day had caused the rails to expand and for safety they had to slow the train down. This added several hours to our trip. But we were more than happy for this as it gave us more time to talk. Having finished eating he went to retrieve his camera and we met up on the open air platform and and talked more. Standing at the rail for several hours we talked about our families, about perception and art, about financial matters and future plans. Alas I am recreating this blog post months later and the original notes are gone, so I have forgotten his name. Well the ride came to an end and it was time to return to our seats. It felt like the conversation was intended to happen, that each of us had gained something from the seemingly chance encounter.
So there I am back in Fairbanks, back to the trailer, my portable home. I’ll be visiting Denali soon, covering the same ground, but this time by car, and will see the park from a very different side.