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Winter Ride on the Alaska Railroad

by Steven J. Brown

It is called the land of the midnight sun, America's last frontier and the scenic Denali Feb 16, 1997 wonderland.  For three months of the year, tourists flock to Alaska.  Dozens of cruise ships call on the ports, fleets of tour buses and recreational vehicles ply the highways, airlines triple their schedules, and visitors clog the hotels and campgrounds.

But when September arrives, the daylight hours dwindle, the temperature drops, snow starts falling and the tourists go home.  From the point of view of most travelers, Alaska is closed.

But is it?

Curious to see if Alaska was still there during the winter, I found myself at a rental car counter in the Fairbanks airport, near midnight one February.  In moments, I was on icy Alaska Route 3 heading south toward Denali Park.  My mission was to photograph and ride the Alaska Railroad's winter passenger train between Anchorage and Fairbanks.

The famous AuRoRa is Alaska's premier passenger train. During the summer, it is a rolling city featuring full service dinning and dome observation cars operating in both directions daily.  When the summer ends, Alaska Railroad's schedule changes as drastically as the temperature.  In the winter, the train is reduced to one coach and a baggage car running north on Saturdays and south on Sundays.

An hour of driving found me far from the lights of Fairbanks.  Glancing in the rearview mirror my eye caught a strange glow in the northern sky.  I pulled off the road at the next plowed out parking area.  I watched in awe as the aurora borealis grew from a few wisps of green light into a light show that took up the entire sky.  I had never seen the northern lights before and no description could have prepared me for the breathtaking sight.  I sat transfixed for hours until the light show dwindled.  It was now too late to make the expense of a hotel worthwhile, so I caught a few hours of sleep there in the car.

Broad Pass Feb 5, 1994
I photographed the train during that day on its northbound trip to Fairbanks.  The following morning, in the lobby of the Captain Bartlett Hotel in Fairbanks, I was fortunate to meet George Ash, the passenger train's conductor.  We had coffee before catching the hotel's shuttle van to the train station.  Originally from St. Louis, Ash started his career in 1952 with the Missouri Pacific Railroad.  He was furloughed in 1965, and made his way to Alaska where he was hired by the Alaska Railroad in 1968.  Ash, who recently retired, proved to be a dynamic host and guide aboard the day long ride to Anchorage.Fairbanks Feb 6, 1994

When we arrived at the Fairbanks depot, 20 minutes before the train's 8:30 a.m. departure, the sky was just beginning to show signs of dawn.  The two car train, led by two diesel locomotives, sat waiting for its interesting mix of passengers.  This day's riders included a group of young Japanese, a handful of women from Anchorage out for a weekend excursion, and several tourists who were tired of the weather in their home state of Florida and wanted to enjoy some decent cold for a change.  There were also a few locals, using the train to actually get somewhere!
Mears Memorial Bridge Feb 16, 1997
As the train made its way out of Fairbanks, most of the passengers took advantage of the AuRoRa's friendly atmosphere to get to know one another.  Except for a large cooler full of soft drinks and a supply of muffins available for purchase, there was no other food on the train; so the passengers bring their own provisions.

The sun was bright in the southern sky as the AuRoRa rounded a curve on a bluff over the Tanana River.  The train turned south and crossed the Mears Memorial Bridge, a 700 foot steel structure that is one of the world's longest single span bridges, before descending a horseshoe curve into the town of Nenana.

Nenana is home to a eccentric annual event.  During the spring thaw, the ice in the Tanana River breaks up all at once.  Around this natural occurrence grew the Nenana Ice Classic-a lottery in which Alaska residents try to guess the exact day and time the ice will break up.  The large zebra striped tripod, used to record the first movement of the ice, rests near the depot when it is not out on the frozen river.  Before the Mears bridge was completed in 1923, the "break-up" annually destroyed the wooden railroad trestle that preceded it.
Nenana depot Feb 16, 1999
The train stopped briefly at Nenana's restored 1923 depot, now doubling as a railroad museum.  Here, the AuRoRa picked up a single passenger before resuming its southbound journey.  The ride is relatively straight and flat for a while.  Soon the AuRoRa rolled past Clear Site, an Air Force early missile warning detection base.  Mount McKinley, still very distant, could be seen.

Mount McKinley, in Denali National Park, is North America's tallest peak.  From a base elevation of 2,000 feet, it soars to 20,320 feet.  For most of the year, the mountain is shrouded by clouds.  Ash said that clear views of the peak are more common in winter.

Nenana River Canyon Feb 6, 1994
After passing Healy, a coal mining area and crew change point for freight trains, the AuRoRa enters winding and narrow Nenana Canyon.  Here, the train snakes high above the frozen river on a narrow ledge.  We pass through the only two tunnels on the route before reaching Denali Park Station.  Our train had expected to take on a 32 member tour group here, butDenali depot Feb 5, 1994 there was no one to be seen when we arrived.  Ash gave the engineer the highball and we were on our way once again.

South of Denali Park Station, the canyon widens into a narrow valley.  The train was now within the boundaries of the park and I was treated to the site of a herd of caribou walking on the frozen Nenana River.  A short time later, bundled up and standing in the vestibule, I heard the locomotive's horn and the train shook with a sudden brake application.  I leaned out in time to see a moose dive off the track in front of the train and lunge down the steep river bank.

As the train leaves the boundary of Denali Park, it crosses Windy Creek a few miles south of Cantwell.  Here the scenery changes dramatically as the train climbs Broad Pass to aptly named Summit-the highest point on the railroad.  At 2,363 feet, this is the lowest railroad pass over the continental divide in the Rocky Mountain chain.

Earlier in the day, I had asked Ash his favorite place on the railroad.  Expecting him to answer the Nenana River Canyon, or a similarly rugged area, I was surprised when he named Broad Pass.  But as I gazed at the vast, snow covered land, framed on each side by soaring jagged mountains, I too was enchanted by the breathtaking Broad Pass Feb 6, 1994 solid white panorama, accented by the brilliant blue sky.

Broad Pass can be the most difficult part of the railroad during the winter.  Ash recalled times when the snow drifted so quickly that an hour after an earlier train had passed, the snow was seven feet deep over the tracks.  On days like that, crews would have to stop their trains several times to shovel snow away from the locomotive windows.  That kind of weather also closes the highway between Anchorage and Fairbanks, but Ash said ridership on the train does not increase when that happens.  Most people, instead, choose an hour long airline flight instead of the 11 1/2 hour train trip.

Fouth of July Creek, Igloo, AK Feb 5, 1994
Twenty-five miles past Summit, the AuRoRa arrived at the 918-foot-long Hurricane Gulch bridge.  Since he was ahead of schedule, the engineer stopped the train on the steel bridge to allow passengers extra time to admire the view from 296 feet above the Chulita River.  The Alaska Railroad limits trains crossing the bridge to 10 mph-not because it is an unsafe structure, but because it is costly to maintain and slower speed means less wear-and-tear on the bridge.
Honolulu Creek Feb 6, 1994
After the train crosses the highway south of Hurricane Gulch, it heads into an area along the Susitna River that is accessible only by railroad.  Here we are greeted with stunning views of Mount McKinley-and may possibly catch a glimpse of Alaska's state bird: the ptarmigan, a white bird that is difficult to spot in the snow.  The area is also home to great many moose.  Often the train will slow to avoid hitting one, since the moose prefer walking along the snow cleared railroad track, rather than struggle through the deep drifts.

As the AuRoRa rolled south along the Susitna River, a call came over the radio from the engineer,"Flag on the right."

"Flag on the right," Ash repeated and opened the baggage car door while the train stopped to load several backpackers and their equipment.  A few miles later, the message was repeated and the train stopped for more campers.  Two more stops and the baggage car was full of people and Ash was busy collecting fares for the short distance to Talkeetna where most would get off.

As the train entered Talkeetna, Alaska was being enveloped by its long, eerie winter twilight.  By the time the AuRoRa reached Wasilla, it was night.  With the coach interior lights, it was impossible to view the passing countryside from the seats.  I spent the remaining distance into Anchorage standing in the vestibule, with occasional breaks to warm up inside the coach.  I took some ribbing from passengers because I was one of the few still standing after the long ride.

The runway lights of Elmendorf Air Force Base signaled that the final stop in Anchorage was minutes away.  The passengers packed up and said their good-byes.  Everyone agreed it had been an adventure worth repeating.

The Anchorage depot-mostly quiet this time of year-was briefly home to a flurry of activity.  But it does not take long after the train's arrival for everyone to disperse, leaving the station empty once again.

Outside, the train waited quietly in the cold for a crew to take it to the yard.

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