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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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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