Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Grandview Train to Seward

An Alaska Railroad engine at the main depot in Seward Alaska

Paul Theroux is a master of riding the rails.  In one of his many books involving train travel he lamented that he had never seen a train that he didn’t want to board.  His train travels once took him from London to Viet Nam then north to China and eventually the Trans-Siberian Railway through which he eventually returned to London.  Theroux once traveled the rail system of Africa to Simon’s Town, South Africa, the actual end of the rail line on the continent.  Closer to home his classic tale The Old Patagonian Express chronicled his travel by train from South Station in Boston to the southernmost tip of South America.  Only in easternmost Panama where there is no train system, did he not ride the rails on his journey south.

Reading each of Theroux’s books has further stoked my unquenchable wanderlust.  However unlike Theroux who has traveled almost everywhere there is a train track, my tally of train trips is only four.  Three times in the very early 1980s my former family and I rode Canada’s Via Rail system from The Pas, Manitoba north to Churchill on the edge of the Arctic tundra on Hudson’s Bay.  It was not until 26 years later that I rode AMTRAK’s Auto Train on a one-way trek from the Washington DC suburbs to Sanford, Florida exactly one day after I retired.  

Despite my friend Mike DeCapita’s descriptions and arguments to the contrary I have shied away from train travel because I found it long, boring, and excruciatingly slow.  Flying to Churchill would have taken us two hours from Winnipeg.  Instead we drove 12 hours to The Pas and then rode the train for 24 hours in each direction to and from Churchill.  Our cost for four people on the train was less than one half the cost of one person on the plane.  Economics won out and I rejected speed in favor of cost.

The Norwegian Sun was an excellent vessel to be aboard during our way-too-quick 7 day cruise to Vancouver

The lead up to our cruise aboard the Norwegian Sun from Seward, Alaska to Vancouver, British Columbia, forced me to re-evaluate my beliefs about train travel.  Anchorage, Alaska is the airport nearest to the cruise terminal in Seward.  Separated by 114 road miles, travelers have two options for accessing Seward.  One rental car company allows one-way rentals between Anchorage and Seward but the management hierarchy of that rental company long ago banned me for life from ever renting one of their vehicles.

The other option was traveling by bus chartered by the cruise line that transported cruise line guests, for a price.  Despite being an efficient alternative the possibility existed that you might not reach the cruise ship in time for its scheduled departure.  The Seward Highway is the only road between Anchorage and Seward.  Its circuitous path follows the incomparably beautiful Turnagain Arm for nearly 40 miles before proceeding inland at Portage Glacier and passing through scenery that is more beautiful than Turnagain Arm.  In mid-summer, traffic on the Seward Highway can sometimes be considered heavy.  At least it’s heavy by Alaska standards.

The breathtaking vistas of Turnagain Arm are alone worth the effort to visit Alaska. Uncredited image downloaded (without attribution) from the Internet.

About two-thirds of the traffic is made up of tourists awed by the immense scenery and focusing their attention more on mountains than oncoming traffic.  About one-third of the traffic is made up of Alaska residents who are interested mainly in getting from Point A to Point B and who become frustrated with all the tourists gawking at the mountains and looking for a real-live Smokey the Bear.  Frequently the Seward Highway is blocked for hours because of accidents.  Sometimes there are massive accidents involving tour buses and other times there are multi-car pile ups.  Both can and do result in lengthy delays, the sort of delays that don’t matter to cruise lines with a 9:00 p.m. departure from Seward.

Browsing the selection of on-shore excursions available as part of our cruise I was surprised to discover that the Alaska Railroad and the cruise lines have collaborated to provide one-way transportation between the Anchorage airport and Seward.  Its cost was only $10 more than the chartered bus and the journey time was only 90 minutes longer.  Even though the coast of the travel and the time involved were greater on the train there was no chance that the train would be involved in a six-car pile-up when Tommy Tourist from Brooklyn stopped in the middle of the road to photograph the first moose he had ever seen.  We booked two seats on the 1:00 p.m. train to Seward.

Originally known as the Alaska Central Railway, its purpose was to carry coal, gold, and other commodities from the interior of the state to the ice free port of Seward. Begun in 1903, the company laid 50 miles of track north from Seward before going bankrupt in 1909.  Shortly after reorganization another 20 miles of track were constructed to near Girdwood on Turnagain Arm.  The United States Congress later authorized the completion of the train over the entire 470 miles north to Fairbanks. 

What would become the Alaska Railroad hauled vast quantities of raw materials and passengers along its route and played an even more vital role during World War II.  By 1984 the railroad began carrying passengers in domed cars designed for tourists.  Today domed cars are a major component of the railroad during the summer tourist season.  We sat in the lead domed car of the Grandview Train during our run to Seward.

An announcer informed us as the train pulled into the Anchorage Airport station that nearly 500 passengers would be exiting the train as it returned from hauling newly-arrived cruise passengers north from Seward.  We were admonished to remain close by because once the train was cleaned and fully re-stocked we would depart. The all aboard announcement was given a few minutes later and nearly 400 cruise ship passengers left Anchorage 10 minutes early.

As Daryn, the purser in our car tried to explain the services available as we traveled away from Anchorage, a particularly loud and obnoxious woman from Pittsburgh told everyone within earshot of her travails in reaching Anchorage.

“First,” she bellowed, “we were delayed in Pittsburgh; mechanical difficulties they called it.  Then we were delayed in Los Angeles; more god-damned mechanical difficulties.  Then a day later we were delayed in Seattle because of mechanical problems.  I’m surprised any airline operates at all with all these god-damned mechanical problems!”

Seemingly content now that she had vented her frustration with the state of the nation’s airlines, she began speaking even louder about the problems she encountered with her hotel in Anchorage.  She told the now visibly-annoyed couple sitting near her, “We were supposed to get here three days ago but instead we arrived at one o’clock this morning!”

“The hotel where we were supposed to stay didn’t send their van to pick us up until three o’clock and I had to get up at 9 to get ready for this train.  At least I hope this god-damned train runs on time.”  Daryn took her order and quickly brought her a vodka on the rocks that seemed to calm her nerves.  At least it helped reduce the volume of her voice. 

Alaska Railroad’s route along Turnagain Arm is on the ocean side of the Seward Highway affording travelers a more expansive view of the mountains than can be enjoyed from a car or bus.  Many of the precipitous cliffs we passed extended above tree line where Dall sheep are regularly seen grazing peacefully on the tundra vegetation.  The first Dall sheep I ever saw was spotted easily on these mountain cliffs the first time I visited Alaska in 1988.

A Chinese man married to a Philippine woman was seated across from us.  The man professed to have a great deal of knowledge of Dall sheep telling anyone who would listen that he knew exactly where we would see sheep.

Moving his right hand in a sweeping motion before him, he declared that “I’ve been here once before and I know exactly where there will be sheep.  They will be down near the road at a place called Beluga Point.  I know this for a fact!”

Dall sheep are a regular sight along the mountain faces of Turnagain Arm
Uncredited image downloaded (without attribution) from the Internet.

Meanwhile Daryn narrated some of the story of the route and made special mention that Dall sheep lived in some parts of the mountains we would be passing.  “If you see any large white furry things on the side of the mountain those will be Dall sheep.”  Daryn concluded his sheep discussion saying, “Beluga Point up the tracks a couple miles used to be a reliable place to see them but they seem to have moved on now.”

Stunned by this revelation the self-appointed Chinese sheep authority shrugged his shoulders and said, “Well, they used to be there I guess.”

The Grandview Train offered uncountable opportunities to see alpine glaciers before the route cut inland at the uppermost point of Turnagain Arm.  Our first glimpse of a gigantic alpine glacier caused people to lean over their neighbors to snap digital images of the far-away retreating ice.  Most images were captured with cell phones so the size and shape of the glacier had to be diminished at best.  A few minutes and a few more miles passed as we rumbled around the curve at the end of Turnagain Arm.

Even more glaciers now appeared and as if on cue almost everyone repeated the same seat and body climbing behavior when the first large glacier was seen.  The obnoxious woman from Pittsburgh flung herself across the table occupied by the Chinese sheep authority and feverishly snapped more images.  Another passenger asked Daryn if the train could be stopped so that images could be taken more steadily.  Great interest was focused on these stationary glaciers until Daryn screamed into his microphone, “There’s a bull moose!! It’s only the seventh bull moose we have seen all summer!”

Startled by the noise of the slow-moving train, the bull moose was trotting across an open wetland and seemed focused on a grove of willow trees where it could disappear.  Suddenly everyone lost interest in photographing the stationary glaciers and focused instead on the quickly disappearing bull moose.  As it sought cover in the willows, the Chinese sheep authority said, smugly,’ “I knew a moose would be there.”

Seeing a bull moose, if only fleetingly, was one of the many highlights of the Grandview Train to Seward.  Uncredited image downloaded (without attribution) from the Internet.

Mile marker numbers became increasingly smaller as we approached Seward.  At about number 55 we completed two sweeping turns as the train gained elevation and crested at a pass.  Almost everyone in our car, including the obnoxious woman from Pittsburgh, had grown silent.  The alpine tundra and black spruce forest scenery splayed across seemingly endless miles of untrammeled mountain landscape caused everyone to sit with their eyes focused out the windows.  About the only sound heard was the clickety-clack of the train’s wheels on the rails.  Each of the 15 times I have traveled to Alaska I have been awestruck by the enormity and the beauty of the landscape.  Today on the Grandview Train to Seward I had to pinch myself again so I could believe that I was in Alaska.

Sweeping vista's of alpine tundra.....

... and glaciers at almost every turn make a ride on the Alaska Railroad to Seward one of the highlights of any trip to Alaska

Not long before we began our descent from the pass, I found myself surprised that the 4 ½ hour journey was quickly coming to an end.   We passed the tiny settlement of Moose Pass.  It was near here that author Joe McGinnis spent four nights in a cabin in the middle of an Alaskan winter.  He described the experience in his book Going to Extremes, a book that used to annoy Alaskans because it didn’t describe the place in visitor bureau terms similar to those words used by John McPhee in his contemporarily written Coming Into the Country.  McGinnis eloquently described the rugged remoteness and occasional harshness of Alaska in a way that resonated with me.  I sometimes wish I had followed in McGinnis’s footsteps as he absorbed the serenity of the land near Moose Pass.

Moose Pass Alaska is home to a major flight school for bush pilots.  Photo by Charlie Johnson

We watched float planes doing touch-and-go landings on the lake at Moose Pass.  The lake there serves as a flight school for bush pilots seeking certification to fly amphibious planes.  

We passed the edge of gigantic Kenai Lake where Arctic Terns were busily foraging and where Daryn informed us that all five species of salmon that spawn in Alaska were currently present.  He dashed the hopes and aspirations of all the potential fishermen onboard when he informed us that once salmon reach fresh water they lose all interest in feeding.  Now the urge to reproduce was their strongest driving force and feeding could wait for another life time.

A few minutes later we rumbled over the Resurrection River and past the Seward airport and then in the distance could see the Norwegian Sun docked at the Seward cruise terminal.   As promised by Daryn, the Grandview Train came to a stop only a few feet from the terminal and quickly all 400 passengers trotted toward the waiting ship. 

As we prepared to leave, Daryn thanked us for using the Alaska Railroad adding, “In all my years working on this railroad I have to say that this group of passengers is…..”  He took a long pause and we all expected him to use some superlative to describe us but instead Daryn had the last laugh, “….is my most recent group.”

It was a fitting end to an enjoyable beginning.

No comments:

Post a Comment