Preface

This is a small travelogue about breathtakingly stunning views on a scenic train journey across one of America’s most beautiful states. How do you convey and describe this without reiterating adjectives such as magnificent, fabulous and incredible? One lady on the train said something along these lines: “Every time I look out of the window it looks like one of those picture postcards. It’s just amazing, the beauty of this land.”

Well, a scenic train ride it is, folks, and it offers some pretty nice views, all in the comfort of your window seat.

All aboard!

02-Alaska Travelogue

Copyright Statement

All photographs on this blog were taken by Paul Becker, except the photo of the swans which was taken by Gerald Plowman.

The Adventure Begins

Friday, 16 May 2014

 

“I always prefer the train.” – Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

I awoke early, probably because of the excitement. It’s a beautiful day, with clear blue skies. According to my newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, the weather will be “Mostly sunny, light winds, 72°F.” (22°C). Why is this weather report so important? Because I hope to see the highest mountain in North America, Mount McKinley, and the odds of seeing it are not good, only three out of ten chances.

From my hotel on Second Avenue it is just a short walk to the train station, the Alaska Railroad Depot. Anchorage is headquarters to the Alaska Railroad and the journey to Fairbanks begins here at the impressive white railroad depot at historic Ship Creek which is encircled by the magnificent Chugach and Alaska Range mountains.

The Alaska Railroad Depot in Anchorage

A large white baggage tent is located at the east end of the Depot and Alaska Railroad baggage handlers assist me with getting my luggage tagged to Fairbanks, my final destination. My next step is to get my boarding pass from the ticket window in the Depot.

My Boarding Pass

Baggage Tag

 

The Denali Star Train (1)

The Denali Star is the Alaska Railroad’s flagship train and like Amtrak’s Empire Builder (Seattle-Chicago) this train has also its own complimentary magazine.

The Onboard Magazine

There are no overnight trains in Alaska, only daylight runs.

 

“I’m sitting in the railway station

Got a ticket for my destination.”

 

GoldStar Service, the Alaska Railroad’s First Class

I purchased the GoldStar Service ($578 for the roundtrip) and get a seat on the second level of the two-story fully-domed car. We GoldStar passengers ride in the newest and most luxurious, double-decked dome cars on the train. The cars are positioned near the front of the train with the best views from the outdoor viewing platform. The height is 18 ft and one inch (5.51 m) which is actually higher than Amtrak’s Superliners. There are 72 seats in the First Class Car but we are only nine passengers. But it is still very early in the season, the first summer train departed the day before yesterday.

I receive complimentary non-alcoholic beverages throughout the trip, and am allowed to purchase beer, wine and spirits at the private bar located on the upper level of the GoldStar car. We have our own bar attendant. A thing I enjoy very much is the access I have to an open air, glass-roofed, viewing deck to the rear of the car. It is nice to get some fresh air once in a while and the viewing deck is of course great for taking pictures.

The Denali Star Train (2)

Our own GoldStar dining car is located downstairs on the first level. Meals are not included in the fare.

Dining Car

 

Dining Car

GoldStar passengers are allowed to walk through all of the train’s cars. A nice touch is a complimentary lapel pin which we have to wear in a visible location. It shows onboard staff and other passengers that we are in the GoldStar car.

GoldStar Service Lapel Pin

 

 

Across the Interior of Alaska

“Trains? Love them!” – Dr. Sheldon Cooper.

Alaska is big. I mean really big. Alaska is more than twice the size of Texas. It is bigger than the four U.S. states Texas, California, Montana and Washington combined. Alaska is renowned for its pristine forests, serene lakes and towering mountains. Rugged terrain, opportunities for adventure, and a past rooted in Russian and Native American history awaits.

Trains are about the ride. It is not about getting from point A to point B. Trains are simply the best way to get around. Driving is a hassle, flying is a traumatic experience. Trains are the most underrated thing. I’m not saying this as a railfan, but as a traveler.

The Denali Star departs on time at 8:15 am. Anchorage is at milepost (MP) 114.3 and my final destination, Fairbanks, is at MP 470.3 which means that my journey is 356 miles (573 km). According to schedule the trip is 12 hours long, so simple math tells me that the average speed of the train is about 30 mph (48 km/h). Top speed is a whopping 65 mph (105 km/h). The entire route runs through some of the grandest scenery that Alaska has to offer, crossing the Alaska Range at Broad Pass.

Matthew, a young student from Birchwood, AK, is our Tour Guide. “Even from Anchorage, Mount McKinley is visible on the horizon, weather permitting.” Well, clearly not this morning because it is just a little too hazy.

The Front Range of the Alaska and Chugach Mountains is looming in the distance but the ‘real’ monumental peaks will soon come into sight. The train crosses Ship Creek, the site where Anchorage had its humble beginnings as a tent city way back in 1915. There are a few military bases here in the Southern parts of Alaska. We see Elmendorf Air Force Base on our left and Fort Richardson Army Installation on our right. Elmendorf AFB is the state’s largest air base.

We cross Eagle River through a small canyon. At Birchwood (Chugiak) we see a small airport through the trees. Matthew: “Airplanes are the most popular and most practical means of transportation and children as early as age 14 are allowed to get a pilot license.”

A few minutes later the train skirts Knik Arm, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean. The tides here can reach 40 ft (12 m) which is the third highest in the world. “Moose on the right!” comes the alert from Matthew when we cross Knik River.

This Is Sarah Palin’s Country

Now the Denali Star enters The Valley as the locals call it, or just Mat-Su. Its official name is the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, Alaska’s vast and scenic agricultural heartland which is roughly the size of West Virginia. In the 1930s, poor farmers from Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota were allowed to homestead here as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal program. The experiment failed but many farmers did not return to the Midwest but stayed in Alaska. The growing season here is brief but in summer, long hours of daylight make up for this shortcoming. Matthew tells us that a huge 138-pound (62 kg) cabbage has been grown here!

At 9:25 we arrive in WASILLA, a town of approx. 8,000 residents. This is the town where Sarah Palin served two terms as mayor between 1996 and 2002 before she became Governor of Alaska. The train stops on the road crossing creating long car queues. The Alaska Railroad built lines through the town to Fairbanks in 1917.

I decide to go for a walk of the entire length of the swaying train. I walk through the old Dome Car, the Café Car (Wilderness Café) located in the Adventure Class section of this train, and the Dining Car. On our left is Mount Susitna or the Sleeping Lady. And yes, the mountain does resemble a sleeping woman.

Mount McKinley

At about 10 o’clock the train passes through Willow, a town established in 1897 when miners struck gold in the nearby Talkeetna Mountains. As I said before, the odds of seeing Mount McKinley are not good but I’m lucky today and I get a first glimpse of the majestic mountain. This snowcapped peak is so big it creates its own weather system.

Mount McKinley, North America’s highest mountain peak

In September 2013 there was a new survey establishing the height of Mt. McKinley, or Denali as it is also called, from 20,320 feet (6,194 m) to 20,237 feet (6,168 m). The new height has been accepted by the U.S. Geological Survey. The closest we get by train from Mt. McKinley is only 46 miles (74 km).

And I’ve also seen two Trumpeter Swans. Ninety per cent of the world’s population resides in Alaska, so chances are that you’ll see a lot of these beautiful birds.

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