Talkeetna

“You get a real feeling of this country and the people in it when you’re on a train.” – Harry S. Truman.

We arrive at TALKEETNA at 11:05 am and depart 15 minutes later.

Talkeetna, AK

Talkeetna, Alaska Railroad Depot

This quaint little town (pop. 800) with a mining history and now a popular takeoff point for climbers to Mt. McKinley is located at the confluence of three rivers, the Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna. By the way, the suffix ‘-na’ means river in the Athabaskan language.

I enjoy lunch together with a very nice couple from Washington state. I’d like to savor the tastes of Alaska and order an almond crusted Alaska cod and a very tasty local beer. Alaska has 24 breweries, putting the state in the top tier nationally for breweries per capita. The food is better than on the Amtrak trains and meals are served on real china.

279Menu

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Hurricane Gulch

“I’ve got a thing about trains” – Johnny Cash.

From Talkeetna, the track follows the serpentine banks of the Susitna River.

Next, the Indian River Canyon is home to many beavers and I’ve seen quite a few beaver lodges in the ponds along the way. The track climbs toward the tree line, first crossing Hurricane Gulch, the longest bridge on the railroad just over 914 feet (278 m) long and 296 feet (90 m) above Hurricane Creek. This gulch is absolutely one of the Alaska Railroad’s highlights – the Tour Guide gets very excited here – and a great photo opportunity.

View from the Hurricane Gulch Bridge

We are waiting for a train from Fairbanks. There is snow beside the tracks. Riding the Alaska Railroad there is no guarantee for clear skies but here it is again. Mount McKinley pierces the clouds.

Mount McKinley

Honolulu

The week before my train journey I had been to Honolulu, in sun-drenched Hawaii. You can imagine that I was very surprised to see this sign in the middle of the Alaska wilderness.

258Honolulu, AK (2)

Yes, there is a Honolulu in Alaska as well. Without the macho surfers, girls in bikini and swaying palm trees though. My Ride Guide tells me that Honolulu was named in 1913 by a local prospector who dreamed of warmer places…

After Honolulu Creek the train crosses the tree line and enters the Interior Alaska-Yukon taiga.

Honolulu Creek

 

 

The Continental Divide

“O beautiful for spacious skies”

There’s a sign on the right, “Broad Pass Highest Elevation”. Broad Pass is a dividing line where rivers to the south drain into Cook Inlet and those to the north flow to the Yukon River. The pass is one of the most beautiful spots along the Alaska Railroad – the Denali Star uses the low gap to cross the Alaska Range. The Jack River joins us, originally called the Cantwell River after John Cantwell, an explorer in the spirit of Lewis & Clark, who was sent by the U.S. Government to the Interior of Alaska after the United States bought the Territory of Alaska in 1867.

Old Cantwell (no stop) is the western terminus of the Denali Highway, still a long dirt road.

Two bald eagles swoop along treetops, scanning the waters for a meal.

Cantwell sits to the north end of Broad Pass where the Nenana River curves north and cuts through the Alaska Range. The train moves into Broad Pass. At 2,363 feet (720 m) it is the highest point on the railroad, where caribou migrate through during the fall. Thousands of travelers visit Denali National Park and Preserve to see wildlife like wolves, caribou, Dall sheep, moose and bear, and, of course, Mt. McKinley, a.k.a. Denali.

Crossing the Continental Divide by train in America is always very exciting. I’ve done it before, across the Rocky Mountains in the Lower 48, on four long-distance Amtrak trains. The most spectacular one was the California Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco.

A Highlight

This is definitely a highlight:

Summit Lake and the Talkeetna Mountains

Now it is basically downhill, over the summit. At Edes Lake the engineer stops the train. Why? “Two caribou on the lake!” Nice. Edes Lake is on a 2,000 ft (600 m) elevation and named for William Edes, a U.S. civil engineer of the Alaskan Engineering Commission which built the Mears Memorial Bridge in Nenana. At exactly 3 pm the train enters Denali State Park. On our right is Panorama Mountain and the Nenana River joins us. The mountain, which at one time was under water, is a quarter of the size of Mount McKinley.

We arrive at the train station in DENALI PARK at 3:58 pm.

Denali National Park is bigger than the state of Massachusetts. Everyone detrains but for me and a couple from Scotland. High on a mountain three Dall sheep, two adults and a lamb, are grazing. You have to be surefooted to make it up there, but these animals have wide hooves, steady legs and a low center of gravity.

The only way to see Healy Canyon is by train. A nice elderly man on the train has binoculars so I have again a great view of a group of Dall sheep high on the mountain. The coal-mining town of Healy follows after a 10-mile (16 km) jaunt through Healy Canyon, where the surging waters of the Nenana River cut through the steep-sided cliffs. Here I write once again the word ’highlight’ in my travel diary.

Almost There

We pass quickly through the hamlet of Ferry. In 2001 this tiny community got a telephone service. And yes, they have electricity, but many keep using their generators.

Clear Air Force Base with three large radar screens can be seen above the tree tops. This is the original Ballistic Missile Early Warning Site.

As the track levels out, the small town of Nenana comes into view. It is home to one of the remaining original Alaska Railroad Depots, now a museum and giftshop. Also St. Marks Episcopal Church is visible from the train. The track cuts through the northern forests of Interior Alaska. Birch, aspen and willow fill this landscape where gold miners first came to seek their fortunes at the beginning of the 20th century.

6:04 pm: Nenana (no stop). This is the site where in 1923 President Warren G. Harding drove a golden spike, an event that concluded the construction of the Alaska Railroad.

The Denali Star heads south into a large U-turn just before the famous Mears Memorial Bridge and the Veterans Bridge for car traffic.

Fifty-eight miles (93 km) from Nenana sits Fairbanks, the Golden Heart City, and signals the end of the line. We see the University of Alaska/Fairbanks, the Museum of the North (beautiful building) and the Botanical Garden, the northernmost garden in the Western hemisphere.

At 7:50 pm the train pulls in at the station in FAIRBANKS, ten minutes early.

240Station (2)

241Station

Weatherwise it’s still a lovely day! I love the names of the places here: Goldstream Creek, Deadhorse, Goldcreek. They ignite the imagination and conjure images of the Last Frontier, railroad towns and fortune seekers.

The slogan of the Alaska Railroad is “The Best Way to See Alaska Is on the Railroad”.

I couldn’t agree more and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Useful Information and Books

Ride Guide to the Historic Alaska Railroad by Anita Williams and Linda Ewers (2003). Don’t forget to buy this guide – it’s only five dollars – because it provides you with a lot of background information and historic facts. I bought my copy in the giftshop at the Anchorage Railroad Depot.

alaskarailroad.com  The internet gateway to the Alaska Railroad. Good site.

Rail Ventures – The Comprehensive Guide to Train Travel in North America by Jack Swanson (1996). An old rail travel guide which has an excellent chapter on the Alaska Railroad.

Alaska’s History – The People, Land and Events of the North Country by Harry Ritter (1993). Good, short overview of the history of the 49th state.