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Off to Alaska for the first time, my 48th State

Anchorage to Fairbanks and return

by Chris Guenzler

My Alaska trip happened rather suddenly. It all started with a conversation with Mike Norton on San Diegan 589 one night. He said that he had Reno Air Miles that had to be used before the United takeover of their company and if I wanted to use some of them I could. I said, "I always wanted to go to Alaska!" and Mike said that they had one flight a day out of Orange County. "Sounds like a plan to me," I responded. Then Mike then made a dummy reservation for me. I changed it with the wrong dates only later to change it with the true dates that I wanted. Always look at the current year’s calendar when making any reservation. Next step was to call the Alaska Railroad for a round trip from Anchorage to Fairbanks, the only service that they offered in April. This was followed up by calls to the two hotels that I would use and with that I had a trip to Alaska all planned.

4/15/1999 Tax Day found my parents dropping me off at John Wayne Airport (Orange County) for my two part flight to Anchorage. Leaving John Wayne, I was warned by Pat Conner about the power down the plane does over the residential area to the south of the airport that got the looks of terror on the faces of the passengers who did not know about it. Flight highlights were looking down on the California Zephyr descending Donner Pass at Yuba Gap, Williams Loop, the BNSF Highline, Mt Shasta and Crater Lake. The plane arrived in Seattle on time. I had four hour wait for my night flight to Anchorage. I stayed awake for the entire flight and as we neared Anchorage, I could look over the top of the earth seeing the light of day on the other side. It was incredible.

4/16/1999 We landed at 1:00 A.M. and a van from the hotel picked me up and took me to the hotel for check-in and a good night's rest.

That day just happened to be my 1549th day of sobriety, so all the post cards that I sent had Day 1549 in the 49th State on them. I went out and explored my new environment. I walked down to the Railroad Station, around Ship Creek and the downtown area. I found a hobby shop where I bought an Alaska Railroad T-shirt before I found a food court in the mall for dinner.

I took a twilight walk around town before I called it a night to be well rested for my first train ride in Alaska.

The Aurora - April 17, 1999

I had a large breakfast before I walked down to the train station to find the Alaska Railroad's 3011 in its original paint scheme on the point of our three car train which included a baggage car and two Korean built coaches with large picture windows. There were twenty-one passengers assembled waiting to start their journeys inside the nice warm Anchorage Depot on a very overcast and cool morning. They opened the door and all passengers were greeted by conductor Steve who welcomed each person aboard. I took a left hand side seat and waited patiently for my train ride in my 48th State to begin.

The train left Anchorage on time and headed north through the Alaska Railroad's yards before leaving town. Conductor Steve started his running commentary of the line which he gave enough information to keep it interesting but not too much to be boring. He gave the perfect mix. The rear car was full of future line guides who are making a training trip since I would call this a pretourist season train. Summer trains can run up to eighteen cars with the inclusion of the tour group’s cars from Princess Tours and Holland America.

The Aurora passed Elmendrof Air Force Base, which is the largest in Alaska. Off to the right are the Chugach Mountains. The ground is covered with a blanket of snow with the temperature in the high forties allowed a limited Dutch door riding which I did for my picture taking. I explored the train ending up in the rear open vestibule before I returned to the warmth of the inside of the train following a few more pictures.

The train crossed the Eagle River prior to running along the Knik Arm of the Cook Inlet with Mt. Susitina standing guard on the far side of the inlet to the west. As the train passed through Birchwood, Twin Peaks and Pioneer Peak all came into view. I shot pictures of everything so I would have a visual story as well as a written one.

The train reached the crossing of the Knik River with floating ice and the mountains reflecting into the water making a most beautiful scene. As the train passed through Birchwood, Twin Peaks and Pioneer Peak all came into view. I shot pictures of everything so I would have a visual story as well as a written one.

The branch line to Palmer takes off at Matanuska before the train crossed the river with the same name. The views that looked east up the river valleys were very impressive. The tracks then turned to the west and headed to Wasilla which is a regional center and has the world's largest fly-into mall. There are more planes than cars in Alaska. Wasilla is one of those names that if you reverse it you then get "All I Saw." Wasilla is also the home to the Alaska Museum of Transportation which has a large railroad collection.

The train next passed by the very frozen Nancy Lake, one of the few lakes along the Aurora's route. The train crossed the Little Susitina River before passing through Willow and began to follow the frozen Susitina River. We passed through Montana and Sunshine before we arrived at our next station stop of Talkeetna.

This town is the last highway access along the route for many miles so we had an extended stop here while the new passengers loaded the baggage car with whatever they were bringing and boarded the coaches. This allowed time for me to take a few pictures off the train.

The Aurora left Talkeetna and continued north out into the frozen wilderness.

We crossed the Talkeetna River before the train returned to the banks of the Susitina River. The Chulitna River joins into the Susitina River a few miles north.

To the west is the Alaska Mountain Range with the Talkeetna Mountains off to the east. The Aurora will make flag stops and drop people or supplies off anyplace on its route.

We were met by snowmobiles pulling sleds to pick a family up off of the train. Conductor Steve drops off newspapers for people who live along the route.

At MP 244, we stopped for a family with a half built snowman standing guard and a shelter with a chair, a deluxe flag stop with their cabin a quarter of a mile away. Conductor Steve has a cabin along the tracks and we stopped to drop off his daughter Carrie at a neighbor's place for the night.

We crossed the Susitina River prior to making one last snowmobile with sled flag stop. We continued upgrade crossing the Indian River and following its course into Indian River Canyon.

The train passed by some beaver dams along here with Conductor Steve teaching a lesson on the beaver's winter survival patterns. It is too bad that it was cloudy because my guide book says what a great view of Mt. McKinley can be seen along the last eighty miles on a clear day. Maybe I will have better luck on the way back.

The Aurora passed Canyon Siding and continued the climb to one of the most famous and impressive places on the Alaska Railroad, the Hurricane Gulch Bridge.

It is a 918 foot long steel bridge, 296 feet above Hurricane Creek. Our train stopped on the bridge for ten minutes so all could enjoy the fantastic view. It almost looks like a black and white painting with the Moose Tooth Mountains in the background.

It is a truly awe inspiring view.

Once on the move again, the train proceeded to Honolulu crossing the creek of the same name. I always think about how places got their names. Was this person wishing he was on a sunny beach on Oahu when he named this place?

The setting for the siding at Colorado does look like it could be up in the mountains of Colorado. The valley opens up to become wider as we arrived in Broad Pass with its treeless environment.

When the train reached the summit of Broad Pass, we crossed the Continental Divide at an elevation of 2,363 feet, the lowest rail crossing of it in North America.

The view of the mountains here was outstanding. Summit Lake is off to the west hidden under a blanket of snow this time of year.

Continuing north, off to the west at Cantwell is the University of Alaska Reindeer Research Institute. The sun is seen for the first time on the trip and the skies are clearing as the train continued towards Fairbanks.

The tracks joined the valley of the Nenana River which the Aurora followed for the next eighty-five miles to the town of Nenana on the banks of the Tanana River.

To the east of the train are the Panorama Mountains and to the northwest are the Fang Mountains. The train passed Windy siding named for a very obvious reason.

This is the start of the train's descent of thirty-two miles through the Nenana River Canyon. The Nenana River is frozen and makes for a beautiful scene near Oliver.

Pyramid Peak loomed high over the canyon to the east.

The train then crossed Riley Creek just prior to our next stop at Denial Park where a single passenger detrained.

The Denali Park station has a very large asphalt waiting area and Conductor Steve asked me to join him down on the ground for a few minutes. He then said, "Chris, picture in your mind a thousand people standing here waiting for the train to pull in. Here comes our 18 car train with the tour group cars on the rear with a thousand people waiting to get off. The train comes to a stop and in ten minutes the thousand people have all switched places in what can be only called unorganized chaos".

Across the river is the Denali Park Lodge.

Now the train headed into the narrowest part of Nenana River Canyon. The river stood out beautifully frozen against the rock walls.

Right before the Moody Highway Bridge, the train ran over a length of track in the canyon where the slope is in a state of slippage. We ducked under the highway bridge and entered the first tunnel of the day at MP 353.3.

The rock walls are almost vertical here and the waterfalls entering the canyon were all frozen in time.

This section reminds me of the Durango and Silverton Railroad's line through the Animas River Canyon in Colorado.

We passed through our second tunnel at MP 356.

Healy with its lignite coal mines where we met the 2803 south coal train. Leaving Healy, the train passed by the Usibelli Tipple before crossing the Nenana River for the only time.

When the river is running ice free, people will keep a car on both sides of the river and use the railroad's bridge to cross the water. When the river is frozen, they just drive right across it. By using these methods it allows for year round access to this area of the state.

The train ran on the east bank of the Nenana River before we headed away to Clear Site. Clear Site is an early warning station with ballistic launching pads off to the West. The station's antennas stand out against the clear blue Alaska sky. We reached the trees of the Taiga. This is my first time seeing them and I know it would not be my last if I keep riding trains to where I have not gone yet in Canada, Europe and Asia.

The Aurora has now reached Nenana on the banks of the Tanana River, where grounded barges wait for the spring thaw.

The town has an active train station with an order board. There are two old Harriman style passenger cars also on hand but it is what is out on the middle of the frozen Tanana River that Nenana is most famous for.

It is a tripod which is connected by a cable to a tower that has a sign on it that reads "Nenana Ice Classic." Every year the town holds a lottery where a person guesses the day, hour and minute that the Tanana River ice will begin to break up in the spring. I wonder who will be the lucky winner?

Off to the east, the Mears Memorial Bridge is seen but to gain elevation for the crossing of it the Aurora loops back to the Southwest.

The bridge is a 700 foot steel structure and is very impressive. At MP 414, there is a sign commemorating the driving of the Golden Spike by President Harding on July 15, 1923. Mt. McKinley could be clearly seen in the distance from here. Further north at Dunbar, a -70° F temperature was once recorded. The train passed through the low hills with Taiga trees abounding. At Saulich, the train encountered a track grade problem where a culvert was still frozen and the water was seeping through the fill which caused our train to gingerly creep across this section of track.

When the Aurora reached Dome, the furthest point north by rail in North America, I just happened to also pass my 434,000.0 rail miles. Hard to believe I did that at the northern most point of rail in North America.

From Dome to Fairbanks, the tracks turned to the Southeast and were built on the old narrow gauge of the Tanana Valley Railroad and for years had a third rail for the narrow gauge trains. We passed the University of Alaska, where once the Toonerville Trolley, a gas electric passenger car provided a way for students to get from Fairbanks out to the school. The Aurora crossed the Chena River before entering the yards of the Alaska Railroad in Fairbanks. We pulled by the railroad's northern shops before we came to an on time stop at the depot in Fairbanks, the end of the northbound trip.


I managed to get the first taxi which took me to the Comfort Inn in a woody section of town. I took a walk to the K-Mart, visited a fast food eatery and stopped by a store for some snacks for the return trip to Anchorage. The walk back to the hotel was very relaxing and once I was back in my hotel room, I fell right into a deep restful sleep.

The Aurora - April 18, 1999

I was back down at the train station early with the train bathed in perfect light for photography.

This was a day of rest and I would only shot pictures of a very few things that I missed on the way north. We left Fairbanks on time and headed south towards Anchorage.

With the low temperatures of last night the train had no reason to slow for that seeping fill as it was still frozen this morning. It was a beautiful clear day. I just sat back, relaxed and enjoyed it all.

I went to the vestibule for the crossing of the Tanana River.

Our train ran along the still frozen Nenana River but the spring thaw is very near!

The Aurora passed the coal mining district of Healy.

Our southbound passage through Nenana River Canyon was very beautiful.

My next highlight was meeting the 3007 north coal train at Windy with the place living up to the full meaning of its name. The rest of the trip I was hoping for a clear view of Mt. McKinley which was impossible on this trip. You see, that the 20,320 foot south peak rises 14,000 feet above the surrounding mountains in Alaska so that the clouds are attracted to it like ants to maple syrup. I did manage to get the top of the peak standing out above the clouds. You would just have to be on the Aurora on the right day to see this mountain in all of its awesome beauty.

Our train continued along the Nenana River towards Broad Pass.

The train passed the Continental Divide sign at Broad Pass.

The Aurora next headed through Colorado.

Hurricane Creek was crossed and another short photo stop was had.

The train took the curve near Chulitna.

A better view of the beaver dams.

The very top of Mt McKinley could be seen popping out of the clouds as we traveled along the Susitina River.

The Aurora at Talkeetna.

Another view along the Susitina River.

Continuing southward, we met the 2808 north at Willow.

The train passed the Museum of Alaska Transportation and Industry at Wasilla.

The Train went in the siding at Reeves for the 3002 north.

Conductor Steve had to throw the switch to send the freight on its way north. The train rolled the last few miles south and we arrived back in Anchorage on time. As I said my good-byes to Conductor Steve he gave me a couple of employee timetables and the train orders for our trip, I walked away from the train thinking what a perfect time of the year to visit Alaska. No tourists - just the true Alaskans as they really are. Snow and ice with pleasant temperatures. Normal days and nights. No insects. Just a group of people very helpful, friendly and caring about you because you are special being there at this time of the year. Yes, April is a great time to visit Alaska.

The Aurora has returned to me to Anchorage.

The Trip Home!

Following an excellent final Alaska meal at the Hilton Hotel, I waited for the van to drive me back to the airport for my 1:40 A.M. Flight back to Seattle.

4/18/1999 I boarded my flight back to Seattle. I had three seats to myself so I slept the whole way to Seattle, where it had become rainy after we landed. My flight home to Orange County started with no fuel report being left for the pilot so they had to test the fuel. My return flight due to a schedule change went via Reno, NV with clouds all the way to the state line of California. After a quick in and out of Reno, we flew to John Wayne where my Alaska adventure came to an end. That night I was back doing my daily San Diegan train riding thinking 48 states down, 2 more to ride a rain in for all 50 states.