Just A’Chugging Through the Rain… 

Not a Thomas Train nor a “I think I can, I think I can ” Train Ride…  

We spent the night in not-so-fair-Fairbanks, post-Bettles, (though we had a much classier motel to rest up in for the final two days of the 2022 Greater Alaska Adventure. I had reserved a seat in the GoldStar Service domed car on the the Alaska Railroad Denali Star flagship train for the 12 hour train excursion from Fairbanks to Anchorage. I had consistently heard glowing reports of how wonderful, excellent, terrific, first-rate, marvelous, superb, outstanding… this trip was. Trip Advisor has a 4.5/5 rating so there definitely was a pretty high bar set for this rail journey. I hope not to be a curmudgeon as I recount my own experiences. Now the fact that August and September in Alaska are the rainiest months and that this has been an exceptionally wet season, I was not exactly dumfounded that I ended up with quite a foul weather day.

Fairbanks Alaska Railroad Station

So true to form, the weather gods continued to throw the moisture that is condensed from the atmosphere and that falls visibly in separate drops at us. Teresa and I awoke to gray skies and though, in the 12 hours clattering along the railway, there were intermittent periods of just grey cloud cover, said clouds preferring to not yet dumb their pay load on us at various  points. There were very, very brief spots of blue sky. But for the most part we experienced pluvial periods … downpours, sprinklings, mist, rainfall, showers, and winds that at times turned those droplets into small darts when out on the platform. I will be the first to admit that this affects my experience.

Arriving at the Fairbanks Railroad Station in a light mist, we negotiated the check-in process, bag tagging and drop with ease and had plenty of time to head outside for photo ops and to also enjoy the model train exhibit. This was a great distraction while waiting to board the train. Though I would love to take my grandkids to this model train layout, as it is well worth seeing, I don’t think I would be heading out the door with them to be there between 7-8 am (daily May-Sept) as it is my understanding this is the only time it is open. What a shame to so severely ration this exhibit… Soon we were heading out of Fairbanks… and almost immediately, seeing the University of Alaska Museum of the North, for me the shining star of Fairbanks.

The section out of Fairbanks to the south was rolling hills, dressed up fancy in their fall finery, sporting shades such as bright yellow, mustard yellow, canary yellow, goldish yellow, sunflower yellow , faded yellow, lemon yellow, sunshine yellow (none of which was evidenced to us as an orb in the sky) and an occasional smattering of reddish and brown tinted leaves. With the  leaves changing colors and, in retrospect, with the foul weather that lay ahead, this section on down to Denali was probably the most enjoyable and lovely section of the train ride! It was the “best” of the grey , cloudy, foul, fouler, foulest weather.

The GoldStar Service was well worth the first class $$$$$! The glass domed carriages (sounds like Cinderella’s conveyance) gives one the experience of being surrounded by nature on all sides (almost). Seemed like I was sitting out in the rain and not getting wet (well not quite)! Nor was I in the line of attack from a bullheaded moose which by the way we saw none of. In fact we saw NO wildlife but who can blame whatever wildlife there might be for not being out in this drizzly weather to wave at us.

As for the train itself, it was quite comfortable and NO DREADED MIDDLE SEATS to be wedged into as the airlines do to annoy their passengers and maximize profit. Comfort was of high level importance since I would be planting my derriere on this seat for a considerable number of hours. The staff was helpful and affable (I feel obligated to say this though they actually were ). The barkeep kept my iPhone charged up on the bar outlets (none by our seats so the airlines score here) and me charged up with unlimited refills of coffee and diet coke. The three meals in the dining car were sufficiently good and the viewing platform wondrous. These “super-dome” (not the one in New Orleans) carriages are bi-level with the top floor the seating, bar, and viewing platform and the first floor the dining area which is accessed by a very narrow circular staircase. Now this staircase had great potential for one of unsteady balance (and there were quit a few, as the beverage and bar service was well attended by both the attender and the attendees in the upper carriage), to splat on down.

Meal service began shortly after departing Fairbanks. You could not choose where you sit and if you are in first, second or third seating. I certainly thought that I would be in the first seating (since I was seated in the front on the train car.) But NO! Unlike the airlines, who start their service from the front, they started with the passengers in the rear … though in this case it was probably a good thing because by the time I emerged up top after my Aurora Breakfast {scrambled eggs, breakfast potatoes, with choice of reindeer sausage (no) or bacon (yes) }, a goodly number of the first and second sitters were quite juiced on their Bloody Mary’s and Screw Drivers. Goodness knows how boisterous they might have become drinking on an empty stomach. The tables fit 4 people, so you have to sit with strangers which I was not too thrilled about in this era of COVID. (I did become infectious with COVID two days later). Seemed like it was a revolving door down there with 3 seatings only to start around again with the next meal. We were last to be seated and served and I hoped that the AK Rail would not run out of my preferred choice of meals as so often has happened on airlines when sitting in the rear (last served!). Fortunately for me they did not but I was very annoyed to always be last none-the-less.

The next part of the journey was the most enjoyable with its towns of Nenana and Healy, the Tanana River weaving through the country-side, the Mears Memorial Bridge, and on down to Windy Bridge. The metropolis of Nenana (population 358 in 2020) is  at the confluence of the Nenana and  Tanana  Rivers. The train crosses the Mears bridge over the Tanana river and then winds around of town very slowly. I saw glimpses  of this  small town which has a gas station, several restaurants, a train museum, and it definitely does not appear to be thriving. The town never recovered from a population of 5500 once the railroad was complete like many other town of the boom and bust town in Alaska. Don’t think I will scout for property here. BUT…

Since every town, city, state, village, municipality and berg desires a claim to fame Nenana has a couple. The Mears bridge still ranks as the longest span in Alaska and the third-longest truss bridge in the United States. Hmm Ho-Hum! BUT, the real claim to fame is the Nenana Ice Classic, a nature-based lottery. Since the train did not stop in Nenana, I was very disappointed at not being able top off and purchase a ticket for the 2023 classic. But, alas, I researched this and you will be relieved to know that if you’re reading this and a resident of Alaska you can get tickets at several hundreds outlets throughout the state. And if not, and you actually believe you can predict Mother Nature, you can buy a ticket by picking a date/dates in April or May and the time, to the closest minute, that you think the winter ice on the Tanana River will break up, mail it in to their office with your $3.00’s for each pick and they will fill out the tickets for you and mail you a copy (unlawful to mail the real ticket). No fancy lottery machines spitting out tickets here. A large striped tripod (see photo) is placed on the frozen Tanana River and connected to a clock. The winner is whoever comes closest to guessing the precise time when the ice beneath weakens to the point that the tripod moves and stops the clock. A real Alaskan twist one a lottery. A recent winning pool was $300,00. So buy your ticket and when you win by outsmarting Mother Nature, you can be grateful to me for putting you on to this event and give me a generous share!!! You better take your chances now, since with climate change , all too soon the river will not freeze over!

Miraculously – Minutes of Blue Sky Over the Nenana River North of Healy

Healy, the next town 53 miles south, with a declining population of 966 according to the 2020 census is another boom or bust town, which depended on coal mining and the building of the Alaska railroad. The only claim to fame now I could find was that currently the Usibeli Coal Mine is the chief economic enterprise in the area and it’s large deposits give it  the status as the only coal mine in the state (a dubious claim to fame if you are an environmentalist and rail against “dirty coal.”) Denali Village, whether it stands to benefit from efforts for American energy independence, remains to be seen  since coal can be converted directly into synthetic fuels equivalent to gasoline or diesel Or if it becomes mostly dependent on a service economy as the solitary entrance to Denali National Park is just over 10 miles from Healy, making it a base for excursions into the park. In the 1 minute span during which I took the pictures below we had another glance at a blue sky for just under one minute.

Clattering along southward, the train crossed under the Parks Highway bridge . This bridge is the tallest in Alaska and is know as “Windy Bridge”. It crosses the Nenana just above the confluence with the Jack River and as we clicked father south the views were quite striking.

“Shortly” thereafter and  “just around the bend” and perhaps then another, and  then another bend (actually 12 minutes time-wise) the “village” of Denali comes into view. It has been  nicknamed “Glitter Gulch” with its street of hotels, motels, lodge, cabins, resorts, motor courts, B & B’s, campgrounds, and not forgetting to mention the restaurants and souvenir and gift shops . This might describe it in contrast to the raw wildness of Denali Park itself.  But it in no way compares to the gateway town of Pigeon Forge for its garishness, cheapness and gaudiness outside of the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, or the towns of Jackson Hole, Wyoming (Grand Tetons NP) and Estes Park, Colorado ( Rocky Mountain NP) for their chic, cool, outdoorsy, swank, upscale aura as you amble along their crowded, crammed, jam-packed streets of trendy expensive shops. Denali village does NOT deserve the adjective “glitter” in my estimation.

As we slowly crawled along the edge of the Nenana rive, the Five Star hotels, up on the hillside with the five star prices, were pointed out. These would not be the hotels I would be staying if I was getting off here. Just in case in the future you wish to stay in the village outside of Denali, this is a pre-primer of some options that you might choose if you wish to empty out your savings account and sell your stocks. Notice up on the mountain the green roofed Grande Denali Lodge and the Denali Bluffs Hotel, below and right; the Denali Princess Lodge, the largest hotel in Alaska, on the banks of the Nenana River with the red roofs; and the first major hotel we passed is the McKinley Chalet Resort (which I have actually stayed at previously (a barely affordable splurge which did empty my savings account). Minutes later we arrived at the Denali Park Depot to offload our revelers and unload a whole new patch, hopefully not of such boisterous ilk, as those offloaded. To this point, the journey has been just a shade over four hours.

I read on a website reviewing the The Alaska Railroad Denali Star Route, that the train ride from Denali to Talkeetna offers some of the most beautiful locations on the Alaskan Railroad.  This is 4 hour journey, clickity-clacking over many creeks and rivers, and it goes through the McKinley Village area, Cantwell, Broad Pass Hurricane Gulch and  the Indian Valley, until you come to the depot in Talkeetna. 

Just south of Denali National Park, Broad Pass is the highest point on the Alaska Railroad at 2,363 feet, with panoramic views of the Alaska Range. It is a wide pass with high mountains on the east and west sides and if the weather is clear you will still get some amazing views of Denali. At 20,322 feet Mt. Denali is the tallest peak in North America and the train offers a number of unobstructed views as it passes within 50 miles of the summit (on SOME days). At some point the wider corridor gave way to a narrow corridor of dense forest. Needless to say, I was not amazed or impressed as the weather was not clear! I would like to suggest that all literature for this ride state that at least 50% or more of the summer days in interior Alaska are NOT clear. I must admit though the landscape had, at times, a bit of a hauntingly eerie quality about it, the low rise mountains looked cold and angry, and I did delight in riding out on the platform, drinking in the raw wildness of this land, and seeing how ferocious this wilderness can be (and it is not even winter yet).

 It had not occurred to me that since there was only one visible sets of tracks, that unless there was some provisions we had not been informed of , we were going to be smashing head on into the northbound train from Anchorage around 2:00 pm in the afternoon. However, assuming everything is running on schedule, I was relieved to learn that one of the trains will typically pull onto a siding near Broad Pass, and the other will roll on by. I hoped they have their signals straight, which thank goodness they did and this was what happened on this Denali Star excursion. We were sidelined while I was hungerly devouring my “grilled Angus beef patty served with tomato, red onion, bleu cheese crumbles on a Brioche bun AND with Alaska Kettle Chips and a pickle.” Now I wonder if these were the real authentic Alaska Kettle Chips entered into  a national taste test of more than 150 kettle chips by the Chicago Tribune, which awarded the Alaska Chip second place! The Alaska Chip was voted #2 in the U.S because of its “butter-sweet aroma, fresh and almost caramel in flavor, beautiful golden sheen with hearty crunch”  Guess I am not much of a  discerning chip muncher because I totally missed all of this delectableness . 

Traveling farther down south about 70 miles along the Denali park boundary and the Nenana River, North of Talkeetna, the tracks veered away from the road system and into the Hurricane area with views of the snaking Indian River. I am told that the train crosses over the 918-foot Hurricane Gulch trestle, the most expansive trestle on the Alaska Railroad route. It towers about 300 feet above the Chulitna River below (though some websites say it crosses Hurricane Creek) and allows for the possibility of breathtaking photo opportunities. One writer … “the highlight of this railroad day trip is the stunning Hurricane Gulch Trestle.” However, I was not stunned and did not loose my breathe either, as this breathtaking drop and trestle was totally obscured by rain and haze, or the site announcer of the hour was distracted and this awesome site was not announced. The rest of this journey is a rained out blur. Up until this point there was a strange beauty with much of the scenery seen through the scrim of rainfall.  The frosting to go with the rainfall was the rainbows that popped up behind the train on a couple of occasions. 

I was fascinated to learn that on this same track between Hurricane Gulch and Talkeetna, AK RR operates a Flagstop Train. Local residents of Chase (pop. 19, 2020 census, down from 34) a settlement at mile 236.2 AK RR, on the Susitna River, 9 miles north of Talkeetna, have established their homes in the wilderness along the railroad and thus use the service as a way to reach their cabins or homes that aren’t accessible any other way. It’s a lifeline to transport necessary goods from the larger cities, get to liquor store but hopefully more often the grocery store. This train still operates as a “flag stop” service meaning it allows passengers to hop on and off if they want to visit a neighbor, go to the store, or if it were my grandson just hopping on because he is obsessed with riding trains. Just the wave of a flag will stop the train and, to disembark, one simply notifies the conductor of the milepost where they wish to stop to get back off. Seems like a pretty good system to me. I would definitely not want to be standing by the track, waiting here to wave down a train on this day!

From the Talkeetna railroad station on down through Wasilla and Palmer into Anchorage the rain was constant and steady. I took all of two photos of flooded forests. It was so unpleasant for me to stay seated inside the carriage rather than staying out on the viewing platform as I had for the early part of the trip. Even the towns looked, dismal, dirty and forlorn. I went down for dinner to give me something to do rather than just stare out the window at the rain. I had already walked through all of the train cars, up and down, and decided I was then in need of nourishment (more like in need of eliminating the monotony of the country side shrouded in clouds and fogginess.) Staring at the slow braised pot roast , roasted garlic mashed potatoes, sautéed green beans, red wine demi, and a tough to chew dinner roll was infinitely more satisfying at the moment. Overall though the food on the train was good, nicely presented and service efficient.

So finally at 8:06 we pulled into the Anchorage Railroad Depot. We disembarked efficiently and then it was stand in line and wait, bide our time, cool our jets … as we not-so-patiently waited for the bags to be unloaded and uncrated. I will never complain about the airport carousel again. Clearly there was no rhyme or reason from my viewpoint to the unloading of the luggage. Fork lifts took the crates of luggage out of the baggage car, dumbed crates on the platform under a white tent, the bags were uncrated behind a rope and then the herd of people began pushing and shoving at the ropes to grab their identified bag. It was a a free for all. Without getting trampled, we fetch our bags, secured a cab and were off to our motel.

In case you are interested in this journey and you have a clear day, according to a description of the train route , the railway route from Anchorage to Denali is lined with countless rivers, streams, and lakes and except for stops in towns of Talkeetna and Wasilla, there will be nothing but perfect wilderness. Go for it. So you don’t think I am a total curmudgeon as I feared being or a barrel of sour apples, I really was pleased overall with the trip. I would do it again but definitely reserve a clear day! A lot of what I write is really a whine because I had hoped for ideal weather after an awful summer of rain on the Kenai Peninsula. Since I am not an avid photographer (I am quite happy with my iPhone point and shoot camera), so my very mediocre photographic “genius” did not miss out on a million dollar award winning shot of Denali. So it is mostly a blog about what you might expect if you don’t get the awe-inspiring brilliant blue sunny sky that it seems all those reviews are hinting at. Of the scores of reviews I perused, I did not read but one that had anything negative. Next time…this might well be my photo. But then I wonder if it is photo-shopped.

One thought on “Just A’Chugging Through the Rain… 

  1. Diann O'Brien October 25, 2022 / 3:36 pm

    I was riding along with you remembering my own experience on the the same trip. Mine was in late July and the weather couldn’t have been better! But alas I have yet to see Denali as it was always shrouded in clouds.


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