TR Robertson ….. Comfortably seated in our passenger car on the Alaska Railroad, directly behind the Wilderness Café car, Carolyn and I sat back to take in the amazing vistas of the Alaskan countryside as we journeyed on our 6 hour trip to the tallest mountain in North America, Denali.
The building of the Alaska Railroad began in 1904 in Seward. At that time, the railroad was called the Alaska Central. The Alaska Central went bankrupt in 1909, was reformed as the Alaska Northern Railroad and lasted until 1912. President Woodrow Wilson saw the importance of assisting with this project and in 1914 gave the authority to continue building the railroad. This time the railroad took on the name The Alaska Railroad and by 1923 it connected the coast of Seward to the inner city of Fairbanks. In 1985, the State of Alaska bought the railroad for $22 million and today thousands of people enjoy the beauty of interior Alaska as they travel to various cities along the way.
One unique feature of the railroad is the chance to purchase a “Ride Guide” booklet that includes maps, photos and historic information about the sights along the way. This, coupled with young tour guides speaking over the PA system as we passed various points of interest, provided lots of information about the history of Alaska. Along the way, we saw beautiful mountains and valley vistas, glaciers, rivers and bays, small cities and people who have chosen to live in the depths of the Alaskan wilderness. The train averaged a speed of 35-40 mph, but at times the train slowed for various view sites or to pull over on a side track for an oncoming train. We were told to always be on the look-out for moose, bear, eagles, osprey and other wildlife. Eagles built nest on abandoned telephone poles along the track.
Photos by Carolyn Robertson
One unique feature of Alaska is the existence of permafrost. 80% of Alaska is covered in permafrost. Basically, permafrost is a thick layer of frozen ground that can exist on top of the earth, slightly below the earth or deep below the earth. It takes a special type of vegetation to grow in permafrost. The Black Spruce tree is one of the few trees that can grow as its root system grows horizontally. There were also an abundance of willow trees, a favorite food of moose. Permafrost is the result of millions of years ago when 3,000 foot tall glaciers once covered all of Alaska. As the climate changed, over the millennia, glaciers receded, and soil and rock along with everything else began to change. We passed large sections with dead trees as a result of the changing water content. Many of the rivers and streams we crossed over were a dingy brown as a result of glacial run-off. The material in the water is called glacial silt and can build up in rivers and streams causing a change in the flow of the water.
After Anchorage, the first sizable city we passed was Wasilla. The city was named for Chief Wasilla, a Dena’ina Indian. Wasilla became a supply center for the Willow Creek gold district, when gold was discovered in Alaska. There is a highway system which follows along the rail system and since Wasilla is only 40 miles from Anchorage, 30% of Wasilla’s residents continue to work in Anchorage. Passing over numerous bridges and rivers, our trip continued on to Nancy Lake, a lake system that has over 200 lakes attached. The next small town was Willow, population 884. Willow was once chosen as a place to move the capital of Alaska to, from the present capital of Juneau. A study indicated the move would cost billions of dollars, so the idea was dropped. Today, Willow is the official starting point for the Iditarod sled dog race. A little more on the Iditarod in another article.
Our train tour guides pointed out various wildlife that came into view as well as flowers and other vegetation. The state flower. Forget-me-nots were prevalent, as well as a flower called Fireweed. These pink flowers are used in various jams and jellies, honey and ice cream. We tried the ice cream and it was very tasty. Fireweed gets its name from the fact that it is the first flower to grow back in an area devastated by a forest fire. Not far from Willow, we passed through an area that had suffered a massive 7,000 acre fire in 2015. You could still see red fire retardant on many of the dead trees. This fire was started by a camper who received an $8 million dollar fine. The Sockeye fire of 2004 burned some 7 million acres, making it one of the worst in the history of the U.S. Another fascinating economical sight we passed was a number of gravel pits. These gravel pits are referred to as the largest cash crop in Alaska. The gravel is harvested from the permafrost and shipped to ports on the coastal cities. Two million tons are hauled by the rail system.
We slowly began to see parts of Denali at this point as the train approached the city of Talkeetna. More about Talkeetna in another article. Past Talkeetna, we went through the small stop of Chase. Residents here are referred to as Bush residents. One older resident, Mary Lovell, is said to stand on her porch and wave to passing trains. We did not see her either time we passed by. From here we approached the eastern border of Denali State Park, adjacent to Denali National Park and Reserve. Denali State Park covers 420,000 acres.
We continue to pass unique, small villages and towns with interesting names; like Curry (formerly Dead Horse), Gold Creek, Canyon, Chulitna and Hurricane. Hurricane is named for the strong winds that can come in from the mountains. Not far from here is Hurricane Gulch, a bridge spanning 914 feet, 296 feet above the canyon below. Honolulu is next, named by a local prospector who longed for a warmer climate during the cold winters of Alaska. At Summit, the train is now at the 2,363 foot level and will drop down to the 1,732 foot level at Denali Park Station, the final stop of our trip. We would be staying two nights in the Denali area and venture into the National Park for an extended tour the next day before heading back to Anchorage. Over 400,000 visitors come to Denali National Park each year to enjoy the beauty of the mountains and forests. The Park covers 6 million acres, making it larger that the state of Massachusetts. President Wilson created Mt. McKinley National Park as a wildlife refuge in 1917. In 1980 the name of the park was changed to Denali National Park and Reserve to honor the Athabascan name of the mountain. Denali translates as “the High One” of “the Great One”.
There is a small, tourist type village close to the Denali Visitor Center which some locals call The Gulch and others call Canyon. It is basically a long series of tourist shops, eateries and shops dealing with back packing, climbing and other ways to enjoy the sites around Denali. There are also plane and helicopter adventures for those that want to spend a little more. We grabbed our shuttle to where we were staying, the Denali Cabins, and checked in to a beautiful wooden cabin like accommodation. Checking with some locals, we were told to take the shuttle to The Gulch and eat at Prospectors Pizza.
In The Gulch, one noticeable feature was the presence of the Princess Cruise Lines. We had passed a train pulling passenger cars reserved for only Princess Cruise Line’s passengers who had boarded in Seward. In The Gulch, there was a Princess Cruise Hotel and tours specifically for Princess Cruise Line’s passengers. We did find Prospectors Pizzeria and Alehouse at the end of the row of tourist shops. It was a large pizza house with an outdoor eating area and inside full of hundreds of old photos of early life in Alaska, huge horn chandeliers, lots of stuffed animals and horns on the walls as well as lots of antiques of early Alaskan life. Prospectors was an Alaskan micro-brewery with beers on tap like Hoodoo, Broken Tooth, 49th State, Midnight Sun and many more. Amazingly, Prospectors also poured Ballast Pt., Stone Pale Ale, Firestone and beers from Oregon, Colorado, Germany, Belgium and more. A total of 56 beers on tap and a large food menu. The pizza was great, the service quick, even though it was very crowded inside. Always listen to a local on where to eat in places you visit.
This ends Part II. Part III will cover our Denali Back Country Tour, the train trip and visit to Talkeetna and the trip back to Anchorage and Seward to board our NCL Cruise Ship to the Inland Passage.
A reminder to check out information on the trip we are hosting to Israel and Jordan in