Alaska: Anchorage and a Train Ride

All Aboard!! [top, r-l] JR Watkins and Jackie Bontrager, Ron and Rita Hopper, Gloria Herms, Joe and Ginger Watkins

Fri. Aug 31st:  The next morning it was about 50 degrees and overcast again. We had the breakfast buffet in the hotel restaurant early. We had to be in the lobby before 8:15 am to board a bus that would take us to the train station where we would board for an 8 hour train ride to Denali.  We had to wait there for our respective buses. There were 6 buses A-F and we, our group of seven, were all assigned to bus C. The Hoppers and Gloria were in the back lobby near the tour desk where the buses were being loaded. We were in the front lobby. A man came through with a sign “Group A” and people followed him around back to board Bus A.  Then 15 minutes later “Group B” and more people left. I texted Rita, because I didn’t know where she was and she said they were at the Tour Desk where we were supposed to be. I told her we were OK, as the guides were coming in and rounding up people for each bus, that we were in a crowd all going on busses to Denali. At 8:15 the guide came in with “Group E.”  Many of us asked, “Where’s C?” He replied it was coming. JR. said, “I’m going to mess with Rita.” And he proceeded to text her saying “We’re on bus E.” Not being in close proximity with the others in our group, I cannot attest to what went on, but sources say there was consternation and worry that the four of us boarded the wrong bus. In a few minutes, Rita called Joe’s cell and wanted to know what bus we were on. He assured her we were not on any bus yet, that JR was just messing with her. But within ten minutes we were all loaded on Bus C and then boarding the McKinley Explorer, part of the Alaskan Railway heading out of Anchorage north toward Denali.

We had an awesome observation car with domed windows. The ride was a lot of fun. We laughed, teased, cut up and generally acted like a bunch of loud kids. I’ll bet the other passengers wished we’d calm down. But soon the scenery got our attention. It was magnificent.  I now know that Alaska is by far the most beautiful state of the 50. We soon were following the Susitna River on the left and mountains on the right.  We did not see wildlife, but there were a lot of trees and marsh lands.

View of Sustina River, a braided river

Our host and tour guide on the train was a young man, whose name was Josh or Jarred or some J name like that, (I’ll refer to him as Jarred) who obviously loved his job. Jarred kept rattling off Alaskan facts and stats like a savant, being sure to add his own stories of Alaska to keep us interested. He told us that the way the rivers were divided into multiple streams that seemed to intertwine was called a braided river. He also explained that the water was gray and murky due to the silt carried by the glacier melt that fed the rivers and streams. He said it is sometimes called glacier milk.

Fireweed, along the road; purple blooms in spring, red foliage in late summer and seeding in fall

Jarred pointed out eagle’s nests that looked like huge bundles of sticks in the tops of trees and one osprey nest. He told us the splashes of red along the railway was a perennial wildflower called Fireweed . In late summer or early fall the long leaves turn bright red before drying up and being covered with a spider-web-like gauze. Many of the plants were still in summer bloom, topped with purple flowers. Jarred said that the reds and lavenders visible along the rocky hillsides and even on the mountains was all fireweed, causing the ground to look red and green from a distance.

When we weren’t listening to Jarred, we talked and laughed and told stories. Gloria said she got locked out of her room barefoot in her PJs at 5:30 that morning when she pushed her big suitcase into the hall, (we were to have our luggage outside our rooms by 6 am) and the door shut behind her. She knocked on Rita and Ron’s door, which was the next to her, but they didn’t answer, instead the lady on the other side opened her door and she agreed to call the desk to have someone come up and let Gloria in.

We had a wonderful lunch in the dining car below. Several of us had the smoked salmon chowder.  Later we booked an ATV excursion for tomorrow evening, after we come back from our Denali wilderness tour.

McKinley Explorer

Our eight hour train ride was very nice. As we headed northward, the elevation increased and the land became more rugged, with more mountains and valleys. With each turn there was something spectacular to see, raging rivers below, snow tipped mountains, rocky cliffs and lots of skinny gnarly spruce trees. We all were a little over exuberant with the photo taking, snapping non-stop pics of the passing beauty, only later to discover that each of us had 20 or more images of the same thing. It began raining as we traveled north. When we went out to the observation deck it was much cooler and wetter. Along the route we saw a few beautiful homes nestled in the mountains and many small cabins and shacks, most likely hunting cabins, with no sign of electric. Jarred pointed in different directions telling us where nearby towns were, that we could not see. Names like Wasilla, Talkeetna, and Hurricane Gulch.  At one place, called Sherman, there was a woman in the yard, waving at the passengers on the train. Jarred told us her name was Mary Lovel and that she and her husband, Clyde, had been here since 1964, raising four children in this rough land, with no road in or out, just the Alaskan Railroad connecting them to the outside world. He also said that he heard that Clyde just suffered a heart attack and had been airlifted to Anchorage for treatment. (Later at the gift shop, I bought her two books, Journey to a Dream and Suddenly It’s Spring, where she chronicles her life in the Alaskan wilderness.

There was one amazing lake that was calm and clear, fed by melted glaciers, forming over 10,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age. I cannot recall the name which was probably in a native tongue, but Jarred said the name meant mirror.  There were two very small white structures on its banks. They looked like children’s play houses. The guide said that if a pilot was caught in bad weather, he or she would put the plane down on the frozen lake and hole up in one of the cabins until the weather cleared.

Alaskan Homestead along train route

The distant mountains had a dusting of new snow on them and the sun reflecting off the shear sides of the highest peaks gave the snow a pink glow. We passed one cabin and several small houses nestled beside a fast moving river. There were two tall towers with small wind turbines mounted atop them. I suppose they were living off the grid.  Mine and Joe’s experience and understanding of Alaska is very much enhanced by the fact that we both just finished reading The Great Alone” by Christiana Hannah. The novel follows a family who moved to Alaska to homestead in 1974. I won’t go into the story here, but it was a good depiction of the hard life these hearty people live, who make this beautiful wilderness their home.

Jarred never ran out of things to talk about. He told us about the discovery of oil and the Alaska pipeline and the $2,800 every man, woman and child received each year from the billions of dollars in savings Alaska had accumulated from oil revenue. But now that oil production has slowed, this amount is down to $1,500 and soon may be stopped altogether if another oil source cannot be tapped. Thus the push to open the Artic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling.

View of Nenana River from our balcony at McKinley Chalet Lodge near Denali

We arrived at the Alaska Railroad Denali Depot where we boarded a bus for a short ride to McKinley Chalet Resort, a beautiful rustic lodge with multiple buildings spread out like a compound, with over 400 suites.  We were all in building E on the 2nd floor. Our rooms were big, with king beds and flat screen TVs and a view. From the back deck we could look down at the rolling whitewater of the Nenana River or look ahead to the snow capped mountains beyond. [scene from McKinley resort]  We got settled in, then all headed out to walk across the road to Denali Square to check out the restaurants. It was cool and overcast. We had dinner at Karstens Public House then sat outside at a table around a gas fire ring for a bit. It started raining, so we found a bus stop and hopped on the next shuttle that moved tourist from one place to another; from this side of the road back to their lodgings. Back in our room, we were ready to crash. It was much later for us than the clock said, a full four hours later. So we watched some local TV, nothing political. One thing Joe and I both decided when this trip started, was that we would take a break from the 24/7 political news cycle. After all, what can we really do but wring our hands and lose sleep each time something egregious happens?

Read Next Post Sept. 1, Denali Wilderness Tour
Read Previous Post Aug. 30, Getting There

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