One of the highlights of our Alaskan trip is travelling on the historic Alaska Railroad.
The rail in Alaska was first constructed in 1904 to provide access to the varied mineral resources along the route. Although hauling freight is its primary purpose, the ARR also serves the tourist industry, running daily between Seaward in the South and Fairbanks in the North in the summer months. In the winter, the route is named Aurora Winter Train and runs only during the weekends.
Our journey departed from Fairbanks on a Sunday (9 December 2012) at 8.30am. The train had arrived at Fairbanks from Anchorage the day before and was making a return journey. It was a breeze checking in our luggage as there were only a few of us taking the 12 hours journey to Anchorage. (In contrast, the plane ride from Anchorage to Fairbanks takes only an hour.) We were told the ARR is not profitable and is sustained by the state government.
At close to 8am, a twelve year old boy announced the boarding procedure. Dressed in his smart attire, he has never failed to turn up every Sunday to make his announcement.
The train we were on has two passenger cabins and a dining cabin. The bright interior and nice big window is a plus. (I remembered riding in dark and musky KTM with dirty windows ten years ago.)
As soon as the train started, I was surprised at how quiet and smooth it went. The gentle rocking motion soon lured most of the passengers to a slumber, as even though it was 8.30am, it was still pitch dark outside. I was still suffering from jag lag, having had interrupted sleeps nightly the whole time I was in Alaska and I was snoozing off in no time.
I was awakened by Aaron telling me about a ‘point’ rainbow in the distance at around 10am. I looked out into the snow covered flatland, and saw a halo of rainbow colours against the rising sun. I took a few obligatory photos and fell back to sleep.
In my sleep, I heard various announcements. The captain, Harry, would point out interesting scenery or historic facts. Sometimes, the train would slow down for the passengers to photograph the sights.
I woke up in time for lunch. We made our way to the dining car. The menu was not great and very expensive, but I guess that’s expected.
As we ate, peaks of snowed covered granite gave way to pine tree forest and then to meandering river. Coming from a tiny tropical and flat island, the grandiose scenery was awesome. At times, we passed majestic bridges spanning between mountains.
At Sherman, an elderly couple, Mary and Clyde Lovel, and their daughter Lisa came up on the train to promote the book written by Mary, called Journey to a Dream. In the book, she described how the family drove from Missouri to Alaska via Canada in 1963 to set up an Alaskan homestead. (Review of the book http://vickychong.wordpress.com/2013/01/06/journey-to-a-dream-by-mary-lovel/.) Her books were quickly sold out, a memento to our train adventure.(I digress here, but in an article about the Aurora Winter Train Adventure published in Panoramas, Author Bob Thompson also described a writer who boarded the train to ‘sign books’ for passengers. hmmm.)
As night fell around four pm and now wide awake, I decided to read Mary’s book. Mike had made some friends on board and they were chatting among themselves, most of whom were photographers too. The photographers had to share an open window in-between cars and they were happy to take turns so that each had an opportunity to capture that magic moment without the glass panes being in the way.
All too soon, our journey ended at Anchorage. This ride was certainly more enjoyable than what I had expected, perhaps because of the intimacy of the small number of people with us. I highly recommend taking the ARR if you are going to Alaska.