Since my destination was located within easy walking distance I checked out of my hotel and in the early morning hours made my way on foot down to the iconic Alaska Railroad depot. I sorta hated to leave, I was enjoying the Historic Anchorage Hotel’s quirky architectural details and turn of the century décor, but I would be back there again in two days.
The Alaska Railroad’sAurora Train travels in the winter months between Anchorage and Fairbanks leavening every Saturday and then returning the following day, a journey of 356 miles one way that would that take approximately 12 hours. During its course the train passed over a vast expanse of northern boreal forest, up and around several mountain ranges and connected a number of small isolated Alaskan communities. When I got my boarding pass at the ticket window I was given a small map of the route ahead.
Power for our journey was supplied by two SD70MAC diesel locomotives, number 4324 and 4320 respectively, both were manufactured by GM Electro-Motive Division and were pulling a kitchen car, a dining car, a snack and lounge car, two passenger seating cars and a luggage/freight car. The Aurora travels the same stretch of tracks as the railroad’s better known and slightly more luxurious Denali Star, but on this outing the views of the passing scenery were none the less first class. Nature’s palette in Alaska is always changing from the luxuriant greens of summer to the fiery colors of fall and then inevitably by the snowy whites of winter. And in the darkening winter skies landscapes can become hauntingly illuminated by the swirling colors of the Aurora Borealis that gives this locomotive its name.
Curious as to the history of the railroad and its economic impact on Alaska I gathered some information while waiting at the station. A small booklet from the gift store provided a brief outline of the company’s evolution over the years. In 1903 the first 50 miles of tracks were laid north from the territorial settlement of Seward, then in 1914 the US Congress provided funding for construction of the line all the way to Fairbanks. Carving this route through the wilderness lasted until 1923, but although the tracks had been laid the company’s continued development was limited by Alaska’s small population. World War II brought substantial profits from hauling military and civilian supplies and materials and two tunnels were built through the Chugach Mountains to allow rail access to the strategic port of Whittier. After the war passenger service was expanded and the company shifted to diesel locomotives. The company survived the Good Friday earthquake of 1964 despite extensive damage and in the 70s was instrumental in hauling supplies for the oil pipeline project but financially the railroad continued to struggle. So in 1983 the railroad partnered with the State of Alaska and under this public/private charter overall service and infrastructure was greatly improved. By the late 90s the corporation was back in the black and business was expanding. Today, according to some well-placed sources I talked to, the corporation is doing well and passenger service is now second only to hauling gravel as the company’s primary revenue source.
Built in 1942 the Anchorage train station typifies mid twentieth century architecture as fireproof concreate and steel replaced wooden structures in the last frontier. Though not particularly ornate, this building, due to its historic importance to Alaskan transportation, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
Our train crept slowly across the Hurricane Gulch Bridge in the early morning light. Our conductor informed us that this was both the longest and tallest bridge on the entire railroad, a breathtaking 254 feet above Hurricane Creek. Passengers craned their necks to peer into the chasm below.
The rail line north to Fairbanks closely follows four major Alaskan rivers, the Matanuska and the Susitna Rivers that flow south into Cook Inlet and the Pacific Ocean, and to the north the Nenana and Tanana Rivers that complete their journey in the Bering Sea. These wide braided rivers carry rocks, sand and silt ground down by the glaciers of the Alaska Range and create the soils and hydrology necessary for these extensive deciduous forests. Though not at their peak the late fall colors along this stretch of the Susitna were still quite vibrant.
The train passed through several types of ecological zones during the course of our journey. Changes in elevation and eventually latitude were noted by changing plant and animal groups. Slightly less obvious were plant cover variations that had been caused by fire (pyro-diversity) and it was interesting to try and guess the last time any given area we were passing through had burned. As we passed Summit Lake where high elevation and winter storms determined the ecology we were informed that Broad Pass between the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range was also the top of the watershed. From here on all waters we would travel along would be flowing north to join the Yukon River.
The Aurora Train has few scheduled stops along the way but passengers can disembark at prearranged “whistle stops” or can be boarded by “flagging” the train along various parts of the route. This is the only railroad in the US that still offers this kind of flag stop service to rural residence. And while there were a few rugged individuals loaded with hunting and wilderness supplies that got on and off along the way the vast majority of the passengers on this train were heading north with a very different agenda.
With the train packed to capacity most of my fellow passengers were visiting from Asia, where it is a popular belief that a child conceived under the northern lights would have special powers and good fortune. When we finally arrived at the Fairbanks Station, with no other luggage other than my backpack, I sprinted for a cab. At the hotel the front desk staff asks us if we would like an “aurora wakeup call”, I opted out, but wished the young folks the best in their endeavors. I however needed my sleep, tomorrow, early, I had a train to catch.
“Travel changes you. As you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life—and travel—leaves marks on you.” ― Anthony Bourdain