By Norma Meyer
Chugging along in a domed train car, we gazed out at the majestic wild and heard about feisty folks such as "Alaska Nellie," a famed trapper-hunter who kept a bear cub as a pet, ran a rollicking roadhouse and in 1916 began delivering meals by dogsled in blizzards to railway workers. Our Alaska Railroad narrator pointed out Nellie's former homestead; then we snaked by blink-of-an-eye town Moose Pass "where the moose outnumber the residents" and locals don't want a gas station because the sign would read "Moose Pass Gas."
Nowhere in the lower 48 will you find the vast rugged beauty, can-do grit and full-on quirkiness of Alaska. And the perfect way to experience it is by riding the 470 miles of rail between Seward and Fairbanks, hopping off for day adventures and overnighting in national parks celebrating their centennial. Alaska Railroad offers activity-spiced must-do itineraries for summer trips: I thrillingly landed in a bush plane atop a gleaming glacier, floated in a raft next to luminescent turquoise icebergs, watched incredulously as an orca whale cozied up to my cruise boat, and found myself dreamily marooned on Fox Island, an oasis with only eight guest cabins.
Guaranteed, you'll meet some colorful characters. Twice our conductor was gray-bearded hearty George Huling, who plays himself on the Discovery Channel's "Railroad Alaska" reality series helping oddball off-gridders and overcoming would-be disasters.
"It's a good day every day I get up," he guffawed, while punching a traveler's ticket. I chatted with a plucky woman passenger who drives an 18-wheeler for a living, is training to do the Iditarod with her 25 sled dogs and was en route to see her newborn 15th grandchild in Sarah Palin's hometown of Wasilla.
Spectacular snow-dusted mountains, thick birch and aspen forests, glistening salmon streams, mirrored lakes and fields of magenta pink fireweed come into 360-degree view in the upper-level GoldStar dome car, the seats to buy. The fare includes meals (such as almond-crusted Alaska cod) and you can sip your two complimentary alcoholic drinks on the outdoor observation deck, my favorite hang-out, especially when someone yelled "Moose!"
Imposing antlered creatures grazed in tall green grass. Stately bald eagles perched by their nests. Herds of mountain goats clung to craggy steep hillsides. Although we didn't see any bears, the train grinds to a halt so passengers can watch grizzlies if they're wandering about.
"What's so amazing is you can walk 1,000 miles either way and not run into one person," said a server carrying plates of reindeer sausage in the Denali Star's dining car.
On that route we jumped off at funky tiny Talkeetna, a hamlet of century-old clapboard storefronts and a lively history involving gold miners and the Bucket of Blood saloon. Talkeetna was the model for the offbeat fictional town of Cicely in TV's "Northern Exposure."
At the 1917-built diner-lodge Talkeetna Roadhouse, "frontier hospitality" is still served up with Granny's Chocolate Potato Cake; at Denali Brew Pub, customers swigged home-crafted Bomb Barrel Ale with a Palin-inspired I Can See Russia Burger.
Alongside the tracks in Talkeetna I met Warren Redfearn, the affable overall-clad conductor of the storied Hurricane Turn, billed as the nation's last "flag-down" train. The Hurricane is a lifeline to Alaska's off-gridders, who flag down the train with white cloths when they need to replenish supplies. In the bush country, Redfearn may drop off items "where the tree is leaning over and there's a red ribbon." He added: "I've carried everything onboard; I once had a guy bring on a live milk cow."
I checked into the luxe-rustic Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge, nestled on 650 acres and with an expansive deck to sit and quaff a glass of Alaskan-made strawberry rhubarb blush wine while soaking in the staggering view of the Alaska Range. Clouds hovered, but on clear days you'll stare at the state's marquee draw, 20,310-foot Mount Denali, the tallest peak in North America.
Talk about a high. During an exhilarating flightseeing expedition, our 10-seater turboprop took off from Talkeetna and soared over sky-piercing mountains, deep glacial valleys and prehistoric rivers of ice, an immenseness almost incomprehensible. And then — bucket-list this — our K2 Aviation pilot swooped down and smoothly landed on skis 6,000 feet up atop snow-blanketed Ruth Glacier. Sheer granite cliffs surrounded us as we humbly walked on sparkly untouched ice, our shoes' crunch breaking the silence of the awe-striking landscape.
Earlier we trekked in Denali National Park, a 6-million-acre gem and the only federal land where sled dogs help patrolling rangers in the fierce winter. You can visit the kennels, pet the Alaskan huskies and watch a ranger demonstrate sled-pulling with an excited barking pack, a tradition dating back to the 1920s. At night we bedded down at secluded woodsy Grande Denali Lodge, teetering aloft Sugarloaf Mountain and boasting sweeping views of the Nenana River Canyon. On the serpentine road up, yellow signposts issued numerous warnings: one showed a person being carried off by a gigantic mosquito; another nonsensically cautioned "Beware of Falling Coconuts."
I told you it's kooky in these parts yonder.
The railroad's incredibly picturesque Coastal Classic route delivered us to Seward, and from there we sailed to isolated postcard-perfect Fox Island. The only place to stay is Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge, which has eight homey waterfront log cabins facing aquamarine Resurrection Bay and no TVs, radios or phones. Lovebirds take note: nature has covered the crescent-curved beach in heart-shaped slate-gray stones sculpted by the tides. Guests can kayak (the husband-and-wife guide team were a hoot; they liked to throw polka parties at home), hike with a naturalist, lounge in an Adirondack chair while savoring a radiant sunset and gather around the bonfire to roast marshmallows for s'mores under a gazillion stars.
The next morning, we embarked on a fantastic daylong cruise into Kenai Fjords National Park, a glacial wonderland. Our Kenai Fjord Tours captain gave an excellent commentary as we encountered spouting orca whales, Dall's porpoises, Steller sea lions and orange-beaked puffins resting on dramatic bedrock spires jutting from the ocean. I couldn't believe when a giant orca swam up to the boat and appeared to rub itself against the side as if greeting passengers. Later, in pristine bays, we idled alongside magnificent iridescent glaciers and listened to the cracking of ice.
For our final outing, backdropped by forested slopes, we leisurely rafted among large floating icebergs calved from a massive glacier pouring into Spencer Lake. You'll feel like an explorer because the only way to get to this idyllic spot is by riding the Glacier Discovery Train. Our Chugach Adventures guide paddled us around baby-blue ice hunks eroded into curious shapes — one resembled a breaching whale. Then he rowed us seven miles down the calm Placer River back to the railroad tracks. Soon we heard the blasting whistle of our approaching train — the time-honored sound of America's last frontier.
WHEN YOU GO
Alaska Railroad reservations and vacation packages: www.alaskarailroad.com
Grande Denali Lodge: www.denalialaska.com
Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge: www.talkeetnalodge.com
Kenai Fjords Wilderness Lodge: www.kenaifjordslodge.com
Norma Meyer is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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