Friday, July 29, 2016

All Aboard the Alaska Railway...

This was an opportune morning to get a wake-up call from the front desk. Our luggage had to be outside our room by 6AM. We did not take time to eat breakfast before leaving Grizzly Bear Lodge on Sunday morning, June 5th. There would be ample time to eat in the dining car after we boarded the Alaska Railway in Fairbanks at 8:15AM. Oh, and by the way, the purchases we made at the Fred Meyer store the day before needed to go with us. They would remain on the bus and be available for us when the bus picked us up at the train station upon our arrival in Denali.

We left Fairbanks, Alaska’s second largest community, behind us at milepost 470 on the Alaska Railway, the northernmost railroad in North America. Fairbanks marks the north end of the main line. We traveled past the Museum of the North, milepost 466.3. The Alaska Railway, to some degree, parallels the Parks Highway and the Tanana River.

Wilderness Express Railcar

The Wilderness Express railcar is 85 feet long and 18.1 feet high, with a weight of 100 tons. The name on this car is “Eklutna”. The name is printed on the white under the blue color at the far side of the car.

Wilderness Express Railcar 
First thing we did when boarding the train was to find our seats in the Dome car. Signs were mounted under the window with the corresponding seat numbers.

A picture to help us remember our seat numbers
It was important to remember which seat we occupied, because everything we purchased was correlated to our seat number, i.e. food, souvenirs, and refreshments served in the dome car by hostess/waitress. Each person received a tally to verify purchases, and paid their tab upon reaching our destination.

One of the items I purchased while on the Alaska Railway was a “Ride Guide to the Historic Alaska Railroad”. As I read it, I learned more about the name on the car and how it got its name. The Alaskan owned and operated company who owns Wilderness Express has been doing escorted tours for over 20 years. During this time, it became a tradition that they name each vehicle according to categories. Motor coaches are named after local mountains and vans after various fish found in Alaska. The theme for the railcars is names of glaciers since they are large, white, and slow moving.

Only 616 of an estimated over 100,000 glaciers in the state of Alaska are named. After much thought, four glaciers located near the rail belt were chosen. The glacier names are Yentna, Kahiltna, Eklutna, and Tokositna, all of which were named by Native Alaskans who first inhabited the area. Eklutna Glacier is located in the Chugach Mountains northeast of Anchorage. It is also the name of one of the original Native villages, as well as the name of the lake into which the glacier feeds.

Dining area on the lower level
The lower level platform was 8 feet by 10 feet. Dining capacity was 36 seats (10 tables). This meant we had to eat in two shifts. Fortunately, we had the 8:30 seating, rather than the 10:00 seating. I ordered one pancake with my meal just to taste Birch Syrup. All was delicious.


Some of the wilderness areas we traveled through had Birch trees, so I took this photo to remind me how good the Birch syrup was.

Birch trees in this wilderness area remind me of the Birch Syrup.
“The Fisherman” made of fossilized whale and walrus bone is by Kent Heindel, Native Alaska Carver. It occupied a countertop on the upper level near the spiral stairway that ascended from the dining car.

"The Fisherman" by Kent Heindel
Wilderness areas with pine trees and mountains in the background were typical scenes. Without warning as we were riding the rails, small bodies of water appeared in the landscape as we passed.

Wilderness area with pine trees and mountains in the background
Small body of water appeared without warning in the landscape.
Parks Highway, Tanana River, and the two-span Parks Highway bridge came into view as we approached Nenana, which could be seen across the river. The dark strip at the top of some photos is the dome of our railcar. We also see St. Marks Church, milepost 411.8, one of the oldest churches in interior Alaska near the Nenana Depot.

The Nenana Depot was one-tenth of a mile further, but I did not get a photo. This was an important stop on July 15, 1923, for US President Warren Harding. He drove the golden spike to signify completion of the Alaska Railroad.

Just a reminder that you can click any photo to enlarge it, and simply close out of it by clicking the x.

The Parks Highway and the Tanana River on our right

Two-span bridge for Parks Highway to cross the river

Nenana can be seen across the river.

Distant view of Parks Highway two-span bridge

St. Marks log church, built in 1905

Dome car had 80 leather seats with power ports and was great for viewing.
Nenana Flats, mileposts 395-410, is considered swampy and prime habitat for moose and beavers.

Swampy area
This area with beautiful mountains appearing in the distance could be some of the area where abandoned telegraph poles can be seen along our route. It was next to impossible to get any picture of even one of the telegraph poles. All poles we saw along the tracks had some of their parts missing. By the time I would see a pole, trying to zoom in to get it in sight with my camera amidst wilderness growth around it before it disappeared did not happen. They are what is left from a telegraph line, known as WAMCATS (Washington-to-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System), the US Army began to build at the beginning of the 20th century. Twenty-five hundred miles of telegraph lines were established by the summer of 1903. As of 1926, the poles were no longer needed as radio communication with antennas and electronic signals replaced the telegraph.

Water, mountains, and wilderness

Snow-capped mountains in view as our train rounds a scenic bend

Two scenic waterfalls flowing from the rock
Photo Progressions of an Awesome Canyon

For ten miles, the railroad follows a beautiful canyon that the Nenana River has carved north of Denali. This is such a beautiful area, that I took a number of progressive photos as we continued toward Denali.

Our rail car travels very close to the rock on the side of the cliff.

With the Nenana River flowing below, the engine is about to turn right around the next bend.

As the engine curves to the right, I take this photo on the left showing
 the Nenana flowing left and soon to the right at the next bend.

The view from our Dome car continues to show the scenic curves made by
the Nenana River as well as the long curves the train follows along the rock wall.

Just ahead, the trees left of the river begin to disappear.

We have a nice view overlooking the river with mountains in
the background as our dome car travels along the rock wall.

Close-up of the beautiful canyon carved by the Nenana River
A majestic view of the mountain with the canyon,
and river below as our train winds through the canyon.

Mountain with the Nenana River below
The Parks Highway Bridge is 174 feet tall and 900 feet long. I think this is the same as the Moody Bridge (Windy Bridge) at milepost 353.2 that crosses over the Nenana River.

Moody Bridge, milepost 353.2

Beautiful snow-covered  mountains come into view as we wind around the canyon.

Looking back to see where we wound around by Moody bridge.

Moody bridge takes on a whole new perspective against the mountain backdrop.

Bridge is dwarfed by the beautiful mountain and flowing waterfall.


Downtown Denali at milepost 349
Everything… hotels, restaurants, gift shops, etc. …not run by the park service has to remain on the far side of the Nenana River, which is the eastern border of Denali National Park. This area is popular during summer, but even the stoplights close down in winter.

I am so glad I had this opportunity to take this photo of awe-inspiring Denali National Park because during our visit, it rained…in the next post you will see it did not stop me from taking pictures.

Awe-inspiring Denali National Park

Denali Depot as seen from our dome car
It was time to get off the train. It surely did not seem like we had traveled 122.1 miles on the Alaska Railway!

How did I fall off the train?

Well! All I can say is it all happened so fast! They put a portable step on the ground. I was the first one to exit the train. I stepped on to the portable step, but getting from the portable step to the ground was another story. My knees landed on gravel, and my fists were clenched as they hit the ground, so my middle finger on both hands plus my knees got the brundt of it. Thankfully, I was okay, but the area below the bend of my knees stung, so I asked for a pillow to put my knees on to get up. Two employees at the step took their jackets off and put one on top of the other to make a cushion for my knees. In spite of each knee having two scrape marks from the gravel, my slacks were not damaged in any way. One tiny spot the size of a pin hole on my right middle finger below the knuckle was bleeding a lot for the size of it. The tour guide and I walked to the bus where he got the antibiotic cream and a bandaid from the first-aid kit to patch me up. The left middle finger had two scrape marks and turned lightly black and blue across the knuckle. Other than that, I was a little stiff and very, very lucky.

Thank you everyone for visiting and following my adventure. Feel free to make comments. Next post will be our Alaska adventure in Denali National Park, and even if it rained, I’d do it again! If you would like to be notified when a new post is published, put your email address in the box at the top right of this blog and be sure to go to your email to confirm your subscription. We respect your privacy and do nothing with your information.

We also appreciate your clicking on any of our links. Any purchase you make when you use our links may generate a small percentage of income from that vendor, but it will not increase any cost to you. This is true no matter how many pages you visit or which item(s) you purchase on a site after initially entering the site from my blog.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Subzero Experience and Best Boat Tour in North America

Riverboat Discovery...

Voted the best boat tour in North America, this is not just a boat ride! Our Riverboat Discovery tour was on a sternwheeler that took us into the heart of Alaska by a family who made the rivers of Alaska their way of life for five generations.

A Family Business...

It all started when Charles Binkley hiked over the Chilkoot Pass with other stampeders in 1898. Looking for the chance to operate boats on the Yukon and its tributaries rather than search for gold, he became a respected pilot and boat builder. Charles was followed by his son, Captain Jim Binkley, Sr., who piloted freight vessels on the Yukon and Tanana Rivers in the 1940’s. Railroads and airplanes began to carry much of the freight in 1950. Seeing the coming changes in the freighting business, Captain Jim and his wife, Mary B., began a river excursion business, which focused on sharing their love of Alaska and its culture with visitors. Their business grew from a 25-passenger vessel to the 900-passenger sternwheeler today, and is run by Jim’s grandchildren with Mary B. still active in the business.

A Subzero Experience 

We arrived at Steamboat Landing 2-ish in the afternoon. Before boarding Discovery III, we had time to explore the Discovery Trading Post. Winters in Alaska can be very cold. Entering the specially designed subzero chamber kept at 40 below zero gave us a chance to taste a brisk mid-winter day in the upper Alaskan Interior. We stayed inside the chamber long enough to have our photo taken of this unique experience.

Photo my sister sent me of us in the -40 temperature
cold chamber at the Discovery Trading Post
We dressed in layers so we could add or shed articles of clothing as the temperatures warmed up or cooled off during the day.  In this photo, I am wearing a long-sleeved turtleneck, covered with a short-sleeved t-shirt, and I also have a hooded sweatshirt tied around my waist.

Best Boat Tour in North America

The Discovery III was waiting for us to board at the landing.
Discovery (I think this was the one that held 25 passengers.)
Bush Pilot Demonstration

As our tour on the Chena River got underway, an Alaskan bush pilot took off and landed right next to our boat.

Bush pilot taking off next to Discovery III

Bush pilot landing next to Discovery III.
That is our boat railing in the photo above.
We were able to listen in to the conversation between the pilot and our captain over the loud speaker as he shared stories of village life and explained the vital role planes play in remote Alaska.

He turned off the engine during their conversation.
Trailbreaker Kennels

Trailbreaker Kennels along the Chena River was our next stop. If you look closely, you can see that each dog has their own special space in the fenced area.

Trail Blazer Kennels
Home of the late Susan Butcher who was a four-time Iditerod Champion
Susan Butcher (pronounced boo - cher) was a four-time Iditerod Champion. Speaking of the Iditerod, it is a sled dog race that begins in Anchorage in March and heads to Nome.

The first Iditerod race was in 1925. It began in Nenana as a serum run. The people in Nome were threatened by a diphtheria epidemic. It was January 27th, more than -40 degrees fahrenheit in the coldest part of winter, and planes could not fly. A 20-pound capsule of serum was sent by train from Seward to Nenana. A relay team of 20 mushers, using over 100 dogs, passed the package from village to village following old roadhouses along a winter trail mail route to Nome. The serum, frozen solid even though wrapped in quilting, when it arrived February 2nd, was still effective.

A trainer tells us first-hand about kennel life and what it takes
to make a championship dogsled team, as well as life on the trails.
The trainer talks to us using the same technique as the bush pilot. Each dog in the fenced area has their own space. The dogs in the foreground are part of the team and they are anxious to get hitched up for the next run.
The team has just returned from their training run pulling the four-wheeler.
When there is no snow on the ground, instead of a sled, the team pulls a four-wheeler as they train to be a championship team.

Chena River

Fairbanks connects to forty-two isolated villages via the riverways. The Chena River that flows through the heart of Fairbanks by Golden Heart Plaza flows into the Tanana River, which flows into the Yukon River.

Here is where we turn around to continue our tour....

Captain narrating our tour 

Fishwheels were a river-powered waterwheel
Fishwheels, a river-powered waterwheel, were used to scoop up river salmon and deposit them in a box beside the wheel. Fishwheels in rural Alaska are made from anything that is available. Other areas may use plastic webbing for the net instead of willow.

Chena Indian Village 

We got off the riverboat to go on a guided walking tour of an Athabascan Indian Village where we could see frontier living first-hand.

(Note: You can click on any picture to see an enlarged view.  Simply click the x to close out of it.)

This map resembles the original village of the 1900s and is near that site.
The two guides spend time meeting with the elders in their villages to learn the ways of their ancestors to share and preserve their traditions for future generations.

Cabin made of spruce logs

Spruce bark hut with wolf, fox, martin, beaver, and mink pelts

Clothing for the Athabascan people was beautiful works of art. 
Clothing for the Athabascan people was beautiful works of art, tailored of tanned caribou or moose hide and decorated with quills, pieces of fur, or trade beads. The coat in the above photo took six and one-half months to make.

Hand-made birch canoe

Reindeer pen
After the guided tour, we were free to walk around, and came upon the senior trainer from Trailbreaker Kennels and some of the sled dogs.

Senior trainer answering questions about the sled dogs
After getting back on the Riverboat, we had a chance to sample an easy, but very delicious, recipe they made with Red Sockeye Salmon and served on a cracker.  It was so good, we got in line for seconds.

It was easy to see why the Riverboat Discovery had been voted the best tour in North America.  On their tour we not only experienced the culture of the Alaskan people, but watched as events in their daily lives were demonstrated before our eyes. Listening to the Bush Pilot as well the senior dog trainer and taking the tour at Chena Village required going the extra mile so that passengers could get a better feel for the real Alaska and their people who live in the Interior.

In my next post, we leave Fairbanks early in the morning. Our luggage has to be outside our room bright and early for an 8:15 departure on the Alaska Railway! You will not want to miss this next post – I fell off the train!

Thank you everyone for visiting and following my adventure. Feel free to make comments. If you would like to be notified when a new post is published, put your email address in the box at the top right of this blog and be sure to go to your email to confirm your subscription. We respect your privacy and do nothing with your information.

We also appreciate your clicking on any of our links. Any purchase you make when you use our links may generate a small percentage of income from that vendor, but it will not increase any cost to you. This is true no matter how many pages you visit or which item you purchase on a site after initially entering the site from my blog.