Adventure Class

The Alaska Railroad’s Denali Star train rumbles smoothly along, headed north.  I’m going from Anchorage to Fairbanks, on my way to a new job on the Yukon River.  My ticket is rated “Adventure Class.”  Sounds good, like one I would sign up for in college.  I boarded the train in Anchorage this morning at 8:00 am; it’s 4:00 now.  Four more hours to go.

My friend Kristin and I rode the Alaska Railroad back in 2002, from Anchorage to Seward.  Fourteen years ago, before she had her two kids, before I moved to Alaska.  The station in Anchorage seemed identical to the image I had in my head from back then.  I even got a café Americano at the same little espresso stand in the corner of the station.  Most things change.  Some stay the same, and it’s comforting to find them just as you remember.

I’ve had Car D all to myself most of the way.  Adventure Class passengers are free to wander about the train (except for the upstairs dome car that belongs exclusively to Gold Star Class) – and we have access to our own dome car, the dining car, a café, and a full bar.  In the vestibules between cars, you’re able to lean out over a half door and get some fresh air – as long as there is a nice cross-wind blowing the train soot away.  I ride much of the way in this open-air spot, breathing in the sticky sap scent of cottonwood trees, a hot iron smell from the brakes on the rails, and breakfast aromas wafting back from the dining car.  Birch, aspen and alder leaves are bright lime green, and willows are silvery sage, in contrast to the dark spruce needles.  Pink wild roses and purple lupines bloom along the tracks.  Fiddleheads unfurl.  Kids stand in wooded yards, waving at the train.  I wave back.

This is the way to travel, man!  I get a spicy Bloody Mary and sip it next to the half door, the wind blowing through my hair.  We cross a bridge and the iron girders are close enough for me to reach out and touch.  I resist the urge.  Then I realize that if the half door I am leaning against suddenly unlatches, I will go tumbling into the Susitna River below.  No one would probably notice until we reach Fairbanks and they find some leftover baggage, since I’m traveling alone.  I keep standing in the same spot, just stop leaning on the door.  An element of danger:  you don’t find that in many American travel experiences anymore.  I treasure it.


Cheers to the Alaska Railroad!


(Later, while talking to the conductor, I find out that although the doors have no locks on them, they only hinge inward. You could still open them and fall off the train, but it probably wouldn’t happen by accident.)

The tour guide tells us that “na” means “river” in Athabaskan.  Susitna means silty river.  The water is milky with glacial runoff, finely ground rock. It looks like a grey milkshake.  I start to notice “nas” everywhere on the map:  Talkeetna, Nenana, Eklutna, Tonsina, Tazlina, Gulkana, Gakona, Chesana, Kantishna, Soldodna, Takotna, Tanana, Chena.  If only I had an English-Athabaskan dictionary on hand, I could probably learn a lot about those villages and towns.

The train climbs up, up, up, following the Susitna River, then the Chuitna.  The water flows in the opposite direction of our travel, draining away to Cook Inlet, which we are leaving behind us.  My home is back there, too, in the realm of sea otters, humpback whales, kelp, and tide pools.


Climbing.  I was glad I had earplugs, as the train got pretty noisy on uphill grades.


The view from the Hurricane Gulch Bridge, looking west as we cross over Hurricane Creek.  The span is nearly three hundred feet above the river.  (Yes, I was leaning out the window of the train.)

This train is headed to the Interior.  Sitka spruce is replaced by paper birch and black spruce. Beaver lodges decorate ponds.  Trumpeter swans incubate eggs.  Moose run away from the train, into the woods.  We reach the watershed divide, and the landscape flattens out, a tranquil lake at the top.  We go through Broad Pass; at 2,363 feet it’s the highest pass on the Alaska Railroad.  Now the water flows the other way, the same direction we are moving.  We’ve entered the huge Yukon River Basin, all waters flowing toward that mighty river and eventually to the Bering Sea.

It is unknown territory for me, land of the gold rush, dog-sledding, caribou, riverboats, and telegraph lines.  The frontier.  If you don’t hear from me for a while, it’s because I’ve gone back in time, to a place where cell phones don’t work.


Old telegraph poles still stand along the tracks.  


This entry was posted in Alaska, Fauna, Flora, Travel, Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Adventure Class

  1. Nancy Crowe says:

    Lovely descriptions that make me feel as if I am riding right along with you. Hope you have a good summer in this new territory and that you are able to share your experiences with your readers.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Happy trails, my friend! You look revived.


  3. Pete says:

    Wonderfully written… thanks for sharing. I lived in a remote cabin near the Dalton highway and unless you can not survive without civilization I think you will find the interior and the Yukon river villages a pleasant surprise.


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