Taking a trip on the Alaska Railroad's Denali Star North is like downloading a full season of your favorite TV show and then settling in and watching it all in one go. There's loads of action and suspense (bears and moose), poignant love stories and heartbreaking loss (wildflowers and loons), and for the G-rated sitcom lovers out there—leave it to beaver! All of this, plus the grandeur of nature at no extra charge.
I'm chugging along on the eight-hour ride from Anchorage to Denali with my friend Miriam, and we've parked our tushes in the beautiful domed B Car of the train, a perk of the GoldStar Service. Once we get to the national park the focus will be hikes and rafting. But before we get there, we're doing this. Simply riding the rails for the day.
When we left Anchorage in the wee hours of the morning there was dense cloud cover, but shortly thereafter, there is sun and rivers and mountains. When the guides-- or other passengers--on the train spot a moose, the train slows down so that everyone can snap some winning pics. Taking photos on this journey turns out to be a lesson in seeing the trees for the forest. "I already have a broken fingernail and a bruised hip," says one elder passenger to the next. For some, photography on a moving train can be an extreme sport.
"Excuse me", says one couple to another, "do you mind taking a photo of us?" "Don't trust her," bellows the photo taker's jokester husband. And everyone else chuckles awkwardly and encouragingly, because that's what you do on this train.
Take Frank, as an example. "Why the train?" Miriam asks the grey-haired gent by way of introduction. (I often use Miriam as a lineman for getting the gab going with strangers.) But it turns out she's met her match in Frank, who is part of a nice couple from Grand Rapids, celebrating their 50th anniversary with their friends from Nashville. Frank has introduced himself to, and has memorized the names of just about every passenger and staff member on the train by the end of the trip. You can tell it's his thing. "An eight hour train ride is better than a 12-hour car ride," replies Frank, a joke since doing this trip by car would actually take about five hours instead of eight.
So, really: Why the train? "We'd be missing out on all of this," he says with a hand flourish that encircles the entire domed car and its sweeping vistas.
By noon, people are dozing through beaver and trumpet swan sightings. We see rafters on the wide, white-water rivers, and loons on a pond. Out come the "days of the week" pillboxes and afternoon cups of coffee. But it's not all old news: There are train-loving father and son duos, young families, athletic looking Germans and 50ish sisters, all rolling together through this rugged terrain.
And then there's Miriam and I. After she wakes up from a face-on-table-tray catnap (complete with hilarious face imprint), we go for lunch in the elegant dining car--fresh mixed greens topped with nuts, grapes and goat cheese, and bowls of spicy, yummy buffalo chili to balance it out.
As we dine we're crossing over bridges and gorges. Later, taking in the crisp air from the train's open platforms, we've got the wind and sun in our faces, Arctic cotton floating by like summery snow. Fireweed and wildflowers line the tracks, as do fly fishermen and women who smile and wave from their hip waders as we trundle by.
Rum and Cokes and a bag of Alaska Chip Company potato chips from the bar car are the proper snacks for reclining further into our seats and peering through the flat, wide windows for late afternoon animal sightings. "Moose! Moose!" shout the photo-takers from the front of the domed car. We see bald eagles overhead, an osprey in its nest, and a moose and her calves heading into the thick Alaskan woods.
The sun is out for good now, blasting away the last of the clouds, the sky like reams of baby blue ribbon curling around the massive mountain ranges (though Mount McKinley, North America's highest, remains shrouded in its own weather system.)
As we chug along, now nearing Denali, the low cedars growing taller, the canyons and gulches dropping ever deeper, the buzz on the train grows louder. Eight hours have slipped by like a pair of loons on a glacial-fed pond. People are excitedly discussing their plans for the next few days in the vast national park. There's talk of flightseeing, bus tours, hikes, and rafting.
Certainly, Denali is the destination. But I can't wait for the train ride back.
Toronto-based food and travel writer Amy Rosen is the acting food editor at Chatelainemagazine. A James Beard nominee, and regular contributor to the National Post, enRoute, Maclean's and Food & Wine among other magazines and newspapers. A story Amy wrote is included in the American anthology Best Food Writing 2008. Her first novel, "Indigestion", will be released soon. Visit her web site at: www.amyrosen.com
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