Alaska Railroad Trip Report

by John Bienkiewicz

18th September 2000
Today was a day I had been dreaming about for years.  I woke up knowing that in two and a bit hours I would be riding the rails of the ARR on the Denali Star.  You might be surprised therefore to know that I was in a fairly bad mood when the alarm clock woke me up at six a.m.  The problem was that after a week and a half in Alaska I was starting to get home sick.  My cure, being Australian, was to stay up watching the Sydney Olympics till three a.m.  Not a good idea when you have to be up at six a.m.!

Anyway after a quick shower and shave I dragged my bags down to the Anchorage depot.  The depot is ideally located right next to the CBD, so I was actually able to walk from my hotel.  Seat allocation and baggage check-in was a breeze.  I then made several purchase from the small but well-stocked gift shop located inside the depot.  The shop is excellent and well worth putting time aside for.  The ARR trip guide is a must purchase both for reference on the train and back at home.

Aboard the train I was quickly introduced to "ARR humor."  A lady wanted to switch seats and asked the conductor if this was all right.  He assured her that it was all right but the lady was worried that she needed special permission to change seats.  The conductor responded as quick as a flash, "I've said you can and that's all the authorization you need.  Because Iím the man with the plan."  This produced many a chuckle from the lady and her fellow passengers.

For the next two days I couldn't help but be impressed by the professionalism, good humor and expert knowledge of the railroad that all the staff on the Denali Star seem to possess.  Many companies like to claim that their staffs are their greatest assets.  I'm sure the ARR would be one such company.

Once we were away my tiredness was quickly forgotten as I took in the breathtaking scenery.  September is a great time to ride the ARR, as the fall colours are simply magnificent.  But the biggest bonus is that there are so few passengers on the train that you can ride in the dome-car for long periods without having to give up your seat.  The views from the dome-cars are ten times as good as those from the windows.

We arrived in Denali National Park (DNP) a few minutes later then scheduled.  This was probably due to the conductor slowing the train down so we could take in the excellent views of Mount McKinley.  Once again the ARRís commitment to service shone through.  At check-in a tag was placed on my bags with the name of my hotel.  This meant that when I arrived at my hotel my bag was already waiting for me in my room.

19th September 2000
In the morning we enjoyed a Wildlife Tour of DNP, booked through the ARR.  Many of the people I met in my carriage the day before were also on the tour.  We were fortunate to see a grizzly bear, dall sheep, moose, caribou and a porcupine.   (I wasnít expecting to see a porcupine!)

In the peak of the tourist season as many as thirty wildlife tours run through the park.  Today there were so few tourists that only one tour was run.  There were however quite a few tourists in private vehicles.  Normally private vehicles are banned in the park but these folks were luck winners of a lottery to give them access for the last week of the park season.

After a relaxing morning spent at the Princess lodge, our hotel having closed for the year the second we went on the tour, we caught a shuttle bus down to the railroad-station.  Once again our bags were taken care of, before we left for the tour we had simply left them tagged outside our rooms.

At about three p.m. we boarded our train to Fairbanks.  Yet again a cheerful comedian, who in between telling jokes acted as our conductor, was on board.  For this leg of the trip we also had a student guide who was excellent.

The visual highlight of this leg was the million-dollar curve.  The curve itself is quite impressive.  What really makes it impressive is the twenty or so dall sheep perched up on the steep slopes on the other side of the Nenana River.

The highlight of my whole Alaskan experience was the time I spent up in the dome-car that day.  The conductor has spent many years working on freight trains and enthralled us with tales about the railroad.  Even passengers who previously had no interest in railroading were fascinated.  As a fan of the ARR I was doubly fascinated.

The scenery between DNP and Fairbanks while still beautiful seemed barren compared to the previous dayís scenery.  This was bit of a blessing as it allowed everyone to take it easy after the frantic photo taking of the previous day.  I enjoyed a relaxing dinner consisting of a Denali Burger and mud-cake.  The Denali Burger was probably the best burger I have ever have.

Before arriving at the Fairbanks Depot we dropped off the Princess cars at a spot in the freight yard.  The big Princess busses that were waiting to meet them wouldn't have fitted anywhere else.  The ARR staff refer to this un-coupling as "getting rid of the dead weight from the train."

One thing the dead weight misses out on is the model-railroad at the depot.  It's of good overall quality and is manned by some very enthusiastic volunteers.  Unfortunately I only had two minutes at most to see it as the coach from my hotel arrived.

20th September 2000
The next day I flew back to Anchorage on a flight booked through the ARR.  I then had two long flights to Seoul and then Sydney so I had plenty of opportunity for reflection.   My ARR trip was a fantastic experience, but being an ARR fan I was probably always going to enjoy it.

Peter, an old school mate, who had joined me in Alaska after he had finished holidaying in British Columbia, seemed to enjoy the Denali Star as much as I did.  It was also pretty obvious that all the passengers on the train, most of whom wouldn't have been railfans, seemed to be having a great time.  So if you're traveling in Alaska with friends or family who aren't railfans don't hesitate to go on the ARR.  They'll have as much fun as you will!

My only regret is that I spent so little time on the railroad.

NB.  My trip on the ARR was a single package deal, the A3.  This was booked through the ARR's excellent online booking site.


© 2001 John Bienkiewicz