Wednesday, July 31, 2002

I never thought that snoozing until 8:00 a.m. was considered "sleeping in", but it sure felt better than the 5:30 a.m. assault from the previous morning.    We ate a quick "continental" breakfast and headed toward Denali Depot.  On the way, we caught an empty gravel train and followed it north through Nenana Canyon all the way through Million Dollar Curve and Windy Bridge.

Nenana Canyon Bridge Windy tunnel
Gravel train snaking thru Nenana Canyon.. crossing the bridge... and entering Windy Tunnel.

Five to ten minutes later it was followed by an empty oil tank train.

Endless oil Million Dollar Curve
Empty oil on Million Dollar Curve A seemingly endless oil train

For beginner's only: The single greatest maintenance problem for the railroad is "million dollar curve" at milepost 353. The problem is due to constant movement of the mountains due to their sedimentary-permafrost composition. Wooden beams are driven deep into the ground and interlaced with steel cables to hold sections of the roadbed together.

Coal currently supplies more than 55 percent of all electricity generated by public utilities in the United States.  The king of coal in Alaska is undoubtedly Usibelli Coal Mine, Inc.  Among their customers are Clear Air Force Station, Eielson Air Force Base, Fort Wainwright Army Post, Golden Valley Electric Association and University of Alaska at Fairbanks. When we arrived at Usibelli, the fickle finger of fate was again blessing us since there just happened to be a coal train getting filled.

For beginner's only: The operations at Usibelli Coal Mine are quite simple.  First, low sulfur coal is strip mined nearby and brought by truck to conveyor system across the river.  The conveyor system then transports the coal to the tipple where it is crushed and sorted by size.  Finally, the coal is sent to a nearby yard where it is stored until being loaded into train hoppers for distribution to various customers in Alaska.

We watched, photographed and video taped the operations for quite some time.  Last year Randy bought a brass HO scale SD70MAC no. 4014 so he was very excited to see the full sized version as part of the coal consist.

Empty Full
Coal cars enter the tipple empty... and emerge filled with low sulfur coal.

Since we were in the area, we stopped at the overpass at the north end of the Healy yard.  Two trains, one hauling tank cars and the other hoppers, pulled into the yard to allow a passenger train to pass.  Soon SD70MAC 4005 came rolling around the bend pulling a plethora of passenger cars.  [Note: My video of this can be found on my videos page - #05]

Empty oil tanks Passenger train
Empty tank cars waiting patiently Passenger trains have priority at meets

Racing back to Denali depot, we again caught the passenger train.  Randy's goal was to make a second try for the scenic photo a cloud had ruined yesterday.  As we passed the lead locomotive engineer Daryl Kollander stuck his head out to say "hi."  We then hoofed it out to the hill and were elated to get the shot we so desperately wanted.

Tim Gobi Beatious!
Daryl Kollander and SD70MAC 4005 B-e-a-t-i-f-u-l!

SuntranaContinuing our adventure, we headed for Suntrana.  Turning off the paved road, we passed the Healy Clean Coal Project building where coal is burned to create electricity for the city of Fairbanks.  After driving on several miles of well maintained gravel road, the tipple came into view.  The Suntrana tipple was the original site for Usibelli, but was abandon in 1981.  Some of the surrounding hillside was bare due to the strip mining.  The tipple itself is is reasonably good shape but the railroad tracks that pass through it have long since been covered by the swampy ground.  I took some photos (including two photos that I would later piece together as a panoramic shot)  while Randy measured as much of the structure as he could.  He plans on using these dimensions for a future HO scale version of this tipple.  Just before we left, I found some tracks in the mud that looked like they belonged to a bear.

We returned to the Healy Yard for more pix and videos and then journeyed to Denali Depot for our flight seeing trip.  We met Greg LaHaie and his Cessna 206 at the landing strip across from the depot.  He did some preliminary flight check stuff and then took the doors off one side of the plane so we could take photos with nothing between us and the ground except air.  At 4:20 p.m. we were airborne and the world below disintegrated into a breathtaking landscape.  Using our headsets, we instructed Greg on what we wanted and where we needed to be.  He took us up north through Healy Canyon, Usibelli, Suntrana, north along the railway, Ferry, Clear, Nenana, Fairbanks and the oil refinery.  Randy took seven rolls of film.  I took a lot of photos too, but most weren't very good due to being unable to see to my right or shooting through the glass.   We landed at 6:35 p.m.  Greg piloted a fantastic flight and I highly recommend his services if you are ever in the Denali area.  [Note: My video of the Healy fly over can be found on my videos page - #09]

#1 #2 #3
Greg LaHaie's Cessna 206 Usibelli coal tipple Freight train snaking thru a canyon
#4 #5 #6
Clear air force station Mears Bridge with grade changing curve Fairbanks yard
North Pole refinery    

Motion sickness has plagued me most of my life and this trip was no different.  I had to sit still for a while before attempting to eat lunch.  I took the opportunity to make a call home.  Just as I hung up the phone, I head a sound like the rumbling of an earthquake.  Fortunately, it was a south bound freight (TOFC, tanks, etc.) passing through the depot.

Healy depotOur final stop for the day was the town of Nenana.  On the way, we visited the old Healy depot building.  For some unknown reason, dirt was being moved and piled up all around the depot.  However, the depot itself was still raised up on steel girders and ready for travel.  Feeling that "land of the lost" urge, I went inside and did a little poking around.  It was sad to see this historic building just sitting around rotting.  This depot was built in the 1930s, surplused by the railroad in 1986, purchased by an unknown individual and moved to the current location.

Nenana DepotArriving in Nenana, we immediately drove to the Mears Memorial Bridge, a 700 foot steel structure that is one of the world's longest single span bridges.  We walked across the bridge and located the dedication plaque at the other end.  We weren't lonely on our little jaunt for a small army of vicious mosquitoes gathered to accompany us.  Once we returned to the car, it took us several minutes to smash the dozen or so mosquitoes that had entered our car with us.  We stopped at the Nenana depot and nearby barge dock to get a few photos.  [For an historic timeline of the depot click here.]  We then stopped at a local gas station for gas and Dove ice cream.  Refueled and refreshed, we resumed our journey.

For beginners only: On July 15, 1923 President Harding drove in the Golden Spike signifying completion of the Alaska Railroad. This event occurred at milepost 413.7 at the northern end of the 702 foot Mears Memorial truss bridge. The nearby town of Nenana hosted Harding during his visit.

Side view of Mears Memorial Bridge End view of bridge Dedication plaque
Side view End view Dedication plaque

About half way through the drive, we spotted a black bear who disappeared into the brush before we could get to our cameras.  With eyes half shut, we made it back to Greg's at 11:15 p.m.  Upon entering the guest cabin, we found the belongings of some squatters.  These individuals appeared almost immediately and retrieved their things.   We took showers at Greg's house and crawled into bed at midnight.

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