Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Turnagain ArmWhen the alarm went off at 7:15 AM, I almost leaped out of bed. Today would be our exciting rail and raft excursion! After a quick breakfast, Derek dropped us off at the Anchorage train depot. As I walked up to the ticket window, Megan the ticket agent smiled broadly and asked, "Are you John Combs?" Whoa! It was pretty darned exciting to be recognized! When I repiled that I was, the second ticket agent joined her and they began asking me a multitude of questions regarding my website, how I got started, why I was doing it, etc. After answering all their questions, I presented each with a "John's Alaska Railroad Web Page" magnetic and thanked them for their interest. My wife was both amazed and amused by all the attention I received.

Although I am not a devotee of gift shops, I must admit I love spending time and money in the one at the depot. If I had been blessed with the affliction of massive wealth, I would have just bought one of everything. Terry and I definitely did our share to help stimulate the Alaskan economy. My favorite purchase was an Alaska Railroad pajama set for Terry.

Beauty!Beauty!We boarded car #201 and quickly found our seats. The train left promptly at 8:15 a.m. For all you railfans in the crowd, our consist was SD70MAC #4328, baggage 100, diner 301, coaches 209, 210 and 201, baggage 111, and GP40 #3009. Once out of Anchorage, I spent most of my time haunting the vestibules, taking photographs and video. Again Turnagain Arm was gloomy yet strikingly beautiful. [click here for 3.9MB video] Terry spent most of her time taking photos with her cell phone, sending them to her friends and then following up with a phone call.

As we took the switch and headed for Whittier, Heather a seven year veteran with Chugach Adventure Guides came around to prepare us for our rafting trip. First, she had us fill out a liability waiver and then issued us our wading boots. She explained the two-hour float trip would be a somewhat gentle float trip on Class 1 and 2 water. She did advise us the water temperature were a chilly 34 degrees and there would be no swimming today! Furthermore, our adventure would be one of the largest of the season with eight rafts of ten people each. Apparently, there was a local business whose employees would be taking this trip.

Loading the raftsWe made passenger pick ups at both Whittier and Portage before taking the wye toward Spencer. [click here for 6.9MB video of an abbreviated pass through the Anton Anderson Tunnel] At one point, we stopped to pick up the rafts for our float trip. It took six guides to hoist each of the huge green and gray rafts into the baggage cars. Knowing the realities of the backcountry, I asked one guide if they ever had problems with wildlife bothering unattended rafts between trips.

"We had a bear wander through the area and tore two of them beyond repair. We have since installed an electrified fence and have had no more problems. These rafts are expensive so it is very important to protect our company's equipment."

Spencer lakeAfter riding the rails for another 20 minutes or so, we arrived at Spencer. This is a truly remote area as only the railroad cuts through the Chugach Mountains to reach it. Once we detrained, we boarded one of the two buses and headed to Spencer Lake. Robert Frost would have loved Spencer Lake. Dark green mountains frosted in powdery white snow surrounded a silty gray lake dotted with striking cobalt blue tinted icebergs. It was definitely the stuff that inspired poems...as well as photographs! If I had a dollar for every person who had their picture taken in front of that lake then I would have enough money to buy locomotive #3015.

Our hosts put out the call for lunch and we all filed up to a large dining fly. Our cozy little lunch consisted of sandwiches, soup, fruit and some exceptionally delicious brownies. As we ate, the guides walked around and encouraged you to go back for seconds and even thirds. No one walked away hungry. After all trash had been stowed, we eagerly headed back down to the lake to begin our excursion.

As we returned to Spencer Lake, we were issued life jackets and assigned guides and rafts. Our guide's name was Jeff, a soft spoken yet powerful man who splits his year between rafting and snow skiing. Once our raft entered the water, we began circling the maze of icebergs. The largest of the bergs loomed over 30 feet tall and the guides kept clear of these giants in case they decided to roll over. Floating among dozens of huge icebergs is definitely an adventure that must be experienced to be believed. The word that kept coming to my mind was "stunning." Jeff rotated the raft continually so everyone could get plenty of photographs of everything. And then it happened. "Crack!" Thunder? No, it was an enormous wall of ice calving from the face of the nearby glacier. The fact that we were in a tiny raft hundreds of feet away made it a truly unforgettable experience of a lifetime. Therefore, it was truly sad when we finally left the lake. I could have spent the whole day here if not longer. Stunning.

As we rafted down the Placer River, not even cloud covered skies could diminish the beautify of the mountains, marshes and meadows. Passing under a railroad bridge, the water's speed picked up and little rapids began to appear. Jeff offered paddles to two teenage boys on board and they accepted them with enthusiasm. Time seemed to slow as we gently drifted along the now calm water. [click here for 6.8MB video] Jeff was quite knowledgeable about the surrounding geology and plant life and successfully fielded every question thrown at him.

Jeff a sea of bergs a sea of bergs
John and Terry Bridge Placer River


Our five mile trip ended all too soon. Guides helped us back on shore, took our rubber boots and life jackets and then stowed the rafts for the next trip. As if on cue, our train appeared in the distance. It was a sensational ending to a perfect trip.

A beautiful sight! Stacking the rafts Ready to board


As we pulled into the depot at Portage, everybody hoped off the train to catch the bus back to Anchorage; everyone that is, except Terry and I. Conductor Bill Haggart saw us sitting there all alone and asked if we wanted to take the bus. We declined. He then said, "I figured I wasn't going to get this old rail buff off, but I thought I should check.' The train headed back to Whittier to pick up some passengers and I hoped off to photograph the consist. Our train then made its way back back to Anchorage. As if taking the extra train ride wasn't enough of a bonus already, we got an incredible wildlife show along Turnagain Arm. First, we spotted two large bald eagles perched in a tree. Next, we saw a huge moose standing in a pond, chewing reeds and calmly watching us pass. However, it was when the train slowed to a crawl that we knew something special was in store. Sure enough there were at least nine Dall sheep playing on the cliffs less than 300 feet from us. I kid you not, the train stopped for about ten minutes so we could fill up our digital memory cards with dozens of spectacular shots. The ewes leaped from ledge to ledge while the lambs played close by. If I could have pulled up a lawn chair next to the tracks and sat down, I would have spent the rest of my evening watching these playful agile characters. [click here for 5.1MB video]

Traditional train shot Dall sheep



At the depot Derek picked us up and took us back to the condo. Of course we gave Don his daily debriefing and enjoyed a generous dose of ice cream. Just another day in paradise!

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