A dirty flag waved wildly back and forth as the locomotive’s engines ground slowly to a stop along the tracks. Within moments, a little group of people stepped out from behind a clump of willow branches, lugging plastic bins, tents, fishing poles, and rifles. Quickly tossing gear, dogs, and kids into the baggage car, these dusty-but-happy campers sank into the cool depths with a sigh.
“Hi folks!” shouted conductor Warren Redfearn. “How was your weekend?”
We were aboard the Alaska Railroad’s Hurricane Turn train, a 55-mile immersion into land regaled with story and song. Owning the distinction as the nation’s last whistle-stop train, the Hurricane Turn is not on a typical tourist’s itinerary; nor is it on most Alaskans’, for that matter. Traveling north from Talkeetna Thursday through Sunday, May to September, and once a month during the winter, the Hurricane Turn brings support and transportation to residents living in this swath of roadless land, and a fair number of recreation enthusiasts. The benefit for vacationers, however, is a glimpse of Alaska’s most beautiful backcountry, terminating at the jaw-dropping Hurricane Gulch bridge, a 918-foot tumble of rock to the creek below.
For children, the Hurricane Turn train is less about the view outside, and more about the characters within, starting with longtime conductor Redfearn. An Alaska Railroad employee since 1974, Redfearn knows how to please his young passengers, passing out prizes and high-fives with equal abandon. This guy is an overall-clad pied piper, and kids aboard “his” train eat it up, too.
For example, “Conductor Warren”, as he is known, encouraged kids to follow his simple rules for safe train travel (no running, three points of contact at all times, no electronics below 10,000 feet. Get it?). Toward the end of our six-hour day, youngsters were awarded a hand-painted golden spike, a token of appreciation for “Good Kids.” An Academy Award never received such reverence, and AK Kid treated his with the utmost of care.
Conductor antics aside, the train’s frequent rail-riders are also topics of conversation and observation. Mostly homesteaders, but also fishermen and backcountry hikers, passengers who travel the route on a regular basis are able to connect with civilization quite easily, flagging a train using white cloth that often comes right off their backs in the form of a t-shirt. Transporting everything from concrete to dog food, these men and women consider themselves lucky to live in the heart of God’s country, embracing the minor inconvenience of a train ride with wisdom gleaned through years living under no schedule but their own.
When the train stops, everyone jumps into action, moving crates and backpacks, making room for the next group. Kids are included, too, and AK Kid was pressed into service by a cabin owner who was traveling to his homestead with cement forms to build new deck footings. It’s an immediate connection to community, whether one resides here or not, and this intimate swapping of labor and interesting stories grew more fascinating with every turn of the creaky wheels.
Conductor Warren, when pressed about the Hurricane Turn’s almost magical personality, grinned slowly. “This is the railroad’s best kept secret,” he said. “You won’t find this kind of tour anywhere else.”
I think he’s on to something.
The Alaska Railroad offers Thursday through Sunday departures from Talkeetna (2.5 hours from Anchorage, off the Parks Highway) aboard the Hurricane Turn through September 16, 2013. Winter departures leave Anchorage at 8:30 a.m., and Talkeetna at 11:25 a.m., on the first Thursday of each month, beginning early October.
Tickets: Fares range from $48/kids, $96/adults for the summer train, and $50/kids, $99/adults for the winter train. Alaska residents receive a 20% discount with valid state I.D. Call for occasional seasonal specials, including a Kids Ride Free deal going on, right now.
Services: The Hurricane Turn Train offers nothing in the way of dining services, so passengers should take a full day of meals, snacks, and plenty of drinks along. Kids will be glad to know that Conductor Warren hands out activity books during the summer months, but not all winter trains have them. Parents should pack games, books, and small toys for amusement during this long day of travel.
What will you see? Lush, green forestland, moose, black bears, homesteaders, dogs, and, upon arriving in Hurricane, an amazing expanse of mountainous Alaska, including the historic Hurricane Gulch. TIP: Sit in the doorways of the baggage car; the breezes, the scenery, and the people make it the best place to be on the whole train. I’d bring a lawn chair if I did it again.
Best age to travel: This trip is recommended for kids in grade school and up. Toddlers may not enjoy the lack of space, and the train moves too much for early walkers. The Railroad does accommodate those with mobility issues.
Make it an overnight: Stay at the Talkeetna Roadhouse, enjoying a relaxing before-or-after stayover, and one of their great meals, Breakfast, or Not Breakfast. Tell owner Trisha Costello we sent you.
More information: Contact the Alaska Railroad at www.AlaskaRailroad.com, or call (907) 265-2494.