A whirlwind four hour tour through some of Alaska’s most
By Erik Olsen
Updated: 6:18 p.m. ET June 01,
The glacier that has just come into view looks like a
giant wave spilling down the face of the mountain, a tsunami of ice that seems
ready to crush anything in its path, including us.
fortunately, the glacier isn’t really going anywhere, or not very quickly
anyway. According to our guide, an excruciatingly chipper woman named Candace,
the glacier is, in fact, moving. Backwards. Like the vast majority of Alaska’s
glaciers, Spencer is retreating. So needless to say there’s no danger as we
Named for the poor chap who fell into a crevasse there in
1914, the Spencer Glacier is the first of several we’ll see along our journey.
This is glacier country, after all. There are more than 2,000 of them in the
state, according to the Bruce Molnia, a glacial geologist with the United States
Geological Survey, even though there is about fifty percent less ice here than
there was 10,000 years ago, during the last ice age.
by rail Reporter Erik Olsen
takes America's most scenic train trip
are traveling by train through the heart of Southwest Alaska, riding the "Coastal Classic" from
Anchorage to Seward. My wife and I agree that the ride is an impressive value at
just $98 per person. (The Coastal Classic from Anchorage to Seward departs
Anchorage daily at 6:45 am from May 15 to Sept. 13, 2004.) The train ride is a
mere 120 miles, and takes just four and a half hours, but it is without question
one of the most beautiful routes in the country. This is truly an excellent way
to see Alaska, to gape at its awesome scale, its epic beauty. Any cube-dwelling
city-slickers looking for a drastic change of scenery in their lives could
hardly do better than coming to the 49th state.
Our trip officially began in Anchorage, where we spent
several days enjoying festivals celebrating the summer solstice on June 21, the
longest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere. On the morning of our
departure, we were up at 5 am, and made our way to the spartan, but efficient,
Anchorage station, where, according to Tim Thompson of the Alaskan Railroad,
trains have one of the best reputations in the country for running on time.
"We’re very proud of that fact," he says. A fact that is pretty amazing if you
consider the size of the state of Alaska.
Getting here was easy. We booked our United Airlines
flight several weeks in advance from New York to Anchorage through Orbitz for
$500 per person. Several airlines, including Alaska Airlines, occasionally run
Web specials to Anchorage, so keep your eyes out for them. Also, it’s
significantly cheaper if you fly from the West Coast.
Along with scores of tourist-focused families and Seward
residents heading home, we boarded the Coastal Classic, a gleaming blue and
yellow chain of railroad cars, cars that appeared so well maintained, they’d
make a New York City transit worker seethe with envy. The train offers reserved
seats and a dining car, but there is also a dome viewing car with a kind of
sunroof on steroids, that allows riders to gawk and snap pictures with panoramic
Shortly after leaving Anchorage, the train passes through
the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. Also known as Potter's Marsh, the area is
teeming with wildlife. We spot thousands of migratory birds gathered in broad
ponds and see several Moose loping around the edge of the water. We come upon
the resort town of Girdwood and then chug further down the Southeast edge of the
Turnagain Arm, a broad mirror of grey water that forms a branch of the Cook
Inlet and experiences the world's second highest tides at over 30 feet. The
Arm’s name comes from an 1778 expedition led by Captain James Cook. Cook had
entered the arm during his search for the Northwest Passage, but upon reaching
the dead end of the arm, he was forced to "turn again", leaving it with the
somewhat awkward-sounding name.
The train we are on has recently been through several
major changes. Four years ago, the Alaskan Railroad Corporation, which is owned
by the State of Alaska, decided to improve the line to make it more inviting to
tourists. They spent almost $5 million restoring the cars and adding dome
viewing cars. The result is a remarkably appealing rail adventure that has an
almost Disneyesque feel to it. In a good way.
“They [the Alaska Rail company] really does a phenomenal
job catering to tourists,” says train buff John Coombs who runs alaskarail.org, a private
site dedicated to the Alaska rail. "They’ve done a terrific job restoring it.
When the sun is shining, [the Anchorage to Seward route] is probably the most
beautiful ride in the country."
While glaciers and rivers are a treat, the wildlife seems
to capture the attention of our car’s passengers, particularly the children.
Already we have seen Dall sheep scaling the rocky mountainside with balletic
ease. Further on, we see a baby brown bear sneak into the brush and a six-foot
tall Moose munching grass next to a shallow stream. Several bald eagles soar
overhead, easily identifiable from the white shock of their head feathers.
Of course, we’re lucky. The early explorers to this part
of the country were deprived of such a glorious (and comfortable) way to see the
Alaskan countryside. The railroad wasn’t finished until 1923, when President
Warren Harding drove in the famous golden spike near Anchorage, thus opening up
easy passage to Seward, once a lonely fishing village. Since then, traffic has
grown impressively. Last year, over 400,000 passengers rode on the Alaskan
We pass several other glaciers along the way, including
the Bartlett and Trail Glaciers, each of which Candace brings to our attention
with her inimitable charm. We climb a mountain via sweeping switchbacks that
take the train back and forth up the mountainside and which must have been an
engineering nightmare. We pass Kenai Lake, whose turquoise blue color comes from
suspended glacial silt in the water, but whose hues seem unreal.
After four and a half hours that pass like two, we arrive
in the town of Seward on Resurrection Bay. It is a magnificent summer’s day and
the town is gearing up for the famous 4th of July celebration a few days away,
when the population will double and the Mt. Marathon race will pit extreme
athletes against one another to race to the top of the race’s namesake.
Even though it is our destination, Seward is known as the
"gateway" to Alaska because it is here that the railroad "officially" starts.
The town is named in honor of William H. Seward who, in one of the sweetest
deals in American history, orchestrated the purchase of Alaska from the Russians
in 1867 for $7.2 million, or little more than two cents an acre.
Having reached our destination, we step off the Coastal
Classic and made our way to the charming Van Gilder Hotel, where we booked a
spacious room for $150 per night. We feel distinctly saddened that the trip was
over. There is nothing like traveling by train. Of course, the feeling is
short-lived, eclipsed by the excitement that a new stage of our trip was just