I had several friends travel Outside over the Holidays, while I was quite content to enjoy the cabin life in Fairbanks. Getting out wasn’t the problem. It was getting back to Alaska which has proved challenging. Most friends had layovers in Seattle, which were long enough to officially be reclassified as detours. One had a detour in Anchorage; getting oh so close to Fairbanks, but yet divided by a mountain of snow.
Two friends attempted to travel from Arizona to Fairbanks. There was a detour in Seattle, followed by a last minute flight to Anchorage. A second detour was then encountered. All flights between Alaska’s largest cities were booked out for days. Determined to get home, they booked a ride on the Alaska Railroad. I was excited for them, probably more excited than they were. I have never ridden that set of rails in the winter.
Out of the blue, I received a text from them. They were in Denali Park. “How long is this ride?” they asked. I hesitated, but eventually told them it was a 12 hour trip. One way. The Alaska Railroad is not high speed travel.
Late on New Year’s Day, I get a call. Taxis from the depot are three hours out. It’s -35F, but I head out the door to provide pickup/limo service.
The locomotive did look good, all decked out in Christmas lights.
1920’s travel along the narrow gauge rail of what was originally the Tanana Valley Railroad. By 1920, the TVRR had been bought out and this section renamed the Chatanika Branch. In 1923 it all became part of the Alaska Railroad.
The Potter Section House State Historical Site is now home to the Chugach State Park visitor center. The building was built in 1929, and was used to house section workers for this part of the Alaska Railroad. Originally, there were four section houses along the Anchorage section of the railroad. Their use was discontinued in 1978, and the Potter House is the last remaining of the four. It was listed on National Register of Historic Places in 1985.
A rotary snowplow that once cleared the tracks along Turnagain Arm is also on display at Potter House. The railroad car behind the snowplow, is home to the Kenai Visitor Center. Both visitor centers have been closed due to the pandemic, and remain closed.
The section along Turnagain Arm is notorious for avalanche, although today the avalanches are planned events. Back in the day, the rotary plow revolutionized track clearing. The plow’s steel teeth cut through even the most packed snow, as well as debris from an avalanche, and the occasional frozen moose. The snow was launched from the chute hundreds of feet off the track. Two steam engines pushed the plow, with a crew of seven.
This particular rotary plow was retired in 1985, in favor of track mounted bulldozers. The Alaska Railroad still maintains one rotary snowplow in reserve.
Chugach State Park, just outside of Anchorage, covers 495,204 acres. It is the third largest state park in the United States, and the second largest in Alaska. It is truly, one of Alaska’s many gems.
Potter Marsh Bird Sanctuary is a 564 acre fresh water marsh, located at the southern end of the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge.
The marsh was created in 1917 when the embankment for the Alaska Railroad was built up, effectively separating the fresh water from the Chugach Mountains, and the salt water from Turnagain Arm.
Potter Marsh is often called the most accessible wildlife viewing location in Alaska. The marsh is easily reached by the Seward Highway, and it contains a 1550 foot long boardwalk to keep your feet dry.
This wetland maze sees roughly 130 species of migratory and nesting birds calling it home, for at least part of the year. Moose, beavers, muskrats, eagles and hawks all can be viewed at Potter Marsh. Spawning salmon are often seen swimming up Rabbit Creek from Turnagain Arm in season.
Both brown bear and black bear use the marsh, but they are very rarely seen here. Consider yourself very lucky if you spot a bruin moving through the wetland.
Rail service was just another casualty in Alaska from Covid-19. With no tourists last summer, rail service took a huge hit within the state.
The Alaska Railroad has already announced increased service on all of their routes. Service between Anchorage and Fairbanks will double: 2020 had only four trains per week, while 2021 will see a total of eight. Every day of the week will see either a northbound or southbound run, and Sundays will see both.
Flagstop service will return to the Anchorage-Fairbanks route, which allows riders to get on or off anywhere along to route to access remote cabins and homesteads. The Alaska Railroad is the only train service in the United States that still provides flagstop service.
Turnagain Arm, south of Anchorage, received its name from one William Bligh, who was serving under Captain James Cook, during his search for the Northwest Passage. Bligh was sent out with a party to explore the two arms of what is now Cook Inlet. Both arms of the inlet led to rivers, and not the famed Northwest Passage, and Bligh testily named the final arm Turn-Again, because they had to turn around for a second time. It’s no wonder his crew would eventually mutiny.
At low tide, Turnagain Arm becomes a large mud flat. The tides here are the largest in the United States, coming in at 40 feet. The arm is also known for its tidal bores, which can be as high as six feet, which is an impressive sight, as it rushes across the arm. Beluga whales often surf the bore as it comes in.
Yesterday, March 27, was the anniversary of the Great Alaska Earthquake. The 9.2 magnitude quake, also known as the Good Friday Earthquake, is still the largest earthquake to hit North America, and the second largest to ever be recorded.
“We ran out of the building, and hung onto the wire mesh fence across the street. The road looked like waves in the ocean. All of the air police trucks looked like they were dancing as they were bouncing up and down.” — Airman stationed at Elmendorf AFB, Anchorage
The 1964 Earthquake and the resulting tsunamis took at least 139 lives. The earth shook for 4 minutes and 38 seconds from the main quake alone. Girdwood and Portage sank eight feet; portions of Kodiak rose over thirty feet. Seward burned; Valdez, Whittier and Chenega were destroyed, wiped off the face of the earth by the giant waves. A 75 ton locomotive was carried 300 feet by the waves in Seward, as 14 oil tankers and 40 railcars went up in flames. The tsunami that hit the WWII port of Whittier was 40′ high.
Alaska Railroad tracks near Turnagain Arm, south of Anchorage; March 28, 1964; Photo credit: USGS