Posts Tagged ‘railroad’

A Real Vacation!

I loved my trip to Denali National Park! I stayed for several days and did many different things, it was the closest I’ve ever come to having a traditional vacation since I started these park trips, and I loved every minute of it.  That’s why, unlike any other park post to date, I’ve split this one into two parts.

Take a Ride on the Rails

My trip started with a ride on the famed Alaska Railroad. Trains are such a soothing way to travel. Even commuter rail like Connecticut’s Metro North is good this way. It’s better than sitting in traffic, and sooooo much better than flying. You can just kick back and read, or stare out into space, or work on your blog, or chat with fellow passengers, at complete ease. No unplanned turbulence, no recycled air, no crammed seats, no plummet into the Hudson River (these things can run over cows never mind geese). And the Alaska Railroad ups that ante by having that historic feel in their cars (including a dining car and even a bar car if you want). I wish we had passenger trains like this crisscrossing the entire nation, I’d take them everywhere.

Alaska Railroad © 2009 America In Context

The key to an enjoyable ride on the Alaska Railroad, in fact the key to a fulfilling trip to Alaska in general, is, in my opinion, to bag the cruise packages entirely and book with an Alaska travel “arranger” like Alaska Tour and Travel (the firm I used). These outfits simply collect hotels, transportation, and various tours, events or excursions into packaged itineraries. You can select adventure itineraries or low-impact itineraries or “just give me a hot tub and a bottle of tequila” itineraries. This provides the best of two worlds: it helps you put together a trip that suits your interests without having to make tons of phone calls (or struggling to figure out which cruise line has the party boats vs. the fogey boats), but it also gives you loads of freedom that a full, all-in-one cruise package can’t (or won’t).

In the case of the railroad, you end up with a ride on the historic cars. Why is that a big deal? Because all the cruise ship folks are packed into one or two cruise-owned cars (the “Princess Car” or the “Carnival Car” or whatever), and you can’t roam from one to the other! Cruise people are stuck, just like they’re stuck on that boat. I talked with lots of folks on the “freedom” part of that train, everyone from locals  to intrepid wilderness backpackers to a family of Germans straining to see a moose (don’t they have moose in Germany?). On the Carnival Car, you’re stuck talking to the same cruisers you’ve been stuck with for the past week. You know, the ones who never shut up at dinner or wear too much perfume all the time or don’t care much for their personal hygiene (“hey, I’m on vacation, why bother bathing”)? Bleagh.

View through a Rain-Spattered Window © 2009 America In Context

Before my trip on the Alaska Railroad, I’ve never ridden on a train outside of the Metro North or various city subway systems, and there is no comparison. The Metro North rails are lined with trash and abandonment, the subways are lined with urban decay or tunnel darkness. The Alaska Railroad is lined with gorgeous scenery. The Alaska countryside is so beautiful, so interesting, you can look out the windows for hours and hours  and never get bored. Even more appealing, on the day I rode (late August, nearing the end of the season), the railroad was about 1/3 full, if that. I sat in the upper viewing booth (the one with the sign saying “30 minute limit”), by myself at times, at other times with only a handful of interesting people, for almost the entire trip. That itself was a lot of fun, it’s like watching great previews before the movie at the local multi-megaplex. It soooo gets you into the right frame of mind for beautiful Denali Park.

Life in a Tourist Town

I stayed at Denali. No, not in the park. I stayed at the tourist town just outside of Denali that is also called, I guess, Denali (I wonder if Denali is Alaskan for “Smurf”?). Anyway, Denali is literally just that: a tourist town, meaning no one actually resides there. People live there during the tourist season to wait tables or operate the local sub shop or drive the tour buses or clean the hotel rooms or run the river rafting excursions. Tourism is the sole reason the place exists, and when there are no tourists, there is no town.

Trackside Colors © 2009 America In ContextGoing at the end of season was actually kind of cool in that aspect. You get the sense that Denali Town is like a big travelling circus or something, by the end of the season everyone who’s been living there for the past 2-3 months not only knows each other really well, they’ve consequently learned how to relax and party (or participate in :ahem: other activities) with each other. They also realize that they will soon be going back to their real lives wherever their real lives are. This gives such a relaxed, carefree, Bohemian vibe to the place (sort of like a Dead concert with a high cost of living). It was even getting close to Denali New Year, a manufactured holiday, complete with midnight countdown, marking the end of the tourist season.  Soon the town would be boarded up and evacuated, all the bartenders or shopkeepers or chambermaids going back to Russia or New Orleans or Croatia or Los Angeles or wherever else they really call home.

I enjoyed being in Denali Town at the end of season, in fact I liked being in Alaska at the end of season for a lot of reasons. If you go, I recommend you go the last week of August into the first week of September.

J.C. and the Boys

The very afternoon I arrived in Denali Town, I had my first excursion: horseback riding on the tundra. A grizzled local (yes, an actual local, imagine that!) picked up several of us from our hotel and took us to a ranch in nearby Healy. Our guide was a nice chap, a Coloradan ranch hand who worked in Alaska during the season to pick up extra cash. I was joined by five or six other folks, all nice people who actually knew how to act around animals even if they weren’t experienced  riders. I’ve ridden horses before, but am still a pretty weak horseman. I do know the cardinal rule of horseback riding: treat the animal with respect and kindness, but don’t be afraid to tell him where you want to go. So many folks are either scared to death, are unwilling to take control, or simply don’t treat the animal right. Horses sense all these things and will act accordingly. I’ve seen people lose complete control of their horse, usually with painful consequences.

Alaska Range © 2009 America In Context

Fortunately, I was with a great bunch of folks, and the nature of the tundra prevents most accidents. The tundra is squishy and soft and full of unsuspected holes, so there is no galloping. The pace is slow, actually, to be accurate, I should say “slooooooooowwwwwww.” Going at any type of speed is dangerous to the animal, and because you’re on the animal’s back, it’s dangerous to you, too. Our guide was very clear in that regard, and there were no problems. He gave me a horse named J.C. (clearly a religious connection, quite ironic if you know my own views on religion). J.C., I was told, is an independent spirit, more likely to leave the trail and wander on his own than the others. Being an independent spirit myself, we got along great, didn’t have a single problem. I wish I could ride more often, I get along great with animals but don’t hang out with them as much as I’d like …

We were out there for a couple of hours, and right away, I fell in love with the place. Alaska is big and sparsely populated. That means it’s incredibly easy to get out into the wild, away from it all. We only had to go through the gate and cross one small hill to experience what it’s like to actually be out there. No visible roads. No sounds of car engines or gangsta subwoofers. Nothing but birds and wind and the flump flump sound of hoof on tundra. Our guide actually didn’t speak much for the first 20 minutes or so, and that was intentional. You can’t really experience Alaska without experiencing that quiet of remoteness, and he let us soak it up for a time before going into tour guide mode.

Horse and Tundra © 2009 America In Context

Once he did turn talkative, we started to learn more of the ins and outs of Alaska life. He explained the two cardinal rules of wildlife encounters (“run from moose, don’t run from bears”). He explained the nature of the tundra (it’s a carpet of tangled root systems laying on top of permafrost). He explained the significance of fireweed (“it turns redder as winter approaches” — it being the end of season we saw several plants with reddish leaf tips). All of it low key, all of it interesting, and, best of all, he was simply a good guy to us and to the animals. None of the arrogance of the typical impatient or bored tour operator, you could tell he liked what he was doing, and liked dealing with people.

After a couple of hours, we were back at the ranch, and the local drove us back to Denali Town. He wasn’t too thrilled to hear about the fireweed (they take winter very seriously up there), but he chatted us up with some of the local folklore. I ended up back at the hotel quite satisfied: I just had my first day at Denali, and so far, it was a great trip.

Hotel View at Night © 2009 America In Context

[Pics are mine and copyrighted thusly. More to come on the next post.]



Denali National Park

Alaska Railroad

Alaska Tour and Travel

Google map to Denali

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The Glories of Innovation

I love innovation, I really do. I guess I’m just an old techno-geek. I love stumbling across things that are so brilliant, inventions that show not only the intelligence, but the sheer drive and willpower of idea-men and those who craft those ideas into reality. One of those happy little discoveries was the Allegheny Portage Railroad.

This is one of those stories that takes a little while to tell. Way back in the early 1800’s, we really were the United States of America. We were just a collection of states assembled under one flag, instead of the Conforming States of Generica we seem to be now. The only difference between us back then and the modern day European Union is we were all illiterate under a common language. Other than that, the states were really separate entities, each culturally and economically different from the other.

Of course, every state competed with every other state. Who had the better industry? Who had the better cities? Who could attract the most immigrants (imagine that in this day and age)? Most importantly, who had the best economy? Then, as now, wealth begat power, wealth begat influence, wealth begat more wealth. Competition would be quite stiff at times, especially amongst rival Northern states.

Ohio River SteamboatIn the early 1800’s, westward expansion was really gearing up. The frontier represented opportunity. For settlers, it was the opportunity to find a new life. To the merchants in the eastern states, the frontier represented money. Settlers needed tools, and supplies, and seed. Settlers needed to sell their own products (timber, crops, cattle) to buy those tools, supplies, and seed. The merchants were ready to handle both sides of the equation. The nation, as today, ran on commerce. There were riches to be had on the frontier, that much was certain. But how do you transport all these people and goods back and forth? The answer was water.

The railroads hadn’t begun their dominance over the land yet. So America used its great waterways: the Ohio, the Mississippi, and the Great Lakes. Of course, there’s a small problem: how do you get goods from the wealthy merchant cities of Boston, Baltimore, New York, and Philadelphia, to these great waterways, and back? Well, by wagon, of course … oh wait, small problem: a little thing called the Appalachian Mountains. Sure, compared to the then-irrelevant Rocky Mountains, the Appalachians are nothing, mere bumps on the ground. But to a young nation with nothing more than mules and wooden wagons, these bumps formed a most impressive obstacle, to some states more than others.

New York managed quite well. They had a wonderful thing called the Hudson River that just so happened to run into the Mohawk River, which just so happened to run in a natural channel through the Adirondacks (thank you, Ice Age glaciers!). A little bit of digging across a reasonably forgiving stretch of land, and voila! They finished a little thing called the Erie Canal by 1825. This little gem of a project catapulted slimy little New York City into the financial powerhouse it is today.

Erie Canal courtesy of www.eriecanal.org

Maryland was soon following right along. They had a nice little waterway called the Potomac River running along their southern border. They still had to cross the mountains to match the superiority of the Erie Canal, but their canal system got them pretty durn close. It was only a matter of time before they figured out how to cross the great mountains of what is now West Virginia. Oh wait, what’s that whistling noise? Oh yes, it’s called the railroad. Still in its infancy, the engineers of that famous Monopoly space — the B&O Railroad — figured out how to keep their crude engines carrying freight to the Ohio River and beyond. They would be carrying frontier goods very soon.

But Pennsylvania, oh poor Pennsylvania! What to do? If they didn’t carve a path to the frontier, they would be ruined! New York already took over Philadelphia’s preeminence, and now Maryland? Pennsylvania had a river leading up to the mountains (the Susquehanna). They had a river leading away from them (the Ohio). But what about that spur of the Appalachians, the blasted Alleghenies! The glaciers didn’t come far enough south to scour great grooves in those escarpments. The Keystone State was, basically, screwed. So, what to do?

1846 Pennsylvania courtesy of www.mapsofpa.com

This is where the brilliance came in. What do you do with mountains? You climb them, of course (well, duh!).

The Allegheny Portage Railroad was the resultant masterpiece. It was a series of inclined railways, powered by fixed engines at various locations. You throw a freight car on it, hoist it up one side and down the other, simple! They even invented canal boats on wheels: you paddle up, hook up one end, and tow it up and down to the next river! Fixed engines made it simple and manageable, and less problematic, than the early railroad engines. The whole thing was brilliant and ingenious, and saved Pennsylvania from ruin.

Well, not really. It ran poorly. It broke a lot, there were a lot of devastating accidents. Have you ever seen a heavily-laden cable snap? It’s called “mass beheading”. Yeah, it wasn’t the best operating system in the world, but it did what it needed to do for 20 years, when the steam engine really came into its prime and men figured out how to lay good track and blast holes through mountains.

Even though, I really love the notion of the Allegheny Portage Railroad. Image floating along on a fine autumn afternoon, watching fisherman, and farmers, and children playing tag. Hawks circling above, looking for some stray rabbit for dinner. Your passenger barge pulls up to the Allegheny Portage Railroad, and you’re hoisted up the mountains. The crisp, cool air refreshes your lungs, the foliage-laden Alleghenies are a perfect backdrop for a perfect day.  You toast your crossing with fellow passengers, and are lowered down to the other river, where your future awaits on the Great Frontier!

All great fun, until someone gets beheaded.

Pulleys & Twine — © 2008 America In Context

To my knowledge, no one was actually beheaded by a cable during the operation of the railroad. A steam boiler did explode on Incline Plane #6, killing four people, and there were plenty of other injuries. But nothing livens up a story like a good beheading, don’t you think?

[Original photos © 2008 America In Context. Historical maps found through http://www.maphistory.info/]

Sadly, due to poor CD management, many of my Allegheny photos are gone. The few I have, such as they are, are here.


Allegheny Portage Railroad National Historic Site

Historical Maps of Pennsylvania

Google map to Allegheny Portage Railroad

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