It was my second trip (but my son's first) on the annual ski train, an event chartered by the Nordic Ski Assn. of Anchorage. Two Saturdays each year, the railroad travels into the heart of the wilderness for a day of backcountry fun.
Grandview and Curry, areas accessible only by train, are little more than small signposts along the tracks. Yet on either side of the rails rises a landscape as unsullied and scenic as any place on Earth.
The year before, I had signed up primarily on the promise of phenomenal wilderness skiing, but I quickly learned that getting there and back was half the fun. Erik, an avid skier, decided to join in the festivities this time.
As we boarded, we noticed that many travelers had packed more than just simple sandwiches for their daylong excursion. At 6 a.m., before we had even left the station, veteran ski-train riders were already sipping champagne, dining on smoked salmon and fresh bagels, and nibbling on the fruit they had packed along.
Men in lederhosen and women wearing colorful dirndls also climbed aboard, lugging trumpets, clarinets, tubas and other instruments. They were members of the Anchorage Krausenspieler Blaskapelle Band, a group reputed to provide a party flair with its fine polka music.
The train departed just as the glow of morning light brightened the horizon. The tracks meandered through western Anchorage and then pulled past the city south toward the glittering waters of Cook Inlet. The rising sun illuminated the snow-covered Chugach Mountains.
Travelers snuggled into their seats with mugs of hot cocoa and watched the unfolding vista as the train hugged the shoreline and wound its way south.
Grandview, the southern destination for the ski train, was named by the legendary "Alaska Nellie," the first woman to run a roadhouse during construction of the Alaska Railroad in the early 1900s. Living alone in Grandview, Nellie Neal Lawing cooked for rail crews, hunted, trapped and ran a dog team.
One night during a blizzard, she hooked up her dog team to look for a mail carrier who was missing in the storm. She found him alive but nearly frozen and hurried him back to the roadhouse.
After feeding him and watching him fall into an exhausted sleep, she harnessed her team again and went out to deliver the mail to the waiting train.
For her heroism, she received a gold nugget necklace from the city of Seward, which she wore proudly for the rest of her life.
Alaska Nellie later ran the roadhouse at what is now the northern destination for the ski train — Curry. At the time, the railroad construction camp was called Dead Horse Hill. After the line was completed in 1923, the railroad built a luxury resort along the banks of the scenic Susitna River and changed the community's name to Curry. Today, the resort is gone, except for a small abandoned log cabin at the top of the hill.
The most striking aspect of both Grandview and Curry is the imposing landscape and its possibilities for spectacular wilderness skiing.
Halfway through the 2 1/2 -hour train ride, the polka band revved up its tunes and marched through the cars, rousing sleepy travelers with energetic music. Yawning and stretching, we grinned and pulled on extra pairs of warm socks.
It wouldn't be long before we arrived in Grandview.
Meanwhile, the conductor asked everyone to pay close attention to members of the nordic ski patrol, who came through each car and briefed passengers about the potential hazards of the area. Various search-and-rescue groups were also onboard in case skiers got into trouble. Experts assess avalanche conditions and other dangers before the train arrives. But, as in all backcountry adventures, people ski at their own risk.
Don't be late or else
The patrol also emphasized that skiers get back to the train by 3:45 p.m. The train would leave at 4 p.m. sharp, and it would be a cold, endless walk back to Anchorage for anyone who lingered too long in this winter playground. (For anyone left behind, however, a barrel with survival gear was stashed near the tracks.)