Just past a deep river canyon, I looked out the window, remembering the previous year's trip, when I had seen five wolves loping alongside the train. Their movement through deep snow was the image of wind and wild sky, flowing gray and white until they disappeared like ghosts into the green spruce forest. I wondered if I might catch another magical glimpse of these elusive creatures.
Cross-country skiers and snowshoers had several options. Bartlett Glacier lay to the north, an open, easy jaunt with spectacular views of knife-edge mountain ridges. To the south, tucked at the far end of a wooded creek bottom, lay the Trail Glacier.
A gentle, winding trek with several river crossings over natural ice bridges led to a close-up view of the glacier.
For thrill-seeking downhill or telemark skiers, mountains on both sides of the tracks offered steep terrain with huge bowls of powder waiting near the top. Of course, there were no lifts, and it took most of the day to climb the 3,000- to 4,000-foot ridges. But according to the brave and hardy souls who did it, the vertical plunge down thousands of feet of untouched snow made every uphill step worth the effort.
We chose to cross-country ski toward Trail Glacier. The bright sun sparkled brilliantly off the snow, making sunglasses and sunscreen a must. The warmth of the sun, along with our robust exercise, had us peeling off jackets and stowing them in our packs.
As we traversed the undulating slopes toward the glacier, we drew cold air into our lungs and marveled at the view. To the left, snow-topped spruce trees looked like something out of a fairy tale. To the right, white cliffs cut across a deep blue sky. We followed the creek, over snow bridges that spanned the trickle of water. As we left the creek bottom and followed the line of cliffs, we rounded a jag and glided through a stand of white birch trees.
We stopped awhile to watch a shy porcupine perched in a tree, nibbling bark and trying to keep its prickly back toward us. Moving on, the forest eventually opened to a wide valley. Deep in the valley's vee, the corrugated blue ice of Trail Glacier peeked out beneath immense mounds of snow.
Glaciers are created when the amount of snowfall exceeds the amount of yearly snowmelt. The weight of the accumulated snow creates tremendous pressure under which glacial ice forms. Glacial ice, sometimes thousands of feet thick and thousands of years old, takes on properties of water — which is why the airless ice looks strangely blue.
Erik and I skied to the base of the glacier, planning to have our picnic lunch in the shadow of the blue ice. We did not anticipate the wind coming off the glacier. The cold seeped right through our heavy winter gear, so we did not stay for long. We did, however, take time for photos of the glacier, a memento of a fine day of skiing.
The train stayed all day, providing a warming house for those who didn't care to wander too far from the tracks. Several families and others took short jaunts, returned to the train, and lighted up grills in the snow alongside the tracks.
Erik and I returned to the smell of sizzling steaks and hot dogs. Even with the food we had packed, we were ravenously hungry. Lucky for us, cooks inside the train were already firing up the kitchen for the ride home.
At 3:30 p.m., the whistle called explorers back to the train. Skiers, snowboarders and snowshoers returned rosy-cheeked and beaming. Despite a long day of exercise in cold weather, the excursion seemed to have infused everyone with energy and neighborly good cheer. We exchanged stories — how far we'd gone and what we'd seen — with strangers who had headed in other directions.
Roll out the music
As the train began to roll, we worked our way through the cars toward the grill and dining car and ordered bratwurst smothered in sauerkraut. After gulping down the first, we ordered another and savored it along with ice-cold soda. With our hunger finally satiated, we wandered toward the sound of music. An entire car dedicated to dancing rocked with the exuberance of ski train enthusiasts. At the far end of the car, the polka band belted out "The Beer Barrel Polka (Roll Out the Barrel)."
Erik and I wedged ourselves in among the throng of dancers — couples, parents and kids. It didn't matter that we didn't know how to polka. There was little room except to hop from one foot to the other anyway. But we laughed until our faces hurt.
Occasionally, we made our way to the vestibule between cars to inhale some cold fresh air. The heat generated by a car full of revelers had fogged up the windows.
Breathless and spent, we eventually returned to our seats just as the train clicked around the bend toward Anchorage. The sun had already set into the waters of Cook Inlet.
As we collected our belongings, the day's exertion began to weigh on our limbs. But it was a good feeling, a feeling of having embraced all that a winter day in Alaska had to offer. There was no question. We would be riding the rails again.