We arrived at the train station in the early-morning darkness of Alaska's deep winter. Moonlight glittered on newly fallen snow as passengers piled out of vehicles with their skis, snowboards, snowshoes and sleds. My 19-year-old son, Erik, and I, hauling nordic skis and a picnic cooler, loaded our gear into the baggage car and joined 400 other winter enthusiasts in making ourselves comfortable in the Alaska Railroad's coach cars.
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.)
Erik and I checked our backpacks, made sure we had plenty of food and water, and settled back into our seats for the final 20 minutes of the ride.
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.
Finally, we arrived at Grandview, and the landscape quickly absorbed a trainload of travelers as we dispersed across the countryside.
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.
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North, to Alaska
From LAX, Alaska and United offer direct service (stop, no change of plane) to Anchorage. Alaska, United, America West, Delta and Continental offer connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $410.
Car rentals from most major agencies are available at the airport. The train depot is near Anchorage's downtown.
To make reservations for the ski train, visit the website of the Nordic Ski Assn. of Anchorage at http://www.anchoragenordicski.com . Tickets cost $60. The train will make two trips this winter. The southern trip, to Grandview on Saturday, is sold out. The northern trip, to Curry, is scheduled for March 12.
Other ski options are available in the Anchorage area as well. Alyeska Resort, (800) 880-3880, http://www.alyeskaresort.com , 40 miles south of Anchorage, offers world-class downhill skiing with nine lifts and a 307-room hotel. There are also miles of groomed cross-country trails winding in and around Anchorage.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel Captain Cook, 939 W. 5th Ave., Anchorage 99501; (800) 843-1950 or (907) 276-6000, http://www.captaincook.com. Luxury accommodations with an athletic club, business center, 24-hour in-room dining, and shopping inside this downtown hotel. Doubles from $110.
Hilton Anchorage, 500 W. 3rd Ave., Anchorage 99501; (907) 272-7411, http://www.anchorage.hilton.com . Just one block from the depot, this hotel has rooms, suites and executive accommodations. Doubles from $89.