Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

On the Right Track In Alaska

A train ride through Alaska reveals much more than the state’s natural treasures

Published: Jun 18, 2012 06:41:13 AM IST
Updated: Jun 15, 2012 05:03:27 PM IST
On the Right Track In Alaska
Image: Alaska Railroad
TRACK THIS Alaskaç—´ 500-mile railbelt runs north from Anchorage, the stateç—´ railroad hub, to Fairbanks, the stateç—´ second largest city

In the summer, the population of Alaska nearly triples itself. More than one million visitors arrive in the land of calving glaciers, perpetually snow-covered peaks and incomparable wildlife, where black bears snatch salmon from pristine streams and orcas and otters dance in the 21-hour daylight days.

But even beauty has a dark side. In Alaska, this means 10 months of winter, a handful of daylight between December and February and temperatures that hover well below zero for the majority of the year. This is the Alaska I remember most: I spent 14 years of my childhood in Anchorage, the state’s largest city, watching the sun rise from the classroom window and set by fourth period. It’s also the main reason I’ve preferred warmer climates since I turned 18, specifically those where snow isn’t just unlikely, but has a snowball’s chance in hell, like in my adopted hometown of Mumbai.

But last year, I found myself back in Alaska, in part for a family reunion but mainly to see for myself, as an adult, what brings travellers from around the world to America’s 49th state. And perhaps because I’d lived in India for over a year, I chose the railroad as my primary means of transport, even though most travellers to Alaska—nearly 57 percent—arrive by sea on cruise ships from Seattle or Vancouver, exploring the small villages along Alaska’s rocky coastline, before landing in Anchorage.

As it turns out, I’m not the only one.

“One interesting trend we’ve noticed is a rise of independent travellers on the railroad,” says Ally Berry, an executive at Thompson & Co. PR, representing the Alaska Travel Industry Association.

Alaska’s 500-mile railbelt runs north from Anchorage, the state’s railroad hub, to Fairbanks, the state’s second largest city, through the Denali National Park—six million acres of the nation’s most pristine wilderness, plus Mt McKinley, North America’s highest peak—and south to Seward, the state’s halibut fishing capital. But the 420,000 passengers of the railroad in America’s largest but one of the least populated states (just over 700,000 residents, as per the latest census results) aren’t commuters hoping to avoid urban traffic: They’re tourists.

Between May and September 2011, Alaska attracted roughly 1.5 million visitors, a significant number of them from abroad. “Our passengers come from all over the world,” confirms Susie Kiger, director of passenger sales and marketing for the Alaska Railroad, listing the UK, Germany, Japan, Australia and, increasingly, Latin America as the top tourist-providers.

Elizabeth Irwin, a 10-year Alaska resident originally from Minnesota, serves me an egg scramble with a side of reindeer sausage while telling me the best part about her job is the chance to meet tourists from all parts of the world, including India.

She also calls the Anchorage-Seward route we’re travelling on the best “bang for your buck,” offering glimpses of glaciers, mountains and wildlife over the course of its four-hour journey. “I always thought the highway was beautiful, but the train is so much better,” she says, referring to the Seward Highway that runs parallel to this part of the track, a road heralded as one of America’s most scenic drives. At some point, the two part ways as the train cuts through the raw wilderness on its way south, a blue-green whirl of mountains and trees, punctuated by glaciers, grazing moose and the occasional eagle’s nest. Because it’s August, the land is also covered in an indigo blanket of fireweed, the state’s best-known wildflower. The fiery purple stalks bloom from the base to the tip over the course of the summer—a bittersweet moment, for when the entire stock is in full bloom, Alaskans can expect just six more weeks of warm weather.

On the Right Track In Alaska
Image: Alaska Railroad
CHUGGING ALONG A train ride in Alaska is not only scenic, it also gives travellers an opportunty to see wildlife

“Stand outside when the train goes through the tunnels,” she says, letting me in on a secret. “But be sure to grab a jacket.” Later, I will follow her advice and join a growing crowd of passengers on the balcony. But, freezing, I don’t stay for long, taking one quick picture and fairly running back to the regulated temperatures of the train car.

I’m thankful I upgraded to the premier Goldstar Service, where the glass-domed carriages allows each seat an intimate view of landscape safe from the chill. The locomotive chugs by at a comfortable clip, fast enough for progress but not too quick for pictures, while a perky tour guide points out wildlife and photo opportunities along the route. “Queue up the Dall sheep (unique to northwest America),” he whispers into a clip-on mike, before directing our attention to a lone sheep with curly mustard horns, while deftly sidestepping camera-happy travellers who rush to the window for a better shot. This dance—the guide pointing out wildlife, followed by passengers charging to the appropriate side of the train—will be repeated all the way to Seward. (Back in Anchorage, another railway employee tells me a similar phenomenon occurs each time the train passes through Wasilla, Sarah Palin’s hometown.) When there are no animals to be seen, the guide fills the gap with a playful mix of Alaskan history and trivia, sharing easy ways to remember the five species of salmon (Chum, Sockeye, Red, Silver and Pink) and the stories behind certain landmarks.

Turnagain Arm, the 4-mile wide northern tributary of the Cook Inlet that hugs the railbelt for first hour or so of the Anchorage-Seward route, for instance, was named by Captain James Cook, who mistook the river for the Northwest Passage, the fabled Arctic seaway, while mapping this coastline in 1778. Upon discovering his mistake, and finding his boat stuck in the shallow mud flats of the inlet that would bear his name, Cook named the river “Turn Again” before heading to Hawaii in disgust. (As it turns out, Cook was a man ahead of his time: Climate change has melted the Arctic ice packs that once made this sea route impenetrable, although sovereignty disputes between Canada, the US and certain European countries will keep the potential trade route from becoming a major marine channel anytime in the foreseeable future.) It’s in this spirit of easygoing camaraderie that I meet some of my fellow passengers. Not just people from around the world, the railway also draws a number of Alaskans. For instance, Mike Randall, a “new Alaskan”—he’s originally from Colorado—is treating his father Jim to a first-class rail trip for his birthday. “It’s a great way to show off Alaska to my dad,” he says proudly.

Other travellers, like Val Close, an Australian visiting an Alaskan friend with her friends Libby and Margaret, choose the railroad for its flexibility. “We had a few days to explore, and were tossing between Denali and some other places,” she says. Her Anchorage-based friend suggested the four-hour rail journey to Seward, where the group has booked a sunset cruise and plans to overnight in a hotel.

Even as railroad traffic increases, cruise liners have seen a significant drop in their passengers, dipping more than 20 percent in 2010 from a 2008 peak. Environmentalists, for one, aren’t complaining. Cruise ships are, by far, the most polluting way to travel, pumping nearly twice as much carbon dioxide into the air as airplanes, according to Climate Care, a UK-based carbon offsetting company, and leaving a trail of waste and dirty water in their wake. Just one seven-day cruise, according to a 2009 New York Times article, produces 210,000 gallons of sewage, a million gallons of grey water, 25,000 gallons of oily bilge water, 11,550 gallons of sewage sludge and more than 130 gallons of hazardous waste, affecting marine life and coastline along the route.

On the Right Track In Alaska
Image: Alaska Railroad
GREEN TRAVEL The Alaskan railroad has earned a nod from the US Environmental Protection Agency for its efforts to curb emissions

Rail travel, on the other hand, is the “greenest” way to get around—almost 20 percent more energy efficient than airplanes and 28 percent more efficient than cars on a per-passenger-mile basis, according to recent figures by the US Department of Energy. The Alaskan railroad also earned a nod from the US Environmental Protection Agency for its efforts to curb emissions as well as energy and water consumption by running more energy-efficient, lower-emission locomotives, which run on ultra-low-sulfur diesel fuel, along its tracks.

Then there are those, of course, who choose the Alaska railroad because of eternal reasons: A simple, stress-free vacation, a languid way to get from point A to B without the hassles of traffic, parking or choosing a designated driver.

“There’s such a romantic component to (train travel),” says Peter Brooken, who travelled the entire length of the Alaska railroad from Fairbanks to Seward last summer with his parents, Ann and Bruce. The family was visiting Seward as part of the Railroad’s ‘Real Alaska’ tour, a two-day rail package that includes roundtrip travel between Anchorage and Seward, dog mushing with a professional trainer and a guided hike of Seward’s Exit Glacier. It also packs in a tour of the popular Kenai Fjords National Park, an intimate six-hour look at calving glaciers and Alaska’s marine wildlife, including orcas, otters and a number of breaching humpback whales, onboard a fuel-efficient catamaran. (This harbour cruise is owned and operated by the Alaska Native Corporation and can also be booked independently from the railroad.) The Brookens, who are from just outside Denver, Colorado, recalled their time on the railroad as relaxing and enjoyable, “especially because no one has to drive”. The train ride, they said, encouraged conversation, offered insightful narration and a better chance of seeing wildlife than a car would have.  “We met more people on the railroad than driving,” says Peter, who looked forward to his family’s second day in Seward, not just because of the activities but because they would catch up with friends they made on an earlier railroad segment. 

On the Right Track In Alaska
All three would travel the Alaska Railroad again. “The railroad took all the worry and stress out of travelling in an exciting state,” says Ann. “We really can’t wait to come back.”

Speaking with the Brookens, I realise that I’ve taken many of the more unique parts of my childhood for granted, growing up in a place where bald eagles are almost as common as crows, moose burgers are often offered beside beef on the menu and a neighbour may pop in with a fresh fish any day of the week. I can also see, perhaps because I’m older with a great sense of the world—or maybe because shovelling snow is more of a distant memory—that I now have a greater appreciation for Alaskans themselves: Hands down, they are some of nation’s friendliest people. Probably because in the union’s largest and least populated state, people are hard to come by, we take great interest in each one we meet.

It’s a little like karma, I suppose, that travellers continue to choose to come to Alaska, despite a global recession, over-priced petrol and a location inconvenient to anything outside the Arctic Circle. Like the Brookens, I realise that I’m also looking forward to my next Alaska vacation. In summer, of course.

(This story appears in the 22 June, 2012 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)