Riding the Rails from Anchorage to Seward

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A whirlwind four hour tour through some of Alaska's most spectacular scenery

The glacier that has just come into view looks like a giant wave spilling down the face of the mountain, a tsunami of ice that seems ready to crush anything in its path, including us.

But fortunately, the glacier isn't really going anywhere, or not very quickly anyway. According to our guide, an excruciatingly chipper woman named Candace, the glacier is, in fact, moving. Backwards. Like the vast majority of Alaska's glaciers, Spencer is retreating. So needless to say there's no danger as we pass.

Named for the poor chap who fell into a crevasse there in 1914, the Spencer Glacier is the first of several we'll see along our journey. This is glacier country, after all. There are more than 2,000 of them in the state, according to the Bruce Molnia, a glacial geologist with the United States Geological Survey, even though there is about fifty percent less ice here than there was 10,000 years ago, during the last ice age.

We are traveling by train through the heart of Southwest Alaska, riding the "Coastal Classic" from Anchorage to Seward. My wife and I agree that the ride is an impressive value at just $98 per person. (The Coastal Classic from Anchorage to Seward departs Anchorage daily at 6:45 am from May 15 to Sept. 13, 2004.) The train ride is a mere 120 miles, and takes just four and a half hours, but it is without question one of the most beautiful routes in the country. This is truly an excellent way to see Alaska, to gape at its awesome scale, its epic beauty. Any cube-dwelling city-slickers looking for a drastic change of scenery in their lives could hardly do better than coming to the 49th state.

Our trip officially began in Anchorage, where we spent several days enjoying festivals celebrating the summer solstice on June 21, the longest day of the year in the Northern hemisphere. On the morning of our departure, we were up at 5 am, and made our way to the spartan, but efficient, Anchorage station, where, according to Tim Thompson of the Alaskan Railroad, trains have one of the best reputations in the country for running on time. "We're very proud of that fact," he says. A fact that is pretty amazing if you consider the size of the state of Alaska.

Getting here was easy. We booked our United Airlines flight several weeks in advance from New York to Anchorage through Orbitz for $500 per person. Several airlines, including Alaska Airlines, occasionally run Web specials to Anchorage, so keep your eyes out for them. Also, it's significantly cheaper if you fly from the West Coast.

Along with scores of tourist-focused families and Seward residents heading home, we boarded the Coastal Classic, a gleaming blue and yellow chain of railroad cars, cars that appeared so well maintained, they'd make a New York City transit worker seethe with envy. The train offers reserved seats and a dining car, but there is also a dome viewing car with a kind of sunroof on steroids, that allows riders to gawk and snap pictures with panoramic abandon.

Shortly after leaving Anchorage, the train passes through the Anchorage Coastal Wildlife Refuge. Also known as Potter's Marsh, the area is teeming with wildlife. We spot thousands of migratory birds gathered in broad ponds and see several Moose loping around the edge of the water. We come upon the resort town of Girdwood and then chug further down the Southeast edge of the Turnagain Arm, a broad mirror of grey water that forms a branch of the Cook Inlet and experiences the world's second highest tides at over 30 feet. The Arm's name comes from an 1778 expedition led by Captain James Cook. Cook had entered the arm during his search for the Northwest Passage, but upon reaching the dead end of the arm, he was forced to "turn again", leaving it with the somewhat awkward-sounding name.

The train we are on has recently been through several major changes. Four years ago, the Alaskan Railroad Corporation, which is owned by the State of Alaska, decided to improve the line to make it more inviting to tourists. They spent almost $5 million restoring the cars and adding dome viewing cars. The result is a remarkably appealing rail adventure that has an almost Disneyesque feel to it. In a good way.

"They [the Alaska Rail company] really does a phenomenal job catering to tourists," says train buff John Coombs who runs alaskarail.org, a private site dedicated to the Alaska rail. "They've done a terrific job restoring it. When the sun is shining, [the Anchorage to Seward route] is probably the most beautiful ride in the country."

While glaciers and rivers are a treat, the wildlife seems to capture the attention of our car's passengers, particularly the children. Already we have seen Dall sheep scaling the rocky mountainside with balletic ease. Further on, we see a baby brown bear sneak into the brush and a six-foot tall Moose munching grass next to a shallow stream. Several bald eagles soar overhead, easily identifiable from the white shock of their head feathers.

Of course, we're lucky. The early explorers to this part of the country were deprived of such a glorious (and comfortable) way to see the Alaskan countryside. The railroad wasn't finished until 1923, when President Warren Harding drove in the famous golden spike near Anchorage, thus opening up easy passage to Seward, once a lonely fishing village. Since then, traffic has grown impressively. Last year, over 400,000 passengers rode on the Alaskan railroad.

We pass several other glaciers along the way, including the Bartlett and Trail Glaciers, each of which Candace brings to our attention with her inimitable charm. We climb a mountain via sweeping switchbacks that take the train back and forth up the mountainside and which must have been an engineering nightmare. We pass Kenai Lake, whose turquoise blue color comes from suspended glacial silt in the water, but whose hues seem unreal.

After four and a half hours that pass like two, we arrive in the town of Seward on Resurrection Bay. It is a magnificent summer's day and the town is gearing up for the famous 4th of July celebration a few days away, when the population will double and the Mt. Marathon race will pit extreme athletes against one another to race to the top of the race's namesake.

Even though it is our destination, Seward is known as the "gateway" to Alaska because it is here that the railroad "officially" starts. The town is named in honor of William H. Seward who, in one of the sweetest deals in American history, orchestrated the purchase of Alaska from the Russians in 1867 for $7.2 million, or little more than two cents an acre.

Having reached our destination, we step off the Coastal Classic and made our way to the charming Van Gilder Hotel, where we booked a spacious room for $150 per night. We feel distinctly saddened that the trip was over. There is nothing like traveling by train. Of course, the feeling is short-lived, eclipsed by the excitement that a new stage of our trip was just beginning.

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