by Hank Leukart
August 31, 2010

A whistle stop, Alaska-style

Hiking to Spencer Glacier in Chugach National Forest.

The Alaska Railroad’s Glacier Discovery Train takes passengers to Whittier, Spencer Glacier, and Grandview.

The Alaska Railroad's Glacier Discovery Train takes passengers to Whittier, Spencer Glacier, and Grandview. (view all Alaska Railroad: Whittier, Spencer Glacier photos)

This is the second essay in a series about traveling without roads in Alaska. Read the first essay for the whole story.

C

HUGACH NATIONAL FOREST, Alaska — Near the end of my Alaskan summer, after my bush plane and ATV adventures, my 61-year-old Extreme Mom decides to visit me in Alaska, and she asks me if we might be able to take a train trip from Anchorage to somewhere out-of-the-way. I’m intrigued by this idea immediately because the Alaska Railroad, which was built from 1903 to 1923 between Seward and Fairbanks, takes people to a bunch of destinations inaccessible by road. After my mom arrives in Anchorage, we join hundreds of Japanese cruise ship passengers wearing laminates and Canon cameras at the Anchorage train station. We navigate our way through a horde of black-rimmed glasses, charcoal roller bags, and plastic shopping bags to get our tickets. Quickly, the conductor ushers the Japanese tourists and us onto the Railroad’s Glacier Discovery Train. The situation feels odd, because the train’s first stop is Whittier, a remote, 200-person town on Prince William Sound that was used as a secret, World War II military installation due to its near-constant cloud cover and surrounding ring of impassable mountains. Even getting to Whittier today requires visitors to travel through the longest combined rail and roadway tunnel in North America, which allows traffic in only one direction at a time.

The train chugs along at about 50 miles per hour, which seems like a snail’s pace compared to the bush planes that have been my primary transportation in Alaska over the summer. But, soon, the conductor announces our arrival in Whittier, recites some detailed information about the place, and warns us that the train will be leaving again in 30 minutes, “sharp.” He sounds very serious, as though passengers often disembark the train in Whitter only to be swallowed whole by a secret military project left over from the 1950s. As my mom and I disembark, we watch the hundreds of Japanese tourists take Whittier by storm, armed with hundreds of boxes of souvenir smoked salmon. They swarm out of the train to take photos of the Buckner Building and Begich Towers, structures left behind in 1968 by the US military now occupied by a majority of the town’s residents. Then, a cruise ship swallows the entire lot of tourists. I start to suspect that the cruise ship is somehow a cover for another undercover military operation, and I wonder if our train conductor realizes that this is why people never return to his train in Whittier.

Reportedly, the kayaking and scuba diving in Whittier are unmatched, but my mom and I return to the train quickly so that the conductor doesn’t leave us behind. When we board the train, we find it almost completely empty and eerily quiet. The silence and the train’s rhythmic motion sedate us, and we stare out at the scenery until the train stops again, without any explanation from the conductor, in front of a sign reading, “Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop.” We disembark, hoping to see the Glacier, and ask the conductor about the train schedule.

“We’re leaving for Grandview now, but we’ll be back to pick you up,” he says unhelpfully. When we ask him at what time the trail will return, he tells us that this is his maiden journey as a conductor on this route and points to a nearby park ranger to ask instead. Suddenly, a final gush of Japanese tourists appears mysteriously from another train car. Guides usher them quickly into a bus heading toward the Placer River for a rafting trip. Apparently, Japanese cruise ship passengers are the only customers that the Alaska Railroad bothers to coddle.

The waiting park ranger tells us that the train will return in two hours. She then offers to take us on a 1.5-mile guided hike to an overlook, but my Extreme Mom sees that the entire Spencer Glacier Trail is 6.2 miles round trip and suggests that we attempt the entire length ourselves. The longer trail is too much for the handful of other hikers puppy-dogging the ranger, so we leave them and start hiking. The value of hiking in places accessible only by train and unlisted in Lonely Planet becomes obvious when we discover that we’re the only people on the trail. We follow the path as it circumscribes the lake created by the Spencer Glacier’s melt. Afraid we’ll miss our train if we take too long, we walk briskly, but we still spend time enjoying views of towering ice masses in the lake and a blue ice field covered with thousands of crevices flowing between two mountain peaks.

When we reach the end of the trail, we’re less than one hundred feet from the Glacier’s terminus. As we turn around to head back to the train, I hear a jolting crashing sound and whip around just in time to see a huge slab of ice fall off the Glacier’s edge. Hearing a 10,000 pound ice chunk crash onto the ground serves as a loud reminder that, despite the Earth’s static appearance, it’s constantly changing under our feet.

When my mom and I return to the train, we relax in the upper deck of the lead car as it slowly makes its way through dramatic mountain scenery back toward Anchorage. After about ten minutes, the train makes a stop to pick up the Japanese rafters. After they pile in, the train stops again about 20 minutes later in a place called Portage. Without warning, the Japanese tourists rush out of the train again to catch a bus. Their movements are ever mysterious to us, and I suspect that the bus may be transporting them and their Alaskan souvenirs to yet another secret military facility, one fueled by thousands of pounds of smoked salmon.

But the conductor informs us that that we too may choose to take the bus, which will return us to Anchorage twice as fast as the train. The train conductor doesn’t seem like he’s in much of a hurry, but neither are we.

We wave goodbye to the Japanese tourists and become hypnotized by the slow scenery outside the train’s window. We watch the Kenai and Chugach Mountains, Whittier, Girdwood, and the Cook Inlet’s Turnagain Arm slide by our windows. After a summer of being blasted across Alaska’s roadless landscape by planes, boats, and ATVs, I can’t think of any reason to disembark the slow, sleepy Alaska Railroad any sooner than necessary.

Read more about traveling around Alaska without roads and the time I tried to fulfill a dream by packrafting in Denali National Park.

Comments

  • April 9, 2012, 5:59 PM

    prairie

    Hi Hank, this is such a cool site. I was just in Alaska to work in Palmer at the Birchtree Charter School. Some of the teachers drove me to Whittier. We stopped at Alyeska to ride the tram up to the top of the ski trails. I love Alaska and I'm going to make this train trip next time. Thank you for the info. Prairie

Japanese tourists prepare to board the Alaska Railroad in Anchorage, Alaska.

Japanese tourists prepare to board the Alaska Railroad in Anchorage, Alaska.

An Alaska Railroad conductor watches as tourists board his train.

An Alaska Railroad conductor watches as tourists board his train.

Boats sit in a harbor in Whittier, Alaska on the Prince William Sound.

Boats sit in a harbor in Whittier, Alaska on the Prince William Sound.

Rafts and canoes sit in front of Spencer Glacier in Alaska’s Chugach National Forest.

Rafts and canoes sit in front of Spencer Glacier in Alaska’s Chugach National Forest.

Ice chunks float in the melt of Spencer Glacier.

Ice chunks float in the melt of Spencer Glacier.

Spencer Glacier’s terminus

Spencer Glacier’s terminus

How to Ride the Alaska Railroad and Hike to Spencer Glacier

  • OVERVIEW: The hike to Spencer Glacier from the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop is a 2-hour, 6.2-mile round trip hike. The Whistle Stop is not accessible by road, but the Alaska Railroad takes passengers from Anchorage (leaving at 10 AM) to Girdwood (11:15 AM), Portage (11:40 AM), Whittier (12:15 PM), Spencer Glacier (1:45 PM), and Grandview (3:20 PM) on its Glacier Discovery Train.
  • LOGISTICS: Travelers can book a ticket from Anchorage to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop for $103, 24 hours in advance, by calling (800) 544-0552. For an additional $99, passengers may choose to take a rafting trip down the Place River instead of hiking to Spencer Glacier. The train leaves from the Anchorage Historic Depot, located at 411 West 1st Avenue in downtown Anchorage, at 10 AM, but the Railroad recommends that passengers arrive an hour early.
  • HIKING: When the train arrives at the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, a park ranger takes train passengers on a guided, 1.5-mile hike to a lookout point. More adventurous hikers may choose to walk the easy, well-marked, 6.2-mile round trip trail to the edge of the Glacier. Just be sure that you hike fast enough to return to the trailhead by 4:30 PM and catch the train back to Anchorage.
  • ROUTE: View my route and download the Without Baggage Spencer Glacier GPS track in GPX or KML format.