Fairbanks to Denali
It was a bright sunrise this Monday morning in Fairbanks for my last day here. Shortly we would be starting our journey on the Alaska Railroad thru the middle of this the largest state in the Union.
After checking my overnight bag to be sure I had what I needed for the next two days and double checking I didn’t leave any thing behind, it was time to go downstairs to the lobby. Wow. The whole lobby was filled wall to wall with bags, luggage and more bags. I checked my big luggage and made sure it was in the correct pile of the ones going to the Anchorage Railroad Depot. Outside there were several buses ready for us. My bus left the hotel at 7 AM with the temperature of 32.
Leaving the hotel we make our way to the Steese Highway. I noticed several residences with glass green houses in their back yard. I thought they were for getting a early start on the garden because cold and dark days of spring. Then I figured maybe they were also for keeping the critters out of the garden and dining on those tender new plants.
Northern Alaska is a land of tundra, wildlife and high mountain passes. Accessible by airplane or Haul Road, Northern Alaska is a vast country the remains highly scenic and largely undeveloped. The Dalton Highway or Haul Road starts here in Fairbanks on Steese Highway the bus driver told us and if we stayed on this highway heading north 500 miles later you would be at Prudhoe Bay. The driver pointed out several pick up trucks that were covered in dirt, mud and dust. He said these vehicles had come off the Haul Road and wore the dirt to give notice where they had been.
Dalton Highway ( Haul Road): Truck route to Prudhoe Bay.
The North Slope Haul Road was built in the 1970’s during construction of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The road is a challenge. It’s 498 miles (1,000 miles round trip) from Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay. Services are few and far between. The road is narrow, roughly 28 feet wide, less than two lanes and is shared with large trucks. It’s a rough road, and rocks fly up and break windshields and cause flat tires. You cross the Yukon River 140 miles from Fairbanks. There are some services at the Yukon River and some services another 120 miles up the road at Coldfoot. If you’re camping, you’ll find some undeveloped campsites along the road. If you intend to stay in motels, you’ve got to make your reservations before you set out. Once you get to Deadhorse, you’ll be stopped by a gate. Only commercial tours can go past this point to Prudhoe and the Arctic Ocean. Also, you have to have a background check, in advance.
The driver also talked about the TV show “Ice Road Truckers” that parts are filmed around here. His wife was at her beauty parlor a while back. Setting next to her was one of the drivers from the show. She follows the show and recognized the truck driver. She was taken back to see her macho truck driver getting a pedicure and his wife sitting next to him getting a manicure and a pedicure.
MP 469.8 Fairbanks Passenger station. Mile Post Zero is located on the wharf in Seward, AK.
After getting my ticket pulled I then proceeded to the boarding platform.
The Railroad is cash less. Food and beverage purchases can be made only with debit and major credit cards.
On the Alaska Railroad on board catering is provided by ESS. A Division of : Compass Group.
Less than 30 minuets after leaving the Fairbanks Depot my server, Wynton of Salt Lake, place a great breakfast before me. Breakfast was a Sunrise Skillet- A savory scramble of eggs, cheddar and jack cheeses, sauteed red and green peppers and onions served with breakfast potatoes, with Alaska reindeer sausage.
After breakfast we were on siding waiting for a cruise line special
train bound for Fairbanks. Soon we back on the main and heading south.
MP 413.7 Mears Memorial Bridge- The railroad crosses the Tanana
River using the Mears Memorial Bridge, the last part of the railroad
built between Seward and Fairbanks. The bridge marks the completion of
the Alaska Railroad, completed on February 22, 1923, and the Golden
Spike was driven by President Warren Harding on July 15, 1923. The
bridge includes a 704-foot steel through truss span (the longest
through truss in the world when built, presently the world’s third
longest)six 60-foot deck plate girder spans, four 30-foot deck plate
girders, and a 118-foot truss span. The bridge was designed by the firm
Modjeska & Angier and fabricated and built by the American Bridge
Company. The bridge is named for Frederick Mears, Head of the Alaska
Engineering Commission that built the railroad.
MP 411.7 Nenana
Originally an Indian village, Nenana is located on the south bank on the Tanana River at the confluence of the Nenana River at 400 feet of elevation. Nenana is in the western-most portion of Tanana Athabascan (or Athabascan) Indian territory.
The discovery of gold in Fairbanks in 1902 brought intense activity to the region. A trading post/roadhouse was constructed by Jim Duke in 1903 to supply river travelers and trade with Indians. St. Mark’s Episcopal mission and school was built upriver in 1905 bringing native children from other communities to Nenana. A post office opened in 1908. Nenana was a railroad construction camp in the early 1900’s, and by 1915, construction of the Alaska Railroad doubled Nenana’s population. The community incorporated as a city in 1921. Completion of the railroad was followed by an economic slump. The population dropped from 5,000 residents in 1923 to 291 in 1930.
In 1961, Clear Air Force Station was constructed 21 miles southwest, and many civilian contractors commuted from Nenana. A road was constructed south to Clear, but north , vehicles were ferried across the Tanana River. In 1967, the community was devastated by one of the largest floods ever recorded in the Tanana Valley. In 1968, a $6 million bridge was completed across the Tanana River, which gave the city a road link to Fairbanks and replace the river ferry.
Today, the railroad has a 3195-foot siding to the west as well as a small yard. The railroad depot, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, was completed in 1923, when President Warren Harding drove the golden spike at Nenana. The depot, still in use, now houses the Alaska State Railroad Museum.
A President’s visit to drive the golden spike.
President Warren G. Harding came to Nenana in fine style in July, 1923. He brought both his wife and his mistress to celebrate the end of construction of the Alaska Railroad, and to drive the “ golden spike” into the track at Nenana. It was 95 degrees, and everybody was overdressed, including the Speaker of the House, who has come along for the ride in the opulent train of rail cars Harding used. The President left Alaska for Vancouver where he fell ill after eating “ a mess of King Crabs drenched in butter.” He died in San Francisco.
The Iditarod Sled Dog Race begins every March in Anchorage, and then heads off towards Nome. But the first Iditarod race was a 1925 serum run that began in Nenana and followed old road houses along a winter trail mail route to Nome. A diphtheria epidemic threatened the people of Nome. A 20 pound capsule holding serum was railed north from Seward to Nenana. On January 27th, in the coldest part of winter, it was more than -40 F and planes couldn’t fly, so a relay team of 20 mushers, using over a hundred dogs, passed the package from village to village along the trial to Nome. They arrived on February 2nd, with the serum firmly wrapped in a quilting, frozen solid but still effective. The trail to Iditarod from Nenana was just one of the tangle of hundreds of Native American trails that have crisscrossed Alaska for thousands of years.
Nenana Ice Classic
The Nenana Ice Classic is a direct link to old -time Alaska. It began in 1917, when railroad workers whiled away the days of spring guessing when the ice would go out and the work could start up again. There is a 3-day festival in March when Nenanans drag a 26-foot tall tripod out into the thick river ice and wire it to a clock. When the ice breaks up, a cable trips the clock. People spend $2.50 per ticket trying to guess the exact day, hour and minute the ice will go out on the river. Those who share the closet minute split the pot, the ice usually goes out between April 20th and May 20th . In 2013 the ice on the river was still a solid 36 inches thick in early May. They were selling tickets at Alfred Starr Cultural Center.
My $2.50 guess was my brother George's birthday on May 10. So I am sure the ice will break on May 10, 2014 at 20 minutes after noon. Now if I can just find the claim check.
St. Mark’s Church
St. Mark’s Church is one of the loveliest little churches in roadside Alaska. The altar is decorated with moose hide beadwork, in the traditional Athabascan manner. An old-fashioned log building, this small Episcopal church was moved here after its 1905 location was washed downriver.