A ‘best-kept secret’ on rails

by • September 9, 2013 • AK on the GoComments (0)386

The Hurricane Turn serves Alaska’s homesteaders, adventurers 

Owen Kirkland peers out from the baggage car of Alaska Railroad’s Hurricane Turn train. Erin Kirkland

Owen Kirkland peers out from the baggage car of Alaska Railroad’s Hurricane Turn train. Erin Kirkland

A dirty flag waved wildly back and forth as the locomotive’s engines ground to a stop. Within moments, a little group of people stepped out from behind a clump of willow branches, lugging plastic bins, tents, fishing poles, and rifles. Grinning happily, the dusty campers tossed gear and kids into the baggage car, sinking into its cool depths with a sigh.

“Hi folks!” shouted conductor Warren Redfearn. “How was your weekend?”

We were aboard the Alaska Railroad’s Hurricane Turn train, a 55-mile journey into the heart of the state. Owning the distinction of the nation’s last whistle-stop train, the Hurricane Turn is not on a typical tourist’s itinerary; nor is it on most Alaskans’. The train travels north from Talkeetna Thursday through Sunday, May to September, and once a month during the winter, to offer support and transportation to hidden residents living in this swath of roadless land. The benefit for we vacationers, however, is a glimpse of Alaska’s most beautiful backcountry, terminating at the jaw-dropping Hurricane Gulch bridge, a 918-foot tumble of rock to the creek below.

For children, the Hurricane Turn train is less about the view outside, and more about the characters within, starting with longtime conductor, Redfearn. An Alaska Railroad employee since 1974, Redfearn knows how to please his young passengers. Passing out prizes and high-fives with equal abandon, Redfearn is an overall-clad pied piper, and kids aboard “his” train eat it up.

For example, Conductor Warren, as he is known, encouraged kids to follow his simple rules for safety aboard a train (no running, three points of contact at all times). Toward the end of our six-hour day, Redfearn awarded kids a hand-painted golden spike in an “official” ceremony held in the baggage car. An Academy Award never received such reverence, at least, not in our house.

Conductor antics aside, the train’s frequent rail-riders are also topics of conversation. Mostly homesteaders, but also fishermen and backcountry hikers, passengers who travel the route on a regular basis are able to connect with civilization quite easily, flagging a train using a white cloth that often comes right off their backs in the form of a t-shirt. Carrying everything from concrete to dog food, these men and women consider themselves lucky to live in the center of God’s country, embracing the minor inconvenience of a train ride with wisdom gleaned through years lived under no schedule but their own.

When the train stops, everyone jumps into action, moving crates and backpacks, making room for the next group. Kids are included, too, and our son was pressed into service by a cabin owner who was traveling to his homestead with cement and tools for new deck footings. It’s an immediate connection to community, whether one resides here or not, and the swapping of labor and interesting stories grew more fascinating with every turn of the creaky wheels.

Redfearn, when pressed about the Hurricane Turn’s magical personality, grinned.

“This is the railroad’s best-kept secret,” he said. “You won’t find this kind of tour, anywhere else.”

I think he’s on to something.

 

Traveling the Hurricane Turn

Schedule: Thursday through Sunday departures from Talkeetna aboard the Hurricane Turn through Sept. 16. Winter departures leave Anchorage at 8:30 a.m., and Talkeetna at 11:25 a.m., on the first Thursday of each month, beginning early October.

Tickets: $48/kids, $96/adults for the summer train, and $50/kids, $99/adults for the winter train. Alaska residents receive a 20 percent discount with valid state I.D. Call for occasional seasonal specials.

Services: The Hurricane Turn Train offers nothing in the way of dining services, so passengers should take a full day of meals, snacks, and plenty of drinks along. Kids will be glad to know that Conductor Warren hands out activity books during the summer months, but not all winter trains have them. Parents should pack games, books and small toys for amusement during this long day of travel.

Best age to travel: Grade school and older. Toddlers may not enjoy the lack of space, and the train moves too much for early walkers.

More questions? www.AlaskaRailroad.com or (907) 265-2494.

 

 

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