Alaskan Gold Dome Railroad Adventure

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June 7th 2017
Published: June 12th 2017
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We had signed up for a private 4-Seasons van ride from Alyeska to Anchorage to catch the train to Fairbanks on the elevated dome car for scenic viewing and with meals included (breakfast, lunch and dinner to Fairbanks). 4-Seasons was the company that we had tried to contact to take us out to Alyeska; but, that driver never showed up. We were hoping that this driver would show up; and, that nothing would be held against us for giving up on that other driver. This driver was early and so we avoided the many anxieties one might otherwise happen when you get bogged down thinking “what if we miss the train”. The driver noted that it was high tide and we kept our eyes peeled in the event that we might sight a beluga whale; but, that didn’t happen. We needed to check everything through to Fairbanks that couldn’t fit under the seat. In the Gold dome cars, there is no room for overhead storage; so, even our normal carry-on bags needed to be checked. The Gold Star cars are 2 stories with a dining area on the lower level and the seating area on the top level with large windows and dome for great viewing. Gold Star service also includes meals (3 for us since it was a 12 hr ride) 2 adult beverages per adult and unlimited soft drinks. We lined up to board Car-2 (the Gold dome car) while other travelers lined up to our left to board Car-3 and Car-4. There was a second dome car (Car-1) but nobody was being seated in this car. There was some sort of problem ahead of us, and our line was not moving to board the train. From the left a group of students pushed up to the conductor, and tried to show their boarding pass and step onto the dome car. “Hold on there, son,” he said, eying their boarding passes. “You need to board Car-4.” They looked a bit chagrined to be turned away. Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of one rather colorfully dressed person, in a bright neon turquoise shirt, with matching baggy shorts, and wearing a kofia, a short brimless cylindrical hat with a flat crown but made of cartoonish brightly colored material and he sported a variegated tie featuring more cartoon characters (but not matching the hat). I didn’t look closely at him at first, and imagined he might be wearing clothing appropriate in certain African countries; but, when he and his wife (who was much more normally dressed) wound up assigned to seats to the right of ours I realized that he was twenty-something. We were on the left in Row 3. In front of us in Row 1 someone had a serious cough and Sharon mumbled, “This is no time for us to catch something.” Everyone was settling in, getting their things stowed, when we hear, “My name is TRAY-ver. Not Trevor…” which was exactly how his name was spelled. “TRAY-ver. Don’t forget it. I am your bartender. I am located at the back of your car.” He was speaking with a distinctly British accent with an attitude. “I will make your drinks, YOU will tell me what you want. YOU are not to go into the bar. YOU are NOT to help yourself. YOU are not to reach into the bar area, UNLESS you are leaving a tip. Your soft drinks and mixers are included in the price of your ticket. Your gold-car ticket entitles you to TWO adult drinks. YOU will need YOUR boarding pass with you when your order YOUR adult drinks so that I can punch your boarding pass. We have Coca-Cola, Diet Coca-Cola and Sprite. We do not have GINGER ALE. Ask me, if we have ginger ale, and I will say no. Ask me again, if I have GINGER ALE, and I WILL say NO. Ask me a third time, if I have GINGER ALE, and I will say YES, and I will give you Sprite.” He had everyone’s attention and people were in a good mood. He then cited the list of many spirits that were available. “We have things to meet many of your fondest desires. We have ice from the South Facing Side of the Glacier. We have ice from the North Facing Side of the Glacier. All you need to do is ask!” He then explained how the doors operated, going from one car to another, or going out on the viewing deck on the back of our car. “Touch the large button that says ‘PUSH’, and wait. The door takes about two seconds to open. Go through, and the door will close behind you. Do not lollygag in the door. It will close five seconds after you pass through it. If you are still in the door, it WILL cut you in half and we will be forced to charge you for an additional ticket PLUS $150 for cleanup.” This got quite a few chuckles. “If you go out onto the viewing platform, and you are wearing a hat, be sure that THAT is a hat that you want to lose; because, the wind will take it from you! If you are wearing sunglasses, the wind will take those from you as well.” He then explained how dining works, how someone would come to personally escort us to the dining car. A short time later we met our tour guide, who seemed quite young. We found out that indeed he was a high school student. Alaska Railroad trains about 60 high school students each year to serve as tour guides on the trains. Of the sixty, only fifteen will be offered jobs. Our tour guide was very knowledgeable and quite an eloquent speaker as well. He told us that it is quite common to have a number of moose sightings as we leave the station and before we leave Anchorage. Ultimately, the engineer did spot a couple of moose; but, they had disappeared in the heavy foliage before our car passed by.

We were invited into the dining car, which was located in the lower level of Car-1. Sharon told me to wait because she wasn’t eager to follow the strangely clad guy in turquoise so I waited for a couple people to go by, and then went down the stairs. We needed to pass through the automatic doors and between cars. It seemed safe enough, and Sharon had no trouble, although I think she did double check everything before stepping onto the next car. Everything fit together nicely so you really weren’t in any danger of falling off the train. We wound up sitting at the table with the young woman with the cough and her mother. She did cough a couple times; but, it didn’t seem that she was gravely ill or contagious. I got the scrambled eggs with reindeer sausage, which actually tasted like knockwurst. After breakfast, I went back to get a couple of hot chocolates. TRAY-ver was nowhere to be found. Eventually one of the conductors was able to help me, and I suspect TRAY-ver has rules for them as well, because he was relieved that I wasn’t asking for anything that involved adult beverages. As I was getting the two hot chocolates I spotted a moose and her calf out the window; but, the sighting was fleeting and Sharon missed it. No sooner had we finished our hot chocolates before the conductor asked if people were ready for lunch. Everyone seemed to want to wait one hour, having just finished breakfast.

The train paused briefly atop a raised section that allowed passengers a view of Denali unimpeded by the thick foliage, viewing above the canopy of the surrounding forested lands of spruce, alders and pines. The conductor said that this was a rare treat for the blue skies that stretched from Anchorage to Denali. There were a couple of clouds in the sky that touched Denali; but, its summit was clearly visible and distinctly defined, solid white against a crisp blue sky. This was an impressive view in this northernmost temperate rain forest.

We had a swan sighting, and Sharon got a nice picture. But we saw no bears, I guess we’ll need to go to Denali for that. We found out later that we could have seen a brown bear and two cubs at Alyeska. For lunch I had the reindeer sausage with pasta. Sharon enjoyed her angus burger. And we ate with the twenty-something dude in turquoise. It turned out that he had grown up in Alaska and seem to have a penchant for making socially awkward statements, such as not understanding why anyone would want to shoot a moose with a camera… they should use a gun. His wife was almost apologetic with that “That’s just the way he is” acceptance.

Many of the people who had boarded in Seward and Anchorage were headed for the Denali station. Some continued on to Fairbanks, such as they guy next to us (in turquoise). TRAY-ver came forward, and did his spiel all over again for those boarding to continue on to Fairbanks with us. And TRAY-ver really liked this group because they roared riotously at his schtick.

I enjoyed the mustard crusted cod for dinner. Sharon thought the pot roast was quite good as well. We came into Fairbanks, traversing slowly through a meandering trainyard. We got our bags and hailed a taxi for a ride to the budget car rental at the airport. We wound up in a checker cab, and we’re still trying to figure out how the bill came to $20 for the ride, short as it was, to the airport. We expected that it would hit the $10 minimum; but, the meter seemed to tick of a dollar every few seconds or so.

We wound up with a very nice Toyota Corolla that seemed fully packed. Sharon’s GPS got us to our motel; and, we had a Seattle moment all over again when we wound up at a motel that didn’t quite meet our expectations. At just over $100, the price was right. But Sharon is question the numerous good reviews. A few of the problems was the bed was pushed into the corner, so there was no way to get out of the right side of the bed. That’s Sharon’s Side of the bed. One look at the room, Sharon said, “This isn’t going to work.” I offered to switch sides, and that only solved that problem because we were both exhausted. Trying to sleep made us realize that there was no air conditioning. It was stifling. During the middle of the night I noticed that the room was equipped with an interesting device, attached right to the wall: a beer bottle cap remover. Sharon vowed that this would be our only night in this motel. After carrying all of our luggage up to the second floor, I had mixed feelings about this decision, but I don’t think I could have handled another night there either.

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