TALKEETNA, Alaska -This is a train trip that can hardly rival the Siberian Railway, the Orient Express or any of the world’s other great rail journeys. After all, this is a trip that’s only 54.7 miles long.
But incredible scenery is the attraction on the Alaska Railroad’s local flag stop service that will carry people, luggage, camping supplies, building materials and most anything else you can haul aboard through some of this nation’s most isolated, rugged and beautiful land.
Alaska’s flag stop service is the only one in the country. Tell the engineer where you want to get off, and he’ll stop there – anywhere. Flag him down with a white cloth and he’ll pick you up on the return trip. It’s more like an intracity bus than a train.
But for people living in this area of Alaska, where there are no roads, no trails, no flat spots big enough to land a plane, it’s the only way in or out.
Tourists are welcome, but the flag stop service is mostly for locals and visitors who want to get completely away from it all for a few days. Ask conductor Gary Knutson if there will be any narration along the way, and he says, ”Once in a while someone will yell, ‘Bear!’ but that’s about it.”
The route starts in Talkeetna, a funky town of about 600 people (think Bisbee hauled about 2,900 miles north) that is the jumping-off spot for climbers determined to scale Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America. The train turns around less than 60 miles north at Hurricane, nothing more than a train maintenance building.
The flag stop train is a one-car, self-contained, selfpropelled unit – a combination locomotive, passenger and baggage car in one.
Three-quarters of the trip parallels the broad Susitna River, which provides unlimited opportunities for hiking, camping and fishing.
Many of the visitors that ride the flag stop, hauling aboard enough stuff to equip a good-size sporting goods store, don’t really know where they want to go. ”They’ll ask us to drop them off at a good spot for fishing or whatever, and we usually have some suggestions,” said Knutson.
High school ROTC students disembark to live off the land.
On this trip, a squadron of Junior ROTC cadets from a high school in Hawaii were aboard with their leader, heading for a five-day wilderness experience. The leader had some idea where he wanted to go, and engineer Pete Hackenberger accommodated their request, stopping the train in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere as the cadets unloaded their gear and hiked into the thick forest growing right up to the tracks.
Hunter and guide Gary Prichard watches Alaska slip by the window as his dog Ginger enjoys the dry ride. Dropped off in the middle of nowhere, two Alaskan schoolkids (below) prepare to float 40 miles down the Susenta River to Talkeetna.
Despite ominous signs warning of federal laws forbidding passengers from entering the engineer’s compartment, operation of the flag stop train is pretty casual. Hackenberger usually runs the train in a ”uniform” of T-shirt and shorts during the summer, frequently bringing his dog, Bear, with him for company.
Hackenberger and Knutson know everyone who lives along the Talkeetna-Hurricane route. Several people who have built cabins far from any sign of civilization have used the train and another larger freight that plies the same tracks to haul in their homes, piece by piece.
Engineer Pete Hackenberger says the Talkeetna-to-Hurricane run is the best job on Alaska’s rails.
At one point along this run, Hackenberger slowed the train and sounded the whistle. A man emerged from the underbrush and Hackenberger waved and tossed him a pack of cigarettes as he went by, fulfilling a request from the day before.
”People are really nice along here,” Knutson said. ”You really get to know them. One guy flagged us down and gave us a covered skillet. It was filled with blueberry pie. So we ate the pie and dropped off the skillet on the next trip.”
On the way back to Talkeetna, three fishermen with their dog flagged down the train for a lift back to town. Hackenberger and Knutson climbed down to help them lift their equipment into the train.
‘No fish and you still have beer?” Hackenberger asked as he lifted a heavy cooler. ”You didn’t read the manual. We might not let you on.”
It is not unusual to see eagles, bear and other wildlife. On this trip, a large moose and her two calves bounded away from the tracks as the train approached. If the weather is good, there are spectacular views of Mount McKinley from the train.
”There certainly are worse jobs,” said Hackenberger. ”I think this is some of the most specular scenery anywhere.”
by MARK KIMBLE
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Flag Stop Service Schedule: During the summer, the train runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Runs are far less frequent during the winter. The train leaves Talkeetna about noon and returns about 6 p.m.
Fares: The Talkeetna-Hurricane 55 mile route is $100 for adults roundtrip More info: 1 (800) 544-0552 or 907-277-4321 for trip planning expert