8:10 a.m.

What a difference a good night’s sleep can make. I’m ready and looking forward to my first-ever helicopter ride, and even though there are some clouds, the sun is out. The helicopter people are picking me up at 8:30, so I’m having a muffin and coffee while I’m waiting.

I was thinking of Hope last night. This is a town with nothing for visitors. Well yes, gold panning, a museum that’s only open on weekends, and plenty of hiking/camping/fishing that’s no better than a zillion other spots on the Kenai. But it was a highlight of the trip, largely because I got to see and talk to people who live there year round and do things outside of the tourism industry, and get a glimpse into that world, which is so different from any world I’ve ever experienced before.

Alaska has so much beauty. Next time, I’m going to stick to off-the-beaten-path activities. I’d love to stay at a backcountry lodge where I could get out and explore on my own. Or go by plane to a bush village and spend some time there.

10:50 a.m.

The helicopter tour was so stunning, and completely different from the airplane. We didn’t see a lot of wildlife–just some sheep and caribou (and I had to stifle a laugh that would’ve gone through the headphones when the woman from Australia asked who owns the sheep)–but the scenery was breathtaking, and much more up close than we saw from the airplane, or from the bus yesterday with all the clouds and fog.

Afterwards, I would’ve liked to chance to hike a bit by the entrance, and I could have if I’d thought of it ahead of time. But the guy from the helicopter company dropped me off at McKinley Chalet (a hotel owned by Holland America), so I wandered Glitter Gulch for a while looking at souvenir shops, and now I’m about to take a bus to the train depot.

11:30 a.m.

I’m at the train depot. So far, the Alaska Railroad wins the award for service. They have a ton of nice, young folks working for them. When we pulled away from the station in Anchorage, the crew there–ticket agents and baggage handlers–stood on the platform and waved good-bye! The ticket agent here, friendly and all smiles, had my boarding pass already printed up. The vast majority of the passengers seem to belong to the cruise line, and I pity them for not getting the real ARR experience.

12:05 p.m.

On the train, waiting to depart. I’m in car C, the dome car that I thought was first class on the way up. Real luxury accommodations! Huge amount of legroom, and the seat reclines practically flat.

The guy from the helicopter company told me that after 9/11/01 the Railroad couldn’t run between Anchorage and Denali because it passed through several military bases. In fact, on 9/11 they stopped the train and backed it up, and they had to bus people in and out of Denali. He also told me that some of the bush pilots got military escorts back to where they came from–they didn’t know what happened and were forced to land or be shot down.

I think this train trip takes 8 or 9 hours. But it’s comfortable and relaxed, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of today. Tomorrow, on the other hand.…

12:30 p.m.

Dominic is our tour guide, and I asked him if he has a scrapbook, and he does. He told me that it’s a requirement of their class they take to get this job. It’s a 10-week course, after school, and there’s no guarantee of a job. His scrapbook wasn’t anywhere near as impressive as Jordan’s, but it’s still very cool to see these kid’s lives–kind of another glimpse into Alaska.

1:50 p.m.

Things I’ve learned on this trip:

  1. Glacial valleys are “U” shaped, with flat bottoms; river valleys are “V” shaped, with narrow bottoms.
  2. When the northbound and southbound Alaska Railroad trains pass each other, they stop, and the tour guides switch places. That way, the Fairbanks team goes back to Fairbanks and the Anchorage team returns to Anchorage.

We just passed two trumpeter swans sitting at the side of a pond.

2:05 p.m.

Big bull moose in a lake.

3:00 p.m.

We just passed a series of creeks and ponds full of king salmon. This must be one of very few trains that slow down for scenery and wildlife viewing.

The tour guide for our car is Maura for the rest of the way. Her scrapbook is kind of boring, but she’s really sweet and we had a very nice conversation.

The Alaska Railroad runs a flag-stop train year round for people living in remote areas where the train is the only way in or out. How cool is that!

We just crossed the Susitna River. Its dirty color is the result of glacial silt, Maura just informed us. I think that is the hundredth time I’ve heard that glacial silt gives streams and rivers a murky color since I’ve been in Alaska. they should have a sign in the airport; then they wouldn’t have to keep telling us.

5:00 p.m.

We just got a great sighting of a moose mother and calf in a pond by the side of the tracks, followed shortly afterwards by another pair of trumpeter swans.

7:55 p.m.

Third thing I’ve learned on this trip:

  1. More moose live in Anchorage than live in Denali National Park.

We’re almost to the Anchorage Depot. I hate to get off the train. It kind of signals the end of my adventure.

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