The Alaskan Railroad, Seward, and the Kenai Peninsula

7/5/19  Wilder B&B, Port Alsworth, Alaska

Planning a trip to Alaska, it is difficult not to consider the Alaskan Railroad.  Originally started in the early 1900s, the railroad was intended as a means to send supplies inland and bring harvested minerals and lumber out of the great Alaskan interior.  Anchorage was, originally, a tent city erected to help build the railroad.  At this point, there is still some freight traffic, but mostly the railroad is for tourist trains.  It runs both directions out of Anchorage, South to Seward, and North to Fairbanks.

Boarding the Train in Anchorage

We knew we wanted to see Kenai Fjords National Park (its on the bucket list after all), and all the boat tours for the park leave out of Seward, so the town was obviously on our destination list.  We had several options of getting there but chose the train because, well, it is different.  

Turnagain Arm Mud Flats

I’m glad we did, but the train does pose some negatives.  The train, in either direction, is often part of sea-and-land tours.  Often cruise ships offer packages that either start in Fairbanks or Anchorage with the train ride to Seward where they transfer to a big cruise ship, or they end their sea-going portion in Seward and transfer to the train to head north.  Either way, it means the train is often loaded with cruise ship passengers.  Sometimes these cruise ship passengers come with small kids who like to scream and yell for what seems like endless periods of time.  Fortunately, though, us empty nesters can retire to the bar car for a drink and leave the toddlers behind.

River Canyon from the Train

Despite the screaming children, I heartily recommend the train.  It is a relatively stress-free travel mode with more freedom to move around than an airplane, plus the sight lines are much better – the windows are bigger and the views are more intimate than from 35,000 feet.  It takes about four hours to go from Anchorage to Seward, which is maybe a little longer than by car or bus, but the path is different.  They built the tracks through the mountain valleys so there are some spectacular views of rivers, waterfalls, and even some good opportunities for alpine glaciers.  The train slows down for some of these views and high school students are on board providing narration as you go.  They also patrol up and down the train offering assistance and information to passengers.  (Their youthful enthusiasm is very welcome). And there is wildlife.  I stopped counting the bald eagles after about a dozen and we even saw a moose family stomping through the sedge grass.  The train slows down whenever wildlife is spotted.  They serve a meal on the train, but if you happen to be in the last car, you might only have a few minutes to eat it.  The food is good, but not terrific.  But then it isn’t ridiculously priced either.

A nearly perfect picture (except Joan’s phone got in there!)

The only other problem with the train ride is the schedule – it leaves Anchorage at 6:00 in the morning and the return train gets back there after 10:00 PM.  Of course, in the summer, it is daylight at both of those times so you hardly know it is opposite ends of the day, but it can make for long days.

Waterfall and River from the Train

The train ride was a great way to experience the maritime rain forest.  We saw pieces of that in our short hikes on the panhandle, but from the train you get temporary glimpses of miles of the forest.  The rugged nature of the mountains, glaciers, and waterfalls are all sampled quickly in succession.  And you get a good introduction to the trees and shrubs which I was getting pretty close to being able to identify.  The other half of the maritime rain forest, the alpine tundra of the higher mountain peaks is also visible, a little more in the distance.  

One feature worthy of special mention is Turnagain Arm.  This is, basically, a fjord running a couple dozen miles eastward off of Cook Inlet, just south of Anchorage.  The train tracks parallel the edge of the ‘Arm’ all the way to the end where the train turns south to head on to Seward.  Turnagain Arm is long and skinny and, although there is a very deep channel in the middle, the broad edges of the arm are very shallow and are covered in fine silt.  The resulting mud is so intense that foolish people have gotten stuck in it and died because they couldn’t get out before the tide returned.  And the tides, for reasons that I don’t understand, are among the most extreme in the world changing depths as much as 35 feet from low to high.  We saw the arm both at low tide and at about ‘half-tide’ (is that a word?) and the changes are remarkable.

Wetlands on the way to Seward

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was sick for much of this portion of the trip, coughing up a storm on both train rides.  I also spent a full day sleeping – a day we were supposed to use to go to Exit Glacier, an arm of one of the largest ice fields in Alaska, the Harding Ice Field.  Joan did the glacier tour, but didn’t have a whole lot to report (I think she missed me a bit!).  And, we had allocated the better part of one day to tour downtown Seward and that also got cut short because I didn’t feel up to hiking around.  It is unfortunate, but the result is that I can’t comment too much on Seward.  At a little less than 3000 people, it is smaller than Sitka, but seemed to have some similar vibes.  The town was virtually destroyed in the 1964 Good Friday earthquake and so much of it is rebuilt.  The cruise ship and tourism industry is huge, but doesn’t seem to dominate like in Juneau.  Commercial and sport fishing are also big as the harbor is full of boats of all sizes.

Park Tour Boats at Seward Boat Harbor

The Kenai Peninsula is a relatively small part of Alaska, but plays an important role.  In addition to Seward, Homer is another town on the Cook Inlet side of the peninsula.  The highway system connects Seward, Homer, Kenai, and a couple of other small towns with Anchorage to the north.  Still the total population of this chunk of land is, like all of Alaska, quite small leaving the land mostly unpopulated.  The lush vegetation of the maritime rain forest and the rugged, glacier covered coastal mountains, give the peninsula a rugged and dense feeling.

A good friend of mine, Jason, spent several post-high-school years earning a rather special education in these parts.  He considers them ‘formative’ in many, valuable ways.  I spent just four short days here and certainly feel its overwhelming qualities.  I can only guess at the impact this special place might have on the emerging mind of a boy/man in his late teens.  From establishing the character of what kinds of risks you will take when you encounter a bear in the wild, to measuring the beauty of what nature gives us in the way we can sense and feel our surroundings, to appreciating the durability of nature and our small part in it.  Alaska is a special place.

With this post, we are leaving the maritime rain forest coastal zone.  It is an important one because most of Alaska’s recorded history occurs here and its population mostly lives here.  But there is more to Alaska, and so we move on to the Alaskan Peninsula.

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