Kenai Fjords National Park: By Plane and Train to Seward

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Sean and I departed on our honeymoon trip to Alaska on Tuesday, August 18, 2015. Although there is a direct flight between Chicago and Anchorage on Alaska Airlines, we were flying on American Airlines because of the stipulations of Sean’s prize. Save that we had to make a connection through Dallas-Fort Worth, flying on American was just fine because it is our carrier of choice.

Also it allowed us two of our traveling traditions. My shot of the American Airlines fleet at O’Hare:

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And a visit to Frontera Tortas, this time for breakfast:

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We are often asked how we manage traveling with our gear when we’re going to be camping, hiking, possibly backpacking. The truth is that’s it’s not particularly difficult. We split up the gear and pack it in our big backpacking packs, which we check. We carry some of our clothes in our carry-on bags, usually day packs, since most of the items we’re not able to carry on board are in our packs.

Alaska proved tricky for two reasons: the length of time (21 days) and that we had been able to give packing very little thought before the wedding. We’d had to triage some things (extra clothes, coffee thermoses) to make room for essentials (sleeping bags, cook kits). We intended to visit the REI in Anchorage to get things we couldn’t or didn’t need to fly with: camp stove fuel, bear spray, backpacking meals, etc.

In Dallas, we explored the older sections of the terminal (which formed a huge part of my childhood memories from flying through DFW to California when I was young) before settling down for lunch and wine flights at Vino Volo.

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Two ladies (likely in their mid-to-late eighties) were also having wine. They were going to Alaska too and talking excitedly about their trip, their cruise, and the soap opera-like goings on at their retirement community. They were checking the weather, hoping to be able to see the Mountain while they were in Denali before their cruise. A while later, we overheard them in the boarding line talking about their hope to see the mountain, and some women said, “Good luck, but I wouldn’t count on it.”

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Looking out the window at hot, flat Texas (it was 95 degrees), I thought about how funny it was that we had to briefly visit this sun-baked place on the way to the North.

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Our flight was uneventful as our path took us over the Dakotas and along the spine of the Canadian Rockies. Much of the parts of North America we were flying over that day were cloudy, so I concentrated on the American Way crossword and my issue of Harper’s. But then, as we began heading on a more westerly trajectory, the clouds began to part, revealing the coastal ranges of Alaska, with their peaks and glaciers. the final hour of the flight was spectacular.

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Alaska’s coast ranges in the foreground lift a blanket of clouds that stretches flat and nearly unbroken over the Gulf of Alaska.

Eventually, the cloud cover broke completely and we could see the Gulf of Alaska as the flight path took us just north of the coast, past the Copper River delta and over Prince William Sound.

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Copper River delta

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Knight Island, Prince William Sound

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Sargent Icefield, Chugach National Forest

As we crossed the northern reaches of the Kenai Peninsula and began our descent into Anchorage, we encountered clouds, some spilling rain, that added to the drama of our arrival in Alaska.

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Our flight path followed the Turnagain arm of Cook Inlet out of the Chugach Mountains and toward Anchorage.

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Turnagain Arm

Far below, we could see the Seward Highway and the Alaska Railroad tracks, visible in the image below, hugging the coast between the Turnagain Arm and the Chugach range.

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We made our final approach in a wide arc over Cook Inlet, on which Anchorage is situated. The panorama was immense as we flew in and out of rain squalls.

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Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, across Cook Inlet from Anchorage

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A lone ship crosses Cook Inlet from Anchorage.

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Cook Inlet

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We arrived in Anchorage around 7:30pm, Alaska time, which is three hours behind Chicago time. We collected our bags and hopped in a cab to the Anchorage Downtown Hotel, where we’d be spending the night before boarding the train to Seward in the morning. The hotel was attempting to be a boutique hotel in what appeared to be a converted apartment building. Our room was on the garden level, so partially underground. It wasn’t quite what we’d hoped for, but the woman at the front desk was friendly and helpful, suggesting a few places to eat nearby. It was clear the hotel was trying to be as charming as its aspirations.

Before we repacked for ground-based travel without the restrictions of what can or cannot be brought through security, we walked to a health food market a few blocks away that I’d noticed on the cab ride into downtown. We got sandwiches, snacks, and yogurts for the room. The evening temperature was in the low sixties, comfortable, and the clouds and squalls were rapidly departing.

Our route took us across Delaney Park Strip, an eleven-block long, one-block wide, parcel of green space oriented east-west in downtown Anchorage. The Chugach Mountains in the distance were shrouded with shadow as the sun set.

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Delaney Park Strip

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Next morning, we were up early for our 6:45am train to Seward on the Alaska Railroad. The cab came at 5:45am to get us to the station by 6am for the required check-in.

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Downtown Anchorage, pre-dawn

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The Anchorage train station was a handsome, imposing building adjacent to Ship Creek, down the hill in the northern section of downtown Anchorage. We checked our bags and got in line to pick up our tickets.

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Everyone in line was there for our train, a southbound trek 114 miles to Seward, gateway to Kenai Fjords National Park, on Resurrection Bay on the Gulf of Alaska. We had opted for the Goldstar Service, the railroad’s first class equivalent. The Goldstar service included assigned seats in elevated glass-topped viewing coaches, complimentary breakfast and beverages, bar service in the coach, and a spacious outdoor viewing platform. Best of all, each Goldstar passenger received a special pin so that the train’s staff would know that they were where they were supposed to be.

The Goldstar Service was a bit pricey, but it was wildly worth it. We would do it again in a heartbeat.

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In 1904, the private company, Alaska Central, began to build a railroad in Alaska. The intention was to connect Fairbanks, far in the interior, to the coast at Seward. By 1912, the company was bankrupt after only completing 71 miles of the intended 470 miles of track. In 1914, the federal government stepped in, setting up the Alaska Railroad commission to complete the project. Connecting the interior of the Alaska Territory to the outside world (which at that time meant steamships) was deemed to be in the national interest.

In 1915, the commission moved the headquarters of the railroad from Seward to a site on Cook Inlet, somewhat more centrally located, so that supplies could be shipped further up the line. The railroad worker tent camp established there would grow into the town of Anchorage. Anchorage’s location, accessible by sea, rail, and eventually car, and its tempered maritime climate would help it grow into the most populous city in Alaska, which it remains today.

Construction of the railroad continued, and supplies and equipment were ferried north from the completed Panama Canal project to be used in the Alaska Railroad. The railroad as completed in 1923.

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A plaque dedicating the Anchorage train station, completed in 1942 under FDR’s administration.

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Soon it was time to board.

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The entrance area of the Goldstar coach, the dining room ahead and the seating area up a spiral staircase to the left

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Almost immediately, from overheard conversations, it became clear that the majority of our fellow passengers were on their way to a cruise ship departing from Seward either that afternoon or the next.

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Just after the sun rose over the mountains, the train pulled out of the station. The trip was narrated live by college students, which enhanced the experience.

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Across Cook Inlet as we departed, a rainbow appeared.

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We passed between Anchorage neighborhoods and Cook Inlet, peering into backyards (some of which had their own landing strips for private planes) and passing industrial areas and shopping centers as the city slowly awoke on this Wednesday morning.

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Dimond Mall, south of downtown Anchorage

The trip narrator also pointed out a moose near the tracks as we were still in Anchorage proper.

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After leaving the center of Anchorage, the tracks traced a route along the mud flats and marshes southeast of the city along Cook Inlet.

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Ahead of us, Turnagain Arm reached east from Cook Inlet between two mountain ranges, the Kenai Mountains and the Chugach Mountains. Far across Cook Inlet was the Alaska Range. Three mountain ranges were visible in one panoramic 360-degree view.

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Kenai Mountains

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The Alaska Range’s Redoubt Volcano in Lake Clark National Park

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Turnagain Arm was named by Captain James Cook on his third voyage in the 1770s. He and his men were searching for the Northwest Passage and thought that this inlet from Cook Inlet might be it. It wasn’t, and so they had to turn again in disappointment, hence the name Turnagain Arm.

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Turnagain Arm

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Chugach Mountains

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About an hour into the journey, we were escorted down to breakfast. We were seated with a charming couple, Gordi and Thelma. They had been in Alaska for a week already, visiting the Fairbanks area and Denali National Park, and now were on their way to a cruise that would ultimately take them to Vancouver.

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We chatted about nature and the importance of connecting young people to it. And we talked about various travel adventures we had had in our lives.

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Image: Thelma

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By the time we’d finished breakfast, the train was well past the Turnagain Arm and was headed south through the mountains and valleys of the Kenai Peninsula. Most of the area we were passing through was part of Chugach National Forest, established in 1907 by Theodore Roosevelt.

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Placer River

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Spencer Glacier

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By this point, people were in and out of their seats nearly constantly as one wonder after the next came into view outside the train. The bartender remarked that we were lucky to have such a spectacular day for our journey. The narrators continued on with bits of local history and tales of Sourdoughs such as early homesteaders and miners.

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Bartlett Glacier

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Trail Creek

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Upper Trail Lake

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Bald Eagle, Upper Trail Lake

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Upper Trail Lake

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Sean remarked that he would be ok if this were his commute everyday. Already we felt saturated by astonishing natural beauty and we’d only been in Alaska for some fourteen hours.

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Kenai Lake

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Kenai Lake

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Kenai Lake

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Snow River

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Trumpeter Swans

All too soon we were approaching Seward. The trip was over four hours, but it felt much, much shorter.

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Resurrection River

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Seward Airstrip

The station was a flurry of activity as we pulled in. Busses and vans were there to take passengers on tours, ferry them to cruise ships, or transport them to various hotels. We saw a van for our hotel, Hotel Seward. It was driven by a fellow who looked like a long-lost third Hemsworth brother.

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The first van to the hotel was full, but the other Hemsworth returned in only ten minutes to take a second load of people. An older couple who had not bothered to get in line or inquire about the van previously, began to have a hissy fit that they’d have to wait for a third go-round. A younger couple said that they were fine walking to the hotel if the van could take their bags. The older couple was our first run-in with cranky, entitled white cruisers.

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3 thoughts on “Kenai Fjords National Park: By Plane and Train to Seward

  1. Pingback: Denali National Park: | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

  2. Pingback: Denali National Park: Returning to Semi-Civilization | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

  3. Pingback: Alaska Interlude: Anchorage and the Alaska State Fair | As They Are: Exploring the National Parks

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