Monday, 19 November 2012

SCHOLARSHIP DAY 81: Leaving Fairbanks- The Epic Train Ride to Anchorage

The problem with travelling, amongst the obvious things like inevitable sickness, a limited budget and airport delays, is the risk of getting attached to a place. This is especially the case if you've stayed over two months in that location, so it was perhaps predestined that I would grow fond of Fairbanks. Today was therefore going to be a poignant day in my scholarship; today, I would have to wave goodbye to a community I would be glad to call my own.

Two wonderful things happened this morning as I was waiting for the taxi to arrive at Billie's Backpackers, but unfortunately I didn't have my camera with me, so you'll just have to take my word for it! It was a fresh winter's morning for Fairbanks, about -15 degrees C, with a twinkling sky above me. All of a sudden, as if it had materialised right outside Billie's to say goodbye to me, I spotted a large moose! It was within about 10m of me, but was galloping down the road. All in all, it would be my 4th moose sighting on this trip, and I suspect my last too. The other fantastic event was a meteor shower. It literally followed the moose's appearance; if I had blinked, I would have probably missed it. I've never actually seen a meteor shower before; plenty of shooting stars, but not a shower.
I like to think of this as Interior Alaska saying goodbye to me, and so just before Arctic Taxi's pulled up to Billie's, I looked up and said a quiet "goodbye Fairbanks." Lugging my baggage into the taxi, and eventually being escorted towards the train station, I looked back and watched as Billie's Hostel turned from reality to just a memory.

Within minutes, I was at the train station, being handed my boarding ticket, and not so long after that, I was boarding the train to Anchorage; a 12 hour adventure! Still dark, I couldn't distinguish much out of the window, but whilst my vision wasn't bringing about much interest, I listened intently to a very young boy, dressed from top to toe in a well polished conductor's uniform, who had been given the task of announcing train procedure. Although a tad incoherent, the young lad made a reasonable job of it. He finished his briefing, Harry (the slightly more experienced and perhaps more official conductor) entered the coach, gave a quick welcome, and the train made a slow and steady departure. 

We passed Sam's Sourdough Cafe (ah, the pancakes I had in there) and finally the university campus. Suddenly, I was travelling new territory, which consisted mostly of medium sized vegetation and the odd frozen lake , but with very little light, photo opportunities were minimal.

The train reached Nenana when I made it out of my seat and headed to the viewing window. There in front of us, was the first bridge of the journey. Nenana is a small settlement, which was built when the railroad was being constructed. There is very little infrastructure however; a couple of timber buildings scattered here and there amongst the trees.

Where the train elongated to the left, I managed to outstretch my camera to get the following shot! As you can see, the train on the exterior assumes the style of those back 'in the day'. On the inside, the furnishings are of a contemporary feel.

It wasn't long after this that the I witnessed a spectacle in the sky. Many often applaud the sunlight in making these beautiful sky-scapes, but actually it's a collaboration of clouds and sun that bring about it's existence.  I was very happy;  this trip wouldn't have been the same on a cloudy day.

The railway track follows, almost religiously, along one of the main rivers here in Interior Alaska, and with the snow-capped mountains in the background, there were many photo opportunities. The river was mostly frozen up, but where it was open, water was violently swirling in eddies; it looked incredibly cold too!

And then it happened! My first 'Sun-Dog'. These are common here in Alaska, or so I'm told. Two mini, but very bright rainbows appear on each side of the Sun, making it look like there are three Suns. I was told to look out for these by a lady in a Seward giftshop, but until today I've never had the good fortune of seeing one. I was glad that on my last full day here in Alaska I got that very chance.

Come midday, no more Sun-Dog, but a very bright day, as we approached the Denali National Park. I was looking forward to this aspect of the journey; a chance to travel in and amongst some of Alaska's finest mountain ranges. No words can describe the nature of these natural giants; they look mighty and authoritative from any direction you approach them. There is a strong sense of dynamic activity here; geology at its finest. I've taken hundreds of photos today, but here's just a taster.

I thought it fitting at this point in the journey to open my packet of Snow-Caps (chocolate pieces sprinkled with white glazing agents, or something to the same effect.) Life was very good; the Snow-Caps (both mine and the Denali National Park's) were great. To add to the positive atmosphere swarming around the train as passengers manoeuvred themselves around with their cameras, three very light hearted true American gentleman came and sat near me and started singing and playing their favourite Alaskan songs. They were very good! I didn't know the songs, as such, but it was great foot tapping music, and it was free entertainment, which by all accounts is hard to find these days.

The adventure continued getting better and better, as we approached Mt McKinley. From the train, you can really appreciate why people choose to hike this giant. It stands out from a distance, not necessarily because of its height, but because it operates its own weather system. Note the clouds that make it identifiable very quickly. As we continued our journey, the train often slowed down so we could achieve the best photo. Here's my best attempt.

I fell asleep not so long after the Mt McKinley experience, had  a small 10 minute powernap, and re-emerged into reality to see the train had stopped. The conductor had spotted a Lynx across the river. After my lucky moose sighting earlier on today, I wasn't so fortunate to see the Lynx despite my best attempts. Very shortly after this episode, the Sun set, and once again, I was left without a view. A good opportunity I thought to listen to some music and reflect on the last 81 days.

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