“Moose! Moose! We’ve got three moose on the right!”
Warren Redfearn beamed with excitement as he directed the passengers’ attention toward the wildlife idling beside the Aurora Winter Train. A stream of “oohs” and “ahhs” followed as the 40 or so people on board shifted their weight to the right side of the caboose.
Warren let out a big smile and took a sip of his coffee. You’d think that after four decades as an Alaska Railroad conductor, a couple of wild moose wouldn’t excite him anymore. But you’d be wrong.
“I love my job and I don’t plan on retiring,” the 62-year-old told me as the Aurora began its once-a-week 12-hour, 350-mile trek from coastal Anchorage to deep in the Alaskan interior. “I don’t do it for the money—I do it for the people.”
And people there are.
Over two million tourists flocked to the Last Frontier State in 2015 and a whopping 750,000 of them decided their great northern getaway wasn’t complete without a ride on the Alaska Railroad.
Although you wouldn’t guess it by riding the comfort-centric Aurora, tourism isn’t Alaska Railroad’s primary business. As the nation’s last full-service railroad, the AR is responsible for hauling much of the state’s freight—commodities like lumber, heavy machinery, and hazardous materials. Most of that cargo is connected in some way or another to Alaska’s colossal gas and oil industry.
Falling oil revenue, though, has put a strain on the state’s budget—and reduced demand for AR’s heavy-transport services. Tourism dollars, on the other hand, have proven more resilient, offering a cushion of support for the volatile local economy.
The vast majority of AR’s non-commercial transports are foreign and “Lower 48” travelers looking to maximize their visit to a land twice the size of Texas. For most, the comfortable and exceedingly bright summer is the obvious time of year to explore some of America’s most remote vistas.
There are a few visitors though, that opt for the extreme.
Of the 750,000 people who rode the train last year, “I’d guess 99 percent were summer passengers,” Warren told me as our four-car caravan slowly churned past a legion of fluffy evergreens. Behind them, a row of black and white mountains pierced the sky, turning the backdrop into a real-life snow globe.
These kind of views are unrivaled—literally. That’s because when the nights grow long and the temperatures fall, the Alaska Railroad shuts down four of its five routes, leaving the mighty Aurora the only engine on the tracks.
For winter visitors looking to take an express trip through the Alaskan wilderness—and catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights in the process—this train is the only game in town. And while their numbers are diminished, off-season tourists are no less amped to ride the rails.
“We wanted to see as much of Alaska as possible,” one retired American couple told me as we stood on the exposed platform linking two train cars. The chilled air turned our breath to steam as we took turns snapping photos of the passing snow-covered scenery. “We’ve been able to visit lots of places but Alaska’s been on our list for a long, long time—and to do it in the winter,” the woman said, pausing to take in a passing mountain, “that’s even better.”
As we made our way through the Alaskan interior, passing by Wasilla, the tiny town of Talkeetna, and the gorgeous Denali National Park, we received a quick overview of not just the local landscapes but the colorful personalities that have made their lives in this isolated countryside.
“Dr. Seuss house! Coming up on the Dr. Seuss house!” Warren exclaimed suddenly.
“Dr. Seuss?” I asked.
“Yeah! We’re not actually allowed to call it that, but, well, you’ll see what I mean. This guy wanted an unobstructed view of Denali, so he built this tower.”
Indeed, the structure—officially called Goose Creek Tower—looked like something straight out of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It jutted above the tree line, like a stack of warped, whimsical boxes teetering on collapse.
The owner, designer, and builder is one of Alaska’s top trial lawyers, Phillip Weidner. He took a simple plan to build a two-story log cabin and transformed it into a fanciful (and functional) tribute to Alaskan creativity.
Then there’s author Mary T. Lovel, who moved to Alaska with her husband and four children in the early 1960s to try their hand at homesteading. The family had no experience with subsistence living when they settled a remote patch of Alaska serviced by the railroad. Fifty years later, Mary and her husband, Clyde, are still living off the land and regaling travelers with stories of what life was like during the early days of statehood.
The couple are a regular fixture on the Aurora route and when time permits, Warren likes to stop the train to pay the two a visit. As we approached their home, Warren waved for them to come out and chat with the passengers.
Clyde made his way down the snowy path, sporting paint-covered trousers and a ruffled shirt beneath an unbuttoned coat.
“I wasn’t expecting company!” he chuckled as he grew closer, dragging a small cart loaded with copies of Journey to a Dream—a book Mary penned about her family’s experiences living in Alaska.
Mary followed behind, smiling warmly. She sat down in a lean-to near the tracks and beckoned the group over. A few passengers bought a copy, others asked questions or posed for pictures in front of the couple’s bright blue house—which, in a town with population of two, is lovingly referred to as Sherman City Hall.
Soon, the crackle of Warren’s radio sounded and we were back on board.
The rest of the trip washed by, a limitless sea of angles and colors floating across the horizon, each view more serene than the next.
The Aurora pulled into its final destination of Fairbanks a few hours later. Passengers began swapping contact information with promises to share photos and reconnect.
“You guys have been so much fun!” Warren laughed as he made his way down the aisle, “Even more fun than normal!”
The next day, Warren and his crew would need to get up early and do the Aurora route again, taking a fresh group of passengers back the way we had come. One couple reminded him before departing that they had booked round-trip tickets.
“Well then I’ll see you tomorrow!” he exclaimed.
I thought about the returning couple for a minute. Would spotting some moose or passing by a snow-capped mountain still be exciting, having just done it the day before? But, as I stepped off the train and said goodbye to our conductor, I realized I was missing the point.
Warren had ridden the Aurora a million times and it was clear he loved it more with every journey. As long as he was on board, everything would be exciting.