There is a little train in Alaska that stops for hitchhikers. It's the Alaska Railroad's Hurricane Turn and it's said to be America's last...
TALKEETNA, Alaska — There is a little train in Alaska that stops for hitchhikers. It’s the Alaska Railroad’s Hurricane Turn and it’s said to be America’s last flag-stop train.
The Hurricane Turn runs 55 miles north from Talkeetna, the pioneer town in the shadow of Mount McKinley, to Hurricane Gulch, the turnaround point. It is a roadless area of thick forests and roiling rivers, where Alaskans have cabins tucked into bush country.
Locals depend on the train to reach their remote cabins. Hikers and anglers board the Hurricane Turn for day trips on their own. A few others just go along for the scenery.
“We’ll stop anywhere for passengers to get off or on,” says Jethro Greenbaum, the engineer. “They flag me down by standing beside the tracks and waving their arms. I see a lot of white T-shirts being waved.”
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The Hurricane Turn operates from mid-May to mid-September, prime time for Alaska visitors.
The Hurricane Turn operates Thursday through Sunday until Sept. 17 this season. The train departs at 11:45 a.m. from the Old Depot in Talkeetna, and is scheduled to return at 5:15 p.m., although it is rarely on time because of flag stops for passengers.
Fare: $78 round trip. Tickets may be purchased on board or by calling the railroad for reservations.
Option: Passengers may combine travel aboard the Hurricane Turn with a river float trip from Chase, a flag stop about 10 miles north of Talkeetna, back to Talkeetna. Total time for that tour is about 4-½ hours. Cost is $155 a person.
Getting to Talkeetna
Talkeetna, the base for climbers attempting Mount McKinley ascents, is about 112 miles north from Anchorage.
Alaska Railroad in Anchorage. Phone: 800-544-0552 or 907-265-2494. Web: www.alaskarailroad.com/
But you won’t find this train listed in tourist brochures. It’s a little-known, little-promoted service that barely breaks even for the state-owned railroad.
“It’s sort of our best secret,” says Susie Kiger, the Alaska Railroad’s manager of sales and marketing.
Visitors are welcome. But be aware that there is no food or beverage service aboard the mini-train. Bring your own picnic.
(Bush residents are not stranded after the summer season. The Hurricane Turn makes a flag-stop run the first Thursday of each month. In addition, the Aurora, the winter train that commutes between Anchorage and Fairbanks on weekends, also will make flag stops.)
Two self-propelled diesel cars known in the industry as RDCs or Budd Cars are coupled to form the Hurricane Turn. The antique cars were built in Philadelphia by the Budd Co. in 1952. Crew members jokingly call them “Budd cans.”
One car is for passengers, the other for dogs, groceries, fuel cans, rifles, snowshoes, snow machines and whatever else bush residents may haul aboard. Some of their cabins are a hike of two miles or more back from the railroad tracks.
“You meet some real characters on this train,” says Buddy Gray, a longtime Alaska Railroad conductor.
Gray carries a pair of handcuffs in case he needs to deal with an obstreperous passenger.
There is scenery aplenty, including clear-weather views of close-by Mount McKinley (20,320 feet high), as the Hurricane Turn follows the Susitna River north of Talkeetna. Watch for moose, bears, wolves and other wildlife.
“It’s never the same, but always beautiful,” Gray says.
Flag stop ahead …
The Gabler family, of Milwaukee, signals for a pickup. Dad, David, an attorney; mother, Marybeth, a nurse; and children, Joseph, 9, and Audrey, 11, were completing a visit to an Alaska relative’s bush cabin.
“We had a great time,” says Marybeth Gabler. “It was like ‘Jurassic Park’ back there. I am 5 foot 2, and we were walking through ferns taller than that.”
The Gablers spread a lunch of apples and peanut butter/honey sandwiches as the rock-and-roll train sways northward.
We pause again.
A man and his dog are waiting by the tracks. They climb into the baggage car. Meet Charley K. and his yellow lab, Sandy.
Charley is a lean splinter of a man, maybe 6 foot 2, probably in his mid-70s. He finds a seat on a shelf in the baggage car. Sandy naps at his feet.
“Just call me Charley K. That’s all I’m going to tell you.” “OK, Charley. Where do you live these days?”
“I have a little cabin back in the woods. Have had since 1967. I garden a little, chop firewood and trap for marten, fox and beaver. I get occasional visits from my grandkids.”
“Are the winters tough?”
“Not so bad. Sometimes it goes down to 30 below, but that’s about it. I have a radio telephone for emergencies. I’m retired from the railroad. I was a track inspector. I get my retirement check each month. I get to ride the trains free.”
The train pulls onto the bridge at Hurricane Gulch, a graceful span 918 feet long and 296 feet above Hurricane Creek.
“That’s it,” says Gray. “We’ll enjoy the view from the bridge for a few minutes and turn back to Talkeetna.”
Alaska-born Stanton H. Patty, a Vancouver, Wash., writer, is the retired assistant Travel editor of The Seattle Times.