Between the town of Talkeenta and the rainbow trestle that crosses Hurricane Gulch, the Alaska Railroad traverses the true middle of nowhere. A hundred or so rugged, remote farmsteads hide in this 60 mile span -- described by Alaskans as the "dark zone."
The drivers of trains along this stretch will unhesitatingly throw the brake lever to halt half a mile of rolling rail cars for anybody who stands beside these remote rails waving a white flag--or shirt, or sheet, or even a handkerchief.
One Air Force retiree who became a homesteader in Alaska's dark zone recalls a favorite story. After white-flagging the train, a woman handed the conductor a note to be delivered to her husband working the fishing season in Anchorage. Her terse message read: "A bear tore off the front door. Since then I've slept with a shotgun. Bring a new damn door when you return."
Between Anchorage and Denali National Park--itself as big as New Hampshire--Alaska's forested, river-creased outback is studded with whimsical place names that continue to speak of a frontier past. Yet there remains one constant: Whether you refer to it as McKinley or by the ancient, lyrical native name of Denali, the highest mountain in North America will be your moody companion throughout. Mount McKinley introduces itself from a crow-flying distance of 150 miles as the train leaves the Anchorage city limits. The sway of the rail coaches causes its 20,320-foot tip to bob on the horizon like an iceberg sailing across a sea of ocean-green spruce.
"The mountain can be a fickle companion," cautioned a member of the Notre Dame athletic department who spends summers here. A half-hour later Alaska's famous peak was no longer a hazy specter. Its mass dwarfed the Talkeetna range as our expedition lumbered through the fertile Matanuska Valley where vegetables reach gargantuan proportions under the sun that sets near midnight and rises shortly thereafter. As if to bear out the prediction, however, McKinley-Denali began to close the shutters. By the time we had reached milepost 279—the nearest we would pass its base—our view was a keyhole peep through one enormous white cloud doorway.
Well, if McKinley-Denali wanted to sulk, we would have to make other scenic acquaintances such as the hamlet of Honolulu, a misnomer if there ever was one. The plot line of the television series "Northern Exposure" was set in Talkeetna. Long before the town caught the TV eye, its fame was firmly rooted in the annual Moose Dropping Festival. Based on a local natural resource, renewable throughout the year, this celebration has inspired a cottage industry of tie clasps and earrings ornamented with moose droppings.
Nearing Denali Park, our thoughts turn to free-range bear, cliff-hugging Dall sheep, snowshoe hare, caribou—and, yes, numerous homely, lumbering moose. With luck, Mount McKinley will draw open the cloud curtain and shine marshmallow white with its microclimate halo. But even with the peak in hibernation, the experience will be enriched because we are told that “when the sun goes away, the animals come out."
Traveling through the heart of the park, tourists glimpse drunken forests (their footing angled by the action of permafrost), bear moms fishing with their cubs, terns that have migrated from Antarctica, shy caribou and, in season, the sublime autumn colors of pink fireweed, purple lupine and yellow cinquefoil.
Not 15 yards from our bus, a pair of moose bulls butted heads for 30 rack-rattling minutes. "Wonder if they're under contract to the tour company?" mused one visitor. The guide guffawed. "More is at stake here than a performance for us. Those two monsters have a big harem."