"Could I have this dance for the rest of my life?" - Anne Murray

Friday, August 1, 2014

Riding the Coastal Classic to Seward, AK

Is there anything more evocative of childhood fantasies than a train ride? 

Well yes, of course there are, and Alaska has lots of them: bears, wolves, icebergs, igloos, dogsleds, whales, snow covered mountains, gold, glaciers. But one day we chose to indulge the train fantasy and take a very special Goldstar Service ride on the Coastal Classic to Seward.

"All Aboard!" They actually said that as we spilled out of the crowded depot onto the tracks and searched for our designated rail cars. We're heading for that double decker car straight ahead.

Once inside we got a glimpse of the doors to the dining car, before making our way up the tiled half- spiral staircase to the upper observatory deck. Oh boy.

With the Gold Star Service we had assigned seats in this grand glass domed car for the whole ride.

The train left Anchorage via the coast along Cook Inlet, giving us the most attractive perspective of the city that we'd had thus far. Then it turned east along Turnagain Arm, a long salt water inlet named by an early explorer for the many turns his ship made as he unsuccessfully attempted to navigate its shallow waters and mud flats.  

Turnagain Arm is famous for one of the most dramatic bore tides anywhere in the world. A bore tide happens when the tide comes in all at once over very shallow water and/or mud. The bore tide on Turnagain Arm is so big people actual surf/paddle board along it. (WARNING: Never walk out on the mud flats - casualties have occurred.) We had driven out a few days earlier at just the right time looking for the bore tide, but it was just a normal, if fast, incoming tide. Being a thing of nature, it doesn't always perform as we might wish it to. But! As we whizzed by in the Coastal Classic, there it was! Doing it thing for all of us to witness.  Very cool.

We also spotted quite a few Dall sheep on the cliffs above Turnagain Arm - some very close to the train.  We didn't even need our binoculars.  

Here we passed by the historical location of the town of Portage.  The town sank 6 feet and was permanently flooded during the great earthquake of 1964. Now there's nothing but a few sagging buildings, an abandoned train and a big soggy valley. 

We passed several glaciers along the way, which our perky high school tour guides identified and told us stories about.  And yes, high schoolers again. Alaska seems to make good use of their youth everywhere you turn.

This is such typical Alaska scenery - big wide valleys with muddy glacier fed rivers meandering through them.

We wound our way through mountain passes and tunnels...

…past more glaciers. This one was particularly striking, with those stripes made of crushed rock and dirt.

About 3 1/2 hours later we arrived in Seward. Driving would probably have take about half that time, but then we wouldn't have had our cheery tour guides or been able to take a nap on the way home.  

So, as you can see, when we got to Seward the weather was knockout gorgeous.  Seward is a big cruise ship port but we picked a day to visit when there were no cruise ships docked.  (These ports have  cruise ship schedules posted online so you can plan your trips to not be swept away in the crowds.)

The water was beautifully blue, as were the sky and the mountains. I've said it before - Alaska is so blue! We walked from the train station along the marina and had an OK lunch at Ray's.

It was just coming into salmon spawning season, so these fisherman were scanning the shore for evidence of salmon heading toward this little stream. In peak spawning times the salmon just crowd into practically every little creek and rivulet, so we hear.

There was a nice looking city RV park all along the shore, just south of the marina.  Lots of partial hook up sites, minimal amenities, but it's obviously about the view here, at least on a day like this one.

Rick's in his happy place, watching the boats and ships come and go out of the harbor.

I mean, who wouldn't be happy with this?

Our final destination in Seward was the Alaska SeaLife Center. A lot of folks were taking boat tours of the Kenai Fjords National Park or whale watching, but we felt like we'd seen whales, fjords and glaciers from a boat, so we opted for the aquarium.  Sea life abounds in and around Seward but this was the only mermaid we saw.

And this was the only caribou/reindeer we saw too. 

Did you know that caribou and reindeer are the same species? When they are domesticated, farmed (like this little guy) or hitched to Santa's sleigh, they are called reindeer. Caribou are a wild version that live above the tree line in arctic regions of Alaska and elsewhere. The big guy with the leash is a reindeer farmer hoping to drum up some visitors to his farm just outside of town.

The Alaskan SeaLife Center is a moderately sized aquarium and sea life rehabilitation center. It's most famous resident is Thumb, a giant Pacific octopus.  No, this isn't him...

But this is...

Is he incredible or what? Look at those eyes! He was extremely active, which I have never, ever seen before. At any other aquarium I've visited, the octopus may or may not be hiding in some corner where you have to just take someone's word for it actually being there.  But Thumb was definitely there!

I could have watched him for hours, but there were also some other fascinating residents, among them a huge male stellar sea lion the size of a grizzly bear, and aviary with sea birds so close you could touch them if that had been appropriate. (There was a staff member watching to be sure you didn't.)  Tufted and horned puffins, pigeon guillemots, and various murres, murrelets, gulls and ducks were diving, flying, squeaking and squawking.  The bottom half of the aviary was a deep pool so you could watch the birds diving and fishing around in there. 

We were getting pooped. We shuffled back up through the lower part of town, window shopped a bit, and then waited for the free town shuttle to take us back up to the marina. 

I was really glad we didn't have to drive back to Anchorage that evening. We settled back into our seats in the observation car, had a little dinner in the dining car at some point, and missed a little scenery as took little naps on the last leg of our scenic return trip.

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