The train car heaves as if it’s protesting the idea of altering its forward trajectory. The gentle rocking and click clack of the rails gives way to a noisy steel-on-steel screech. The train comes to a clunky stop in the middle of nowhere surrounded by miles of unending forest and wilderness.
Normally this isn’t a good sign for a train, it means delays. But on the Alaskan Railroad Hurricane Turn train, it just means more fun is happening! This is one train where you actually want it to stop.
Gear is loaded onto the baggage car in a flurry with everyone (including me) lending a helping hand and moving the big plastic tubs to the side to make more room. After loading all of the cargo, soon new people (and sometimes dogs) step up into the car and join their stuff in the baggage car. The conductor quickly shares words with the Engineer and the train slowly groans back into motion.
Welcome to Alaska Railroad’s best kept secret.
Experience the Hurricane Turn Train
Most people ride the Alaskan Railroad to see the spectacular landscapes, mountain peaks, boreal forest, and wildlife of the Alaskan wilderness while getting to their desired destination. The viewing and dining cars are filled with tourists and a few locals.
However, the Hurricane Turn train is the opposite; it’s a local train with a few tourists. This flagstop train leaves daily out of Talkeetna, goes to scenic Hurricane Gulch, turns around, and returns to Talkeetna late in the day. It was put in place for locals living off the grid to access remote cabins, hunting, and fishing in the wilderness.
It didn’t take long for inquisitive travelers to see this local train as a way to experience local life in Alaska and an intrepid few started riding it for fun. For tourists, it’s fascinating to see how the locals live in such remote areas, communicate, and take care of each other.
See Local Alaska Like Never Before
The first local I met on the train was Leroy. He got off the train and disappeared by himself into the woods as the train pulled away. Next, Kevin got off at his mile-marker, waving goodbye to us as we started back on our journey. These stops were short, and a bit weird to just leave people in the wilderness. Better them than me I thought!
There is no other transportation to these cabins except the Hurricane Turn train. The train is a lifeline for the 200 people who live near the tracks. It not only delivers people, but the train also delivers mail, newspapers, propane tanks, goats, chickens, and in return the locals provide things to the crew members like fresh eggs, and eternal friendship. I watched as the crew put rocks in a trash bag along with mail and newspapers and threw it out of the door of the train; mail delivery for local wilderness resident Shannon.
I found out pretty quickly my favorite place to hang out was in the baggage car when the train stopped to drop off or pick up people. When there were groups being picked up with lots of supplies along the side of the tracks – everyone pitched in and helped them load it on the train quickly. There was a true camaraderie on the train. We loaded dogs, guns, cabin supplies – you name it and it was handed through that baggage door! And after we took off, it wasn’t uncommon to hear the familiar sound of a few beers opening; turning the train cars into social hotspots with locals and tourists intermingling as we chugged back to Talkeetna.
However, it’s not just about the locals you meet flagging down the train. I was equally fascinated by the people I met on the train who ride it regularly, but don’t live along the line. They just ride it for fun and socializing. Or maybe they wanted to see the fall foliage, or wildlife, or just get away and do something different. Like Desiree, who recently moved from Texas to Anchorage and has been on the train 10 times in 2016! She said she loves riding, it because it’s a different experience every time for her. “You never know who you’ll meet, what new wildlife you will see, and what you’ll pick up and drop off,” explained Desiree.
I even met a group of local friends and family traveling together with a table filled with food, and coolers of drinks to entertain them all day. They invited me to take a seat and share a beer as they enjoyed the ever-changing view outside their window and good times with friends.
The Heart of the Hurricane Turn – Conductor Warren
We picked up a family along the route and as I was talking to the father, his little boy came up and tugged on his sleeve interrupting him.
“What?” the man said.
“Warren’s here,” the little boy replied with an excitement in his eyes that only kids can have.
The father smiled and the boy ran off bubbling over with excitement.
The young boy was referring to Warren Redfearn, the conductor and heart of the Hurricane Turn Train for 39 years. Warren has so much enthusiasm for this train route it was impossible not to have it rub off on you. This was clearly his calling and his home, it showed in everything he did; every kid he made smile, every fact he shared, and local and tourist he helped. The title ‘conductor’ fit him perfectly – he was the maestro of the Hurricane Turn Train, and for him alone I would go back again, and again, and again.
Warren walks around with a microphone in his overalls, a conductor hat and a giant perma-smile. He hands out brochures, points out wildlife, and shares history – all while still running the train with his crew.
Warren knows all of the regulars on the route – he is after all a people person. When he was just starting on his quest to be the most popular route, he would walk around Talkeetna wearing his conductor outfit and would hand out brochures to tourists like a politician.
I met a couple from Kansas on the train that met him that way years ago on the streets of little Talkeetna. Now they were on their 3rd trip on the Hurricane Turn Train.
But I also can’t neglect to mention Bill and Gordy, the engineers. Warren gets the glory – but these guys love the train as much as Warren does, they are the backbone. And they are also just as enthusiastic and social as Warren. This is like the Train Dream Team – they all deserve gold medals.
Striving to be the Best Route on the Alaskan Railroad
“The only reason I have not retired is I want to see what I started become the most popular train on the Alaska Railroad; more popular than the Denali Star,” Warren tells me.
I’ve ridden the Denali Star before on a previous trip – and this Hurricane Turn experience far outshined my experience on the Denali Star; it is the best route on the Alaskan Railroad! I think Warren is on the road to retirement if you ask me. Any time I can have a more local experience, it is the highlight of my travels. It’s when I learn the most, and become attached to a place rather than simply pass through it.
How to Travel More Local
This is Not Like Any Train You’ve Ridden Before
“Folks, we just saw a wolf along the river bank on the left side. We are just going to back up and take a look,” Warren announced over the speaker system. This was my first indication that this train was very different than anything I had ridden before in my travels. No trains stop and back up for wildlife…ever.
“We don’t really have a schedule. My rule of thumb is as long as a wildlife is in sight we don’t move, ” replied Warren when I asked him about stopping a train for wildlife.
As I walked through the cars, met people, shared drinks with them, listened to their stories, spotted wolves and swans, I realized this really was a one-of-a-kind train experience. The Hurricane Turn train route is about observation, socializing, and really learning about the culture of remote Alaska. It’s ‘close to the ground’ travel; and I loved it.
How To Stop a Train
It’s hard to believe my perfect travel day could get even better, but it did. The flagstop aspect isn’t just for locals, tourists can take advantage of it too. I wanted the full ‘flagstop’ experience, so my friend Bruce and I packed a big picnic and asked Warren to leave us off at Twin Bridges.
I was giddy as the train slowly creaked to a stop after the bridge and we got off with our cooler and picnic gear. We waved goodbye as the train whistle blew and left us to our wilderness picnic. It was a little strange at first to see the train fade into the horizon and our new friends waving to us – suddenly we were all alone.
We were right by the scenic Indian River, if we had fishing poles we could have fished! But instead we used the little picnic table and fire-pit there to get a salmon on the fire and make lunch. We were 11 miles from the nearest highway, completely alone and experiencing the Alaska wilderness. I don’t think I could imagine a better Alaska train experience.
Two hours later we heard the train whistle blow in the distance. It had turned around and now was coming back along the route. I got out my white scarf and waved it in the air as the train came into sight. I was a little unsure at first about my technique, but decided it was sort like hailing a cab in New York City.
To my giddy delight, the train stopped and all of my friends who I had left 2 hours ago on the train welcomed me back with open arms. It was so easy and fun that I have no idea why more people aren’t doing this! Take the Hurricane Turn train to have a picnic, go fishing, camp overnight, or do a little hiking for a few hours and then flag it down and just hop back on!
As the day continued and we chugged along stopping for bear sightings and picking up hunters, I realized this really is the railroad’s (and maybe Alaska’s) best-kept secret. The Hurricane Turn train isn’t just about the locals and their remote, unusual lives; it is much more than that. It’s the coming together of locals and tourists. It’s the Alaskan Railroad, and specifically the crew on the Hurricane Turn train, that unites them. I do want Conductor Warren to achieve his goal of being the most popular route, yet there’s still a little part of me that wants to keep this secret to myself.
More Info on the Hurricane Turn Train
Summer Schedule – 1PM Thursday – Monday, mid-May to mid-September
Winter Schedule – 1st Thursday of the month, October to May
Buy Tickets on the Alaska Railroad Website here
I was a guest of the Alaska Railroad for this trip, however all opinions on how wonderful local travel is are mine!