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Railroad portrait handsome but sketchy

Posted: Thursday, October 09, 2003

Although railroad track covers only a miniscule fraction of Alaska and train service nationally has shrunk, the Alaska Railroad remains so important to the state that Alaskans use the term "railbelt" to describe the entire region where most of its population resides.

Now writer Kaylene Johnson and photographer Roy Corral have teamed up to present a portrait of the Alaska Railroad. The result is an attractive little volume that takes the reader all over the route.

The contents are an odd mix of fluff and substance.

When an Alaska book makes a point of explaining what a moose is, the implication is that tourists are the targeted audience. Adding to that impression are Corral's tourism-brochure scenery shots and Johnson's gushy prose.

"Living in Alaska, I discovered that train travel surpassed anything I could have imagined as a kid," she writes in the first chapter. "Back then the train came and went, leaving us to dream of the days when we could seek our fortunes elsewhere. And while fortune gold, copper, and coal is what Alaska trains were originally built to carry, the experience of riding the rails has become its own reward."

She describes the railroad's package tours and special trips as if she were on the payroll of its marketing department. The overall impression is that "Portrait of the Alaska Railroad" is designed as a dandy thing for travelers to read while waiting for the "all aboard" call.

But the book offers more than a sales pitch.

Included is a painless primer on trains and railroads, chocked full of information such as a glossary of railroad terms and a translation of what train whistles mean.

There is plenty, too, specific to the Alaska Railroad. The "Portrait" profiles the communities along the run, from Seward to Fairbanks, and explains the sights along the way. The Kenai Peninsula section includes Moose Pass and a piece about "Alaska Nellie" Lawing.

It even explains the proper etiquette to flagging down a train in the wilderness.

The photos offer the same diversity. In addition to the obligatory but stirring views of blue and gold locomotives framed against majestic mountains, Corral serves up an attractive array of wildlife and people at work and play along the route.

The book picks up steam when it talks about the determined people who forged Alaska's railroads into what they are today.

Among the most colorful was Michael James Heney, who built the White Pass and Yukon Route and the Copper River and Northwestern Railway about a century ago. He was quoted as saying, "Give me enough dynamite and snoose and I'll build you a road to Hell!"

Other memorable characters include people who live along the remote line north of Talkeetna and employees, especially a team of Athabascan women who worked as gandy dancers (line maintenance laborers) in the Cantwell area during World War II. Johnson describes them as "tough as the spikes they drove into the railroad ties."

The line's history is as entertaining as its scenery and characters. Although this book has no interest in discussing the railroad's current shortcomings, it does a great job describing the challenges that faced its creators and those charged over the years with making the trains run on time despite moose, avalanches and earthquakes. Historical photos add to the narrative and make an interesting contrast to the contemporary

images.

In the process, readers learn that the Alaska Railroad is unique in more ways than its northern frontier location. "Portrait of the Alaska Railroad" explains that it is now the only train run by a state, the only one serving both freight and passengers and the last that people can still flag down for a ride.

Despite shortcomings, the book conveys the excitement and comfort of train travel through the wilderness, leaving the reader ready to pick up the phone and book a reservation.

Like the Alaska Railroad itself, "Portrait" is limited in where it can take you. But if that destination is where you want to go, it guarantees a fun ride.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.



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