Riding the "Moose Gooser"

by Bob Sprengel

It was late August 1967, the 100th anniversary of "Seward's Folly." I had just completed my first winter and summer in the "Land of the Midnight Sun" as a member of the U.S. Army 64th Field Hospital at Fort Richardson just outside Anchorage. To this lad from Chicago, Mount McKinley had loomed large and majestic in the distance all those days and I had vowed to see her up close and personal before leaving this land of so many natural wonders.

Gary Gallagher, a former medic in my unit, now turned Army biathlon-team member, and I finagled weekend passes to take the train up to McKinley Park. We planned to backpack around the park searching for photo opportunities. After packing our sleeping bags and some munchies, we headed out to the railroad station in Anchorage.

There was nothing unique about boarding the train and heading up north. The crowd seemed to be composed of regular folks like ourselves, although not back-back laden. The day was gray, cool and comfortable.

Prior to boarding, I noticed that there really wasn't a "cow catcher" on the front of the diesel locomotive. Before arriving in Alaska, I had heard about the train being referred to as the "Moose Gooser" and had wondered how it must have looked. Any "goose" a moose would get from this train would be fatal.

Finding seats was an easy task and we settled in to watch the countryside roll by. Besides the train ride to Fort Knox for basic training, my previous rail excursions had been limited to the yearly grade school summer picnic trip. The Chicago and Northwestern Railroad had run steam locomotives for our outings to a suburban picnic grove along the Des Plaines River. As a youngster not used to train travel and unfamiliar with long distances, I had always thought we were headed out to some far off land like Wyoming. It was fun to look out the window and watch the smoke roll by.

This was much better than Wyoming. The leisurely pace of the train made for close scrutiny of the passing landscape and the occasional snooze. I had already seen much of the beauty of Alaska during the past year. The Kenai Peninsula with trips to Seward and Homer. Volcano smoke across the Cook Inlet at sunset. Spectacular displays of the northern lights near Big Delta. Hiking on Portage Glacier. The Matanuska Valley in summer while visiting the state fair.

My favorite way to view the scenery was to stand between two coaches and peer out the open window. It made one less barrier to the land outside. The smells of the countryside and the sound of running water in the nearby rivers contributed to the experience.

Using the Alaska Railroad map with mile markers helped keep track of where we were. While consulting the map, I noticed that the train began slowing down eventually crawling to a stop. Peering out the open window between cars and looking up toward the engine, I noticed an elderly couple exiting the train and walking off into the woods, packs on their backs. No habitation was in sight. One of the features of this train was that you could get on or off anywhere you liked. I had no idea if the couple lived just off the tracks or if they were just making a temporary journey into the wilderness.

The highlight of the trip north, almost a full eight hours, was passing over Hurricane Gulch, a football-field drop below the trestle. The breathtaking sight made one appreciative of sound engineering and structural design.

As we got closer to the McKinley Park station, I noticed flecks of white descending on the landscape. Oops! Gary and I had packed for a late summer outing and were now greeted by a dusting of early-season snow. Our solution was to put on every ounce of clothing we had packed. For me that meant wearing two sweatshirts and a towel as a hood. This arrangement worked for the duration, but it was an embarrassment nonetheless. Here were two guys who had spent the previous winter on maneuvers in -100 degree wind chills caught with their "pants down," so to speak.

The first order of business after exiting the train at McKinley Park Station was to fashion a lean-to and build a fire. We hiked into the woods not far off the tracks and accomplished our mission. The roaring fire soothed our embarrassment somewhat. Had it been any worse, we would have had to sheepishly make other arrangements. We chided ourselves, knowing full-well that we had violated the simplest of mottoes. Be prepared. Mother nature could have been much less forgiving. We managed a hot meal for dinner from our canned supplies. Settling into our Army-issue sleeping bags kept us toasty for the night. We shared stories of past adventures and drifted off to sleep.

We awakened the next morning to a carpet of light snow. Thankfully, my dual-sweatshirt arrangement kept me adequately warm as I exited my cozy cocoon. In his search for some fresh milk, Gary discovered that the camp store wasn't open, so breakfast consisted of dry corn flakes supplanted by blueberries picked from around our campsite.

Our day of hiking began by exploring various sites close to the park station that revealed any photographic possibilities. The weather had remained overcast, so any views of the big mountain were not forthcoming. That was a disappointment, but we tried to make the best of it. We found many interesting things and places that piqued our photographic fancy and clicked off a roll or two during the day. We also happened across a porcupine that decided to crawl up a tree to escape our attempts at close-up investigation.

Dinner that evening was interrupted by a pair of Canadian jays that teemed up to haul off a loaf of French bread. They had each grabbed one side of the untended bread and took off into the trees. It was an amazing site. We were a little upset, but applauded their ingenuity. We settled into our sleeping bags anticipating the ride back to Anchorage in the morning.

We found ourselves at the train station the next morning waiting for a train that never arrived. Apparently, the schedule had been changed due to the flooding of Fairbanks by the Tanana River. The train we needed to be on had already left. We had slept through it's passing. There was nothing left to do but to repeat the previous day's jaunt around the park and make sure we were at the station for the right departure time. We had enough film left to make it a pleasant day.

The "Moose Gooser" took us back the next morning. I paid more attention to details I missed on the way up, especially beaver lodges along the rivers we passed or followed. Closer toward the end of the trip, an amphibious plane had "buzzed" the train a few times. We pulled to a stop about thirty minutes later and picked up the pilot who had tied his plane to a tree on a small lake adjoining the tracks. Strange way to commute! I suspect the ceiling was too low for a landing up ahead. Better this than running out of gas with no place to land.

We arrived in Anchorage in late afternoon. Although we missed the up close and personal look of the big mountain, we had enjoyed all the sites that presented themselves. The "Moose Gooser" was our link to yet another exploration of this vast and wonderful land.


© 1998 Bob Sprengel