ANCHORAGE - For nearly 100 years, the Chugach National Forest has remained a dramatic backdrop in Southcentral Alaska - the stepping-off point for boating Prince William Sound or hiking the Kenai Peninsula. In the winter, telemark skiers and snowmobilers explore its backcountry. In summer, anglers seek its lakes and rivers.
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And while recreation is a big reason people come to this 5.5 million-acre forest, getting to the best areas can be a challenge. Other than flying in to remote areas or trekking by map and compass, access is limited, keeping most visitors just along the forest's edges.
That's why National Forest rangers are so excited about their latest development, a new recreation opportunity called the Whistle Stop. Timed to the 100-year anniversary of the creation of the nation's second-largest national forest, the Chugach Whistle Stop will allow visitors to travel by train to predetermined stops along the Alaska Railroad corridor, giving them easier access to some of the forest's most beautiful areas.
When travelers get off the train, they will be met by trails, cabins, campsites and other rustic recreation opportunities.
"This is a partnership with the (Alaska) railroad where the idea was to open up access to the Chugach National Forest from the Placer River Valley south of Portage," said Adam McClory, Whistle Stop project manager for the Forest Service. "There will be a total of five backcountry stops that we've already identified, and there will be trails connecting (four of) them."
The first will be Spencer Whistle Stop, which currently serves passengers taking part in the railroad's Spencer Glacier and float tour, run by a local outfitter, which has proved to be highly popular. Crews have already built 1.5 miles of trail, a passenger deboarding area and a beautiful stacked-rock viewing area. Work at Spencer will continue all summer.
"The railroad was really interested in doing the defined stops for safety reasons, so people wouldn't be congregating right by the tracks," he said.
Spencer Whistle Stop will be the most developed of the five deboarding areas. The trail is accessible for those with disabilities, and up to four cabins are planned as well as group and individual campsites, interpretive displays and signs.
"We expect to have the biggest concentration of users and day-use users at this site," explained Glacier District ranger Jim Fincher.
"This is the area where we might take our parents or our children," McClory added.
Other stops, including the Luebner stop to the north and Trail Creek to the south, will be less developed, offering a simple drop-off point and trail leading away from the tracks. These stops might appeal to more independent hikers wanting to explore off trail.
One thing is certain: All five stops are much needed. Forest Service focus groups and feasibility studies have shown that many of today's independent travelers want soft adventures that can take them into the heart of a wilderness.
"We really want to increase the backcountry use for people with all kinds of abilities, and each of the stops has different opportunities," McClory said.
For now, only the Spencer Whistle Stop is poised to open this season, but that won't happen until later this summer, probably in August. The railroad needs time to add an additional rail car to its train to accommodate the extra travelers and the Forest Service needs time to complete trail work in the area.
Visitors will pay a backcountry permit fee, which will help pay for the project. Permits will be available when passengers book cabins and rail cars. Fincher said the price is still being worked out but it will likely be in the $10 to $20 range.
Steve Silverstein, vice president of markets, sales and service for the Alaska Railroad, has worked with the Forest Service on launching the Whistle Stop project. He said this plan is not to be confused with the service the railroad offers north of Anchorage, called the Flag Stop program. That service allows passengers to essentially flag a train down to board or deboard at areas deemed safe by railroad engineers.
South of Anchorage, however, the idea of flag stops isn't feasible, Silverstein said.
"The territory up north is flat and we can see people and trail heads," Silverstein explained. "In the south end (south of Portage), the terrain is ... graded and has steep dropoffs. There is no safe way for us to stop. So we agreed to do this Whistle Stop Project with the Forest Service with a specific schedule and specific stops that we can rely on."
$18 million project cost
It's a great business opportunity for the railroad, Silverstein acknowledged, and for Alaska tourism.
"For the kind of traveler we see more and more, the adventure traveler who wants to be in the middle of it but not necessarily in danger, this fits in perfectly," Silverstein said. "When we started this whole thing it was all about adding a product for Southcentral Alaska that would be attractive for locals and tourists."
The project cost is an estimated $18 million for all five stops, cabin construction, and a special self-propelled railcar that the Forest Service and Alaska Railroad jointly purchased. That car, which cost $4.7 million and is more fuel efficient than a locomotive, was the key to the project.
McClory said the new rail car will hold approximately 120 passengers and their gear. It runs on diesel fuel and is one, self-contained unit that will follow its own schedule around the regular freight and passenger schedules of other Alaska Railroad trains. Passengers can be let off at one point and picked up later in the day or later in the week at the same spot - or another point.
"Part of the problem here was when we started discussions with the Forest Service on this idea, we didn't have extra capacity - our trains were filling up all the time," Silverstein said. "When the car comes along, it will justify its own service."
"This kind of vehicle fits into the kind of experience that we envision for folks," Fincher said. "Because it is more fuel efficient, it has lower operational costs. The fact that it's environmentally friendly is a bonus and something we really want to promote."
Bikes, boats and trains
He expects backpackers won't be the only ones using it. At least 18 miles of main trail, as well as several spurs, are planned. It should add up to about 32 miles.
Many of those trails will appeal to mountain bikers, although heavy-use areas around the Spencer stop may be closed to mountain biking.
Packrafters may also want to deboard and seek out rafting-hiking combination trips.
"You could even do some sort of trek over to Prince William Sound and get picked up by water taxi," McClory said.
For now, those eager to check out the Whistle Stop project will have to see it while seated in an Alaska Railroad car or by taking the railroad's Spencer Glacier and float tour. The first tickets to the Spencer Whistle Stop are expected to be available in early August, and both the railroad and the Forest Service hope the program shows promise. To continue construction of the four remaining stops, Spencer must prove itself a viable operation.
"It's hard to project when the next stop will be built because we don't know how the funding will come," Fincher said. "We will build it as use demands. We're not going to build it and they will come."