Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Land of the Midnight Sun

Since I moved to Montana, I've always had the idea that it would be temporary. While I like Glendive and my coworkers, I have no connection to the place and it was farther from an airport or train station than I liked. During my time there, I applied for a few different jobs with Amtrak. They called me back once for an engineer job in St. Cloud, MN, but I declined because of the pay. I've always wanted to work around passenger trains, but Amtrak pays quite a bit less than freight railroads typically do. That left me thinking about other possibilities. There are few passenger railroads in the USA that are more than a tourist or commuter line, and even fewer that pay like freight railroads. A transfer with BNSF looked unlikely, at least as long as there is an oil boom in Montana and the Dakotas. They are pretty understaffed there to begin with, and unless something changes, the last thing they would do is willingly let people move to other parts of the system. Admittedly, I had not put in a transfer request, but since I took the engineer program, it would have been denied for three years anyway. That's part of the agreement when taking the engineer program.

Back in October, I started thinking that the Alaska Railroad might be a good option, if I wanted to work around passenger trains. I was not really sure what they paid, but I thought I would look into it a bit. I also looked at a few others, like South Shore Line, Florida East Coast, and the Long Island Railroad, though Alaska was more appealing. I sent a few emails, and basically found out that the Alaska Railroad was not hiring then and they were not sure if they would in the spring.

Over the next few months, I checked the Alaska Railroad website regularly to see if anything would open up. Towards the end of February, they posted an opening for a "Locomotive Engineer/Conductor Trainee," and I decided to apply. Several weeks went by, and I was beginning to figure they had found someone else. Towards the end of March, they called me back, and asked if I could be at an interview the following week, just six days later. The interview would be in Anchorage, and would have to be conducted in person. I told them I would be there, and then I booked a flight and asked for a few days off. Fortunately, I had three paid leave days left, so I took those last minute.

The interview was scheduled for a Thursday, so I flew to Anchorage on Wednesday. On Thursday morning, I went over to the railroad offices for the interview. There were a total of nine people there. They started with a four minute reading comprehension test. At first, I thought hat was a mistake, and it must be forty minutes, but it actually was only four minutes. At the end of that, they pulled one person out of the room, and that was the last we saw of him. After that, someone brought a box of safety gear in the room and we were told to grab a pair of gloves, safety glasses, and an orange vest. The next part would be our strength test. We all had to sign liability waivers before we could do that part.

For the strength test, they took us out behind the offices, to the yard. First they showed us how to line a switch, and then had each of us take a turn at it. Next they had us each climb on and off of a freight car. Then they wanted us all to climb on a car and hang off the side for ten minutes. Once we had done that, they showed us how to apply and release hand brakes, and they had us all take a turn at that. Next we all had to lace air hoses, and then we all had to pick up and set down a coupler knuckle. After that, we went back in the office and they scheduled our interviews.

Interviews were scheduled for the same day, with people who had earlier flights home going first. Interviews took about 20 to 30 minutes each. Most of the questions were geared up for people with no previous railroad experience. The fact that I have railroad experience answered all but a couple of the questions. The interview was pretty casual and informal actually, so we had a nice chat and went over everything. At the end of the interview, much to my surprise, the person conducting the interviews told me I had the job if I wanted it. He hesitated for a minute and then told me he wasn't really supposed to tell me that, but he had done all the interviews up to that point, and I was the most qualified person they had had in there so far. He also told me they would be making calls the following week to officially extend job offers.

After the interview, I walked around downtown Anchorage for a little while. The weather was nice, although a little chilly. The next day, I had an early morning flight back to the Lower 48. I returned to Montana and went back to work over the weekend.

The following week, my vacation started. That had been scheduled six months earlier, and ended up being perfectly timed, as we found out later. Originally we had been planning another cruise during that time, but we cancelled that back in December. That Tuesday, the Alaska Railroad called and offered me the job, and I accepted it. We began making plans to move to Alaska. We would have liked to pack everything in a shipping container and meet it in Anchorage, but that was not very affordable. So, we planned to rent a truck, load it with all of our stuff, and drive to Anchorage. It would take four days to drive from Montana to Anchorage. While that whole week was a bit of a blur, several things did happen last minute that really worked out well for us.

We actually found a truck in Glendive to buy. So instead of renting the truck, we ought it, with the plan to sell it in Alaska. The guy we bought it from was just happy to get rid of it, so we may even be able to make a little money on it, and offset the cost of gasoline to drive up here. We had quite a bit of help loading the truck, and so our move went as smoothly as could be expected, especially considering the short notice. Despite the short notice, we were able to get the truck registered, and some new tires put on it.

On Monday, the 8th, we departed Montana, in a snowstorm, ironically. We drove out of the snow in the first couple of hours though. Our goal for the day was Edmonton, 708 miles away. The border crossing, into Canada, turned out to be easier than I expected. I gave them the list of everything that was in the truck. They looked it over, scanned my passport, and that was it. They did not ask to search the truck or anything. It was very easy. We spent less than ten minutes at customs. From there we continued driving all the way to Edmonton. We stopped in Moose Jaw, SK, Borden, SK, and Lloydminster, SK, for gas, and finally arrived at our hotel in Edmonton just after sunset. We were both exhausted from a long day driving, so we got a quick meal and headed off to bed. It seemed like the drive would never end at that point, when we thought about having to do that for three more days.

On Tuesday we got up and hit the road again. That would be slightly shorter of a day. Our goal was to make it to Fort Nelson, Bc, a distance of 656 miles. We filled up with gas just outside of Edmonton, and then followed signs for the Alaska Highway. We stopped again in Valley View, AB, and Dawson Creek, BC, for gas, before getting on the Alaska Highway. The Alaska Highway begins in Dawson Creek, BC, and once on it, we knew we would be on that road until Thursday afternoon. Once on the Alaska Highway, there are few other places to go. Only a couple of highways meet the Alaska Highway. Unlike most highways in the US and Canada, the Alaska Highway is a two lane, undivided highway. It is paved the whole way, but it is much smaller than what most people thing about when they think of a highway. The stretch between Dawson Creek and Fort Nelson is pretty well traveled, though primarily by truckers. From Fort Nelson it is possible to get to Alaska and Yukon, or to Northwest Territories, so trucks going to both places use that segment of the highway. We topped off the fuel one last time in Fort Saint John, BC, and then drove for hours along the Northern Rockies, until we got to Fort Nelson. Fort Nelson is a pretty small place, but has a surprising amount of services for a place as small as it is. It is a major stopping point on the road to Alaska or to Northwest Territories, which probably explains the numerous restaurants, hotels, and gas stations. In fact, the hotels there were considerably larger than those in Glendive, which is three times the size of Fort Nelson. Fort Nelson was about 20 miles beyond the halfway point in the trip.

On Wednesday, we got another early start. Our goal was to get to Whitehorse, YT, which, at 594 miles, would be our shortest day. We filled up with gas and hit the road. We found that to be the quietest stretch of highway. There were times when more than an hour would pass from when we had last seen any other traffic. We made a brief stop in Toad River, BC, to top off the fuel tank. That was the most expensive fuel on the trip, equivalent to approximately $7.50 USD per gallon. After that, the highway headed into Yukon, and left areas covered by 911 service. Up until that day, I had thought 911 was everywhere in the US and Canada, but I was wrong. There are remote locations in Yukon where there is no 911 service. Fortunately, we did not need 911 service. Our trip went quite smoothly. We made a lunch and fuel stop in Watson Lake, YT, and another fuel stop in Teslin, YT. As we got closer to Whitehorse, we ran into some short lived snow flurries. Traffic picked up a little just outside of Whitehorse, as that is the capital of Yukon and the territory's largest city. Yukon Territory is about the same geographic size as the state of California, but Whitehorse only has about 25,000 residents. It is a popular tourist town in the summer, being only about 100 miles from Skagway, AK, which is a busy cruise terminal. Whitehorse also figured heavily into the Klondike Gold Rush, in 1899, and because of that was an industrial city. It is the north end of the White Pass and Yukon Route, a railroad that was built during the gold rush, and being on the Yukon River, it had a fairly extensive shipyard at one time that built paddle ships that sailed up and down the Yukon River. The Yukon River, which is the longest and largest river in North America, runs right through downtown Whitehorse. Whitehorse is over 1,000 miles up the river from its mouth, but even that far up, the river is navigable. The river was an important transportation link during the gold rush, and still sees a little traffic today.

On Thursday, we got up early again, got gas, and hit the road. The goal was Anchorage, some 704 miles away. We stopped for gas one last time before crossing the border, in Haines, Junction, YT. I hoped the border crossing would go as easily as getting into Canada had. Before we got to the border however, we had to navigate the worst frost heaves I had ever seen. They stretched on for over 150 miles, and they were huge. Most of the time, it felt like being at sea on a particularly rough day. Vehicles behind me, which I could see in the mirrors, would completely disappear behind frost heaves and then reappear a minute later. Despite their size, the only casualty of the frost heaves was the sun visor in the truck, which fell off. Fortunately, that was easy to fix. When we arrived at the border, we noticed that there was no one in sight anywhere, other than the one person in the booth. He seemed lonely more than anything else. I asked him if he needed a list of what was in the truck, and he said he did not. All he asked was if I had any firearms, which we did not. He asked nothing else about the contents of the truck, or anything about the cat with Sarah, in the car. He asked where we were headed, and what brought us to Alaska, and told us weather and road conditions between there and Anchorage. I guess when you work more than 90 miles from the nearest town, you are happy to see anyone! He just wanted to chat. Much to my surprise, crossing into the USA had been even easier than getting into Canada had been!

After crossing the border, we continued on the Alaska Highway to our next fuel stop and lunch stop, in Tok, AK. After paying high gas prices in British Columbia and Yukon, the $4.50 per gallon we payed there seemed like a bargain! Tok is also where we left the Alaska Highway, after 1,314 miles. The Alaska Highway continues to the northwest from there, to Delta Junction, about 90 miles from Fairbanks. In Tok however, we turned to the south, on the Tok Cutoff, to head towards Anchorage. We made one last stop in Glennallen, along the famous Trans Alaska Pipeline, to get gas. There we got on the Glenn Highway, which was the final leg to Anchorage. The Glenn Highway, in my opinion, was the most scenic part of the whole trip. It follows the Chugach Mountains for its entire length, and they get more spectacular as you get closer to Palmer. There are mountains, glaciers, and a beautiful glacier blue river all along that road. Once we got to Palmer, traffic picked up considerably, and the highway became a divided highway, more like an interstate. That was the first divided highway we had seen in over 2,500 miles. We got into Anchorage at about 10:00pm, which is when the sun was setting. We were glad to finally be done the driving, although it had been a beautiful drive. I would recommend that drive to anyone. I think everyone should do it, but because of its length, I don't think anyone should have to do it more than once!

Since arriving in Anchorage, a week ago, we have found an apartment and started unpacking. We are waiting for the title to the truck to catch up with us, and when it does, we will sell it. I start work with the Alaska Railroad on the 22nd, which is Monday. Wile there is still a little snow on the ground here, I have to say, it sure is nice to be back! And Montana has had snow more recently than Anchorage anyway!

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