I’ve never been one needing or wanting to visit foreign countries. Canada is the only foreign turf I’ve set foot on. I love Canada because certain parts are very similar to Alaska.
At 65 years of age I’ve not seen enough of the 49th state to satisfy my appetite. Kiska is on my ‘to do’ list. For those not recognizing the name, Kiska is a volcanic island in the Aleutian Chain.
Kiska was occupied by Japan during WWII. The place is now a federal wildlife sanctuary, home to thousands of sea birds. Giant rats inhabit the island as well.
My initial goal was to take a mountain bike up the summit of Kiska Volcano; more like carry it to the top. The rugged lava rock makes pedaling near impossible.
Photos of my Cannondale sitting on top of Kiska volcano would’ve made front-cover of a cycling magazine for sure. At this point in life, my strenuous dream will have to be someone else’s. I’ll now settle for a simple boat ride to the remote island.
One place I wanted to put my hiking boots, and eventually crossed off my bucket list is Grandview, or Grandview Roadhouse near Portage. This scenic wonder sits along the Alaska Railroad, amongst spectacular glaciers and rugged mountains. Renowned Spencer Glacier is in the immediate area.
Until a few years ago, Grandview as far as being a summer stopping place for hikers, was basically off limits. Unless you had special permission, the only way to travel and stay was during winter months. Special railroad excursions dropped skiers off during winter for a day of skiing.
In 2002, I began historical research on Alaskan pioneer Nellie Trosper-Neal-Lawing for a future story. She’s best known as “Alaska Nellie”. Nellie Lawing came to Alaska from Missouri in 1915. She operated various roadhouses along the Alaska Railroad; Kern Creek, Grandview, and Roosevelt (Lawing).
Her roadhouse in Grandview was at milepost 44.9. My burning desire was find remnants of the old building, and experience some things talked about in her book, Alaska Nellie. I own and treasure a signed copy, finding it was one of those ‘read until finished’ publications. In her manuscript, Nellie talks at length about the beauty of Grandview. This information became useful in locating ruins.
It was September 2003. My good friend Tom Doupe had connections with higher ups in the Alaska Railroad. Telling him of my plan, Tom assured me he could arrange things for the expedition. Two days later he called saying all was a go.
If there was anyone I wanted with me on a three day expedition into Alaska’s backcountry, it was Tom Doupe. Big and strong, he was an asset in both carrying goods and added protection. Tom was also well-versed in knowing what snacks to bring along which was especially important.
We drove from Anchorage to Girdwood which is approximately 39 miles from Alaska’s largest city. From there we caught a southbound passenger train at the Girdwood terminal. The diesel locomotive’s final destination was Seward, yet Tom and I hopped off long before reaching town.
Loading our waterproof bags of gear, including Tom’s .375 Winchester Magnum into a baggage car, the rifle quickly raised eyebrows amongst visiting tourists. Tom being a good spokesperson told inquisitive passengers what we were up to. He informed them I was a writer and he was going along as my bodyguard.
This was a fact as large brown bears are known to habitat the Grandview vicinity. Alaska Nellie talked about them at length in several chapters of her book. Nellie had a ‘pet’ black bear in Grandview. Unfortunately a ferocious brownie attacked and killed it one night. I didn’t want the same thing happening to us.
Our journey from Girdwood to Grandview didn’t last long. I believe we were sitting in comfort for only 30 minutes before the train stopped. Outside it was raining cats and dogs. Frigid wind howled with gusts strong enough to blow things over. Particles of snow and ice could be seen amongst huge droplets of water. Winter was definitely coming!
Train conductor, Warren Redfearn, placed a small step outside the passenger car door, before quickly offloading our gear. We thanked Warren, saying we’d see him in a few days.
Stepping outside into the fierce wind, a few of our lighter bags decided to take flight. As the train sat still tourists snapped pictures and waved. I told Tom that the late, great, writer, and adventurer, Lowell Thomas Sr., could not have garnered as much attention.
After our transportation disappeared from sight, we immediately looked for a place to pitch camp. Tom located a flat spot amongst thick alders. He quickly went to work with a machete clearing them. It took some doing, but eventually the skinny trees were reduced to kindling.
Strong winds made it next to impossible on getting our tent erected yet we prevailed. I knew with all the wet and cold, hypothermia wasn’t far behind if we didn’t get shelter.
Looking at copies of vintage photographs inside the tent while sipping hot coffee from a thermos, images of Grandview showed that we were camping at the exact spot where the old roadhouse once stood. Tom gave me a high five.
Surprise of all surprises happened on our second day.
The old saying, “You can bump into friends at the strangest of places!” rang true.
Tom and I were a considerable distance from camp when a railroad security vehicle rolled up. Through sleet and rain the officer onboard instantly recognized my pal.
Looking at me for a couple of seconds he quizzingly asked,
George Nolan was a schoolmate of mine at East High. I hadn’t seen him since another pal, Bob Malone, got married nearly 30 years before. Telling us to be safe, George could only shake his head in wonder before rolling down the tracks.
Tom and I spent nearly three full days in raingear plodding through wet bushes and trees recording our findings. Because of all the excessive moisture, vegetation was extremely dense. We were always on guard for bears. Fresh bear squat was everywhere.
We discovered a root cellar located amongst birch trees. The hole marked-ground where an old dwelling once stood. Root cellars are holes dug into the earth. They lay underneath cabin floors. Trap doors were used for access. Because of no refrigeration, early settlers relied heavily on such to keep foodstuff from spoiling.
The landscape of Alaska is dotted with root cellar scars, their once protective log structures totally rotted away. Around the Grandview Roadhouse site we discovered rusty cans and broken glass. Tom and I left things as they were.
I was able to locate piping evidently used by Nellie for transporting water. In her book she mentions pipes moving water from a stream to the roadhouse. Nellie Lawing was a very ingenious woman!
After spending 72 hours in the harshest weather I’ve ever camped in, Tom and I were ready to leave. With our train due around 1:00 that afternoon, we packed things up 30 minutes early. Hearing it coming from miles away, we waited patiently for our cushy ride home.
Both of us remained standing as it rolled right on by. Tom and I looked at each other with surprise. That’s when my friend quietly remarked,
“They musta’ forgot?”
With rain continuing to pour and wind howling we walked a short ways to an unoccupied railroad cabin. Thankfully the door was unlocked. We spent our time eating and snoozing.
Hours later hearing another train approach from Portage, my friend ran outside to flag it down. That was a sight I wish I had video of.
Big Tom held up a red shirt waving it like a crazy man. The train slowed before grinding to a halt. After several minutes of explaining our situation, the engineer nodded then called someone on the radio. He relayed to Tom that we’d be picked up late that afternoon. Evidently there’d been a minor communication glitch.
Tom and I didn’t care at this point. The cabin was high and dry and we had plenty of snacks. If the train never arrived it would’ve been okay. We were in our own cozy Grandview Station so to speak and all was dandy. Other than a little acclimate weather outside, city stress was nowhere to be found.
Things have changed for the better regarding excursions to Grandview. The Alaska Railroad now offers ‘day trips’ to the Grandview and Spencer Glacier areas during summer months. The junket is definitely worth taking.
Next time you take the train to Seward, look for a tall Grandview sign erected alongside tracks at milepost 44.9. That sign basically marks the spot where Nellie Lawing’s roadhouse once stood.
If you desire to know more about Grandview or Nellie Lawing, I suggest you locate the book, Alaska Nellie, and read it. You’ll thoroughly enjoy her amazing story!