The Blue Duffel

Special delivery in The Last Frontier

The Alaska Railroad winter train runs 360 miles between Anchorage and Fairbanks on the weekends, and it will drop you off anywhere along the track, much of it otherwise inaccessible wilderness. My fishing partner, Dan, and I used to work for the railroad in Anchorage, me as a PR flack and he as the chief railroad cop.

One Saturday morning late in the season, we boarded the train for a ride to the Indian River, the small, clear stream we fancied as our home water. The train is the only way in or out.

We settled in for the four-hour ride with the Anchorage Daily News and cups of coffee and tea. No more than 20 passengers sat in the two coaches and dining car. A hundred miles north we passed through Talkeetna, the funky jumping-off point for mountain climbers on their way to summit McKinley, but also known for its Moose Dropping Festival and the Talkeetna Bachelor Society’s Wilderness Woman Contest and Bachelor Ball.

Forty miles later, the train heaved to a stop at the Indian River, and we tossed our gear out of the bag car and schlepped it the hundred yards to the riverside campsite. When the locomotive pulled away, the passengers gawked at us through the windows of the cozy cars, wondering why we would be getting off a perfectly warm train. The clanking mechanical sound soon faded, taken over by water rushing over stone, and a crisp breeze rattling the tree limbs.

Cottonwood trees ringed the packed dirt site, which we had to ourselves. It was likely we’d be the last people to camp and fish here until spring. A chill had settled into the canyon, and fall winds had stripped the leaves from the trees. The decomposing foliage smelled like dog shit, and the high-bush cranberries emitted their own fetid odor. This late in the year, salmon carcasses littered the shores, sour flesh sloughing off their bones. The rainbows had likely fled to bigger water for the winter, but we were going to try for them anyway.

We pulled our hats down over our ears and started to sort through our pile of gear. I asked Dan, “Where’s the blue duffel bag?” He scanned our campsite, “Not here.” The duffel held my sleeping bag, two-burner Coleman stove, propane tank, and—because we are lazy—a fake log to throw into the fire that night. We exchanged a slack-jawed, open-mouthed look of horror.

Dan rummaged through his bag and brought out his handheld railroad radio. We’d fished the Indian River many times, but this was the first time he’d ever packed it. The crackle of the conductor answering his call was a beautiful sound that signaled my only hope of not spending the night spooning with Dan in his mummy bag.

Yes, the duffel bag was in the baggage car, the conductor said. And he had a solution to deliver it to us before nightfall, which was good, because the temperature was going to drop into the teens and no amount of huddling around a fire was going to keep me warm. When the train passed through Denali National Park, the conductor would hand off the duffel to the train crew on a southbound freighter heading toward us.

While we waited, I dragged a fly through the water upstream of our camp and hooked the nose of a confused, mostly lifeless silver salmon. Dan prospected the low water with no strikes.

Several hours later, the southbound train huffed into sight and the conductor stood on the nose of the locomotive, leaning over the railing, gripping the handles of the blue duffel. I stood off to the side wearing the warmest coat I’d packed, the sun having long since set below the ridgeline, causing temps to drop dramatically. I could see my breath. I imagined he thought we were a couple of dumb-ass railroading paper-pushers. As he passed, he leaned over and I grabbed the bag, offering my thanks.

“Only in Alaska,” I thought. Then I turned and wandered back to camp.