Up the WP&Yr line with a train agent

Editor’s note: The WP&YR broke its previous record of 348,559 passengers for a season on Sept. 1 and is well on its way to hitting 400,000 before the final ship of the season on Saturday, Sept. 25. Here’s an article about what it’s like to serve all those people on Alaska’s most popular shore excursion.

By LISA CABAK

On a hot July day, our engineer spotted a black bear cub along side the tracks. I was announcing from the sound car in the rear of the train, so we thought the bear was long gone. Suddenly, as we passed, the cub popped up out of a stream, shook the water from its coat, and then slowly, heavily sauntered the other direction along the tracks.
I watched it curiously for a long time and thought, what a cool job.
My first day, though, I felt completely overwhelmed, especially being new to Skagway. Four ships were in port, five trains ran on a single track, and I didn’t know which dock was where. Unaccustomed to trying to walk narrow aisles on a moving train, I felt my thighs turning black and blue banging the seat handles, like I’d taken a few softballs for the team. The engines roared, the cars squeaked, and I had to yell to introduce myself. The train offered a plethora of smells: crew lunch cooking on stoves that heat the parlor cars, diesel fumes, hikers, perfumes and the toilets. My arms ached from carrying too many DVDs and picture books to sell. Taking a break, the rocking of the train tempted me to nod off, as many passengers were. Listening to the narrator, I couldn’t imagine myself absorbing and spitting out all that information. How do they know when to start talking? Fog threatened the views. Announcing from the rear of the train, how did they know whether they’d see the harbor or what looks like a white sheet of paper?
After that first day my boss asked me, “Well, what did you think?” With freshman enthusiasm I replied, “I can’t wait to go again!”
Now months have passed and I can still recall feelings that day – awe, wonder, gratitude. Do I still feel the same way? Well, first, let me tell you a bit about the trials and joys of being a train agent.
At 6:45 a.m. every day we “muster.” You never know who you’ll be working with until that morning. Each train’s crew includes two train agents, a conductor, brakeman and engineer. Train agents alternate between narrating and selling souvenirs, usually swapping jobs mid-day. Most days we make two round-trips to White Pass Summit, or four Fraser one-ways, which means we average 10 hours/day. During your tour, “down time” allows you to eat lunch between mile markers – usually peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or Campbell’s soup warmed on the stoves.
Now, I can do the tour in my sleep – backwards or forwards, fog or shine. Train music gets stuck in my head and I’m humming songs all day, like “Won’t you see that train, de dal de de, see that train, hey hey!!” Somehow, the festive Red Onion crowd, crying babies and foreign language speakers all seem to gravitate to the sound car which broadcasts the chaos through the entire train. Conductors and brakemen like sharing treats: cookies, scones, lattes and apple croissants. Handing over a frosted pumpkin cookie, one brakeman reminded me, “Don’t lick your fingers today, the ship’s code red.” Hand sanitizer is your best friend and defense against ship transmitted viruses.
Loading the train is probably the most stressful part, especially in the afternoons. Hundreds of people are waiting dockside and we have to turn the train quickly – that means tossing heavy boxes of water and placing All-Aboard Magazines on the seats in record time. Once folks start loading, the trick to survival is to smile and not take anything personally; there’s almost always a little drama. Passengers are often frantic, looking for lost family or needing 12 seats together moments before we leave, or arriving completely out of breath and upset for having to walk from the ship. It’s easy to become jaded when you’re asked the same questions over and over, like “Which way is the train going?” Pointing toward the mountain, you smile. Sometimes what you really want to say is, “Well, if we went that way, we’d hit your ship then plunge into the harbor.” You learn to treat folks as you would your parents or grandparents – with compassion. For many people, this is their dream vacation and we do our best to honor that.

The train passes by the east fork of the Skagway River and a look up Denver Glacier valley. Elizabeth Ruff

Agents gather to settle sales at day’s end and blow off steam with belly laughs. After a busy September day, one agent confessed, “I feel so tired; I don’t ever want to be social again.” Thankfully, we recharge via passenger enthusiasm. Our job is intense yet immensely gratifying. You meet funny people and walking through after your tour, you’ll get heartfelt thanks. One day, the other agent on board announced I was a freelance travel writer. A woman resembling my grandmother stopped me to validate my efforts. She took my hand, looked me in the eye and with a broad knowing smile implored, “Follow your dreams.”
You roll by as the seasons turn – mountains, first snow-capped, and then bare, glaciers exposing icy blue fingers, waterfalls swell and dry up, and the fireweed blossom bottom to top, then turn to cotton in the wind. Lupines, western columbine, wild geranium all bloom at once near Denver Glacier bridge and then they’re gone. In May, snow banks line the summit. Soon summer heat turns cars into greenhouses. School starts and termination dust signals initiation for first-year train agents – a jump into Summit Lake, a balmy 38 degrees. You smile at bears, mountain goats, caribou, ducks, pikas, marmots, eagles, otters, nature and rainbows.
I can’t say I feel exactly the same way today as I felt that first day. Re-reading this article, I can tell, like most seasonal workers this time of year, I’m ready for a break. Come spring, though, I can’t help but wonder if I’ll be thinking about that little cub, the caribou, the mountains, the great people – and saying to myself, “I can’t wait to go again.”