Wednesday, July 08, 2009

On the Edge of Glacier Park

From the Mountains to the Prairies -- Part 2
Part 1 can be found here.
Photos from all parts can be found in Photologues here.

Day 2: September 6, 2008 -- Rocky's Road

Wake up, call Amtrak. The eastbound Empire Builder is on time and heading for Whitefish, Montana. We get up and head towards the depot when the radio starts squawking. The Builder has encountered a red signal signifying a potential breach of a rock slide fence. The dispatcher gives the train permission past the signal at reduced speed. Soon the train reports that it has encountered a large boulder on the tracks -- too big for the crew to move -- at Vista.

We locate Vista on the map and wind our way along Whitefish Lake. At the final grade crossing before the small lake road peters out, we see the rear of the train just to the east. We walk along the train and get to the head end, and sure enough there's a large boulder between the rails. The dispatcher has to roust a front-end loader operator out and get the equipment to the train, not an easy task. We get a few photos, then head back into Whitefish to wait. A little more than a half hour later, the Builder finally arrives in Whitefish, it's on-time journey no longer intact.

A BNSF grain train has departed Whitefish heading west, so we return to Brimstone (a place we had been the previous day) and get it there. It has DPU's (Distributed Power Units) on the rear, so we get the going-away shot of those. From this point the train heads into Flathead Tunnel (at seven miles long, it's the second-longest in the United States). The road takes us up and over the tunnel, and we get the DPU's (once again going away) from the top of the west portal.

Chasing the train west, we wind up back at Tamarack, but lose our train. Ah, he's gone into the hole to wait for an eastbound, so we set up at a cut and get the eastward autorack train. A small bluff at Tamarack provides a nice scene of our westbound grain train crossing a small bridge shortly thereafter. Continuing the chase towards Riverview, just outside of Libby, we encounter an eastbound grain train in somewhat bad light, and settle for one more going-away view of our westbound from the overhead bridge at Riverview.

An eastbound general merchandise train has entered the picture, so we proceed back east to the rock face at Fisher River to get him, and get him again at Wolf Prairie. Behind him is another eastbound grain train, so we pick him off at the small bridge at Tamarack. Staying put, we get a westbound grain train there that comes to a stop. Aha, they're running a hot intermodal westbound around him, but we can't quite get into position to get the eclectic head end of that train -- a BNSF "swoosh" unit, a Burlington Northern green unit and an ex-Soo Line leaser -- so a grab shot has to suffice.

From the overhead bridge at Rock Creek (not far from the west portal of Flatrock Tunnel) we get an eastbound stack train, then turn around and get a westbound grain train about 45 minutes later. As soon as the westbound clears, we get an eastbound merchandise train with an ex-Santa Fe warbonnet on the point with BN green and a BNSF Heritage II unit trailing. We push back west to Brimstone where we bag an eastbound stack train with two BN green units leading, then get a westbound intermodal train.

Finally we slide into the small town of Olney on our way back to Whitefish. Here we are greeted by a westbound grain train, and as he goes by we see an eastbound grain train appear. Since the line goes to single track just west of Olney, the westbound slows up and we get the eastbound DPU's passing the westbound head end. Finally, with the light all but shot, we get a westbound merchandise train passing the marsh from the road bridge into town.

With the westbound Empire Builder due through, we head back to the Whitefish station after dark for some photos. I get the train with the statue of Rocky the Goat (the symbol of the Great Northern, whose line this was originally), then head to the front of the train for a few shots before it departs for Seattle and we depart for bed.

Day 3: September 7, 2008 -- Into Glacier

Like yesterday, today starts with an on-time Empire Builder. Unlike yesterday, there are no rock slides to delay it. Since we're heading east towards Glacier Park, we opt to catch the Builder east of Whitefish at Columbia Falls.

Once the Builder is out of the way, we poke around town and find the Mission Mountain Railroad. One of their locomotives, a GP35 lettered for the Palouse River & Coulee City, is located near the mill served by the railroad; a Helm Leasing SW1500 switcher is located in a nearby yard. Pushing east, we encounter an eastbound merchandise train at Paola, where we get a grab shot. Heading back west with the train, we get a nice shot as it exits Tunnel 3.8 near West Glacier, then bag two more nice shots on either side of the town of Coram.

I had been intrigued by the rock cliffs at Hungry Horse, where the tracks cling to a ledge above a lake. It had looked like the opportunity to shoot a train here wouldn't happen as we pushed east towards Glacier, but now with the westbound in the picture we chased it back to the cliffs for a nice shot. A futile chase to Columbia Falls gave us a few minutes to track down the Sommers Lumber Company Shay locomotive on display in the town park, then we returned to Hungry Horse looking for an eastbound to chase to Glacier. Soon we had our train and we shot it along the cliffs, then chased it to the entrance to Glacier National Park at West Glacier for another photo. Continuing east with the train, we shot it from the overhead bridge at Red Eagle, and again from the pedestrian bridge near the Izaak Walton Inn at Essex.

Continuing east, we popped out on the far side of Glacier Park ahead of an eastbound train with five matched BNSF Heritage II units leading a train across the Two Medicine River bridge (yeah, everyone has gotten that shot, but it is a nice shot). A westbound merchandise train was waiting in the hole just east of the bridge at Grizzly, so we held our position and shot him as well, and he was followed a mere ten minutes later by a westbound stack train.

We wheeled back west with the stack train and wound our way up to the snowsheds, getting the train exiting Shed 7. We stayed with the stack train and got it from the overhead bridge at Paola, and since the light was a lot better than the train we had gotten in the morning, we continued all the way back to Tunnel 3.8 at West Glacier and got him there as well.

We headed back east in search of trains, and got all the way to Bison, just west of East Glacier, where we picked up a westbound grain train. After getting him at Bison, we then set up at the sign marking the crossing of the Continental Divide at the summit of Marias Pass and got him there. After getting the DPU's passing the sign, we headed to the snowsheds and got the train exiting Shed 8, then got him again at Java East. Hustling into Essex, we were able to scramble onto the pedestrian bridge at the Izaak Walton for a shot, then got the DPU's going away past the Inn.

Wanting to get back to the east, we paused briefly to shoot a westbound stack train at East Java, then went all the way past East Glacier where we found a westbound grain train draped over a hill at Spotted Robe waiting for the westbound Empire Builder to run past. We got the two trains side-by-side, then used the Builder's station stop at East Glacier to hustle ahead to Bison for another shot; alas, clouds dinked us when the Amtrak train showed up. Heading back to Grizzly (between East Glacier and Spotted Robe) we got the westbound grain train (and second one following) as they headed towards the Rockies with thunderstorms on the horizon. We then said goodbye to the Rockies and headed onto the Montana prairie to Cut Bank for the night.

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