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  • The Bison and the Bear

    Montana in October. Fall's green and gold in Big Sky Country offers this colorful setting for ATSF 5154 as it ushers eastbound MRL train No. 122 over skyline Trestle.
    RailNews - March 1998 - Page 54

    When I started reading railroad publications years ago, certain subjects sparked my imagination everytime they were featured, and Montana was certainly among them. And what wasn't to like? Retrospectives of the Milwaukee's electrification, the occasional panorama of a Pullman green-and-orange Empire Builder skirting Glacier Park, or an up-to-the minute report on the dynamic new Montana Rail Link. So stirring was the impression I received that I knew, while I might not get to enjoy all the highlights of the West, I must experience Montana in person.

    As a break from my college studies, I spent many hours watching Burlington Northern trains make their way through Northtown Yard. Part of the lure of watching those countless stack trains was imagining all the places each train had passed through as it crossed the continent: Had it followed the curves of Puget Sound; growled through Cascade Tunnel; skirted the wooded shores of Whitefish Lake; or, especially, rolled through the curves, tunnels, and wooden snowsheds of Marias Pass and crossed over its towering trestles? I knew many of the trains heading west from Minneapolis were destined for the West Coast. I also knew they wouldn't get there until they had met the challenge of that fabled proving ground in western Montana.

    I got my first chance to see Montana in 1993. I arranged to take several days off; board the Empire Builder at Minneapolis/St. Paul; ride to Seattle; look around there for part of a day; board the eastbound Empire Builder; and, after two more nights, arrive back in Minneapolis.

    Much as I expected, I was impressed with Montana from one end of the state to the other. When I rode the train at the end of July, every seat was full; the temperature outside reached 100 F, and the air conditioners on the Superliners struggled to keep the heat at bay. Nonetheless, I had anticipated seeing Montana for a long time, and I marveled at the rugged high plains landscape.

    The genius of the Highline's topographic layout may disappoint those passengers eager to see the mountains. In fact, Marias Pass is the westernmost rail crossing of the Continental Divide in the United States. Major mountain ranges are avoided for several hundred miles as the train rolls west through central Montana toward an inevitable rendezvous with the Rocky Mountains. At the time I rode the train, it consistently ran three hours late because of an ongoing Canadian Pacific strike and the subsequent alternate routing of the Builder via BN between Chicago and the Twin Cities. The three-hour delay meant we arrived at East Glacier at sundown and ascended the pass at twilight. Much as I had envisioned, the grand scale of Glacier Park and bordering National Forest was impossible to overstate. Watching an east bound stack train cling to the outside track miles distant; then thread its way through large hewn timber snowsheds; ghoulishly illuminate pine trees, concrete ties, and a wayside signal; pop around a tight curve; and thunder by the window defied description. It was the majestic punctuation to all the photos and anecdotes that told the story of this place where a continent's worth of labors reached its crescendo.

    ABOVE: The author rode Amtrak No. 8, the east bound Empire Builder, on his first long-distance train trip. Here, No. 8 crosses Midvale Creek in East Glacier. BELOW: In rich morning light, BNSF Pumpkin paint cuts a crisp swath along the Milk River, with unit 992 leading train NO. 4 east of Havre, on October 6, 1996.
    RailNews - March 1998 - Page 55

    On the return trip, I awoke as we clipped through a scenic mountain valley in extreme westem Montana (we would spend nearly all the daylight hours of that long summer's day speeding to the other edge of Montana). At the Whitefish stop, a National Park interpreter boarded the train and provided insights into the fascinating historical and natural reasons behind the views outside our windows all the way to East Glacier and its imposing depot constructed partly of giant tree trunks. That bright morning offered an excellent opportunity to view Marias Pass as we rode along the Flathead River past the sites of forest fires and gazed up to where avalanches had roared down the mountains and knocked down long vertical swaths of pine trees. (The interpreter also told of how groups of grizzly bears would gather near the tracks after freight train derailments and feast on the fermented corn, putting themselves in grave danger as they staggered along the tracks. Their "stash" was eventually eliminated when the railroad installed concrete ties and heavy welded rail, reducing the frequency of derail ments.) Such a ride through the mountains can only be described as tantalizing-the stuff from which new and improved daydreams are formed in the mind of an aspiring photographer.

    Towards the end of the year I paid a nominal subscription fee to receive the Havre, Montana, newspaper by mail for a month (I had purchased one during the station stop there that summer). Reading it gave me a daily look at the life of this community of about 10,000, and after a short time, I realized Havre was a kind of town all but extinct in the Midwest-a bona-fide railroad town. The importance of the railroad in the life of Havre was brought home several times that month: Its stories told of trepidation over a planned downsizing of the Havre diesel shop with the upcoming Burlington Northern & Santa Fe merger and concerns over Amtrak's plan to reduce the Empire Builder from a daily train to four times a week. With the principle towns of the Highline about 100 miles apart, the train served as a way to distribute products such as fresh-cut flowers to "neighboring" towns. Even though Havre boasts a state university and an economy boosted by the surrounding ranch land, it followed the changes on its railroad in a way many towns haven't done in generations.

    Among the many changes coming about in 1996 as a result of the merger was the ongoing delivery of 164 new General Electric DASH 9-44CWs. What better place to check out new locomotives decked out in a paint scheme reminiscent of Great Northern's classic Pullman green and orange than the old G's legendary Marias Pass line? And so at the beginning of October; Tom Danneman, Mike Danneman, Tim Hensch, and I hit the road for Montana. I remember it as "the year of the Lincoln." At the outset we were skeptical, but not only did all our luggage fit in the Towne Car's trunk but that car took us everywhere-and I mean everywhere.

    ABOVE: BNSF 966 shepherds westbound No. 207 over the trestle at Cut Bank Creek. BELOW: On October 8, 1996, grain train G09 assaults Marias Pass east of Java.
    RailNews - March 1998 - Page 56

    After a brief stop in western North Dakota, we made our way up to the Highline at Wolf Point, Montana, and our quest to see the orange-and-green DASH 9s began. We had traveled as far as Havre before the first DASH 9-44CW was spotted at sundown October 5, idling contentedly outside the diesel shop. The following morning two of the new Pumpkins and a Santa Fe Warbonnet headed east from Havre, and we set up on one of the rolling hills forming the valley of the Milk River. The BNSF Milk River Sub follows the Milk River through a good portion of northern Montana. The combination of the rich morning light at a low northern autumn angle, the gleaming fresh paint of the locomotives, the rich golden dry grass of the hillsides, and the yellow high lights of the river-bottom trees-all under the omnipresent "Big Sky"-was really something to behold.

    The next morning was spent shooting trains at Cut Bank Creek Trestle. Under a clear blue sky there were plenty of nice shots to be had, but no Pumpkins. With our McDonald's lunch mostly eaten, we heard the horn of a train entering Cut Bank from the east. With great delight, we saw it was freight headed up by a one of the new DASH 9s. Once the locomotive had passed over the trestle, we scrambled into the Lincoln and started the climb out of the valley back up to U.S. 2, and the pursuit was on. At the crossover location of Piegan, we waited a short time for the train to catch up. We paralleled the train to Browning where the crew called the dispatcher to find out if there might be a helper set in the area, since the train was struggling against a stiff headwind. The winds around Browning are so strong so often that a fence has to be erected along one fill to prevent the top containers of stack trains from being blown off. The dispatcher came back with bad news-the train would have to make do with the horsepower it had.

    West of Browning, the mountains seemed to spring up out of nowhere. The deciduous trees glowed a gold orange tone, from the roadside, out along the creek beds, and up the mountainside in broad dramatic strokes in stark contrast to the deep green of the surrounding pine forest. The afternoon light got richer and richer; as several times we picked a spot and scrambled out to set up for the train as it charged up the pass. Near Java, we got our last shot, and I learned the first rule of photography in the mountains-sundown and dark are two very different things separated by several hours. We had taken our last picture around 4 o'clock, and while it was still light out, the glorious evening sun had moved behind the mountains.

    ABOVE: Running west near Blacktail, BN 7213 emerges from the canopy of snowshed 8. Few snow sheds are left in the U.S.
    RailNews - March 1998 - Page 57

    We continued on to Essex and arrived at the Izaak Walton Inn. The woman at the front desk told us that the four-bunk caboose was available for the next several days. Curious, we borrowed the key and went up to take a look. We found a caboose equipped with a kitchen, furnace, shower; and a patio overlooking the Essex Yard, the inn itself, and the surrounding mountains. Needless to say, it didn't take long to reach a consensus. It just made sense to seek out orange-and-green locomotives crossing the pass during the day and return to a red Great Northern caboose in the evening.

    Not only was the fall color at peak and the skies clear; but the seasonal grain traffic was starting to move at full swing. The next day, after our quiet morning, a grain train assaulted the pass with four of the new GEs leading the way. Later, two spotless DASH 9-44CWs brought a stack train over the pass on their first trip west. The following days brought fewer new DASH 9s but equally fabulous weather. I found each section of the pass to have a character all its own-from the east slope with its grassy hills and serpentine curves around Bison; to mountainside-clinging double track, complete with the timeless huge wooden snowsheds between Blacktail and Essex; and the contorted river-running along the Middle Fork of the Flathead River employing several tunnels as the line nears Belton.

    ABOVE: On October 12, 1996, MRL train No. 20 coasts down the eastern slope of Bozeman Pass. BELOW: Short-lived sunlight breaks through a hole in these dark clouds near Bison, bathing this loaded grain train's DPU set in bright light on October 4, 1997.
    RailNews - March 1998 - Page 58

    Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end, and on October 10, we packed up and checked out of the caboose. Retracing our steps, we followed a pair of BNSF Warbonnet SD75s east out of Glacier to Cut Bank Creek. Traveling east as far as Shelby, we then dropped down to Helena and the Montana Rail Link. The next morning, the good weather continued to hold, and I couldn't help but be impressed by the traffic and the scenery on Mullan Pass. That day, we would travel east as far as the Lombard area before following train 125 into the setting sun on the return trip to Helena.

    We covered a lot of ground on October 12, though we did manage to catch an MRL train rolling down the east slope of Bozeman Pass and get invited up into the cab of a DASH 9-44CW waiting in the siding at Hathaway, Montana. At day's end, we had crossed most of North Dakota and we were already re-living all the adventures just completed after a week in Montana. Not only was the trip worth waiting for, it begged for an encore.

    In July 1997, I moved to Winona, Minnesota. When I returned to Milwaukee to visit Mike and Tom, we started formalizing plans for a repeat trip to Marias Pass. They would drive up from Denver, and I would take the train. Two more Montana enthusiasts, Dave Gayer and Marty Peterson, would drive up from Salt Lake City. In a way, my third trip to Montana was to be a hybrid of the first two since I was both traversing the state by train and photographing Marias Pass.

    The weather on October 4 was not what we experienced a year earlier though possibly more typical for autumn mountain weather. The peaks wore a dusting of snow, while scattered low clouds and patches of rain descended on the valleys. Heading out towards Browning ahead of Amtrak, we noticed that there was clear sky, always about 10 miles east of wherever we were. Shortly before Amtrak arrived, a rainbow started to form from the weather front following us. After trying to get the rainbow in a picture with Amtrak, I had better luck with a grain train that had been in the siding at Browning waiting for the Empire Builder to pass. One of the biggest changes we found in 1997 was that rather than running four GEs on the head of a grain train, there were two on the head and two unmanned DPUs on the rear. This wasn't all bad-as we found with this first grain train, in a catch-as-catch can weather pattern, we had twice the opportunity to shoot locomotives in a dramatic "sun spot." When we stopped near Bison to shoot the train over on a fill, the head end passed while the light was flat and overcast. However, when the DPUs showed up, a hole briefly broke in the clouds and the train was bathed in light, while the mountains behind continued to brood under dark clouds spilling snow and sleet on their flank. Once the sun went away, the rain returned, which at 35F is difficult to appreciate.

    BELOW LEFT: Burlington Northern helper sets are set off by the dramatic light of a flash kit at Essex. Lighting by Mike Danneman.
    RailNews - March 1998 - Page 59

    On Monday, while we were loading up to head out in a valiant search for sun, we caught the slightly startling sight of SD70MACs pulling a Trough Train (complete with two SD70MAC DPUs) through Essex. We quickly took off after it and set up east of Belton where the Trough Train curved around the Middle Fork of the Flat head River on its way west. After we had followed the Empire Builder east over the pass, the sky cleared and we enjoyed a warm sunny afternoon identical to those we had the year before. That night, Mike took out his flash kit, and we made night shots of the two helper sets laying over at Essex.

    Somewhere in mid-Montana the skies cleared. Late in the afternoon, we crossed into North Dakota while the shadows were very long and the colors super-saturated by the low sun. When the train eased to a stop at Williston, North Dakota, I spotted an orange-and green BNSF locomotive in the yard on the other side of some boxcars. I leaned forward to read its number, and I recognized it as the rebuilt GP30 (GP39M) recently decked out in the classic colors, not looking too different from the GP30 frozen in time by a GN publicity photo hanging on the wall of the caboose we rented. It sits in the yard ready, pointing west, and seems to beckon me back to Montana with the promise of great adventures to be had the next time around. It is a state so overwhelming, I don't feel I've even begun to scratch its surface-yet I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone.

    LEFT: On its way west, this loaded Trough Train curves its way around the Middle Fork of the Flathead River.
    RailNews - March 1998 - Page 60 RailNews - March 1998 - Page 61

    Railfanning Marias Pass puts you at the doorstep of one the West's great national parks. The ecosystem of Glacier National Park supports both glaciers and gtizzly bears, offering a unique treasure in the continental United States. The famous Going to the Sun Road is accessible from either end of the pass, East Glacier or West Glacier (Belton Station), and crosses through the middle of the park. Located inside the Belton Depot at West Glacier is a bookstore stocked with plenty of books and maps covering all aspects of what the park has to offer including its many hiking, photogtaphy, and camping options. The book store is a great place to take a break-plus you can't miss any trains!

    East Glacier has several small grocery stores and gas stations and is home to the majestic Glacier Park Lodge. It has the feel of a classic pre-interstate-era resort town. However, be warned-around early October when the depot is boarded up, most of East Glacier also closes down until spring. You may have to go east to Browning or west to the Columbia Falls area to find food and gas, not to mention a place to stay. The widest selection of restaurants, motels, and stores is found west of the pass in the Columbia Falls Kalispell-White fish area. Whether your car, your ankle, or your camera needs attention, your best chance to find what you need is west of the pass. Even if all is well, you may still want to check out the Whitefish depot and the nearby Great Northern Bar and Grill, which boasts a fair amount of GN railroadiana and sells goat-emblazoned shirts.

    With all that the area has to offer, the Izaak Walton Inn remains the jewel of Marias Pass. Constructed as a bunkhouse by GN, the inn housed railroad crews. Now home to the inn, gift shop, lounge, restaurant, and bar, this model of "adaptive re-use" is open year-round. Across the mainline from the inn are four cabooses, refurbished as cottages, with four different bunk arrangements; four singles, two singles and a double, two doubles, and one double, rented on a four-night or weekly basis. Beyond the cabooses are the cross country ski trails with a lighted loop.

    The term atmosphere doesn't do the Izaak Walton Inn justice-it's more a kin to stepping into another place and time. Perhaps the best way to arrive is by train at dusk, when you get the sensation you've just shaken off the trappings of everyday life. The landscape seems sealed off by mountains on all sides. The cozy interior is exemplified by the large stone fireplace at the center of the lodge.

    The only comparison I've been able to draw to the experiences I've had at the Izaak Walton is to some of the Ernest Hemmingway short stories about cross-country skiing in Europe, and the great tradition of the mountain lodge. In the heart of the valley, the Izaak Walton Inn offers an all-time exceptional place to read and relax. Sit in the glow of its fireplace... and see if you don't agree.

    Thanks to Tom and Mike Danneman for a great deal of skillful driving over many miles of road, many feet in elevation.

    A graduate of the Minneapolis College of Art & Design, where he studied "graphic design, photography, and the Burlington Northern," Dean Sauvola has a photographic preference "for anything with snow, are dust, or a C&NW logo on it."

    Article Details

    • Original Author Dean Sauvola
    • Source RailNews
    • Publication Date March 1998

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