Updated 3 p.m. July 15.
The Alaska Railroad did very little advertising to promote the opening of the Spencer Bench cabin south of Anchorage earlier this year, yet the word spread quickly that the cabin was available.
"We may have done something on social media, but even if we did that it was pretty light," said Director of Passenger Marketing and Reservations Bruce LaLonde. Yet the cabin quickly booked up from the day it opened on June 1. Now some weekdays are available but even those are going fast.
What's the fuss?
For one, the Spencer Cabin is gorgeous and uniquely Alaskan. Getting there is an unusual outdoor adventure, one with a few more creature comforts than your routine backpacking trip --including a train ride. The Spencer Whistle Stop is a popular starting point for many adventurers, including people heading toward the cabin, perched 5 well-marked miles uphill and away from the stop.
'Middle of nowhere'?
David Ilse, USFS Glacier District Public Services Staff Officer and Whistle Stop coordinator, explained the concept of the "whistle stops". Currently the Grandview and Spencer stops provide Alaska residents and out-of-state visitors a unique and more comfortable way to explore the Alaska backcountry. And more whistle stops may be on the way.
"The train is really nostalgic for people and a great experience," said Ilse. "But once the train leaves, you're really in the middle of nowhere. You really are. There's no highway noise or anything nearby."
But certainly, there are more amenities than your average backcountry setting provides, including restrooms, water, fire rings, and tables. The cabin has enough sleeping space for one or two families. Plus, there are many opportunities for solo or guided outdoor recreation.
Not everyone getting off the train at Spencer is going to the cabin. Guides such as Chugach Adventures and Ascending Path offer trips in kayaks or rafts – as well as ice climbing on Spencer Glacier. During the summer, hikes of varying distances and difficulty are led by a Forest Service ranger, who shares anecdotes about the area and its natural features. Visitors can pick up a piece of glacial ice floating in the lake.
The Spencer Glacier Cabin, owned by the Forest Service, is the latest addition to the area, which is increasingly popular. "Overall, " LaLonde said, "we've seen very healthy growth in the Spencer Whistle Stop and the Glacier Discovery Train, which takes people in to the Spencer stop."
How it works
For summer rentals, the train and cabin can be booked at a one-stop shop through the Alaska Railroad. Winter reservations are available for those willing to hike, snowshoe, or ski -- although there is no established route -- and can be made mid-September to mid-May through www.recreation.gov. Prices and timelines vary depending on the starting point, but most people take the 15-20 minute train from Portage and pay $74 roundtrip per adult, plus $85 a night for the cabin. There is also a promotion allowing kids to ride free from Portage to Spencer with an adult paying full fare. Dogs are allowed, but they must be in a kennel.
Hikers are dropped off at the Spencer Whistle Stop to hike up to the cabin, which sleeps up to six people.
Visitors taking the train to access the cabin can bring a small amount of fuel aboard – in camp fuel bottles or 1-gallon containers, according to Lalonde.
They must contact the check-in agent in Anchorage or the conductor in Portage first. The compartment used for fuel transport is only 1-by-1-by-2 foot.
A successful overnight at the cabin can be done pretty quickly by determined campers. For Lydia Vilce, the opportunity dropped in her lap the Wednesday night before a Thursday morning departure. Even though she'd never backpacked to an overnight destination before, she and her boyfriend jumped at the chance. After spending Wednesday night assembling borrowed gear from family and friends, including her dad's hunting pack, they got up in the morning and made it to their morning train from Anchorage just in time. She brought her little Yorkie, Lily.
Vilce laughed when I asked her about the trail. "You step off the train when you get there, and you can see the cabin from the train stop. And you think to yourself, "Oh my gosh, we're going all the way up there?""
"I wouldn't say it's for beginners," she added. "Thankfully, it was a little overcast for our hike up, because I think if it was much warmer, we would have been struggling."
Still, there was a view of the glacier the entire hike up. They were hungry by the time they made it to the cabin and quickly chowed down, taking in the view from the deck. They explored the area a bit, finding some bear scat on the trails and experiencing the healthy local population of Alaska's state bird, the mosquito.
Then they retreated indoors to play cards, and then woke up to a clear day and an amazing view. "The front door opened up on a deck that overlooked the valley and the glacier, and there weren't a whole lot of trees in front of us. We were up on the top so we got really good sun exposure."
Ilse describes the cabin as one of a kind. Constructed almost entirely of Alaska yellow cedar, including the decking and window frames, it has a bright yellow glow, visible even from a distance. It came from Ketchikan and then built on site by local Forest Service employees. While the cabin has sleeping platforms, a table and a stove for heating, people are expected to pack in their own sleeping pads, bags, cook stove, and heating fuel (if needed). However, there is a water source nearby, and an outhouse.
"It's an outhouse with a million-dollar view!" Ilse laughed. "Or, maybe the half million dollar view -- the cabin's got the million dollar view."
Vilce said the train ride back was comfortable. "We had a leisurely ride back and enjoyed some snacks and beverages on the way home. We were both very excited to shower."
If she were to do it again, Vilce would bring other friends and make a weekend of it. "I'd want to do it with another couple or some other people to help bring in supplies, and also for support."
Reservations for the 2016 summer season are not open yet, but would-be Spencer Bench Cabin adventurers should check the Alaska Railroad website for updates. Some weekdays during the 2015 summer season are still available.
Alli Harvey lives, works and plays in Anchorage.