2011 Stevens Pass
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Stevens Pass 2011
by Lindsay Korst

Saturday, August 27, 2011

My annual railfanning trip to Stevens Pass is a little late this year as I usually go on the "longest day" sometime in June. Bad weather and assorted vacations interfered until a beautiful weekend became available. Here we go!

It is early morning and I am rolling through the fog out of Monroe, WA for Stevens Pass. Signals are dark at Gold Bar, but the scanner reveals a westbound coming my way.

I hear the dispatcher talking to this westbound, telling him he is going to meet a Z-SSE-something at Baring. Good deal - I've got a hot train to follow over the pass. I come up to Baring siding and the recently-installed signals show an aspect I've not seen before -- red over flashing red. I presume that means the Z will take siding for this westbound.

I set up for my first shot near Money Creek campground on the old Cascade Highway. Shortly, a freight rounds the curve and starts to blast his horn for the crossing. Something's wrong. My camera is not focusing! I try to focus manually. No good. Gaaaa!!!! My first picture is a horribly-blurred BNSF Heritage I rolling containers west. I fiddle with the settings....NOW the damn thing is focusing. I think it's time to buy a new camera.

OK, out of the mist and on to Skykomish. The town is bathed in sunlight and signals reveal the dispatcher is going to park the Z here to wait for a 90 minute late Amtrak. As I hear the two trains roll by each other at Baring - instead of the usual, "Yeah, you look good from here", the westbound stack says, "Wow, you look absolutely FANTASTIC!" The female engineer on the Z replies, "......yeah, you guys look OK, too."

I set up for my second shot at the crossing in Sky with a nice American crane in the foreground. Eventually the Z shows up and I bag pictures of it at both the west and east ends of the siding.

The Z's conductor gets on the horn and nicely asks the dispatcher why they are sticking such a hot train in the hole at Sky. Z's are used to seeing green signals. The DS explains that the Z is "#3 for the big hole, so you'll be there a while -- Amtrak is at Scenic, etc."

The Empire Builder is one of the hardest trains to take a picture of on Stevens. First of all, it's almost always coming out of the sun. Second, those GE shoe boxes they call locomotives are downright ugly. Third, the blah silver and sucky blue paint scheme just makes you want to lower the camera and walk away. Oh well, it IS the Builder, James J. Hill's legacy and all that, so here it comes (finally) just east of the east switch at Sky. UGH.

OK, away up the hill I go to set up for the Z. I try "the cut" near the Bonneville Power lines, but the light is all wrong. I opt instead for Deception Creek. I bump into two railfans on their way to Wenatchee - one gent is a Renton, WA native and GNRHS member, and the other is a Wisconsin native who briefly worked for Kalmbach in the art department. It's a small world.

I wish them a nice day and we both set off for the next shot. I forsake the usual east portal picture and instead make my way, slowly down the boonie road to Gaynor trestle, just east of Berne. It isn't long before the BNSF 4899 is rolling past in dynamic.

I overtake the Z around Merritt and take a grab shot as it roars over US 2 and into Winton tunnel.

I head down Tumwater Canyon. Last week's forest fire is STILL smoldering, in fact, I see FLAMES on an old log right next to the road. Hmmm...I wonder if the Forest Service missed that. There are smoky-blue spots all up and down the hillside. Maybe they're just letting it burn itself out.

On into Leavenworth where we poke through the tourist town until reaching four lanes east of town. I bomb down US 2 and pull off for the obligatory orchard shot at Monitor curve. The pears are just about ready to pick.

Lunch time! I gobble my sandwich and munchies and try to decide where to go next. It is HOT -- about 96 already. I decide to just stay on the pass and not venture into Wenatchee.

I drive back west towards Cashmere. I can hear trains EVERYWHERE on the trusty 160.500 repeater channel. The detectors are sounding off practically every 5 minutes -- busy railroad today.

Also, I hear a new message on various detectors -- "BNSF Detector, Milepost 1690.0, Crew too slow, Detector out." Huh? Crew too slow? How rude! ;p I also heard a variation, "Train too slow". I'm guessing that means either the train is too slow to make a grade or too slow to get an accurate reading? Hopefully someone reads this missive and sets me straight.

Anyway, back to Cashmere. There is a shiny new overhead signal mast set up at the siding. The signals reveal a meet will be happening. Soon, an eastbound stack arrives to have its portrait taken.

In the back of my mind, I wanted to get the Wenatchee River bridge picture (near Plain, WA) today. It is a neat shot, but the problem is access. It requires a very round-about drive, it must be a westbound in the afternoon, and you can forget about chasing that westbound home unless it has a meet somewhere.

The westbound for my meet at Cashmere hadn't shown up yet, so I set off towards Leavenworth and the Chumstick Valley highway. This road parallels GN's Chumstick Valley line change from the late 1920's. It is a fast, beautifully-engineered line replacing the route through Tumwater Canyon. I had driven almost as far as the bridge leading over to Chumstick tunnel, when an eastbound grainer appeared high on the hillside. Maybe I can catch it. I whip a U turn and race back down the hill. I am barely keeping up with the train's 50mph speed. Soon, it starts to slow, and it is apparent that the grain train is going to meet my still-unseen westbound at Leavenworth. Finally, I pull ahead, get off to the side, and bang a few shots as the grain train glides overhead.

OK, time's a-wasting. I retrace my steps up the Chumstick, wind over the mountain to Plain, then set off down the River Road towards the tracks. Man, it is FOUR miles down this little road -- I wonder if I will make it?

I pull in at some boulders, about 200 feet from the river. The signal is dark. I grab my camera and some water and troop down to the water's edge. I'm not there more than 5 minutes, when the roar of GE Dash 9's exiting Chumstick tunnel is heard. Shortly, he's on the bridge and I bang off some shots. I notice they have finally repaired the big concrete abutment (flood damage) and it looks like a proper bridge again. Very raspy-sounding 5 chime air horn on the lead unit, resplendent in its new BNSF "swoosh" scheme. The last container trundles past, and I am off in pursuit.

It isn't long before I reach Merritt...and there is a train stopped in the siding! I can't see which end the units are on, but a meet will be soon, so I hustle to the holy grail of Stevens Pass pictures, Nason Creek bridge at White Pine Road (just west of Merritt).

As I arrive and park, an eastbound is just rolling through. Great! That means the train at Merritt is the westbound I caught at Wenatchee bridge. Nice, clean, new unit on the point -- to follow home. I bang off a photo of the eastbound's distributed power.

I hear the crews exchange pleasantries about their train's condition at Merritt. Soon enough, I hear the roar of V-16's and BNSF 6650 is mine.

Next stop is a grab shot at the west portal of Cascade tunnel as I make my way home.

My final shot is at the forlorn Skykomish depot sitting high in the weeds.


Done!  I had a great time spending the day on Stevens Pass -- and I didn't even go east of Monitor for a change.  The weather was sensational and clear in the mountains, and that's a rarity indeed.  See y'all next year...LIN-Z