Thursday, February 24, 2022

Catching a couple of trains on the Puget Sound seawall [February 24, 2022]

The weather forecast called for clear but cold skies. The tide tables indicated a low tide on the shores of Puget Sound. The drone batteries were charged, so we were off on another railroad safari.

Before leaving the house, we pulled up the Skykomish Virtual Railfan camera for a bit of helpful intel. A westbound stack train passed through Sky at 3:35pm. This was Z-CHCSSE, a high-priority intermodal train headed from Cicero Yard in Chicago to South Seattle. This meant the freight would pass by our primo railfanning location of Picnic Point Park in about an hour or hour and a half. We learned this train, led by a BNSF GE ES44C4, #6892, totaled 184 axles. Four steeds pulled the train with no DPUs.

We grabbed our gear, jumped in our rig, and were off.

Arriving at the beach in plenty of time, we set ourselves up in a good location to view a large stretch of the Seattle-Everett seawall between Picnic Point and the iconic Norma Beach boathouse. The sky was completely clear of clouds, although the air was a nippy 34 degrees. No wind though, thank goodness. But there would be no Amtrak #8 (the Empire Builder) on this day; it was Thursday, and Amtrak is currently limiting their Seattle-Chicago train service with no departures on Thursdays or Fridays. Bummer. All the weather and tide conditions favored some fine trackside photography, but at least where the Empire Builder was concerned, that was not in the cards.

We kept expecting 6892 and friends to come roaring around the corner at Picnic Point, but there was nothing for more than 30 minutes. Then we finally spotted the Sound Transit Sounder commuter train coming up the shoreline out of Edmonds, on time.

I waited until the Sounder was within good range and launched my drone. After gaining sufficient altitude and positioning the drone a hundred yards or so offshore, I tracked the commuter train with video and followed it up the line from about Norma Beach to Picnic Point. <click the hyperlink below the image>

 Sounder video

Shortly after summoning the drone back to our base, the BNSF Z-train suddenly appeared. I barely had time to launch the drone again and the freight was right on us. I tried pretty much in vain to chase it down the shoreline, but my little drone was no match for this eager train. Still, I kept up the chase as the four-pack of locomotives finally passed the Norma Beach boat house and rounded another curve out of view.  <click the hyperlink below the image>

BNSF intermodal train video

This was a venture with a dose of unpredictability, but in the end, it turned out okay.

On our way out of the parking lot we placed a phone order for a couple of dinner entrees from Bobby's Hawaiian Restuarant, capping off a fun and productive outing.

Saturday, July 3, 2021


Railfan Trip Report:  late June, 2021

Well, finally – a road trip over Stevens Pass, out to Wenatchee and Lynch Coulee, and back again, all in a virtually mask-less environment. A comment like that just 2 years ago would have sounded absurd. (“Masks?  What masks? What are you talking about?”) But after enduring more than a year under the gloomy pall of the COVID pandemic and all that came with it, life had become far removed from “normal.” Even now, we are all still remaining alert to the impact of this thing and taking prudent measures to ensure it does not find a resurgence. But at least for a few days in late June, there was little on our minds besides keeping cool in the blazing heat, and finding the next good spot to snap some photos of trains.


Tuesday, June 22

My wife Jan and I took a few days off from work and set off for the Cascades and central Washington for some railfan fun. On the afternoon of Tuesday, June 22nd, we left home near Everett and began the drive to Leavenworth. Once there, we checked into the Icicle Village Resort on the edge of town for a 2-night stay. This would be our base of operations to begin our outing. In keeping with the slightly schmaltzy Bavarian theme adopted years ago by Leavenworth to attract more hoards of tourists than they can accommodate, the Icicle Village Resort has its city ordinance-mandated share of Black Forest style trimmings and décor. But they have also embraced the railroad history of the town of Leavenworth, which was once a significant division point for the Great Northern Railway. This influence is seen particularly in the motel’s homage to the GN’s “Empire Builder”, James J. Hill, with a framed photo of the man and the honor of having the dining room and bar called “J.J. Hill‘s Fresh Grill.”

After checking in to the motel, it was off to Visconti’s Italian Restaurant for dinner. We enjoyed a terrific meal to help us celebrate our wedding anniversary (Did I mention this whole trip was a way of celebrating our anniversary? No? Well, oddly enough, it was. And it was Jan’s idea, not mine!). If you ever have a meal at Visconti’s, do yourself a favor and order the “Northwest Board.” It’s treated as an appetizer, but you could make a pretty good meal of it. Visconti’s describes the elements as “pure country capicola, smoked paprika salami, buckboard bacon, and smoked white cheddar.” They also include some crackers and a few other treats. Sip a glass of wine with this and you’ve got it made.

Wednesday, June 23

The next morning, we packed up our cameras and jumped in the trusty stead (Toyota 4Runner) and drove to the “Icicle Station” Amtrak stop for the arrival of Number 7, the westbound Empire Builder. I don’t recall anyone getting off there, but they did have a couple of passengers who boarded that morning. The sun was still below the tops of the ridges to the east, but high enough to bathe the upper reaches of the Cascade foothills to the west of us.


Using the Skykomish Railfan webcam as a guide, we learned there was an eastbound double-stack headed over Stevens Pass and coming in our direction. So off we went up the hill toward the pass to see if we could catch the train at Nason Creek on White Pine Road. We made it there in plenty of time, but the lighting was not optimal. Adhering to the tried-and-true strategy to find a train and then follow it, we jumped in the truck and headed east. We arrived at the Merritt grade crossing just ahead of the train, so we pulled off the road there for a few grab shots. The lighting was pretty good, as were the results.

Scott's photo

Jan's photo

Off again we went, slowly working our way through the growing bustle of tourists in Leavenworth. We topped off the gas tank and continued down the hill as far as Monitor, peeling off onto Sleepy Hollow Road and the roadside perch at Richardson’s Curve.

Photo by Jan

After this, we drove into Wenatchee to scope out any evidence of trains readying to depart Appleyard or the crew change point at Thurston Street. Spotting a westbound stack train with ditch lights, we doubled back out to Monitor to catch the train as it rolled through the fruit orchards along Sleepy Hollow Road.

Jan's shot at the grade crossing, Sleepy Hollow Road

Finding trains to chase was becoming a bit challenging. But eventually we decided to drive out toward Lynch Coulee and the Trinidad Loop on spec. There was evidence of an eastbound train leaving Wenatchee soon, so we pulled off the road at the state highway department’s sandpit by Trinidad and set out our folding chairs to roast in the sun and await the train’s arrival. To our surprise, the first train to arrive on scene was a westbound double-stack, so we snagged a few going-away shots as it wound its long snake-like string of cars through the S-curves just east of Columbia Siding.


Entering the S-curves at the sandpit; photo by Scott

We were not in any rush on this railfan excursion, choosing instead to take things as they came to us, and to use the opportunity to explore a bit. There were a few locations on my list to visit, ones that I had either known about but never quite managed to visit before, or a couple that I scouted out on Google maps as looking promising. Jan had never visited Columbia Siding, so we drove down the hill to that area to check it out. There was nothing moving through while we were there, but we took a few minutes to explore it. After that, we decided to head west again and see if we could catch the westbound stacker or some other train headed up into the mountains.

One discouraging piece of intel we learned about was the state’s plans to do some significant road work on Highway 2 between about Scenic (west of Stevens Pass) over to about the location of Gaynor trestle on the east side of the pass. The state DOT warned of 30-minute (or longer) wait times on the highway, and this was to continue through Thursday. Our original plan was to use Leavenworth as our base to focus on an area from about Skykomish to Wenatchee River bridge near Plain, but the highway work scuttled that plan. Instead, we calculated that nothing further up toward the pass than Nason Creek/White Pine Road would work well for us. Nevertheless, we were glad to see that we had a westbound train to chase that had just left Wenatchee and was working its way toward Cashmere and Dryden. On our last railfan trip in this area, in May of 2020, we attempted to try a new spot on the south side of Highway 2. There is a small public access area located there by the Wenatchee River, and it seemed like we might be able to catch an interesting view of a train crossing the river on a trestle at that place. We gave a good try, but the river level was very high and we were unable to get the bushy vegetation out of our images without wading into the river. Maybe this location will pan out at another time of year.

Dryden-East trestle; river too high for optimal shots

With the westbound train we caught at Dryden being the best prospect we had at the moment, we elected to continue up the hill to get ahead of him somewhere. Another location that I’ve been wanting to try is the west portal of the Winton Tunnel. It’s right off Highway 2 and easy to access, but for some reason that location had just never panned out for me before. We decided to head to that location and wait for our train. We arrived in plenty of time, and I finally “scratched that itch” with a couple of favorable photos.

Scott's pic at Winton Tunnel

Things were kind of slow for the next couple of hours. We eventually made our way all the way out to the sandpit at Trinidad again, and caught the “Spud Local” heading toward Lynch Coulee. But at this point we decided to head back to Leavenworth and grab some dinner. With the pre-weekend hordes of tourists already flocking to Leavenworth, it was impossible to find a place to eat in the pedestrian mall area of Front Street without a wait of at least 30 minutes. Then we spotted a kind of hole-in-the-wall place with outdoor seating and a German sausage option on the menu, so we gave it a shot. This turned out to be “Old World Pub,” which I learned used to be “Uncle Uli’s Pub.” I’d been jones’n for a sausage dinner in Leavenworth, and although I won’t try to claim this was the epitome of such an experience, they did have one unexpected treat for me: ice-cold bottles of Franziskaner Hefe-Weissbier!

After dinner, with the sun still illuminating one of the longest days of the year, we decided to roll out to Icicle Station once more and catch Amtrak #8 coming through town. We chatted briefly with a member of the train crew who seemed unable to restrain his enthusiasm in sharing that Amtrak was finally able to resume “traditional dining” on this train. No more uninspiring meals heated in a microwave.

Number 8 pulls into Icicle Station, Leavenworth

Waving farewell to the Empire Builder, we moseyed over to the local high school and its large open parking lot. There we opened up the box for a new toy: a DJI Mini 2 Fly More Combo pack. I have never before attempted to operate a drone, so we made a deliberate decision to ease into this drone business very slowly and cautiously. We had charged a couple of the battery packs, and put the drone with its unleashed rotor blades on the pavement, powered up the drone and the remote control, and . . . nothing. Nothing happened. The controls on the remote did not appear to have any effect. The one small booklet that came with the drone with operating instructions looked like something written up by Ikea. All they had were a few tiny illustrations that merely suggested the steps to take. What we did not yet realize was the need to attach a smartphone to the remote unit, and download the DJI drone app. Oh well. Our strategy to take it all very slow and easy was playing out more or less according to plan.

Thursday, June 24

On Thursday morning, we decided to take advantage of the Icicle Village Resort’s complimentary breakfast. In all fairness, I’m assuming pre-COVID this offering was typically quite satisfying. But still easing out from the impacts of the pandemic and probably some continuing staffing challenges, the breakfast fare on this day was underwhelming, to say the least. It was free, and just barely worth what we paid for it. The upside was discovering they had a large gauge model train running non-stop on a circuit throughout the dining and bar areas, on a track elevated up high on the walls. That was a hoot. For about the first two or three times it came around. Then it just became annoying.


We loaded up our truck with all our stuff, and I waited in the truck just outside the lobby for Jan to get us checked out. I set my prescription lens sunglasses down on the top of the center console while I was fiddling with something else. This was a dumb move on my part. As Jan climbed back into the truck, and with varying lighting causing the console area to be in shadows, Jan unwittingly set her elbow down on my glasses and popped a lens out. This sad development could prove to put a massive damper on the remainder of our trip, since the skies were almost completely clear with a blazing sun each day. I absolutely had to have my sunglasses! But Jan saved the day when she used her smartphone to locate an optician in town, and they were able to re-seat the lens securely in the frames. Whew! Crisis averted.


Big news for Northwest candy lovers!

After hearing some disheartening news some months ago about the iconic Aplets & Cotlets candy business looking like it would be closing for good, we were happy to learn that a new owner seems to have come forward, giving the 100-year-old sweets-maker new life. We rolled into Cashmere and made Aplets & Cotlets the first stop of our day. We loaded up on boxes of the yummy candies and confirmed that yes, they can be effectively frozen for up to two years or so. After stashing our loot in the ice chest, we began to explore our options for trying to catch a train as it passed the still-standing GN depot at Cashmere (just across the street from Aplets & Cotlets). We located a long stack train idling in the siding east of the depot. We reasoned he was waiting for a westbound that must be approaching soon. Sure enough, we were treated just a few minutes later to a short BNSF geometry train, utilizing BNSF car #90. As the train approached the grade crossing, the bells started clanging, the crossing gates with their flashing lights came down, and the engineer started his usual grade crossing horn signal. One vehicle driver decided to weave around the gates and cross ahead of the oncoming train. So did the driver of a second vehicle. If this was not enough, some cluck on foot went jogging across the tracks. These were not what I would term “close calls,” but it’s got to be frustrating for the engine crews to continually see knuckleheads like this playing “chicken” with a fast-moving train.

Pics of BNSF geometry train, for evaluating track conditions, at Cashmere, WA

As soon as the geometry train passed through, the idled stack train got its clearance to continue eastward into Wenatchee. We knew there was not enough time to get ahead of the train at Monitor, so we opted to pop down to trackside at the division point between the Scenic Sub and the Columbia River Sub. We had ample time to prepare, and we snagged a few more adequate photos.

The train action once again slowed to a crawl, so we took the opportunity to drive out to a location near Malaga that I’d been hoping to explore. The lighting was not good, but we found the spot and snapped a couple shots just to show we made it. We need to come back to this location in the late afternoon for the best lighting.

Driving back into Wenatchee and past Appleyard, I pulled over for a minute to document a pile of crossing signals in the boneyard.

Before long, however, we had another eastbound stack train to pursue. Jan and I discussed our options, and despite the blistering heat, we elected to work our way up on a little hill east of Rock Island Dam for a fine down-on perspective of the eastbound train.

I'm not unhappy with the composition, but the lighting is all wrong.
Looks like this should be a morning shot.

Just as soon as we had our photos there, we jumped back into the truck and charged (within legal speed limits) back up the road to Lynch Coulee and the Trinidad Loop. We both took several photos of the train as it struggled up the grade into Lynch Coulee and rounded the loop.

It was exceptionally hot, so we retreated to the comfort of the truck and its A/C to cool us off. We slowly started back down the road on our way toward Highway 28, when low and behold, we found a long string of oil cans heading up the coulee toward the loop. This second train was right on the heels of the last one!

We had not planned on exploring anything further east than the Trinidad Loop, but with two trains headed that way we decided to take our chances and see what we could do. Heading through Quincy (where the old GN depot has finally been razed, sadly) and on to Ephrata, we caught up with but could not overtake the stack train. Just on the east end of Ephrata we finally gave up on that chase, and came back into town. Jan thought we might have a chance to catch the oil train near the big grain silos in town, so we gave that a shot. This is just a block or two west of the Amtrak stop. We pulled off the street by the grade crossing near Division and Alder. Just as we climbed out of the truck, the crossing gates came down. We had arrived just in the nick of time to snap a few shots of the train with the grain silos providing a backdrop.

That signaled the end of another long but satisfying day of railfanning, and we ambled back to Wenatchee to get checked in to our next motel and grab some dinner. On this night, we supped at Saddle Rock Pub and Brewery in Wenatchee. We had a fine meal in a quiet little place, and while the air conditioning kept the dining area cool, we learned their food cooler in the kitchen had gone belly up, and the local HVAC company was swamped with service calls. We had to skip having a side salad with dinner, but we would come to learn that things were getting worse for some places in town.


Friday, June 25

This day proved to be one of the best of the whole trip. The first thing we did was drive all the way up into the Chumstick Valley to our favorite haunt in that area, the Wenatchee River Bridge. By now, we had figured out what we needed to do with a smartphone to activate and operate our new drone, and we looked forward to a lazy day of hanging out by the river in our folding chairs, with plenty of snacks and cold water, and start familiarizing ourselves with the basic controls of the drone while we waited on trains.


The first few minutes of drone operation were very tentative. I started out by simply flying it up into the air 20 or 30 feet, and then bringing it back down to land. I began to understand the “Home” feature, which logs the position of the drone just before it launches, and then permits the pilot to press a button on the remote control to automatically fly the drone back to its starting point – and then land by itself. There is quite a flock of birds (swallows, I think) who make their nests on the sides of the railroad trestle deck. They made it clear they were not happy with my drone! I never flew it any closer to their nests than at least fifty yards, but that seemed too close for their liking. They treated the drone like a lurking predator and kept swooping down at it to chase it away. In the meantime, I continued to explore the controls in an effort to learn how to operate the thing.


Soon enough, the nearby crossing gates came down and the bell started clanging. We had an eastbound closing in on us. Fish on! I rapidly landed the drone to keep it out of the equation (I was not ready to try to snap any photos or footage with it just yet). We got our shots of the passing train, and some friendly toots of the horn from the engineer.


Since we were enjoying ourselves in this spot, and it was nice and open for working with the drone in a limited way, we just stayed put for another hour or so and then shot photos of an eastbound that finally appeared.

It was getting to be well into the afternoon, so we headed back down into Wenatchee for the night. We went into Bob’s Classic Brass and Brew for a couple of burgers to go. Oh, my, were we glad we chose to take our food out with us! Remember the HVAC woes I spoke of earlier? This restaurant had their entire A/C system fail, and no promise of a service call expected for days. It was uncomfortably hot in the restaurant, but we especially felt bad for the kitchen crew who had little relief from the heat in there.

As we departed with our burgers, we got wind of an eastbound string of oil empties getting ready to depart Appleyard. Now was the time to get back to that new-found vantage point out by Malaga. Off we went, scarfing down some of our burgers as we made our way out ahead of this train. We got into position with a comfortable margin ahead of the train. We banged off some shots as it rounded the curve toward us, and once again received some friendly toots of the horn from the crew. They must have thought we were nuts, though, hanging out in that God-forsaken spot in 100° heat. I’m always hearing about rattlesnakes and even scorpions in that area. We saw none (thankfully), but I’m still kind of surprised that in many years of plodding around out there I never have encountered any.

And then the train proceeded along the rocky cliffs above the river, and finally worked its way out onto the Rock Island Bridge. At the same time, a pleasure boat was zipping up the river and heading to go under the bridge. This was actually a photo composition I have long hoped for here. Success!

We headed back to our motel and polished off our dinner. Since it was still so light out, we elected to return to the Amtrak station to meet the evening’s arrival of eastbound #8.

Number 8's relief engineer is briefed by the conductor

Adios Number 8! Happy travels...

Saturday, June 26

This was our day to catch what we could while working our way back up over the mountains and home again. Since we were departing Wenatchee, this was our best bet for finding a westbound train to follow home. We drove to Appleyard and looked around. The yard seemed remarkably flush with strings of freight cars, but not much action. We went over to the crew change point and sat there (in our air-conditioned truck!) and kept an eye on what was happening. A westbound-facing stack train pulled in from Appleyard and then the next 20 minutes or so were dedicated to uncoupling the front-end power and relocating it onto another sidetrack. More out of boredom and lack of anything else going on, we snapped a few photos of that activity. We went back out to Appleyard again, and this time found a new westbound stack train that had just recently drifted into the yard. The engineer was on the ground talking to someone on his cell. Shortly after that, we heard a little bit of conversation over the scanner about a dogcatcher who was on the move. Back to the crew change point we went, one more time. Sure enough, we passed the dogcatcher who appeared to be going over to Appleyard with a few railroad employees to relieve the crew of the stack train sitting out there. It was a slow start to the day, but it appeared things were finally going to break loose a little.


We opted to head west to set up somewhere and wait for the first of these trains to depart Wenatchee and come our way. However, we were favored with a bonus. Somewhere around Cashmere or Dryden we spotted an eastbound coming into Wenatchee. So, we wheeled around and zipped back into town. We pulled off at Duncan Road and worked our way back near trackside for some more photos at the division point between the Scenic and Columbia River Subs. Train Hype! Mission accomplished there, we finally bid Wenatchee farewell for the last time on this trip and headed west.


We continued all the way up the Tumwater Canyon and pulled in to the 59er Diner near Coles Corner, where we each got a delicious milk shake. We continued up the road to the rest area at Merritt for access to the facilities and to sit in the shade and eat our lunch (sandwiches; something we had each day of our trip, since Jan wisely packed all the fixin’s we needed in our ice chest – it was convenient and helped offset some other expenses, so we weren’t just buying every meal at a restaurant). After lunch, and having still not seen one of the westbound trains yet, we decided to double back to Winton Tunnel for another try at the west portal. More fun photos there.

Next stop, another location that I have never before managed to get to for some reason – West Berne Siding. It’s not high on the priority list of good photo-op locations, but it’s not bad. In the past though, it just hasn’t worked out. But today it did. With the excessive heat resulting in widespread slow orders, and a train that was pulling hard up hill to Stevens Pass, it was easy to get some photos and then leap-frog ahead of our train to the next good spot.

Once finished at West Berne, we drove on over to the west portal of Cascade Tunnel. It wasn’t too long before our stack train appeared, and we grabbed some more nice pics. From there, we decided to head into Skykomish.

We easily arrived ahead of the train, where we sat in the truck and awaited his arrival. With the sun now shifting off to the west, we had decent lighting to get photos of this train with some of the ubiquitous establishments of Sky in the background. This included the Cascadia Inn and the Whistling Post Tavern.

Scott nabs a shot with the Cascadia Inn (where the Sky Railfan cam is perched)

Jan took this one as the train passed the Whistling Post

Maybe it was the siren call of the Whistling Post’s tasty suds, and maybe it was just as much the unrelenting heat of the past four days, but Jan hit on the idea that I ought to buy her a cold beer. So, in we went to quench our thirsts. Typically, I would have gladly joined her in a cold brew, but on this day I opted for a refreshing cold lemonade. That suited me fine.

After all this lounging around, we learned the second of Wenatchee’s two stack trains from that morning had finally made it up and over the pass, so we trundled on down to Index to set up and await its arrival. We pulled off the road by the riverbank on Avenue A. Seriously, that’s what they call it. How about naming it “Pickett Street” in honor of legendary photographer Lee Pickett? They have a museum largely dedicated to him after all. And guess what street it’s on: Avenue A.

The late afternoon lighting and crystal-clear skies provided a stunning and iconic Washington Cascades scene for the final few photos of our trip.

Crossing the North Fork of the Skykomish River at Index, WA
Scott's photo

I’ve read recently that container traffic is getting jammed up at saltwater ports in the Seattle area and railyards across the BNSF system at least as far east as Chicago. Our experience on this trip seemed to offer evidence of this situation. Of all the freight trains we encountered, it seemed like about 90% of them were double stacks. One other observation to make: our buddy Lindsay Korst just happened to be out on the road on his own railfan adventure at about the same time. We did not learn until after the fact that he was coming back west through Lynch Coulee, Wenatchee, and Stevens Pass on the 23rd – right while we were also working that area. It’s a small miracle that we didn’t bump into each other at some point.

What a great time we had. I can see more such adventures in our future.


Sunday, May 31, 2020

Railfanning made easy: Or, fighting cabin fever in the age of COVID-19

Railfan Trip Report, May 29-30, 2020

These are strange times, indeed. As I write this railfan trip report, a highly-contagious virus (for which there is currently no vaccine or cure) has kept most of us on “quarantine-style” lockdown for many weeks. The economy has, at least for the present, pretty much tanked. Cabin Fever has become a very real thing for many who have otherwise never experienced it.

I am very lucky. I continue to work full-time, from my home. For my wife, Jan, things have not been as good. She is on a temporary furlough which we hope will come to an end in a few weeks. All that time being off work, with little opportunity to get out and about, can make a person kind of antsy. It was time for us to hit the road. We are both remaining healthy and virus-free (at least as far as we know, what with the issue of asymptomatic people roaming about unaware that they’ve picked up the virus). So, we decided the sunny skies and warm-to-very-warm temperatures forecast for Friday, May 29, 2020, were reason enough to fight back against cabin fever. We would take a railfan trip over Stevens Pass, possibly as far east as Trinidad loop (east of Wenatchee). It began as a one-day, out and back strategy, but soon morphed into a two-day trip with an overnight stay in Wenatchee. We would avoid contact with others to the maximum extent possible, and wear cloth masks and sometimes gloves when appropriate. We could have a fun outing in each other’s company, and enjoy some great scenery and have a nice time together.

And get this – it was her idea to go railfanning. Although she is neither a railroad enthusiast nor avid photographer herself, my wife has often told me she thought it might be fun to chase and photograph trains, so she borrowed our son’s nice Nikon digital SLR camera, and we made all the preparations to spend a day or two shooting photos of whatever trains we happened to see.

For the first day (Friday), the forecast called for mostly sunny skies and highs near 75 at our departure point north of Seattle. We would drive up over Stevens Pass and work our way down to (and possibly beyond) Wenatchee, where the forecast also called for mostly sunny skies, but highs considerably hotter – as hot as 94. However, a storm system was forecast to move up out of California overnight Friday into Saturday, so our prospects for effective railfanning were likely to fall off dramatically at some point on Saturday.

I’m not nearly as experienced or knowledgeable about chasing trains or understanding railroad operations as most avid railfans, but I’ve been out enough times with a very knowledgeable friend to have learned many of the important strategies and methods for railfanning the Scenic Sub and out to Trinidad on the Columbia River Sub. I have a decent radio scanner, and we learned about the online radio coverage for areas on both the west and east slopes of Stevens Pass. We also found the Skykomish Railfan webcam to be particularly useful. Armed with all these resources, plus plenty of water and food, off we went. We agreed from the outset we would treat this experience like the so-called difference between “fishing” and “catching.” If we found trains to shoot photos of, great, but we were determined not to get our hopes up too much. The bar was set exceptionally low, so some manner of success was all but assured. We learned later that we could have set the bar extremely high, and still would have hit our target. It was a truly strange series of railfanning events over the entire 2-day jaunt.

Out of the driveway at 0530 on Friday, in our 2017 Toyota 4Runner (with 4WD, if needed), away we went. First stop, Sultan Bakery (currently they serve take-out only). After picking up the grub, we swung by the Sultan Public Library to park on the street and access their Wi-Fi. We pulled up some info on Amtrak 7’s westbound progress (on time, out of Leavenworth at 0608). As we popped out onto Highway 2 at Sultan, we immediately noticed an eastbound double-stack Z train we could chase up toward Skykomish. This was the first omen of what would soon evolve into the most bizarrely successful railfan trip I have ever experienced.

The Z train wasted no time heading up through Index, so we took a chance at catching a grab shot near Baring. We pulled off the road just short of Baring and banged off our first attempts of the day. Then we doubled-back to Index to wait for Amtrak #7. Our plan was to shoot the Empire Builder crossing the trestle at Index from the vantage point of the automobile bridge just upstream from the trestle. We had enough time on our hands that we drove around to the opposite side of the railroad trestle to scope out that angle (an afternoon shot) for a later attempt.

It’s now 0751, and Amtrak 7 arrives at Index.

Jan's first "railfan" photo - Amtrak #7 at Index
My shot from a few feet away

We bang off some pics as it crosses the trestle, and then we’re off to see if there’s any hope of catching up to the Z, which is being pulled by BNSF 4123, a GE C44-9W, and three GE ES44DCs: BNSF 7765, BNSF 7689, and BNSF 6225. By the way – I wouldn’t know an SD40 from a WD40. I’m getting most of these locomotive types from RR Pictures Archive – thank you to all who have posted there. 😊

Jan and I raced up Highway 2 thinking we might catch the Z-train at Scenic. We were a few minutes too late: the scanner informed us he reached Scenic about 5 minutes before we got there. So we pressed on, thinking we might try for a shot of the train exiting at the East Portal of Cascade Tunnel. We arrived in time, but access to the location appeared to be more restricted than I recalled from years past. We bailed out of East Portal, and charged ahead to catch him at Gaynor. Arriving there with only a few minutes to spare (and yes, the 4WD came in handy), we parked back in the trees and walked down to the trestle. After only a modest wait of 5 minutes or so, along came BNSF 4123 and friends. This was just a few minutes before 0900. We banged off some oochie shots of the train coming over the trestle, Jan got a couple friendly toots of the horn from the engineer, and then we jogged back to the truck. The chase was on!

Jan's shot of 4123 easing onto Gaynor Trestle

Scott's photo of the train arriving at the trestle

Scott's photo, Gaynor Trestle

An artsy-fartsy view of the train going away (Scott photo)

One old adage I’ve learned about railfanning the Scenic Sub: find a train, and follow it. Period. It’s nearly always your best bet. And so we gave chase to the eastbound Z. We figured he would move downslope quickly. The thought was to try to catch him somewhere past Leavenworth. He made Peshastin by 0950, but we were out ahead of him by then. We opted to hedge our bets and remain in front, getting ourselves in position for a photo-op at Monitor on Sleepy Hollow Road. The lighting should be good, and he’d be coasting toward us along the bank of the Wenatchee River. It’s an excellent vantage point to photograph an eastbound.

We weren’t parked more than 2 or 3 minutes, and BNSF 4123 began blowing his horn for a nearby crossing. I was going to set out a couple of folding camp chairs so we could sit and relax in fruit orchard country, but there wasn’t time. Once again, we arrived in time to get set, but no excessive time for sitting around waiting.

Our Z-train rounds the bend at Richardson's Curve at Monitor (off Sleepy Hollow Road)

After snagging more oochie shots of 4123’s Z train, off we went again. The train was long enough (276 axles) that he was still in sight as we doubled back along Sleepy Hollow Road – whoa! Great photo op for future reference: just as the road begins to drop down toward the grade crossing, there’s a great view of the train with expansive acres of fruit orchards in the foreground. Gotta store that idea away for later.

Time to proceed into Wenatchee to check things out at Appleyard, the traditional barometer of train activity near the transition between the Scenic Sub and the Columbia River Sub. But as we dropped down the highway into town, we glanced down at the tracks below and saw that #4123 had…. stopped! At one of the first available opportunities, I turned off the main drag and found a way back behind a business that had property butted right up to the tracks. We found the train had come to a stop just before the sign marking the break between the two adjoining subdivisions, Scenic and Columbia River. We thought, “holy cow, he’s just sitting there posing for us!” We jumped out of the truck and banged off more oochie roster shots, and then minutes later he got the green light to proceed toward Appleyard, and we banged off some more (hey, they’re only electrons – remember the days of 35mm film and photo-op frugality?).

Jan's roster shot as the train starts up again.

The Z-train striking a pose just before the switch-over from the Scenic Sub to the Columbia River Sub.

As the train slowly proceeds down to the crew-change point, the signal remains green.

4123 has tripped the signal in this going-away shot.
We picked up some chatter on the scanner about a westbound approaching Wenatchee, so we decided to hightail it east toward Trinidad to see what we were dealing with. Just after passing the Rock Island Bridge, the westbound rounded the curve. This was one of only a very few trains we ever missed a chance to photograph in two day’s time. Curiously, we picked up a detector triggered by another train in the area with a remarkable 458 axles. We couldn’t make out exactly where it was, nor what direction it was headed. This mystery train could be anywhere. We were on high alert, but without a clue where this train was or whether we had any chance to find it, we pressed on eastward.

We pulled off Highway 28 at the “Sand Pit,” a state DOT facility near the turn-off to Lynch Coulee and the Trinidad Loop. At the very least, it seemed likely that our primary “target,” the Z-train led by BNSF 4123, would come up from Wenatchee before too long. Still, it seemed we were in another great location to bust out the camping chairs, the ice-cold bottled water, and the snacks. Before I could open the back of the truck to pull out the chairs, I took a gander over the side of the hill to the tracks below.
A peak over the sand pile, and voila! Our "mystery train" appears
It was the mystery train! Once more, incredibly, Lady Luck was smiling brightly on us. A pair of GE ES44DC’s, BNSF #7461 and #6413, were pulling a long empty oiler up toward Lynch Coulee. I swear, we weren’t out of the truck 30 seconds and we found ourselves in perfect position for some incredible down-on photos of this remarkably long string of black oil cars snaking its way along a series of S-curves on the bank of the Columbia River. Jan wasn’t sure if I was joking when I kept telling her “seriously, this is not supposed to happen – railfanning is not this easy!” I could not believe how lucky we were and how our timing seemed almost fool proof.

Jan's landscape perspective of the oiler snaking around the curves

A vertical perspective at the Sand Pit

Without waiting to see if the oiler had any DPUs, we jumped back in the truck and zipped up the coulee for some photos as it trudged up toward the loop at Trinidad, and then as it rounded the curve and headed off into the distance.

I snapped a shot of the oiler struggling up Lynch Coulee on approach to the Trinidad Loop

Exiting Trinidad Loop, the oiler is seen with our trusty steed in the foreground

Another going-away perspective, with the gleaming empty oil cans rounding a curve just past the Trinidad Loop

After that, we figured #4123’s Z train would probably be along pretty soon. We drove back down the coulee to the small overpass on one of the most blandly named roads in the area, “Road W NW.” Not to be confused with Road W SE, I suppose. We finally pulled out the folding chairs and settled in for some lunch. It was now approaching 1130, and the temperature was in the low 80s. We managed to choke down some food before the Z train appeared. We hadn’t been there more than 15 minutes. I swear, I kept telling my wife “it isn’t usually like this!” I was becoming increasingly amazed at how simple this all was. Just run out to a good location, and WHAM! another train comes along. Jan was forming her own ideas about the nature of railfanning. I shudder to think how letdown she’ll be the next time out, if we keep having trains just fall into our laps like this.

The Z train led by 4123 comes into view as it climbs Lynch Coulee toward Trinidad Loop

4123 pulls its heavy load through a small cut and rolls under the overpass for Road W NW.

The double-stack train curves away from the Road W NW overpass and continues on to the Loop
We headed back to Wenatchee, thinking it was time to check Appleyard again. We decided to call “Julie” at Amtrak to confirm that Saturday morning’s #7 was running on time. They use some fairly robust voice recognition software, so we were surprised and frustrated when “Julie” repeatedly confused our station data request of “Wenatchee, Washington,” saying “I think you said Wausaukee, Wisconsin – is that correct?” But just as we crossed the river back into Wenatchee, I glanced to my left and spotted a locomotive with all his lights lit up, including the ditch lights. We had prey to chase! Off we drove through the traffic and stoplights of downtown Wenatchee. I was hoping this was our chance to catch the train at that promising new spot at Monitor, overlooking acres of fruit trees. As we made it out of town, it became clear the train had the advantage of us and Monitor was a no-go. So we pressed on and aimed for Dryden. There is a great spot to shoot a westbound train crossing the Wenatchee River at Dryden if you park on the shoulder of Main Street near where it intersects with Alice Avenue. But before this journey began, I had been pondering the possibility of shooting a train crossing the second trestle to the east of that one, as the train is about to enter Dryden. This would mean turning off Highway 2 onto Stine Hill Road and doubling back about a mile to an unmarked little side road that might put us into a public river access spot marked on the maps as “Fox Miller Public Access.” From what I found on Google Maps, it appeared a nice view of this trestle could be had by scrambling down by the riverbank. Having never tried this location before, I overshot the unmarked dirt road turnoff. By the time we found the correct road and made our way down to the public parking area by the trestle, the train was already there. Honestly, this turned out to be one of only about two or three “whiffs” that we endured in two days. Still, I’ll squirrel that one away to try again in the future. Before we pulled out from Dryden, we tried calling Julie again at Amtrak. She still thinks Wenatchee is Wausaukee. No, Julie, not even close (at least, not geographically!).

Now our best bet seemed to be to chase on up past Leavenworth and try to catch the train somewhere further west. I decided to aim for White Pine Road and the popular Nason Creek trestle. We arrived at the trestle feeling confident we had overtaken the train, but not feeling at all sure about how much time we had. We’re not in our twenties anymore, so it was a bit challenging for us both to scramble up the rock face to reach our preferred vantage point on the rock ledge above the tracks. I swear, we picked out our perspective to shoot the train, made sure our cameras were at the ready, and WHAM! it wasn’t 5 minutes and the train rounded the curve at the base of the rock cliff and crossed the Nason Creek trestle.

7112 creeps around the bend at the Nason Creek cut, peering at us through the tree branches

Coming into full view, 7112 leads its load across Nason Creek trestle

Jan snagged this shot at Nason Creek trestle, a popular railfan location on White Pine Road
Not being too eager to have to scramble back down the rock face of our “photographer’s roost,” I quickly spotted the well-worn trail no doubt made my many previous railfans that led us easily and safely back off the ledge and into a camper’s pullout off the road. I log THAT in the memory banks for next time, too. So much easier and safer than scrambling up and down loose rocks.

By now it was mid-afternoon, and with no other hot prospects we decided it was time to head back down toward Wenatchee. I told Jan that I wanted to check out what appeared to be a dirt road that we might be able to use to get us close to the Rock Island Bridge near the Alcoa plant east of Appleyard, near Malaga. This held the prospect of a perspective of the bridge that I had never photographed. So off we went, planning to head out on the Malaga-Alcoa Highway past Appleyard to do some exploring. But as we were working our way through downtown Wenatchee and were passing the Amtrak stop and BNSF’s typical crew change point, we spotted another westbound-facing freight with their ditch lights on. We had learned the hard way – do NOT try to get to Monitor ahead of a westbound out of the Appleyard area if he’s already moving and you still have to fight your way through all the traffic lights in town. So, without waiting for the train to start moving, off we raced toward Monitor to try for the shot across the fields of fruit trees on Sleepy Hollow Road. We arrived in plenty of time. In fact, we had to sit and wait for about 30 minutes, but he finally appeared, and we banged off some more satisfactory photos. Still, I would love to shoot a train rolling through there sometime a little earlier in the season, when the fruit trees are in full blossom.

Yay! I scratched this itch by catching a westbound across the fruit orchards on Sleepy Hollow Road.

Jan plucked this doozy as the train made its way through the grade crossing below us.

I shot one more photo of the train as it was leaving our view of the orchards.

With our intended exploration of access to the Rock Island Bridge near Alcoa aborted, we decided to try that again. We headed off to Appleyard and planned to continue right on past. However, as we neared the yard, we spotted another long string of empty coal cars parked at the east end of Appleyard. He appeared to be occupying the main, but his ditch lights were off. We could see the crew was aboard, and we soon heard some helpful chatter on the scanner. He was being cleared to depart eastbound. Thank you AGAIN, Lady Luck! We had time to race down the road to check out access to the bridge from that side of the river, and it looked like we would have a train in a few minutes to shoot as well. Off we went, but as we reached a point only about a mile out of Appleyard, here comes another westbound! We had no time to get any grab shots, but our heads were spinning. It seemed like the Scenic and Columbia River Subs were practically saturated with train movements. On we drove toward the Alcoa plant. Anyone who has ever looked into the site must already know what we learned the hard way: there is absolutely no access there, not even to the little dirt road that looked so promising. It’s all private property, and it’s all gated or marked for no trespassing. Bummer. But we knew the empty oiler was heading toward us, so we shot back toward Appleyard looking frantically for a good place to pull over for some grab shots. We found a spot and jumped out, and got into position. It was only a couple of minutes before a brace of GE ES44ACs led by BNSF 6349 and then BNSF 5906, with another unit in the mix that we did not identify, plus a pair of EMD SD70ACe’s (BNSF 9339 and 8561) came up the rise and split the signals.

Slogging through the tall weeds, I snagged this shot of 6349 straining to get up the slight grade out of Appleyard.

Jan captured a stealth train slinking through the weeds, as I braced for a signal-splitter photo.

Here he comes, splitting the signals at the grade crossing.
The time was now 1730 and still about 90 degrees. We rolled back into Wenatchee and picked up a couple of juicy bacon cheeseburgers to go from Bob’s Classic Brass and Brew, then it was off to our motel to eat our dinner, download the day’s photos, and settle in for the night. I plugged in my laptop and pulled up Amtrak’s “Track Your Train” web site. I wanted to double-check #7’s progress and ETA the next morning at Wenatchee (especially since Julie had seemed so confused earlier on the phone). We had discussed getting up early the next morning and racing up to Dryden to catch it on the trestle just off Main Street, which we calculated would be about 0545 (if holding to their scheduled time). You can imagine my confusion when the map, peppered with data on trains all over the US, was not showing ANYTHING for our #7 due into Wenatchee the next morning. The train was just gone! That’s when I pulled up the Facebook page for “Amtrak’s Empire Builder” hoping to learn some news. Did I ever. Train #7 had collided with a farmer and his tractor at a rural grade crossing near Bainville in eastern Montana. I saw some very depressing news reports that the farmer had perished and some on the train were injured and taken to the hospital. The lead locomotive was badly damaged (likely totaled), and the second unit and all seven Superliner cars (and possibly the trailing baggage car) were all on the ground, but upright. There would be no #7 pulling into Wenatchee in the morning. We turned in and agreed we would not rush to start our day. In fact, with the nasty weather moving into the area, we realized we had already struck gold on Friday, and maybe it was just as well that we grab some coffee in the morning and just head on home.

We eased into the morning. A quick review of the Skykomish Railfan webcam showed an eastbound recently passed through Skykomish, but we didn’t have enough info on it to do us much  good. But the skies over Wenatchee didn’t look too threatening. We had come this far, and had the whole day ahead of us, so… Off we drove to Appleyard to take a look-see at what was going on. As we drove along Wenatchee Avenue in the direction of the yard, we crossed Thurston Street and peeked down the road toward the BNSF office where crew changes usually occur. Ditch lights! They’re on! Facing westbound! Train Hype! We immediately doubled back and started heading back up the hill. We decided to get out ahead of this imminent westbound and start reviewing our options.

By the time we reached Dryden, we were somewhat amazed to see the morning’s eastbound freight from Skykomish rolling down toward Wenatchee. This had us thinking we could get well ahead of the WB we had spotted leaving the crew change point in Wenatchee, since our westbound might have to wait for the eastbound to pass. We decided to venture up the Chumstick cutoff. Neither of us had ever seen the Icicle Amtrak station just outside Leavenworth, so this seemed like the opportune time. A few minutes of moseying around Icicle Station, and we headed up through the Chumstick Canyon. With the already sketchy weather getting worse by the minute, we had long since decided any further railfanning on this day was unlikely, but icing on the cake if any opportunity presented itself. We heard rolling thunder as we pulled out from Icicle Station. We were in no rush today, so I decided to take Jan out to the Wenatchee River trestle to at least show her that location, and roll the dice as to whether the WB out of Wenatchee would appear within a reasonable time frame.

It was a relatively slow-paced drive through the rural countryside as we paralleled the Chumstick realignment that the GN put in back in 1928 (bypassing the snail’s pace Tumwater Canyon) in conjunction with the construction of the new 8-mile Cascade Tunnel. We reached River Road and made the turn toward our goal, which was a view of the BNSF crossing at the Wenatchee River. We backed in and parked below the elevated railbed at that location, satisfied that this was another situation where we could hang out for a little while and relax before our westbound train made it up the hill from Wenatchee. We kept an eye on the signals for the westbound, and I asked Jan to be sure to let me know immediately if she saw one of the targets turn to green. We had been there only 5 minutes or so when I decided to stretch my legs a little, and I clambered up toward trackside to get an unobstructed view looking down the line to the west. By the time I got high enough to see down the tracks, I saw it – the lights of a locomotive, eastbound! Train Hype! Lady Luck is still with us!

Our latest bonus train turned out to be a double-stack led by BNSF 8343, a GE ES44C4. Next in the lash-up was BNSF 7975 of the same locomotive type. BNSF 5788, a GE ES44AC, was next, finally trailed by another ES44C4, BNSF 6886. We both scrambled to get to our chosen spots. I “sprinted” (if that’s what you can call whatever it was this out-of-shape, overweight couch potato was doing) over to the riverbank to get some pics of the train crossing the bridge. Jan wisely stayed put and got her shots from a sensible position near our parked truck. Her decidedly more reasonable choice was rewarded by a few more friendly toots of the lead unit's horn.

Jan, from her sensible location, snapped a nice shot of the train at the grade crossing.

Down by the river bank and gasping for air, I managed to click the shutter as the eastbound crossed the Wenatchee River bridge.
I came back huffing and puffing, and we once again just shook our heads over how incredible our timing and our luck continued to be. I estimated that we had about 20 minutes before the westbound made it to the river. Sure enough, that’s just about how long it was when Jan suddenly shouted “green!” I once again “sprinted” back to the riverbank (you’d think I might be getting a little wiser about all this by now, but… no). We both banged off some more nice shots, then boogied it out of there. I predicted that if we made good time, we might just catch this train coming out the west portal of Cascade Tunnel.

Jan got this sweet shot as the train advanced across the trestle and approached the grade crossing.

Back near the riverbank, I snapped this shot as the train was emerging from the trees and starting onto the trestle.
Over the pass we drove. We did encounter some slightly heavier car traffic than I anticipated, but even the RVs were keeping pretty good pace. We made decent time going over the pass. Most of the higher peaks still had plenty of ground snow on them, and there were still significant patches of snow on the ground right up to the highway shoulders near the pass. We noticed the road down into the Wellington site was still closed, because of the access road's being impassable due to snow.

We turned off at the west portal and parked. We were able to immediately see the westbound train’s headlights in the tunnel, but it was clearly several miles away still. I explained to Jan that the tunnel’s bore was dug “as straight as a rifle bore,” according to accounts of its completion back in 1929. We watched as the light got closer and closer. We both snapped a few photos with our 200mm lens settings as the train’s headlights illuminated one of the rails for a long distance. Then we banged off a number of shots as the train emerged from the portal.

The lights of BNSF 7946, a GE ES44C4, shine off the inner walls of Cascade Tunnel as the train nears the west portal.

 The train is about to emerge from the tunnel's relative darkness, but into a decidedly cloudy afternoon sky.

Jan pegged this shot as 7946 led its pack of locomotives (and a short string of cars) out of the west portal of Cascade Tunnel.
The sky was completely overcast, but the rain held off pretty well at the portal. Then it was back onto the highway and a sprint to Skykomish. I knew the hairpin curve at the Foss River crossing (among other things) would slow the train down enough for us to get to Sky ahead of it, despite the fact it was now rolling downhill, and had a remarkable six locomotives pulling only 13 cars.

We parked across from the Cascadian Inn and I gave an obligatory wave to anyone watching on the railfan cam. We pulled up the webcam feed on Jan’s cellphone, and realized it was focused in the middle of its usual viewing range: neither looking left to the east approach into town, nor to the right and the west end of town. I tried pantomiming to anyone watching (and who might be managing the camera controls) that a train was approaching from the east. 

We decided to get our photos stationed near the town’s homage to the Great Northern Railway’s “Rocky,” a mountain goat shaped steel plate mounted on a large boulder. The train arrived, and we banged off some more good shots.

Jan's photo of the SIX locomotives (pulling only 13 cars!) along the fencing at Skykomish.

The Town of Skykomish embraces its railroad heritage, and the generational influence of the Great Northern Railway.    Rocky Lives!

I nab one more going-away shot as this unusual lash-up is about to trip the signals at West Skykomish.
Then we were on the road again, heading generally in the direction of home. But wait – what about that location we scouted out on Friday at Index, from the south side of the RR bridge? It was a solid overcast, so the sun angle wasn’t really an issue. If only the rain would hold off for us …  We charged (safely, at no faster than the posted speed limits) down to Index and flew around the side streets in town on only two wheels (well, sort of) and parked by the riverbank. Our luck with the weather gods finally petered out. It began to rain, rather insistently. But we arrived in time and got into position. Within only a few minutes, the train was upon us. We banged out a few more shots as it crossed the river.

One last photo of 7946 and his pals as they cross the trestle at Index - in the pouring rain.
Content that we had succeeded in squeezing the last bit of good fortune out of the weekend, we finally decided that was the last of the railfanning for this trip and we continued on home.

I don’t know if I should take my wife out railfanning ever again. On the one hand, you could say she was an incredible good-luck charm. On the other hand, she’s going to think all railfanning is this easy, and will forevermore be thoroughly underwhelmed by any future trips we might take. Decisions, decisions… But in the end, we got the better of Cabin Fever (take THAT, quarantine!).

Yeah, I'd go railfanning with my wife anytime. That was fun! Thanks, sweetie!

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