Winter Train

The echoes of “All Aboard!” hadn’t even faded as I clambered into the coach car, looking for my seat. I was ready, and this being the railroad, leaving on time is always a certainty. And sure enough, right on time, the winter train left the depot and headed into adventure and the wonderland ahead of me.

It’s been a few years since I last rode the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad winter photography tour. Yet, I instantly settled into the comfortable rhythm of being on the train. There’s something, a hard-to-describe something, about pulling out of the station, through the town of Durango, then into the mountains, which is exhilarating and comforting, both simultaneously. I settled into my seat, at least for the moment, and enjoyed the buildings, then later the forest, rolling by as we headed toward our first destination.

Sure, it was cold. It was deep winter, after all, and winters are cold. That’s OK. I am more than prepared for it, bundled up in layers, topped off by my arctic gear last used near the arctic circle in Alaska. It would be colder soon, anyway, when I stood in the snow, but that was yet to come and would not be an issue.

The Durango & SIlverton Narrow Gauge Railroad transforms itself

The Durango & Silverton sponsors a photography tour a couple of times a year, once in the fall and once in the winter. These are fantastic events. We head toward great vantage points, and then leave the train. The train backs up for a “run by,” providing an opportunity for an extraordinary photograph. I’ve been on many of these, and I always enjoy them.

Although I primarily focus on landscape and nature photography, something about a steam engine calls to my soul. I can’t quite put my finger on why this is, exactly, but that’s OK. It is within me, and it just “is.” To me, a steam engine chugging through a landscape feels precisely correct, and how can I not photograph it?

This year the Durango & Silverton line decided to roll back the clock to the 1970s. Instead of the usual livery of “Durango & Silverton,” the engine was sporting “Rio Grande,” and the coaches re-lettered to “Denver & Rio Grande Western,” just as they did in that period. Engine 476, today’s steam engine, once again sported the “diamond stack,” which was last seen in the 1980s. To be fair, this combination would not have been seen in winter, but we’ll let that be for the sake of returning to the 1970s.

Making the photographs

The winter train chugged as it encountered the first grade up into the San Juan Mountains, but these mountains were no match for the K-28 engine. The snow began to pile up the higher we climbed, and soon enough, the train glided to a gentle stop. We weren’t at a depot, of course, but instead stopped in a clearing. Gathering my gear, I hopped off the coach and into the snow. I trudged a few feet away from the tracks, found my best vantage point, and waited.

With its customary toot-toot, the train backed up down the tracks and out of sight down the track.

Immediately, although I knew better, I felt a little odd. After all, when you are standing in a snowpack in the middle of winter in the middle of nowhere, and the train that brought you there is now leaving you, that gets your attention. It is too easy to imagine what it might be like if the train kept going, without me, back to the station. I would be alone without the winter train, left to my own devices to fend for myself. My thoughts, now their own runaway train, gathered steam.

Here comes the winter train

The merry “Toot! Toot! Toot!” of the engine’s whistle broke through my thoughts, though, and here comes the train! Hooray! I am saved! And also, I can make the photograph I have been waiting for.

476's Mountains

Engine 476 roared past me as I created 476’s Winter. The rumble, deep, throaty, and powerful, shook the ground as the train passed me by, reinforcing how mighty these engines are. Smoke billowed from the diamond stack and now and then created smoke rings. The Turtle and Pigeon mountains stood mute in the background, observing a site they hadn’t seen in fifty years. I would like to think they approved of what they saw.

The train roared down the track past me, but I had no fear I would be stranded this time. The winter train glided to another gentle stop and waited for me to trudge through the snow and board it. It is downright fun to get on and off the train at these different places; it just adds to the sense of adventure!

Onward to Tefft Bridge

Once again, I settled into my seat and watched the scenery roll by to the next stop: Tefft Bridge.

I’ve photographed this scene before but was glad for another chance. The first time, many years ago, I knew how I wanted the photograph to turn out, and it did. This time, I was looking for a similar scene, but better. 

As usual, I jumped out of the train and into the snow. I scrambled up a small hill since I wanted a high vantage point. I found the perfect spot and watched as the train backed out of sight. “Toot! Toot! Toot!” Three whistles told me the train was coming, and I made ready.

Tefft Bridge

The bridge, while wonderfully photogenic, also makes for a complex composition. By its very nature, it blocks some of the train, so the timing of making Tefft Bridge is crucial. I needed to have just the right amount of train through the bridge. Too little, and the engine is blocked. Too much, and it looks like I was too late. My experience from here before paid off, though, and the final result was exactly as I envisioned. 

In what seemed the blink of an eye, I was back on the train, pondering the upcoming location and the last one for this series. I had a good idea of what to expect and pre-planned it as much as possible.

The Treacherous San Juan Mountains

High above the Animas river, Engine 476 slowed down and crept through a series of sharp turns with sheer, steep drop-offs just inches from the outer rail. Areas like this convinced the early route planners that a standard gauge railroad could not be put through the San Juan Mountains, and it would have to be narrow gauge, if at all. Although some considered it impossible, the designers did put in the railroad. Still, even traveling down it today, I wonder how they did the unthinkable. Somehow, they did, with, quite literally, inches to spare.

As we snaked around Horseshoe Bend, I got off the train for the last time. As before, I stood waiting, ready, and determined. The train backed up out of sight, and all was ready.

The train streamed around the bend, blowing off steam as it did so. Perfect! I love how the thick black smoke and white steam billowing out over the sheer cliff complement each other in Steaming Bend. A scrap of snow lets us know it’s winter, and this scene perfectly illustrates the power of a steam engine in the rugged mountains.

Steaming Bend

Alas, it was time to board the time one final time for the trip back into town. Elated, the remainder of the journey flew by. I departed, now at a proper station, with beautiful photographs and memories. 

Even though I was just on it, it is time to plan another trip aboard the winter train!

Bring 476 Home

You can purchase 476’s Mountains here. What better way to celebrate the glory of a steam engine?