Will We See Some Bison Today?

By Robert Catherman · 2 years ago

“When will we see any glaciers in Glacier National Park?”

“Why are bark beetles destroying so much of our forests?’

“Will we see some bison today?”

Those were some of the questions I was expected to answer during my 2017 summer as a volunteer tour guide for the National Park Service (NPS) on the Amtrak train on its way from Seattle to Chicago.

As a 74-year-old active UW auditing student (and a ‘71 UW alum with a degree in atmospheric science), I am always on the lookout for interesting topics to study and for activities that relate to my interests of geography, cartography, history, and photography. So, in January 2017, when I read an email announcement from the Trails & Rails program of the National Park Service looking for volunteers for Amtrak tour guide duty, I decided to investigate the opportunity.

The introductory meeting in Seattle’s Pioneer Square was attended by about 40 others who were also investigating this opportunity. The highlights of the introduction that interested me were: two days of classroom training, six training rides on the train supervised by different veteran coaches, multi-night trips on the Amtrak train from Seattle to Havre, Mont. and back. Of course, then there’s the chance to meet new people including train passengers, Amtrak crew and other tour guides.

Oh, yes, I forgot to mention the promise of an official green NPS shirt—with official emblems.

The role of Trails & Rails guides is to provide information on natural and cultural history as seen from the train. During the two-day training, I received an inch-thick notebook of well-researched facts and descriptions of points of interest—at first glance the huge amount of information made me think of trying to get a drink out of a firehose. The challenge for me was to get comfortable enough with the information to present short talks to passengers in a natural voice, using my own speaking style. That took some work but I soon relaxed and found myself enjoying making the presentation to groups of passengers to both educate and entertain.

Robert receiving his official green shirt after finishing his sixth training ride.

One of the ways to describe my experience as a tour guide is to start by visualizing a map of the train’s route.

Promptly at 4:40 in the afternoon, the Amtrak Empire Builder gave a couple of short blasts from its horn and pulled out of the King Street Station in downtown Seattle. We crossed the iconic, old railroad bridge over the Ship Canal and got a unique view of the Ballard Locks that you never see from the shore. Rolling along mile after mile at the water’s edge of Puget Sound emphasized the vastness of this inland sea. After a few hours, we entered the darkness of the New Cascade Tunnel under Stevens Pass—the longest railroad tunnel in the United States.

And on and on we roll…

Then dinner was served in the dining car, my bunk called my name for some well-earned sleep and I woke up just west of Whitefish, Mont.

The next day we traveled around the south end of Glacier National Park, over the Rocky Mountains, and into Montana farm country until we reached the town of Havre. There, I hopped off the train and caught the westbound Amtrak train coming from Chicago and headed home to the Pacific Northwest.

So what do I talk about as a tour guide?

The printed Route Guide I received at training contains information on over 200 points of interest between Seattle and Havre. Of course I couldn’t talk about all 200 so I selected some favorites that relate to my personal interests but, most importantly, are interesting for passengers.

I’ll tell you about two of my favorites.

As the train crawled along through a narrow canyon on the south end of Glacier National Park in Montana’s Rocky Mountains, it passed through eight snow sheds. The arrows in the photo below point to some of those snow sheds. Notice the vertical green scars that run down the mountain and terminate at the snow sheds—those are avalanche chutes. Every winter multiple avalanches are likely to thunder down the chutes carrying snow, rocks, and vegetation. The snow sheds that bridge over the railroad carry the avalanche debris over the tracks and into the valley below. The need for the snow sheds over the tracks reveals what is hidden from the view of the passengers on the train.

Avalanche chutes and snow sheds near Glacier National Park. (Photo from Google Earth)

A second favorite presentation is announced when the train is stopped at the station at East Glacier, Mont. to drop off and pick up passengers. The Glacier Park Lodge in the cover photo was built in 1912 and is still in operation today. Its setting with the backdrop of the snow-covered mountains and blue sky is a breath-taking sight.

Remember the question I posed earlier, “Will we see some bison today? The answer on some days was, “Yes”. On three trips we did see some of the 200 head of bison in the herd maintained by the Blackfeet Nation tribe in central Montana. Seeing those shaggy beasts grazing near the tracks was one more highlight of a great summer experience.

Some of my best memories from the summer are the people I met while traveling on the train. I found an easy way to engage people in conversation was to ask about their reason to choose to travel by train.

A fellow guide, Ranger John Bishop, explains the train’s route a young passenger.

Many said, “I remember traveling by train as a kid and I wanted to try it again.” Often I learned that the train was only part of an extended vacation that included cruise line tours to Alaska as well as train travels on other routes in the US and Canada. My most memorable experience was enlisting the help of a young boy (with his mom’s permission) to help me put stickers on a map by asking passengers which national parks people had visited recently. We had a great time hearing of passenger’s memories of favorite trips they had taken. A week later, I received an email from the boy’s mom about the highlight of his trip “working with Ranger Bob on the train”.

At this juncture, you might be thinking that being a volunteer National Park Service tour guide on the Amtrak train sounds like something you might be interested in checking out. Or, maybe you are thinking, “That is something my dad (or mom) might like to do in retirement.”

In any case, you can get more information by emailing your name, address, and phone number to  . The National Park Service will hold an informational meeting on Sunday, February 11, 2018 at 1PM at the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, 319 Second Ave South, Seattle.


Edited by Jack Russillo