“All aboard for Rodgers, Summit, Crowley, Clare Mill, Burbeck, Shake City, Irmulco and Northspur.”
On a cold and rainy January morning, in Willits California, I boarded the Northspur Flyer, otherwise known as Skunk Train. Diesel locomotive #64 pulled out of the depot with 11 passengers, one engineer, one conductor and one hostess on board. The engine, a passenger car, an open-air observation car and the bar car set off gently rocking with several blasts of the train whistle.
In the days before roads and trucks could do the job, the 131-year old Skunk Train made it possible to move massive redwoods from the remote mountainous forest to lumber mills on the coast and inland. Today the train is classified as historic. Excursions vary from the 1-hour Pudding Creek Express, roundtrip from coastal Fort Bragg, to the magnificent 4.5-hour Northspur Flyer, roundtrip from inland Willits. The trains nickname, Skunk, came from the smelly fuel once used. While it didn’t actually smell like a skunk, it was said that like a skunk, you could smell it before you could see or hear it.
The 40-mile round trip Northspur Flyer climbs the eastern slope of the California Coastal Range. Meandering through redwood forest you cross Noyo River several times and pass through the Coastals using Tunnel 2 near Summit. Switchbacks leading down into Noyo River Canyon crisscross 8.5-miles to cover a straight-line distance of less than one mile.
At Northspur, passengers leave the train to explore and commune with redwoods. A camp kitchen serves up tasty fare made from guarded family recipes. Sandwiches, chili and soups are complimented with salads, hot beverages and loads of condiments. I was infatuated with the pulled pork sandwich topped with as many homemade pickles as my bun would hold.
Had it not been rainy and cold that day, I’m sure we would have been reluctant to re-board and return the way we came on Redwood Route.
Along the rails to Northspur, whistle stops with names like Rodgers, Summit, Crowley, Clare Mill, Burbeck, Shake City and Irmulco are marked with small white and black signs. Once busy communities and an integral part of the logging and lumber industry, most have been reclaimed by the forest and disappeared.
There are a few hardy individuals and families still living in these remote woods along the tracks. The train is a lifeline to them when roads to their remote property become impassable during harsh weather, landslides and floods – frequent occurrences in winter. Passengers may still flag down a train at a whistle stop or be dropped near their home. Mail, packages and groceries are delivered when roads are inaccessible. Some homesteads have been passed down for generations. Others have new families working and living off the land.
Scenery along Redwood Route has rightly been described as magnificent, pristine, stunning, grand and glorious. Conifer forest, rivers, creeks, trestles, wildlife and history’s artifacts line the tracks. Photo ops are endless. The train itself is a beautifully maintained museum, staffed by knowledgeable and welcoming folks, eager to tell the Skunk Train story.
I love train travel, something we have far too little of in the US. The Skunk Train is a ride to glory. You’ll occupy history and nature while taking in the view.
Thanks for stopping by, MaryGo