Gene Fosheim is a volunteer guide with Trails & Rails, a partnership between the National Park Service and Amtrak. In our region, the nationwide program operates out of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Seattle, where Fosheim was trained.
Six times over the coming summer he'll hop aboard the Empire Builder train in Everett or Edmonds. He'll ride the rails through Stevens Pass to Wenatchee, and on through the night to Spokane, Whitefish, Mont., and past Glacier National Park to Havre, Mont.
Along the way and back again, he and another guide -- volunteers work in pairs -- point out natural features and historic sites.
Dressed in green Trails & Rails shirts, they make announcements and walk the train, answering questions and chatting with interested passengers. Guides also stamp travelers' national park "passport" books with a special Empire Builder cancellation.
"The train is considered a moving national park anytime a guide is aboard," said Fosheim, 62, who volunteered with Trails & Rails the past two summers. "It's really fun. There are people from all over the world. It's like being a teacher again."
Fosheim is retired after 25 years of teaching architecture and engineering at Lake Washington Technical College in Kirkland, now Lake Washington Institute of Technology.
"I don't get money out of the deal," Fosheim said, but his train fare and meals are free. He gets a basic sleeper compartment in the crew area. "It's a nice trip. It's amazing how much more you can see from the train," he said.
Fosheim learned about Trails & Rails when he attended a meeting of train enthusiasts in Everett's Silver Lake area. "I go and listen to old-timers talk about trains," said Fosheim, who has a keen interest in local history. "One guy asked if I'd be interested. I had never heard of it, but I sent my name in."
Volunteers for the May-through-September program take classroom training at Klondike Gold Rush park. A resource guidebook covers history and culture, geology and geography, plants and animals, and provides quirky stories for guides to share.
Tim Karle, a national park ranger and education coordinator at the Klondike park, said there are about 65 volunteer guides in this region. Most are retired, and one is 86 years old. Along with the Empire Builder trip, the only overnight run in the program, volunteers from here work as guides on Amtrak's Coast Starlight route between Seattle and Portland, Ore.
"It's pretty extensive training. The notebook is huge," Karle said. Volunteers have already been trained for this summer, so the next opportunity to apply is early next year.
Fosheim said he doesn't sleep well on the train, but that's a small drawback compared with scenic wonders and chance encounters that make every trip special.
In Montana, the Empire Builder's route follows the southern border of Glacier Park. "It's a beautiful canyon, really wonderful. By the time you're on the east side, you're on the Great Plains," he said.
Fosheim has spotted wolves near Cut Bank, Mont., and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. There's a pond near Marias Pass, nearly a mile high at the Continental Divide, where travelers are often awed by the sight of moose and deer. "People on the train coming from the Midwest, some have never seen mountains or the types of trees we see," he said.
It's fun for Fosheim that his eastbound audience is different from the people he meets on his way home. The Empire Builder is a Seattle to Chicago run. When Fosheim gets off in Havre, he waits an hour and a half before catching the westbound train coming from Chicago. The eastbound train goes on without him.
If the westbound train isn't on time, the wait can be considerably longer. He was once stuck in Havre for more than 10 hours because of flooding in the East.
The most discouraging thing he sees are young travelers staring at cellphone or iPad screens instead of spectacular views out the window. "That's really sad," Fosheim said.
His favorite scenery is a stunning sunset on the home-bound trip through Glacier Park.
The best sight of all? For Fosheim, it's coming into Everett after the long train ride is through.
"I've been in every state, but I've lived in Everett all my life," Fosheim said. "I wouldn't live anywhere else."
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Trails & Rails is a partnership between the National Park Service and Amtrak. The program trains volunteer National Park guides to share natural and cultural information with Amtrak travelers. Information: www.nps.gov/klse/supportyourpark/trails-and-rails.htm
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