I seem to make about three trips to Helper a year. Usually there's one mid-spring, one in mid-summer, and then one in late fall/early winter, and in early July I realized I was about due for another one. After all, I hadn't been out since February and I knew things would be changing significantly. After all, the SD40T-2s can't last forever, and 5390 had been having trouble for some time. Then, from out of the blue, came the news that the Utah, one of my favorite regionals, was being sold to Genesee & Wyoming Inc. I'd actually started planning to get out to Helper again since early August, but various things kept getting in the way. Finally, with Labor Day weekend approaching and a hectic few weeks fast approaching at work, I decided that there's no time like the present and headed out on Thursday night after work. As usual, I spent the night in Grand Junction to await the departure of the Montrose Local the next morning.
I decided to go as cheaply as I could on this trip, so Motel 6 it was. As luck would have it, I didn't actually get to bed until around midnight since I made the stupid mistake of booting my laptop and doing a bit of work. The downside to Motel 6 in GJC is that it's very near the flight path into the airport. Somewhere around 0545h, my alarm went off, followed only thirty seconds later by the roar of a landing jet aircraft. Rattled immediately awake, I stumbled over to the window to peek outside and fumble until I actually got the lights on. Sure enough, even in the morning twilight I would make out the white body and purple tail. Pulling up to the ramp was one of ours - a FedEx 727. Amazing... my first day off in quite a while and what wakes me up anyway... The funny thing is that he'd probably just come in from a stopover in Colorado Springs, if the routes still work like they used to.
After I'd actually propped my eyes open to the point I realized it was nearing 0600h, I shot through the shower, packed up the gear, and headed out. It's truly amazing just how much gear I carry around for railfanning compared with what I used to have (only a small point and shoot 35mm camera), and how much of that needs a good nightly charging. It's also amazing how much better it charges when you plug it in - a fact I became woefully aware of when I went to put the batteries in the scanner. There goes $12 down the drain at the local convenience store. Still, the North Fork is entirely dark territory, and your scanner quickly becomes your best friend. No time to bicker over a few dollars for fresh batteries.
By the time I had batteries and a full tank of gas, it was nearing 0630h and I had some concerns that the local had already departed. My fears were alleviated, though, when I met up with DRGW 3097 and train blocking the road in downtown Grand Junction. To my surprise, the last few cars on the train were woodchip hoppers - meaning I'd finally managed to catch one of the elusive Montrose Locals that actually was going to Montrose! For those unfamiliar with this run, the Montrose Local typically stops in Delta, a good solid 20 miles short of the end of the line. The woodchip cars head down to the end of the line empty and are loaded with chips from a local operation. Honestly it's probably the only thing that keeps the Delta-Montrose segment intact.
I did manage to catch the train just south of Grand Junction, but the sun hadn't quite broken over the mesas yet. Consequently, it's barely worth mentioning, aside from the fact I figured out how to get down to that piece of the line. With sunrise coming quickly, I guessed that by the time 3097 made Whitewater the morning light would be darn near perfect for Rio Grande Aspen Gold. There's a great curve as the line goes through Whitewater, and the warm morning sun makes for a very nice shot. After a short wait, the sun and train both showed up - right on cue. (Photo #1) However, this rapid southbound progress would soon be hindered.
As I'd sat in Whitewater awaiting his arrival, I'd heard quite a bit of chatter on the radio between the DS and two north/westbound coal loads coming off the North Fork. The dispatcher was bringing them up as far as Bridgeport, where the local would go in the hole and wait for both. Even with the stop at Whitewater, I still had plenty of time to get down to Bridgeport and set up. Unlike last year, when I hiked up along the cliffs to the north of the switch and screwed up my knee, I decided to play it safe and just shoot from near the parking area. I also decided I'd be making an experimental effort to add video to my trip reports. I'd pondered it the day before, and purchased a new battery for the camcorder before leaving Colorado Springs. Bridgeport seemed a good first opportunity to try it all out.
I pulled into Bridgeport a few minutes ahead of the local and dug out the tripod, a spare tape, and the camera. The first northbound coal load had just pulled through the east/south switch, and was clearing up his track warrants. Fortunately he stopped quite a way back down the line, not getting into the shot (or onto the audio track) at all. The light was darn near perfect, a fact I just couldn't believe. I'd never seen such clear skies and perfect light at Bridgeport. (Photo #2) As soon as the local was clear of the switch, the coal load (led by SP 139 - Photo #3) pulled up to the end of the siding, aligned the points for the main, and was quickly off. The engineer was kind enough to lean out the window as he went by to tell me there was another load following close behind. Just a sign this was going to be a good trip - always nice when the crews are friendly.
New Trip Report Feature - Video! Unfortunately, as I turned the video camera on the wind picked up a bit, so there's a little wind noise on the audio track. Still, my first attempt at posting good video in a trip report comes in at "Photo #3" The high quality video is compressed using what's known as the DivX codec for video and standard MPEG Layer 3 audio (MP3) - it provides very good quality video and audio compression, and best of all the basic version is free. Currently it's available for Win32, MacOS 8.6 and later, and Linux. It does require a fairly hefty machine to work well, though, so just be warned. It's available here. For those of you preferring a smaller download or not having the computing power to use DivX decompression, the lower quality video is formatted for Real Networks' RealPlayer. Their player software is available for most popular platforms and is available here. If you have problems, let me know - I'm trying to find formats that are as cross-platform as possible and yet have good compression - both in terms of quality and size. Now, on with what you came here to read about - the Rio Grande!
Ever since my February trip when I first explored the area on the south end of Dominguez canyon, I'd wanted to go back on a morning when I could get some decent lighting. As it turned out, I couldn't have asked for a better morning. Taking K50 west from US 50, I drove down to the river and turned north on 275 Road towards what my map marks as Beaver Gulch, near Peeples. This is near where the road is gated and marked as private property. I parked the truck slightly off the road, being careful not to back into the river - the last thing I wanted to do was fish my truck out of the muddy Gunnison. The western edge of the road falls right off into the river in spots, and is a bit obscured by brush. After that, looking for the perfect shot I climbed up along an old, rutted path to a spot overlooking the trestle and canyon. While waiting on the train, I found myself surrounded by small birds that would land on nearby rocks. It was almost a game - seeing if I could get a focus lock on them before they once again took flight. Within a few minutes the local curled around the corner and I managed a few decent shots of the train against the cliffs (Photo #5). If only I'd come a few months earlier, I could have had this shot with a matched pair of Grandes.
Much to my surprise, there wasn't to be a meet at Roubideau. Every previous trip had included a stop at Roubideau to meet some sort of train. A little odd, but hey, nobody guaranteed me a train. On the last trip (in February), I'd found a nice bridge just geographically west of Roubideau, but I didn't really get a chance to use it. So, remembering that, I found myself a secluded spot near the through-truss bridge just at the timetable east (geographical west) end of the siding, and set up to photograph the oncoming train. (Photo #6) I also found it to be a very quiet spot, so I ran back up to the truck and grabbed the video camera. (Photo #7) As it turned out, I barely got everything set up in time as the train was coming on with greater speed than I anticipated, but it came out to be a decent setup anyway. After that, it was on to West Roubideau (geographic east) to catch one more shot and then head on in to Delta to watch a little switching and get some breakfast/lunch.
The train pulled up to the grade crossing on G Road (West Fifth Street in Delta), dropped the woodchip cars, a loaded log car, and one boxcar, and then headed around the wye to the grain elevator. This seems to be the big customer in Delta, as they get ten or so cars every week. The other regular customer seems to be the lumberyard at the south end of the Delta yard, which receives a centerbeam or two every week. Regardless, I drove up to the parking lot by the switch to the elevator, watched the crew switch for a while, and then went into the local convenience store to get something to drink and one of my favorite foods - cashews. Went back to my truck the parking lot and watched more switching, checked my email (dropping a note to the D&RGW list that the Montrose Local was actually going to Montrose), more switching, read the latest CTC Board magazine, more switching... you get the idea. One of the guys was on the ground at the perpetually-blocked grade crossing, guarding it and chatting with a couple of those inconvenienced by the train. It seemed to keep them in good spirits, despite the fact they sat there for 5-10 minutes at a stretch.
After a while, I moved down to the south end of the yard, where they were switching out the lumberyard. There's not much to say, really - the waiting around Delta gets quite boring. Several times I contemplated skipping the Delta-Montrose segment and going after the returning Potash Local in Utah. Every time this rather heretical thought popped into my head, though, I quickly reminded myself that a Rio Grande going to Montrose wasn't a sight that would certainly last much longer. After all, why should I go sprinting out to Utah to catch a couple UP SD40-2s when I have a Grande sitting in front of me?
Eventually it looked as if he was ready to depart, and there was talk of track warrants and hyrail trucks on the radio, so I staked out a spot just south of Delta along US Hwy 50. I eventually even caught a quick nap, for what I thought would be a very short wait turned into nearly 40 minutes of sitting and staring down the line. Eventually 3097 and a block of log and woodchip cars came trundling south over the light jointed rail. (Photo #9) This was the first time I'd seen a train south of Delta since 1997, and with an unpatched Grande, at that. Beyond that, it was a simple task to stay ahead of the run and pick out locations - speed limits over the old trackage are very low compared with the 65 MPH highway. One of the best shots was coming up the line near Olathe (where US 50 and North River Road split), with the mountain cliffs in the background. (Photo #10)
It took a while, but it gave me plenty of opportunities to photograph it along the way and we both did eventually make Montrose (Photo #11). Montrose has changed a great deal since the last time I was there - new commercialism springing up everywhere. Certainly not the town I remembered visiting several times in my youth, but things change. If it means a better economy for that part of Colorado, so be it. Because of the run down to Montrose that day, the dispatcher was already called for a dog catch crew by the time they arrived. After being on duty at 0500h, there was some doubt if they'd make it back before dying on the law, and apparently the DS wanted to play it safe. They pulled up to the derail guarding the yard, lined it (Photo #12), and proceeded to switch out cars. Within half an hour or so, the train was reassembled and ready to head back (Photo #13). With that, the crew was headed off for lunch.(
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|All the images here are Copyright 2002 Nathan D. Holmes
Note this doesn't mean you can't use them - In fact, I encourage people to use and enjoy them.
I'm placing them under the same license as RailARC images. Please feel free to copy, use, and distribute anything you find here, as long as I'm given credit for its creation.
All shots in this trip report were taken with a Canon EOS D30 with a Sigma 28-80mm f3.5-5.6 lens or a Canon 75-300mm f4-5.3 IS/USM.