Sunday, June 26, 2011

Verndale Rail 2011 Recap

June 25, 2011, dawned bright and early. The long wait for the third annual Verndale Rail outing had finally arrived, and an epic day of railfanning stretched out ahead of us. This year's plans included a quick morning visit to the west of Wadena to take in CP action and whatever eastbounds the BNSF was willing to throw our way while the light was still favorable. Given the flooding in Minot and resulting closure of the BNSF tracks through that area, traffic was being routed directionally and westbounds on the Staples Sub had dried up almost completely.

MN Chris arrived at my place early that Saturday morning and stowed his truck, loaded with gas grill, coolers, and other sundry items for the afternoon's get together, at my place. He, Steve, and I set out to the west in the trusty Escape. After passing through Perham, we spotted a train carrying MOW equipment. It turned out to be a westbound and I stepped on it a bit to get a look at the head end. We knew things were brewing up in Vergas as well, which called for a quick decision on which way to head. The sight of a C4 leading the MOW equipment train sealed the decision, and we set up to shoot the backlit train under overcast skies between Frazee and DL.

Knowing that things were developing fast in Vergas, I took a "shortcut" which worked so well we arrived in time to see the gates drop as a westbound passed through town. Then, an eastbound behind 5 units started to creep across the highway, and great depair was felt throughout the vehicle. With a long history of reacting to mighty mullerings, however, we gathered ourselves and concocted a hare-brained scheme to do an end run around the westbound and get in position for a shot. There's no way I can tell it better than Chris, so here's his description of the detour:

"Jim consulted with his TomTom and I consulted the Minnesota Gazetteer and we had a plan. We pulled off the road that was a black line and went down a road that was a red line. We followed the red line until is split to two red lines. One red line turned into a smaller red line and was a more direct route, but unfortunately it turned into a smaller dashed red line. We followed the bigger small red line. Curving through the backwoods north and east of Verges the road became more and more interesting. Eventually the red line road started getting so narrow and curvy the trees were barely wide enough for the Escape to fit throgh. I started getting concerned when there were more snowmobile trail signs than road signs and the trees were not only becoming a width issue, but a height issue as the foam antenna on the roof was whipping off branches. Pushing onward and upward, the terrain started to look more like a jungle. Jim commented that it was like driving in Afghanistan, but green. Eventually the small red line got big again on the map and we found the tracks."
That's pretty much how I remember it.

We reached the tracks, and were able to get across ahead of the train. Only problem was, this put us on the wrong side for photography. I was loath to cross back and wait for the train to pass before resuming the chase, so all the shots are from the dark side. I won't even post one.

However. All hope was FAR from lost, as DS and Jer were both hot on the trail of this train and in constant communication with Chris, who is the flip phone texting equivalent of NASCAR's Jimmy Johnson. In other words he's fast. Brief confusion about "Milky Way Drive" was resolved when we literally almost bumped into Drew and convinced him to come about and follow us to a secret spot selected by Jer. The entire fleet arrived with a few minutes to spare, which allowed us the privilege of shooting a CP GE under overcast skies. Do you feel lucky?

Well if you don't already feel lucky, you soon will. The 2011 version of the Berkshire Hathaway-owned BNSF is not known for running solid 3 unit sets of cascade green EMD's. However, that doesn't mean it's impossible, as we all learned after a short wait at the Detroit Lakes depot. Take a gander at the consist of this manifest train:

I, for one, know a good thing when I see it, and am prone to milking it dry. Saddle up, boys, this one is worth a chase. Following a brief trip east on Highway 10, we arrived at the Frazee S-curve where many more shots of this train were made. Here's mine:

You know, that was so much fun we should do it again. And I know just the place. West of Perham is another curve that will bring him around so the nose light is a bit better. Heck, that foreground could almost pass for static grass from the grassinator!

RED ALERT! Another eastbound has been spotted on ATCS.

By now it's getting close to Verndale time. The little group of foamers that had been over west decided to head east. This gave the opportunity to shoot the 5033 once more, near the Bluffton curve but from an angle that is rarely shot.

Then it was off to Verndale! The parade of eastbounds with nary a westbound to be found challenged the record group of photogs who turned out for this year's event. I tried a few different things. First, going "artsy":

And then, for some reason it popped into my head that the Verndale sign offered shade, and could be used to compose a backlit B&W while keeping cool. Here's the result of that effort:

Of course, even with no nicely lit trains, there were still people to shoot. Every train, whether backlit or not, drew a crowd.

At some point in the late afternoon, this wise bunch of fans somehow divined a westbound on the way. ATCS, the radio, and our intuition all told us that we were about to be in luck. A couple of truckloads of foam headed up to the sag to shoot the train, while I waited in Verndale. My heart dropped when it turned out the train would be doing some work in Staples, and there wouldn't be a westbound after all. I called the crew at the sag to let them in on the news.

One final eastbound gave the chance to catch the gang as they watched the warbonnet flash through town. The gathering dusk was a hit on the quality of the shot, but looking at it brings back some good memories. I'm already looking forward to next year.

Thanks again to Chris for his organizational effort and cooking. Thanks to everyone who contributed door prizes. Mostly, thanks to all the fans who showed up and made this another day that will live on in railfan infamy. Special days like this are what makes railfanning really worthwhile.

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