The 11 members of Girl Scout Troop 54135 out of Mahtomedi were getting ready for their first train ride — to Chicago — when a white-haired man wearing a National Park Service polo shirt captured their attention.
“Who wants to become a Junior Ranger?” Gary Freseman asked, handing out activity books to the girls as they waited at St. Paul’s Union Depot. “Finish it, and you’ll win Junior Ranger badges.”
As the long silver train rolled to a stop on the platform — only 25 minutes late — the girls and their troop leaders excitedly hurried aboard. For the next several hours, Freseman moved through the train as his partner Arlan Tietel set up shop in the lounge car, rattling off “Did you knows?” and “Take a looks” about the wonders and curiosities along the Mississippi River National River and Recreation Area — all viewed through the Empire Builder’s windows.
And, yes, they handed out several Junior Ranger badges.
The volunteers, Twin Cities area retirees and train enthusiasts, are part of Trails and Rails — a national partnership between Amtrak and the National Park Service to make train travel more interesting and to increase awareness of the parks.
While Amtrak’s Empire Builder between St. Paul and Chicago may not often be on time, thanks to North Dakota oil trains and other disruptions out west, a ride with the Trails and Rails folks is seldom dull.
Armed with activity books, temporary tattoos, mussel shells, rubber animal footprints and even a catfish puppet, the volunteers engage young and old passengers for hours. For the more staid folks, they have maps.
Trails and Rails operates in select national parks that have Amtrak routes running through them.
Want to sing along with Arlo Guthrie? Volunteers work the City of New Orleans train from Louisiana to Mississippi. Interested in the civil rights movement? Climb aboard the Crescent between Atlanta and New Orleans. Gold Rush? The Coast Starlight is the train for that.
Nationally, the program got its start in 2000, with St. Paul’s segment coming on line in 2008, thanks to a handful of National Park Service volunteers who were also train enthusiasts, said Brian Valentine, a park ranger who coordinates the local program.
Trails and Rails locally has 22 volunteer guides in 2015. Teams of two generally work from about 8 a.m. to about 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday, from Memorial Day to Labor Day. On a recent Monday, Freseman and Tietel were set to get off the eastbound train at Columbus, Wis., where they would wait a few hours before catching the westbound train for the five-hour-plus ride back to St. Paul.
Freseman, a model train enthusiast, doesn’t mind. There’s a good root beer stand in town, he said.
If the eastbound train is more than six hours late, the volunteers don’t ride. Disruptions because of oil trains in North Dakota and track repairs last year canceled more than half the Trails and Rails rides, Valentine said. But when they’re aboard, all the volunteer crews are committed to spreading fun and knowledge along the rails.
From casinos to eagles
“We are very fortunate to have such a knowledgeable, dedicated and focused group of volunteers,” Valentine said of a group that includes retired scientists, former city managers and even a sewer system designer.
Tietel, a longtime park volunteer and one of the founding members of the local crew, is considered the “crew boss.” He certainly knows his stuff.
As the train left the depot and passed St. Paul’s Indian Mounds Park, Tietel told passengers in the lounge car about how the area’s indigenous people buried their dead. As the train rumbled past Cottage Grove, he pointed out where hundreds of automobiles are unloaded for transport throughout the area. At Prairie Island he talked about the casino and nuclear power plant. At Hastings: the oldest government building in the state. Red Wing: the St. James Hotel and a grain elevator that holds 3 million bushels. At Frontenac: skiing. Lake Pepin: birthplace of water skiing.
These facts and points of interest roll off Tietel’s tongue without his peeking at a single note.
“I’ve been doing it a while,” said the former 3M employee, whose father also loved trains. “I try to learn something new to give to people all along the way.”
Erma Nielsen was traveling with her children — Kelsey, 12, and Thomas, 10 — from Portland, Ore., to meet her husband in Chicago. They had never before been through this area. “This is a fantastic program,” she said, watching her children gaze out the window and circle pictures of eagles, herons, bridges, paddlewheels and cows for a scavenger hunt in the Junior Ranger activity book. A wordfinder puzzle featured the names of towns along the route.
As the Empire Builder gently rocked on its tracks as it rolled along, a woman walking to a seat in the lounge car stopped to take Tietel’s picture.
“My uncle was with the National Park Service,” said Naomi Yaeger of Duluth, who was riding the train as a vacation with her husband. “A lot of these things I had heard before, but it’s fun to have them narrating as we go through.”
As Tietel narrated facts about the river, Freseman went through the car with Freddy, a green cloth catfish puppet. The fish didn’t say much — but it gave Freseman material for a joke. “Speaking of cats,” he said, grinning, “What side of a dog has the most hair?”
Nobody said a word.
“The outside,” Freseman deadpanned.
As he swayed through the lounge car — a lurch in the train made him grab a seat back for support — Freseman stopped at a table filled with folks from Nebraska and Wisconsin. Within minutes, the group’s guffaws drowned out Tietel’s softer, National Public Radio-style narration on the microphone.
“I could be friends with those folks,” a grinning Freseman said, coming back to Tietel’s table.
By then, there were more ranger badges to award. Katie Nordling and Karen Miller, two of those Mahtomedi Girl Scouts, had spent most of the trip in their seats downstairs. But they emerged to the upper floor of the car to turn in the necessary paperwork.
It was hard to tell who was having the most fun, the kids or the volunteers.
“Really, I love the interaction. It takes about three minutes to get to know them,” Freseman said of the people he meets. “And, pretty soon, you’re talking back and forth.”