MYNORTHWEST HISTORY

‘National park on wheels’ seeks volunteers for Trails & Rails

Jan 17, 2024, 1:22 PM | Updated: 1:25 pm

national park trails rails...

Jim Eagan, far right, has been a volunteer "Trails & Rails" guide aboard Amtrak trains based in Seattle since 2011; interested volunteers are invited to an information session on Saturday, February 10 at Klondike Gold Rush National Park in Pioneer Square. (Courtesy Jim Eagan)

(Courtesy Jim Eagan)

A partnership between the National Park Service and Amtrak has placed volunteer interpretive guides on some routes for many years. Now, the Seattle-based team for the Coast Starlight and Empire Builder is ramping up post-pandemic and looking to recruit more local residents to don the green shirt, badge and khaki pants of the Trails & Rails program.

Trails & Rails is about creating a “National Park on Wheels,” with a two-person team of knowledgeable guides based in the lounge car, narrating a historical tour as the train makes its way down the tracks.

KIRO Newsradio recently sat down with two Trails & Rails volunteers at the Klondike Gold Rush National Park in Seattle’s Pioneer Square. The local program is getting ready to host an informational event there for new volunteers on the afternoon of Saturday, Feb. 10.

Rob Carr loves Northwest history, and he’s an articulate and affable guy who did outside sales for decades before he retired. When Carr gives a tour aboard the Coast Starlight, he isn’t mumbling dull paragraphs into a bad PA system. He’s usually up and on his feet and doing what he calls “working the train.”

“The first thing I do when I’m on the train is set the speakers up, and I go introduce myself to the people on the train, ‘Where are you heading today?’ It begins the conversation,” Carr explained.

“So when we talk about … Mount Rainier,” Carr continued, “it usually starts with (me saying) ‘Some folks down there from Iowa, you’ve probably never seen a volcano, have you?’ ‘We haven’t?'”

“The beauty of what we’re doing with a lot of the stuff is interacting with customers on the train,” Carr said. “And people ask (me) what do you like about it the most. (I say) I’ve met people from all over the world.”

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Guides consider the entire audience

For some, trains are merely transportation, of course, and sometimes a passenger might not be interested right at the moment in learning about the founding of Fort Vancouver, about the mystery of the Mima Mounds or about the origins of the giant Winlock Egg.

With thoughtful customer service in mind, Carr says he and the other guides are sensitive to the entire audience. They don’t force anyone to participate, and they focus not on lecturing but instead on engaging the willing passengers.

“Sometimes you look at the people, and they’re on their laptops, and they’re not really paying attention, so we leave them alone,” Carr said. “What’s up to us is to engage them, go and say, ‘You might be interested in learning about the Columbia River. Are you a fisherman?'”

“The style has to be very conversational,” Carr explained. “Therefore, volunteers coming in can find it a much easier thing than having to learn this thing (by) rote.”

Jim Eagan began volunteering for Trails & Rails in 2011, and he’s now one of three coordinators who manage the program in Seattle, which sends volunteers to Portland and back on the Coast Starlight and to Glacier National Park and back on the Empire Builder.

Eagan says new volunteers get two days of classroom training and go on six training trips with other seasoned guides who serve as trainers and coaches. Once fully trained, expectations are that volunteers will do 8-10 trips a year between April and October. Volunteers do get issued a green shirt and badge but have to provide their own khaki pants.

The Seattle team has assembled a well-written and organized “Route Guide” as a baseline for the tour, but Eagan says narrating a successful tour is not about memorizing lines or mastering the information about the entire trip, especially for new volunteers.

“We don’t expect you to know that whole route guide; we expect you to know some basic ‘points of interest’ – ‘POI’ – that you need to be versed in,” Eagan explained. “And we also like people to do their own research, and a lot of people come with some personal stories, which are great.”

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“That even makes it come more alive (if) your ancestor farmed out here” or took part in some other activity, Eagan said.

The “lots and lots of stories” about the route and about the people living and working along the way – going back thousands of years – are what make for an especially good tour on the Coast Starlight, Eagan said.

Additional research encouraged

As Eagan mentioned, guides are encouraged to do their own supplemental research. Rob Carr does that by reading history books, researching online and always looking for new material. He also actively solicits questions from passengers, which often leads to new information being added to his tour and deep connections with the passengers.

Carr recalled an anecdote about a passenger named George who asked where the name for the healthcare organization “Kaiser Permanente” came from – since Rob was talking about Vanport, Oregon, and the old Kaiser Shipyards near Vancouver, Washington, where hundreds of Liberty Ships were built during World War II. Rob didn’t know the answer, but he told George he’d find out. So, while his Trails & Rails tour partner took over narration duties, Rob did some Googling.

The wife of industrialist Henry J. Kaiser “lived near Permanente Creek down in California, and said, ‘That’s a beautiful name,'” Carr explained. And so, Carr continued, she suggested to her husband, “‘Why don’t we add that so people are not confusing the medical service with the steel company and the aluminum thing.'”

“So that’s where the name came from,” Carr said.

“The point of the story is, I went back and I said to George, ‘And so now we know the rest of the story, and we wouldn’t have known that if George hadn’t asked me the question. So thank you, George, for asking that question,'” Carr said. “And then George lit up like a Christmas tree.”

Many guides bring their own props along, including historical photos and large fold-out maps. Rob Carr’s personal tour kit also includes a can of Nalley’s Chili, in a nod to the area of Tacoma beneath Highway 16, which many people still call “Nalley Valley” for the locally-founded company once located there and which is now owned by Conagra Brands.

Carr also hands out Almond Roca samples (since the Tacoma factory is visible from the train), and all guides are usually ready with variations on trivia games about national parks or other topics should they be sidetracked to allow a freight train to pass or face other delays along the route.

Amtrak loves Trails & Rails

Sierra Prochna is a marketing executive with Amtrak based in Washington, D.C. She says Amtrak loves this program, loves the volunteers, and wants to see Trails & Rails expanded throughout the system.

“We are great fans of our Trails & Rails program and our partnership,” Prochna told KIRO Newsradio Tuesday. “And it’s a beautiful marriage of railroads and national parks, which actually goes back a very long time back to the 1800s, and we’re just continuing on that tradition” of the years when American railroads built lodges at places like Glacier National Park and Yellowstone National Park and provided transportation there.

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“The engagement with our volunteers is fantastic,” Prochna continued. “They love what they do; they love the areas that they’re in, teaching customers about the history of those areas and rail there.”

Prochna says the concept of Trails & Rails began in 2000 with Amtrak’s Sunset Limited, which runs between New Orleans and Los Angeles. From the start, and as the program expanded to some 20 routes in different parts of the United States, volunteers have been the driving force.

“If we look at aggregate numbers since 2000, we know that we’ve had over 10,000 volunteers from the National Park Service, and they’ve given us more than 650,000 volunteer service hours,” Prochna said.

Eagan says prospective volunteers need not worry that those 650,000 hours must be completely filled with endless narration. Seasoned guides, Eagan says, come to learn that contemplative silence is a key part of any Trails & Rails tour, too.

“Even if you’re the most dynamic, interesting person on the train that day, people aren’t going to listen beyond a couple of minutes or so,” Eagan explained. So it’s important, he says, to “give people a chance to absorb maybe what you’ve said, or maybe to enjoy what’s going on out there” beyond the glass of the train windows.

“We discourage the ‘Energizer Bunny’ approach that you wind yourself up here at King Street Station and don’t stop talking till the trains rolling into Portland,” Eagan continued.

“If that does happen, you’ll see most people have left the car or gone back to their laptops or fallen asleep,” he said.

If you want to volunteer:

Trails & Rails Volunteer Information Session

Saturday, Feb. 10 at 1 p.m.

Klondike Gold Rush National Park in Pioneer Square, at 319 2nd Ave. South.

No pre-registration is required. For more information, send email to info@seattleguides.org.

You can hear Feliks Banel every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien. Read more from Feliks here and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks.

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