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Travels With Lucy: Iron Range

January 7, 2018:

I'd been looking forward to this day of the trip since I started to plan #ProjectNomad. In fact, I'd set myself up on a longer route from Vancouver to Prince Edward Island just so I could experience this.

Minnesota's Iron Range north of Duluth is part of Canadian National Railways' vast and varied transportation system, but in many ways it still bears the hallmarks of the railroads that ran here before CN took over.

Especially the Duluth, Missabe and Iron Range, whose handsome maroon and gold "tunnel motor" locomotives and long strings of stubby ore jennies have got to be some of the most beautiful trains on the continent.

With the rarest of exceptions, those maroon locomotives are gone or repainted, but the jennies remain. And though the rest of CN's system is by and large ruled by homogenous power sets of General Electric "Evolution Series" behemoths, the Iron Range is home to a wonderfully varied collection of old-school power in a rainbow of paint schemes.

I'd always wanted to spend time in Squatch country, and today, I would.

We set out from International Falls and headed south along US-53, pleasantly empty of traffic and cleared of snow. We passed through a few small communities, but mostly the North Woods were our companion: rolling hills and dark stands of bare trees, everything a monochrome of black and grey and deep forest green.

By mid-morning, we'd arrived in Virginia, MN, a larger townwhere former CN subsidiary Duluth, Winnipeg & Pacific once had a large presence.

Virginia is in the heart of the Iron Range, and from here the tracks are a spaghetti bowl of converging and diverging lines in all directions, trains everywhere, an embarrassment of riches that quickly overwhelmed my comprehension.

I'm used to chasing trains in the Fraser Canyon, where eastbounds use track on one side of the river, and westbounds use the other side. Everything's neat, orderly and predictable. The Iron Range, to my untrained eye, was a glorious mess.

Lucy and I wandered a little bit; it was a pleasant day, if overcast and a little chilly, and we explored a few locations on foot before catching sight of our first ore jennies and chasing them to the giant United Taconite plant in Fairlane, where they trundled out of sight of the road and didn't return.

We did some more walking and some more chasing, shooting some runthrough container and general freight trains, but no more ore cars and no cool engines.

Until mid-afternoon, that is, when I decided we'd better hop back in the truck and cover the last sixty miles to Duluth...and we promptly ran into a northbound train of empty jennies powered by a throwback Illinois Central locomotive and two Cadillac CN repaints.

That train made the day, as far as I was concerned, and we happily followed the tracks down to Duluth, where we stopped to reconnoitre the old DMIR yards outside of town (Proctor, MN) and then drove into the city to find a place to stay for the night.

Before we could decide on a motel, though, we drove under the massive ore dock on the Duluth waterfront and spied more ore cars atop it. Following a winding, climbing road, we came across the power, and it was totally worth a stop: a repainted ex-Bessemer & Lake Erie "tunnel motor" leading a couple of other fine examples of Iron Range railroading besides.

(If you're not into trains, just know that I was foaming at the mouth; hence the term for a railfan, foamer.)

After shooting the train with Lake Superior and Duluth's harbor as a backdrop, it was time to find a place to sleep, and to eat--I still hadn't moved on from cookies and pizza buns.

Accommodations were easy at a pet-friendly Super 8 off of I-35, but food-wise, I had no idea. I began to walk Lucy about a mile to an Arby's in famished desperation before better sense prevailed; I wound up at a nearby Perkins, instead, which at that point in my hunger was as close as I'd get to a victory.

One of these days, I was going to eat a decent meal on this journey. But hell, at least we had a comfy bed for the night.

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