Robert “Mac” McCoy starts his workday before dawn.
As the early-morning patrolman for the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, he starts at 5:30 a.m., riding a small railcar 45 miles to Silverton ahead of the day's first train.
Far from the glory of the engineer's seat, men like McCoy and others on the maintenance-of-way, or MOW, are critical but unsung heroes of railroad operations.
On a recent morning, like every other, McCoy was watching for downed trees, rock slides, bent rails, flooding or anything else that might hinder the train. If he sees anything, he fixes it, alone, as the sun comes up and the train heads toward him.
The job is serious, stressful and physically demanding, but the third-generation railroader – and the rest of the maintenance-of-way crew – say it never gets old.
“I've got a pretty great office,” he yelled over the engine of his railcar somewhere near Needleton. “It's an adventure every day.”
Each year, about 165,000 passengers ride this stretch of national forest along the rushing upper Animas River – past mountain lions and bears, over the stunning “highline” – 400 feet above Class V rapids and under postcard-worthy fourteener peaks.
Most passengers catch only glimpses of MOW workers, waiting for the cars to pass or tagging along behind them in a “popcar,” their faces, hard hats and hands invariably covered with grime.
MOW has a core of about 20 men who keep trains on the track. Women have worked on MOW, but none do now.
Much of what they do hasn't changed since the first train ran to Silverton in 1882. They still hand-pound spikes, clear ice from rails with shovels and replace a tie in less than 20 minutes.
About 2,500 ties – wood beams that support the rails – are replaced each year. The ballast – rock base that provides drainage and supports the ties – requires constant attention, as well.
It's the kind of work that builds back muscles.
“I don't think there's anybody tougher on the railroad than the maintenance-of-way,” said railroad owner Al Harper. “Summer, winter, fall, they're out there in any kind of weather, working on the track. And it's amazing what they get done.”
The work changes with the seasons, with more energy in the fall and spring devoted to track maintenance. Fire prevention takes priority in summer months.
Winters present a special challenge. Ice has to be cleared every day from switches and intersections in town.
It takes pretty much the whole crew to keep the water tank at Tank Creek free of ice, said patrolman Dave Unterreiner.
While at the tank recently, Unterreiner got a call on his radio. Someone smelled smoke to the north, in Cascade Canyon.
During the summer, a major part of a patrolman's job involves scouting for fires started by smoke or embers that bounce out of a locomotive's ash pan.
A typical summer sees dozens of small fires along the track, said Evan Buchanan, railroad superintendent and vice president. The worst fire year on record was 2002 – the year of the Missionary Ridge Fire – when there were close to 500.
Though most of these fires are small, railroad crews have developed into extremely competent firefighters who work in conjunction with local fire authorities and the U.S. Forest Service, Buchanan said.
The men spend weeks in the spring performing controlled burns in the mornings, training for the summer fire season.
In the dry early summer, a three-person water wagon might ride the rails all day scouting for fires. But after the monsoons, it's just patrolmen like Unterreiner, riding about five minutes behind the nearest train, with a water bag and a shovel.
Unterreiner knows the smell of burning well. He stopped three times that morning to spray fallen embers and toss them in the Animas.
“You always have to be heads-up,” he said. “Things can get out of hand quickly. You try not to burn down your favorite place.”
Maintenance-of-way often finds itself a lifeline to the outside world. The crewmen get flagged down frequently by lost or stranded hikers, and they often are called in to assist rescue personnel with backcountry emergencies.
The gangcar has even assisted with fatalities.
But the crew's biggest challenge simply is keeping up with Mother Nature.
After fire, water is the next greatest threat to the train. Three large mudslides have disrupted train service the last two years, costing the railroad thousands of dollars.
In July, heavy rains caused a mudslide that realigned the river bank in remote Upper Animas Canyon, submerging the track in more than 10 feet of muck. It took the crew 12 hours to get the track cleared while the train waited and a few of the passengers grumbled.
“We were thinking, '(12 hours) is pretty good,'” Unterreiner said.
Mother Nature's intervention doesn't end with water and snow.
McCoy pointed out a beaver's dam at milepost 486.6.
“Me and that (expletive) go round for round,” he shouted over the gangcar's gas engine.
About a year ago, the beaver flooded a stretch of track with its dam, delaying the train. McCoy scattered dam material nearly every morning for weeks after.
The beaver is still there.
“I think he's got some family living with him now,” he said.
Some days, work keeps the men on the rail for 14 hours. But they all say the best part is being out there.
It's good the cars only go 12 mph, Unterreiner said.
“It's a long ride home.”