Taking a respite from his bartending duties, Larry Herendeen scans the tree-shaded banks and rocky cliffs towering above the Verde River look-ing for wildlife.
"Look! A bobcat in the middle of the river!" he exclaimed. Sure enough, a large tan feline with pointy ears and wide paws is seen bounding from rock to rock in the clear, gently flowing stream. Moments later, Herendeen points out a soaring red-tailed hawk and a great blue heron.A window seat on the Verde Canyon Railroad offers a close-up view of high-desert wildlife, from normally secretive bobcats, mountain lions and black bears to deer, river otters and eagles.
As it winds through Verde Canyon adjacent to the Sycamore wilderness area, the tourist train rolls past a continually changing landscape - showy yellow prickly pear blooms and wildflowers in spring, leafy green cottonwood and sycamore trees in summer, splashy red and yellow hardwood foliage in fall and starker, more open vistas in winter.
Plying track built early this century to haul copper from area mines, the Verde Canyon Railroad is strictly a sightseeing line, established in 1990. For much of the four-hour, 40-mile round trip, the train follows the river past picturesque red sandstone formations reminiscent of those found in nearby Sedona.
A diesel engine pulls six renovated New York Metro Line cars offering first-class and coach seating. Four gondola cars allow passengers to step outside in the open air to study the slowly passing scenery.
With its proximity to the Grand Canyon and Sedona, the train attracts tourists from around the world. Weddings, anniversaries, birthday parties and corporate business gatherings are held aboard the train. And at least one marriage proposal was offered, and accepted, as the train traveled through a 640-foot tunnel.
"We'll be in the dark for 45 seconds. Don't start anything you can't finish," cracks Herendeen, a retired telephone cable splicer with an unmistakable Boston accent who serves as combination bartender, host and tour guide. His wife, Bonnie, is a hostess on the train.
Additional hosts spaced throughout the train include a retired local newspaper editor and other longtime residents who provide narration on the history, people and wildlife of the canyon.
Sinagua Indians once lived along the river, and remnants of two 1,000-year-old ruins are tucked away in sandstone nooks high above the water.
As the train slows to a halt over S.O.B. Trestle - named, according to legend, for the foreman who ordered his less-than-enthusiastic crew to build it - Herendeen points out fish swimming in the sparkling spring-fed river 150 feet below. Passengers squeal and snap photos as two mule deer dart out from water's edge and race up a steep rock incline.
Shag Armstrong, a naturalist, historian and painter in addition to his duties as railroad host, likes riding the rails between November and mid-February, when migrating bald and golden eagles hunt for fish and ducks along the Verde River. Passengers also get a clear view of a bald eagle's nest built on a rocky outcropping.
"You get as many as 30 eagles out here (during migration) and it's pretty exciting to watch them," Armstrong said. "The ones that nest here, you get to witness that, witness them lay eggs, watch them go into fledging. You get bonded to them after a while."
Other animals spotted along the ride include coyotes, javelina, rattlesnakes, peregrine falcons, Mexican blackhawks and vultures.
For the most part, the animals seem to simply ignore the train, which turns around at the former mining boomtown of Perkinsville and returns to Clarkdale on the same track.
"They get real used to the train," Armstrong said. "It's not unusual to have between November and the first couple weeks of February an eagle land about 20 feet off the train and watch the people go by. It's kinda neat."
Ironically, Arizona's worst drought in nearly a century has enhanced wildlife watching along the Verde. Normally shy animals such as bobcats, mountain lions and bears have moved closer to the river because food and water is scarce in the high country.
The train was a big hit with Charlotte Johnson of San Diego and her son and daughter, ages 10 and 6.
"We're a family that really enjoys trains, and this is one of the best we've ever ridden," Johnson said. "We took a train ride to the Grand Canyon yesterday that doesn't come close to this scenery-wise."
Meanwhile, Herendeen has spotted another eagle winging above the river, and picks up his radio to alert other hosts and passengers.
"People say I get more excited about seeing wildlife than they do," he said. "They may be right."