22 February 2009
Second only to Russia in size among the world's nations, Canada can best be seen by rail. Although our train connecting Toronto and Vancouver misses Quebec and the Maritime Provinces, it still travels over 2000 miles one way.
We traveled westbound in October, with weather which varied as much as the geography, beginning early afternoon in Toronto cold with deciduous autumn colors giving way to spruce and birch already dressed for winter. Night fell as we reached Capreol and stopped for a crew change. Berths were dropped and we turned in under wonderfully thick blankets.
One of us is disabled and uses a wheelchair. The railroad staff was consistently helpful and accommodating for special needs. For example, it proved impractical to use an aisle chair to reach the dining room so all meals were promptly and cheerfully served in our room, including the fresh flower centerpiece.
Dawn found us moving through the rough country north of Lake Superior. Falling snow added to the few inches already on the ground. An accommodating porter attributed the rock hound David and helped him jump out at a brief stop to gather a rare handy of rocks from under the snow. The treasure included mica and a buff-colored granite gneiss, the basic rock of the Canadian shield. Gneiss showed itself outside the train windows through the day.
The morning of the third day we moved westward across the flat country of Manitoba, characterized by birch thickets and many lakes. At first the sky began to clear but weather changes rapidly on the prairie and as David dashed into a store near the depot in Winnipeg, and coming out, he squinted into popcorn snow driving at him horizontally.
The vast empty prairies of Saskatchuan and Alberta consumed a full day in crossing. There is no shortage of visual splendor, even here. The skies would inspire any artist; a 360 degree horizon and no part of the sky the same as another. Above 50 degrees latitude, the sun is low even in October and the golden light which bathes earth, clouds and sky certainly vies with the blamed light of southern France.
One comes to appreciate the train even more on the prairies; driving west by car, the skies would be dominated by a relentless sun in the driver's eyes for half of each day.
The Rockies begin gradually with forests of small conifers called larch or tamarack. This unique tree changes color – as it did for us – then loses its needles. Mills and mines – more of the former here – are visible along the track here as elsewhere in Canada. The lesson is that extractive processes dominate the Canadian economy.
The train follows The Athabascan river as it enters the heart of the Rockies. Unlike their United States counterparts, the Canadian Rockies are formed of sedimentary rock and much beautiful banding is in evidence on the faces of the peaks. We were able see ravens, eagles and bighorn sheep from the train but the best view of an animal awaited us in Jasper.
Set within a national park, the city of Jasper is surrounded by breath-taking peaks. Its elegant, substantive railroad station has a tasteful gift shop and the train pauses here long enough for browsing. Leaving town, the train passes through a residential neighborhood. There, peacefully ruminating on someone's back lawn, a magnificent bull elk competed with a rotary clothesline for the most splendid "rack."
As darkness fell, we still had a clear view of famed Mount Robson, the jewel of the Canadian Rockies. Below the train, clear, swift rivers follow rugged canyons. At about this point, the rivers begin to flow westward as we are crossing the Continental Divide. As we turn in, an announcement tells us to prepare for rain in Vancouver. It had been cloudy to bright in Jasper. Now the clouds thicken. We sleep through the canyons of the Thompson and Fraser Rivers – not that this trip ever leaves you scenery-driven.
Breakfast arrives as we touch the flat country along the lower Fraser River. Harvests are over in this rich agricultural area, famed for its tomatoes. The rain clouds part and our arrival in the handsome, multicultural city of Vancouver. Burrard Inlet is in bright, rain-washed condition. David remembers his hat still on the train as we leave the station. An obliging railroad employee adds him to hop on his golf cart to retrieve it.
We are reasonably on time so have a few minutes to peak at downtown Vancouver and its spectacular buildings before catching the airport shuttle. At the airport, we stop in the restaurant where a Royal Canadian Mountie leaps to his feet to clear a path for Marjorie's wheelchair.
People are one part of a travel experience we missed, being mostly bound to our cabin, but if those we met on the train are any indication, we wish to return and meet more Canadians.