Le Canadien

23 Apr

How long are you in Toronto for? Just a few hours, I reply. I’m actually headed to Vancouver. How long are you spending there? Not a lot, I’m literally taking the train west and flying back home from there. Perplexed for a moment, the immigration officer at Pearson International hands me back my passport. Hope you’re carrying a good camera, he says, as he ushers me through.

By the time I’m done wandering around downtown Tee Dot – a city that looks and certainly feels very different in the winter – I saunter in to Union Station, with only a half hour or so to spare before departure. Blissfully unaware, all the while, that there is a special lounge for sleeper class passengers within.

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The Canadian or Le Canadien pulls out from Toronto’s Union Station at 10 pm twice weekly in the off season, with an extra trip added on in season; the 4,466-km or 2,775-mile journey scheduled to take just under 90-hours.

An accident west of Union Station means that we will be heading east – literally reversing – for the first 45-minutes or so. Enough time to hobble over to the lounge car for champagne hour. An engineer, complete with safety vest and walkie-talkie is seated at the front, guiding our train as it heads in the opposite direction. His every action being followed closely by someone I assume to be a fellow rail buff. Jay turns out to be just that. Next to him, the courtly Robert, who has at least a few decades on the rest of our gathering, and a corresponding number of stories to regale us with. He tells me about his father, what it was like living through the Great Depression, and how his birthdate, coinciding with Saint Jean Baptiste Day, was a cause of considerable confusion in his younger days.

Its 11:30 pm and we’ve been moving in the right direction for a while now. With my sense of orientation somewhat restored, and at least a few glasses of the sparkling stuff in me, I make my way back six carriages to Craig Manor and retire into cabin #4 for the night.

I awake, just as we’re pulling out of Capreol, our first station stop in Ontario since departing Toronto. It’s a glorious winter scape as far as the eye can see, and it will be so practically till journeys end.

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At breakfast, I’m seated across Randy and Katie, a couple who run a vineyard in the Niagara region of Ontario. Over poached eggs and hash browns, we talk politics and bucket lists. They tell me about a gentlemen who had to be taken off the train in the middle of the night due to a medical emergency. He was battling stage 4 cancer, and a Trans-Canadian journey was on top of his list of things to do. He insisted that his family continue on the train. All, while we slept. Its a sobering piece of news to receive first thing in the morning, but also a reminder that there’s so much to be grateful for.

Covering much of the province of Ontario, the Canadian Shield is a humongous swath of exposed precambrian rock, encircling Hudson Bay; the terrain here characterized by rolling hills, rocky outcrops and splendid boreal forests. I make my way back to the lounge car’s dome section, the most coveted spot to take in this winter wonderland…

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Breakfast is first-come, first-served in the dining car but lunch and dinner offer three sittings each, giving one a fair amount of flexibility. Who you share your table with though, is more often than not left to the behest of the dining car manager, and that’s what makes each meal more interesting. So at lunch today, as I ponder ordering the Bison Burger, I’m joined by John, a rancher from British Columbia, and Grace, an academic from New Brunswick. We talk trains, travel, and Canadian accents. In a country already well reputed for being friendly, the Maritimers, they tell me, are by far the friendliest.

The settlement of Hornepayne, all of 1000-people strong, lies about 600-miles to the northwest of Toronto. It is the second stop on The Canadian‘s long journey west but the first where passengers can actually alight and walk around, or aboot, as the Canadians are wont to say.

Its a few degrees below zero, accompanied by flurries, but it feels good to be able to stretch one’s legs. I walk to the rear of our train to get a better look at our observation car, where I’ve spent most of my time thus far. Only twelve carriages long on this occasion, I try to imagine what The Canadian would look like in season, when its numbers swell to 26.
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Shortly after our departure from there, we’re spoilt just a tad bit more with complimentary wine tasting and hors d’oeuvres. The wines, all of them Canadian, are also available in the dining car for purchase, with the menus helpfully providing pairing suggestions. I’m inclined to say by now that food and drink, in general, on Via Rail’s Canadian, has definitely been a step up from its counterpart across the border.

11 PM is typically last call in the lounge car. As we contemplate another nightcap, the barkeep reminds us to wind our watches back by an hour. The joys of traveling west! Getting an extra hour of sleep each night is definitely something I could get used to…

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Though the morning fog, the dove-shaped exterior of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights comes into view, signaling our arrival into Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba. The stop here – all of 4 hours – is the longest en route, and a few of us disembark for a tour of the city.  Our first stop, the impressive Beaux-Arts style Manitoba legislative building…
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Past the French Quarter, downtown, and the Forks neighborhood, we make our last stop at Assiniboine Park, the city’s largest. Its an unusually warm day here (read above 0C) in Winnipeg, also referred to as Winter-peg, so despite the gloomy conditions, one can actually step out of the van and walk around comfortably. Seeing that we’re ahead of schedule on our tour, Denis, our driver cum guide, encourages us to do so at the park’s sculpture garden.

The outdoor exhibits here – featuring the work of Ukrainian Canadian glass artist and sculptor, Leo Mol – have been dressed up by locals in what appears to be a prank. You got to hand it to them though – having a sense of humor despite their harsh climatic conditions. Scarves adorn some of the works, knit-tops drape others. Moses, meanwhile, attracts the most color, and attention.

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The tour lasts about 2-hours and costs C$30, and Denis deposits us in front of the station, with plenty to spare till departure. I take a look around Winnipeg’s beautiful Union Station; the early 20th-century edifice designed by Warren and Wetmore, the same firm responsible for Grand Central Station in New York. I catch up with Grace, just as we’re about to re-board. She decided to skip the tour and spend her time instead at a spa in the nearby historic Fort Garry Hotel. She recommends it highly, should I pass this way again.

The sudden burst of outdoor activity has made me hungry, and the first few pages of Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential aren’t helping matters much. Its just as well the last seating for lunch is announced.  To spice things up a bit, they’re offering us a brunch menu today, and without the least bit of hesitation, I proceed to order the Lobster Ravioli…
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A sunny interlude during lunch turns out to be the calm before the storm, literally. By 2:30 PM Central time, the weather changes for the worse, with a full blown blizzard fast approaching, and near whiteout conditions threatening to hinder The Canadian‘s progress west…
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Just before nightfall, at what appears to be the peak of the blizzard, we cross into the province of Saskatchewan. The Canadian makes only two station stops within this vast province, and given that we are already running late, it’s anyone’s guess as to when we’d pull into Saskatoon, the province’s largest city. The lesser known Melville would have to do for now, if I have any hope of setting foot on Saskatchewan soil.

Outside, as the snow continues to fall hard, its a balmy -14C or 7F. Throw in some windchill, and it feels like -26C or -15F. Five minutes of the Saskatchewan outdoors and I’m ready to scurry back in. Meanwhile, sheltered from it all in the lounge car, a traveling musician joins us for a digestif. He’s been commissioned by Via Rail, as a part of their Artists on Board program, and proceeds to enthrall us with a mix of his own compositions and the occasional known number. The music flows, as do our conversations, well into the next time zone…

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Stumbling back to my carriage, each vestibule I cross reveals the aftermath of the blizzard. A sobering reminder of the extreme climatic conditions within which North American Railroads operate.

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I awake to a wind and snow-battered Prairie scape in the province of Alberta. The storm is behind us at this point, but we’re also running some 8-hours behind schedule.

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Unknown to us at the time, across the border in North Dakota, Amtrak’s Empire Builder service, en route to Chicago, fared a lot worse. Stranded in a 25-foot snowbank, it would remain there for some 13-hours before finally getting freed.

Thankfully, the lack of time keeping is of little importance to most passengers on our train. Sure, everyone’s got to be somewhere, eventually, just that we’re not in as much of a hurry to get there. Over breakfast, Kat, who’s relocating to the Gulf Islands from Ontario, sums it up best. Every once in a while, she says, its nice to be able to disconnect, to just lose one’s sense of time.

Unhindered by that bit of profoundness, The Canadian continues its march west, racing past grain silos, mile upon mile of prairie country, and idyllic little towns.
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If there were a downside to being late though, it would have to be missing out on Jasper National Park. At 3 PM, as we’re backing into the Via Rail station at Edmonton, the country’s fifth largest city, it becomes fairly evident that we’re not even going to make the park’s eastern limits by nightfall.

The halt at Edmonton includes refueling and another crew change, and lasts almost an hour. My platform stroll though lasts all of fifteen minutes, with the temperature, once again, being far from welcoming.

We pull into Jasper a little after dinner, and this being the last halt our train will make at a somewhat reasonable hour, there’s quite a few of us out and about on the platform. The early 20th-century chalet-style station building – currently home to the Canadian Parks Department – is worth stepping out for alone, but many on our train, who’ve come this way before, actually head into town for a post-dinner stroll.
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I choose to stay within the confines of the station, walking from one end of the train to the other. Behind us stands the Jasper – Prince Rupert train, which will depart in the morning, on a very scenic route north, ending just shy of British Columbia’s border with Alaska. I make a mental note to ride that train someday.

Up front, as an east bound freight rolls by, clearing the route ahead, the lead locomotive of The Canadian gets swapped…
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Shortly after departure, the few of us remaining in the lounge car, make our way up to the dome. Using moonlight, and the omnipresent glow of snow as aids, we try desperately to decipher the contours of Jasper National Park.

I awake, just as we’re skirting the northern shore of a glacial lake, somewhere in British Columbia. It’s an unforgettable sight to awake to, and there’s plenty more in store for us, apparently. I drag myself out of bed and make a beeline for the observation car.

Randi and Katie are already there, as are a handful of familiar smiles, cameras and faces pressed against the windows. They’ve left, what’s now jokingly referred to as “Bharat’s seat” – a little perch by one of the observation windows – free for my use, and welcome me with the customary, “you missed the best parts.”

Not entirely true…
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To be sure, we did lose out on Jasper National Park last night, but also gained something in the process – traveling through a spectacular, and oft underrated part of Canada’s westernmost province, that is typically unseen by passengers on both the west and east bound trains.

Since dawn, we’ve been tracking the course of the South Thompson River, one that we will cross several times till the town of Lytton is reached. The morning light, coupled with the many hues emanating from the water, make for an almost ethereal sight. A light dusting of snow on the mountain slopes providing added effect to the scene…

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The mountains in this part of British Columbia are a part of the larger Pacific Coast Ranges, and west of Kamloops, feature some of the driest areas in Canada. The arid, rugged terrain here somewhat reminiscent of the US Southwest.

Continuing west, and gradually gaining in elevation, we get a first glimpse of the Canadian Pacific Railway, the company responsible for laying the first Trans-Canadian route, in the late 19th-century. From this point on, running along the south bank of the Thompson River, the Canadian Pacific will parallel the route of our host railroad, the Canadian National.

High above the Thompson River, hugging the treacherous canyon walls, as we approach the first in a series of tunnels, its hard to even imagine what it must have been like building these railroads back in the day…
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As the stainless steel carriages of The Canadian, brilliantly lit by morning light, gradually emerge from one of the tunnels, the last call for breakfast is announced. Leaving my perch in the dome section of the observation car is possibly the toughest decision I’ve had to make in the last few days. But hunger calls, and the stomach will eventually win this round.

Several miles west of Ashcroft, with the drier parts well behind us, The Canadian now travels through thick conifer forests and amidst snow-covered mountains, the turnaround in topography almost astounding.

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At Lytton, the darker waters of the Thompson meet the Fraser River, and a few miles west of their confluence, the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railroads swap river banks, in a spectacular crossing, their bridges set a mere 100-meters apart. It’s all a bit much to take in, especially while trying to get through the first meal of the day.

Deep down below, the churning waters of the Fraser accompany our route west. Downstream of the settlement of Boston Bar, they reach a frenzy, at the appropriately named Hells Gate, the narrowest point of the canyon. Almost on cue, the PA system comes to life. In the 40s, our steward reveals, fishways were built here to help migrating Salmon pass through this rocky gorge, a path previously blocked by debris from a massive rockslide in the early 20th-century. The construction of the fish ladder remains controversial to this day, but at least, he continues, it put Hells Gate on the tourist map.

All the while, as if to stamp its authority over the competition, the Canadian National route rises higher, providing sweeping vistas of magnificent Fraser Canyon.
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There’s Clam Chowder and Pasta for lunch today, a meal hurriedly improvised by our chef, and one that’s appreciated by everyone in the dining car. It’s no mean feat either, given that lunch was never on the calendar for day 4, and our crew has yet again gone above and beyond. A special shout out here to Kerine, Claude, Patrick and his team, for a job well done.

After what seemed like a fairly good bit of running all morning, we pull up to a siding somewhere east of Vancouver. To everyone’s dread this time, the PA system comes on once again and our steward announces that we will be stationed here to allow three east bound freights to cross. It’s anyone’s guess how long that’s going to take.

The bar, thankfully, is still open for business, and heading towards it, Kat exclaims, “Gosh, I think I need a drink.” What would you call a drink at this time of day, she wonders out aloud. “A good idea” says Robert!

After an hour long wait, the last of three freights we’ve been sidelined for, finally appears, to many cheers, and a rousing applause in the observation car…

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Downing the last of our farewell Champagne, as we back into Pacific Central Station, Randi asks, what awaits you at Vancouver? Anxiety, I respond. I have a flight to catch!


A full set of pics from my journey on The Canadian can be seen here.

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One Response to “Le Canadien”

  1. Grace April 25, 2017 at 10:59 pm #

    Beautiful! Thank you for shining such a bright light on our little piece of the world. ❤

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