Across Five Provinces by Train
Across Five Provinces on Via Rail's Canadian
This is the story of a once-in-a-lifetime trip. My daughter, Lydia, and I took the train home to British Columbia from Ontario, crossing five provinces. We traveled through parts of Canada we have never seen before, and may never see again. We crossed terrain that can only be seen on a train trip where there are no roads. If our story inspires you to travel by train, or helps you plan your trip, this lens will have accomplished its purpose.
Image Credit: Balcer CC
All of the photos on this lens were taken by me during our trip with the exception of the introduction photo.
Travel By Train Across the Rockies - Next Train by Andrew Mockler
This will give you a taste of a train trip across the Rocky Mountains. This song, "Next Train" by British singer Andrew Mockler won the Rocky Mountaineer song contest for 2013.
I Hear the Whistle Blowin' ...
Three Days in July
Ontario - Thursday
At Union Station in Toronto, we were directed to take the elevator down. It was a short walk from there to Gate 9, which was an escalator up. Then the long walk to the forward end of the train. We were directed to go two cars back, where we found there were no seats with views. Considering how much our tickets had cost, we weren't going to cross Canada looking at a wall, so we went forward one car, found an empty seat and settled in. This ended up being the prairies car, but it didn't seem to make any difference to anyone.
The seats were spacious. They had little fold-down tables, and the leg rest could be manually adjusted to slant or to go straight out. Neither position was completely comfortable; the straight-out position was not flush with the seat. We hadn't been on the train long when the attendants came to give us a small pillow and blanket, as well as an eye mask, ear plugs and wash cloth. I got an extra pillow for the small of my back and that helped a lot. By the end of the first day, though, my tailbone was aching.
As the train headed north, we were welcomed over the public address system. They announced points of interest we were passing. We had to wave out the left window at a man who has greeted every trip of the Canadian for twenty years. We entered cottage country - lots of lakes and boats.
In the three-day trip, there are eight stations where you can actually get off the train for a few minutes. These were the only smoking opportunities. The first stop was Capreol, at 16:35 and we had twenty minutes so we walked half a block to the downtown. I bought a coffee; Lydia didn't want anything.
We had packed some non-perishable food for the trip. The first morning I got a take-out coffee from the snack bar. It cost $1.75 for about 8 ounces. However, posted on the wall was a menu for the dining car and the prices weren't bad at all. We decided to try it for dinner. Lydia had mushroom ravioli which came with garlic toast and I had turkey schnitzel with garlic mashed potatoes and bean-carrot medley. Both were very good. The best thing was that the coffee ($1.75) was refillable! The dining car holds ten tables for four and you are automatically seated with someone else. Our first table mate was a gentleman on his way to Saskatoon. Since he was hard of hearing, we didn't have a conversation. We entertained ourselves by observing the other diners and picking out models for super heroes and arch enemies. Lydia found a Brad Pitt look-alike that she named Arch Enemy #1.
To get to the dining car, we went through the activity car. The front half of the car has some small built-in tables for games. There is one electrical plug which was popular with the Game Boy crowd. The back half of the car has steps up to the observation area. This contained two sets of facing seating for four with games tables and then about five more benches on each side. You could see the front of the train as well as the view from all sides (through the dead bugs). It is not spacious, however. This is where the "railroad club" hung out - fans of all things railway. They had guidebooks, maps, speed calculators and who knows what else. They discussed every possible detail at length.
Visiting the dining car was one of the high points of each day. We met interesting people, drank all the coffee we could convince staff to pour for us, and enjoyed a change of seating. I mention that because you really need to bring some entertainment. We played cribbage and gin rummy, and listened to books on tape. It was too jiggly to draw and writing was a challenge. Reading was not too bad. The other thing that I didn't expect was that you couldn't take good pictures. There was a lot of glare, and of course the windows were not very clean even though they were washed at several stops along the route.
Before dark we were instructed to change our clocks because we would pass through a time zone in the night. Just after midnight we stopped at Hornepayne and the smokers piled off for a break.
Sleeping in our seats was torture. Eventually we got tired enough that we dozed off, but I woke up a lot. One of the other passengers was a mother with twin fifteen-month-old babies. They cried half the night. When dawn came, we were still in northern Ontario and starting to wonder if the barren landscape would ever end.
We were exhausted from our grueling night and decided to treat ourselves to breakfast. We split the $9 breakfast and were both full - 2 eggs, ham, bacon, 3 pancakes, toast (which they forgot to bring, but we didn't miss it) and several pieces of fruit. And coffee! We were seated with a European woman. To make conversation, we commented on the attendants - the young one was super-nice and the older one was super-crabby.
Our table mate replied, "I'll show them crabby!!!"
Lydia and I were thankful that just then someone else was seated at our table. Guess who - Arch Enemy #1. He was very entertaining. He had decided he was sick of Montreal and was on his way to live in Victoria. Did we think there would be any jobs
there? How much did apartments cost? Were the people neighborly? We were all getting a real kick out of him, including the "crabby" lady.
Back to our seats - more of the Canadian shield. It was muskeg, rock and scrub evergreens. No sign of wildlife, not even birds. That part of the trip was long and tedious. We stopped at lots of little towns just long enough to pick up or let off passengers, but even that wasn't interesting.
We asked our coach attendant if we could move to the north side of the train when some people got off at Winnipeg. He said we could, but told us that the coach in front had empty seats right now so we were welcome to move up. We went to take a look. The coach was older, shabbier, rattly and creaky. I mean really noisy. But by now we knew the value of space. We moved to a couple of benches in the back by the washroom, and spread out like we'd seen all the single travelers do in the other car. Ahhhhh!
This coach was the one used for loading and unloading, and for short trips, but it suited us fine. We had the back of the car all to ourselves.
We finally entered Manitoba around 13:00. Well, there was lunch to entertain us. We were seated with a young Russian man. We didn't have much conversation, but he shared some thought on the speed of trains - Europe's are fast, ours are slow - and asked where and how to find snow - heli-skiing is about all you're gonna get in July! That was fine with him. We ordered chicken pot pie.
I asked one of the attendants if we could see the sleeper compartments. He took us into one car. There were six berths which I thought were quite nice. In the day, they are made up into benches. It was open and airy and there were only curtains to separate them. There was a shower in the car and separate bathrooms for men and women, unlike the coaches which had a single washroom front and back.
I didn't like the sleeping compartments. They were very small with windows only on one side. The passageway was pretty tight too. However, in sleeper class, the whole back car is a private lounge with windows all the way around, and the meals are all included - five-star gourmet. I think if I could have boarded at that end instead of having to go through the narrow passageways, I would have been fine. Later I was sorry I didn't see the far end of the train.
That afternoon I was feeling achy and tired. It was starting to get hot. The countryside was still barren, although we were starting to see fields. We got to Winnepeg at 15:46. The announcer told us it was 32 degrees and our stop in Winnipeg was over an hour. This is where the crew changes and a major cleaning is done. We opted to stay on the train. It was a good choice. The air conditioning cranked up and we spend the time walking up and down the empty aisles and stretching all our sore muscles. We also talked to the cleaning crewperson. She said that her mother always gets a berth. It's much better than a compartment and you are lying lengthwise with the train instead of across the motion.
The new crew came on the train and we were doubly glad we had stayed on. They started moving people to facilitate future disembarking. The only thing is, the people weren't there. After reboarding, there was quite a parade of displaced passengers looking for their new seats and their belongings.
The break was refreshing and we both felt much better. The scenery after Winnipeg was wonderful. We were heading northwest and the countryside was hilly, a combination of grassland and deciduous trees. We saw a lot wildlife, as well as horses and cattle. That was a relief after the Canadian Shield.
We didn't see anything of Saskatchewan since it was dark the whole time. That night we had a much better sleep since we each had a bench to ourselves.
The Rocky Mountains
We had an early breakfast because we knew the train stopped at Edmonton at 8:00. Our table mates were a single woman from Aylmer who teaches German and a photographer from L.A. We talked mostly about cats. Then we got off and walked around outside the station. We weren't allowed to re-enter until the boarding call, so we spent the time dodging cigarette smoke - not easy. By now the poor smokers were chain smoking just as fast as they could.
We were scheduled to arrive at Jasper at 14:05. We decided to eat one more meal in the dining room. However, since Lydia wanted chicken pot pie (lunch) and I wanted pot roast (dinner), we ended up going for both meals. That was fine by us. The kitchen was willing to substitute Caesar salad for vinegary bean salad and coleslaw, so Lydia really enjoyed her lunch. I had soup and coffee. Our lunch table mates were a couple who had retired from doing bed and breakfast in Stratford. We heard lots of stories about her train trips across Australia and New Zealand. The first view of the Rockies was announced while we were in the dining car. We went back to our coach to put in a few hours. Unfortunately, our mp3 players were both dead. We had audiobooks downloaded from the library, but that was not much good to us now. We played cards, I read, and Lydia wrote.
The Jasper stop was a disappointment. Since the park is gigantic, no animals were anywhere close to the train station. The village is basically a tourist trap and we'd seen it all before in Whistler. Still, it was nice to get out and walk. The scenery leading up to and after Jasper was magnificent. We traveled alongside water a lot of the time. We were never up high. The mountains rose up on both sides and we were in the valley.
After Jasper, we stayed in the activity car and played cards while we waited for the second sitting for dinner. One of the crew spotted a bear and we all crowded over to see it.
Our dinner companions were a lawyer and a flooring business owner from Edmonton. The lawyer was fascinated by the river and the rapids. We took our time over dinner and then went up into the observation area. The "Railroad Club" seemed pretty excited. Soon they were shouting, "There it is, there's the train." They'd been watching for a derailed engine and several cars. It was all too intense for us so we went back down to the activity car where the conversation was more general. We passed the beautiful Pyramid Falls right beside the track and the train slowed down so we could get a good look.
Our next stop was Kamloops at 22:10 and I had been studying the map to find out what river we were beside. This was N. Thompson country and the train follows the river. What a beautiful valley - ranches, cattle, horses, and the occasional town. I saw by the map that we were going to pass Barriere where the Salvation Army had gone to do relief work during the forest fires in 2003. I started to see charred trees and pretty soon, whole ridges that had been burnt out. It went on for miles and miles. That was very sobering.
We met lots of retired railroad employees traveling on passes. Before Kamloops, I got into conversation with Nick, who was sitting behind us, He had lots of stories to tell. He kept it up until the station where we shook hands and wished each other well. As Lydia pointed out, he was the only traveler who told us his name.
At dinner it had been announced that we would be an hour early into Vancouver the next day. That meant that we would be going through the Fraser Canyon in the dark. After Nick's detailed stories about the Hinton Crash of '86 and some of the other old-timer's comments, I was just as glad to sleep through it. I woke up at 4:15 to breaking daylight. We should have been in Hope, but no, it was the Fraser Canyon. We were traveling right beside the water, and had apparently already passed Boston Bar and Hell's Gate.An attendant walked through, looking for the other Abbotsford passenger, and he told me we were an hour late.
At the Abbotford stop, which is out in the middle of a field on a one-lane gravel road, we were helped off the train.
It is so good to be home - to go into a big bathroom with no one rattling the door, have a shower, wash my hair, stretch out in a bed. Wonderful!
It's too bad the bed is rocking!
Check out these Amazon titles
The Rocky Mountaineer - Video
New Rocky Mountaineer Route - Video - Coastal Passage from the Canadian Rockies to Seattle
A brand new route. Three days of luxury, all in daylight. Watch the video to learn more.
More About Trains - Books from Amazon
So, How Did You Like the Trip?
A few comments from Lydia
I loved the train trip. The scenery was awesome, and we saw tons of wildlife. Deer, hawks, birds of all kinds, a beaver plus beaver dams and lodges, jackrabbits, a black bear, marmot, dragonflies, and a coyote or fox. We went through the Rocky Mountains which apparently I have been through before but I didn't remember. I was utterly awestruck. The height, shape, and structure of the great mountains were incredible. We went past many rivers as well that were absolutely gorgeous, such as Battle River and the river in the Fraser Canyon. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the train trip. I told Mom it was the most scenic vacation I've ever had. Perhaps someday I will take the train again, but not anytime soon.