24th - 28th March 2011
We were welcomed aboard by a sort of 'master of ceremonies' called Dennis with champagne and canapes and given an amusing briefing on the facilities and the journey ahead. After each town where passengers were embarked we got more of the same! He was our 'host' and 'barman' and resident 'expert' and provided considerable amusement ( he could easily have been irritating, but he wasn't! ). It was not difficult to be quite impressed. Some of us were going to be together for almost 5 days, 4016 kms ( 2410 miles ), and 3 time zones west.
Left: The Lounge Car. Free tea, coffee, 'juice' ( whatever that is ), cookies, newspapers etc on offer all day. The Bar Car is just in front. The stairs lead up to the Observation Car.
Right: Upstairs in the Observation Car. I think it is the 'mad lady' with her back to us on the left. Her hair looked like she had plugged herself into the mains. Maybe she had. Or somebody else had. ( details somewhere below ).
Left: The Dining Car where many interesting, if enforced, conversations took place. There were two waiters, I think French Canadian who, given the chance, sang and played guitars. On two occasions at dinner they burst into song and even got an 'encore'. They were actually quite good. I have my doubts whether this behaviour would catch on at home.
Right: The redoubtable Lawrence ( on the left ).
Woke up the next morning for a leisurely breakfast as we were passing through the pine, spruce and silver birch forests of Ontario ( flat, flat, flat ) heading west and north-west around the Great Lakes. The social significance of the dining car became swiftly apparent. You were seated, no argument, by the head-waiter, at a table with other occupants. How awful. After an embarrassed and muttered "good morning" and all pointedly looking out of the window to avoid eye contact it was impossible, eventually, not to start up some form of conversation. This proved remarkable fun. It formed amusing short term friendships and was often rather educational. You, we all, felt you had nothing to lose by telling 'your story' in the almost certain knowledge that you would never ever again see or hear from the others after the journey's end! One got to know lots of unnecessary details of complete strangers' lives.
Amongst several others, I met a delightful retired engineer and his wife, Val and Marianne. He had emigrated from Co. Down in 1953 where he had worked in the old Harland & Wolfe shipyards and was surprised that I immediately noticed his 'Norn Iron' accent. They were travelling to see their daughter in Edmonton, Alberta - no, the Province, not his daughter's name. He had a great line in jokes ( similar to you Christian! Are you following this? ). There was a tall, stunningly attractive and rather mysterious lady with a German accent whom several tried very hard to sit next to. It eventually transpired that she was a singer called Ingrid, and did so, a la Marlene Dietrich, one night in the 'bar car'!
Then there was Lawrence McAllister. He became my temporary 'new best friend'. This guy was almost unbelievable. He was born in August 1919 ( ie now 92 years old ). He was travelling alone to visit his son, a professor of English at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia. He might have been 92 but he was far from being a doddery geriatric. He had done this trip every year for the past 5 years and next year, he triumphantly announced, as a 'preferred customer' he was getting the ride free. He displayed absolutely no senile tendencies ( unlike me, he didn't dribble ) at all! He was smartly dressed, had a razor sharp memory, a quick wit, was articulate, completely mobile ( not even a stick ), fantastic sense of humour, ate like a horse and was enjoying himself enormously! He was most amusing. He was reading an 'Andy McNab' book which slightly detracted from his image. Anyway, he had been a steward on a Canadian '4 stacker' ( HMCS Columbia ) destroyer in WW2 on anti-submarine duties. He recalled, in detail, visiting Londonderry and Plymouth in 1941, and seeing King George V1 at Plymouth visiting Lord Mountbatten on HMS Kelly. Plymouth was bombed during one of his visits. He said he hid under a stack of ropes. After the war he became a mining engineer ( Gypsum in Nova Scotia ) and then did missionary work in Iryan Jaya ( other half of Papua New Guinea ). I thought they ate the missionaries there. Not enough meat on Lawrence perhaps. Lots more stories, but it gives you the idea! .............and many other characters. I must mention one rather odd lady ( well, not mincing words, completely bonkers ) who is a renowned habitue, according to Dennis, on western Alberta trains. She had alarming hair and wild staring eyes and moaned and was apparently in continuous but hopeless search of a long-lost lover, reputedly a British cavalry officer. Luckily, I didn't meet her in the dining car. Lots of social gatherings and chats over a drinks ensued ( not with her, might I add ).
The journey took us through Ontario via Sudbury and Armstrong and Sioux Lookout , which was snow covered, flat and forested, through Manitoba, snow covered flat prairie, via Potage La Prairie with a 4 hour stop at Winnipeg ( as mentioned previously ), through Saskatchewan via Melville and Saskatoon, again more flat snow covered prairie punctuated by vast Potash mines ( Manitoba/Saskatchewan produce 25% of the world's potash, said Dennis ). Then into Alberta via Wainwright, a stop in Edmonton and at the touristy town of Jasper. The countryside was beginning to get very hilly by now. Then through the spectacularly mountainous and forested Rocky Mountains. Finally into the Fraser River valley and on into Vancouver with a totally different, mild and damp ( oceanic ) climate. Many small settlements, just a handful of houses/shacks were passed en-route almost unnoticed. When the original railway was built ( 1 Chinaman dead for every mile someone told me; but I think that was just through the Rockies! ) the steam engines needed coal and water re-supply every 120 miles, so that is why these settlements exist where they do. Some became 'trading' stations and others, now, are popular with 'hunters', fishermen and skiiers etc. There were many amusing settlement names, often of Indian origin. I was told, by the 'Norn Iron' guy's wife, that there is a place called 'Smash Head-In Buffalo Drop', so called because there is a precipice there over which the Indians stampeded the buffalo to kill them! Cunning.
Left: Going through typical Ontario forest. Interestingly, there is only single line track for much of the route which entailed waiting on the 2 track bits for freight trains to pass. Canadian Pacific run most of the freight trains which take precedence ( big money ) over the VIA passenger trains. I didn't care. No rush. A freight train, and I counted a few through, consisted on average of 120 trucks of approx 80ft long each. Therefore, by my reckoning, a train was about 1.8 miles long. They were big.
Right: Winnipeg, Manitoba. Only here for a pit-stop. It looked a pretty dull place. I hunted unsuccessfully for a re-supply of beer, and was told, in a wine shop ( wine no problem ), that the Government strictly controls the beer and spirits supply. Only one Gov't shop in town and it was a long way away. Something to do with old laws stopping people getting hold of alcohol. Or maybe the Gov't making money? This specifically applied to the old Indian population who developed a rather unhealthy appetite for the pale-faces' fire-water. I was told that there still is a big problem in this area, plus drugs of course. Sounds familiar?
I went to the local shopping 'Mall' near the station called 'The Forks'. It was the old trading station on the Red River where trading was done with the local Indians. Probably with fire-water in those days, but bugger-all now! They are/were predominantly Cree Indians here. On a tourist info board ( see left ) the details were in three languages; the middle one is Cree. Lots of them still in the area, I was told ( probably by Dennis ).
Right: Out over the prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. I forgot to take a photo of a Potash mine, you will be disappointed to hear. Saskatchewan was settled by many Ukrainians and was a 'temperance' state, well before the prohibition era ( according to Dennis ).
Left: At a brief stop-over in Jasper, Lawrence took the chance to paddle his 'canoe'. OK, so I now have a photo of a canoe, sort of.
A British couple, David and Netta, from the Isle of Man joined the train at Jasper. They were on a 'world tour' having got fed up with running their business in UK ( the petty regulations eventually got to them and they sold up ). They had been to many interesting places including Banff where they had ridden on Husky powered sledges. David had even 'mushed' his own sledge. I was seriously jealous. They probably saw a Mounty as well.
Right and below: Several shots approaching, and in, the Rockies. Pretty damed fine countryside. I was all eyes to spot a moose, but didn't. The bears were ( as Dennis pointed out ) still sleeping..... along with the Mounties presumably.
I saw sheep and deer and the occasional elk. Not very exciting. Lawrence told me that there were plenty of Moose in Newfoundland where he worked at the mines. Well, that was not much use!
He also told us a lot about all the rock formations.
At some point during this journey Dennis organised a sort of 'pub quiz'. I happened to be there. Lots of Canadian ice-hockey type questions. He also asked "what is the surname of the two brothers in the British Labour Party, one of whom now leads it?". Do you know, I had completely forgotten. Plus "what is Tony Blair's autobiography called?". I didn't know that either. I was not much help.
Right: The 'Seven Sisters' mountains.
Left: An elk's arse. In Jasper, I think.
Right: Mount Robson ( partially hidden by cloud ). This is the highest peak in the Rockies at, I think, 15,000ft. Dennis told us, but I might have got it wrong. Quite high anyway. People like to climb it for some reason.
Left: The Pyramid Falls. They look more dramatic in summer when the ice has melted, said Dennis.
Right: OK, here is a photo of a Husky and a sledge and the chap at the right of the picture is carrying some snowshoes. This is, however, a photo of a post-card. It is as close as I am likely to get by the look of things. I'm still feeling jealous of David from the IOM.
Left: A bad photo of the ever patient Dennis serving 'nibbles' to what looks like a bloke with a weird toupee. His face is blurred, he must have had a bit to drink.
So, if you want my humble opinion, the train across Canada was a terrific experience and a very civilised and comfortable way to see a lot of the country. Of course, who your fellow travellers are is a bit of a lottery and all part of the mistique I suppose. Fortunately they seemed to put up with me. There were, as far as I am aware, no murders or defenestrations en-route. There might have been I suppose. Ask Dennis.
......onwards onwards. I have to catch a ferry to Victoria on Vancouver Island.