Even the longest journey starts with the first step, so they say. It's a very long step in distance, time, and mindset from Sydney Australia to the Northern Ontario town of Sudbury. My Air Canada flight left a Sydney bathed in Saturday morning sunlight and arrived in a cloud-shrouded Vancouver, over 12,500 kilometers and nearly fourteen hours later – yet it was still Saturday morning. Jet-lagged passengers might easily imagine they'd experienced some sort of "groundhog-day" fantasy when, in fact, they'd only crossed the International Date Line.
I had a full day of wandering Vancouver's streets, sampling its eateries, and fossicking among dusty volumes stacked in its many second-hand bookshops. Eventually, I found my way to the Pacific Central Station a couple of hours before departure time, eagerly anticipating the next step of my journey on board Via Rail Canada’s The Canadian. This rail trip is reported to be "…among the most famous trains in the world (it even appears on the Canadian $10 bill), renowned for its friendly service, world-class food and comfortable accommodation."
As railway stations go, Vancouver Central is neither one of the world’s busiest nor does it dominate its surroundings with a particularly unique architectural style. Nevertheless, the building is well appointed with clean restrooms, plenty of church-pew seating, and a café with free WiFi.
The accommodation options for the long-haul journeys, such as Vancouver to Toronto, include the Prestige Sleeper Class (from C$3272 per person), Sleeper Plus (from C$1084), and Economy (C$375). While the Prestige Sleeper Class includes such extras as a spacious cabin, shower, and priority boarding, my economy class fare provided for a "comfortable reclining seat with table tray." For my three-day trip of some 3,800 kilometers, I purposely chose the more basic option as being the more adventurous, and I never regretted that decision. I could even have managed without the tray – but the comfortable seat? Essential. And if I had paid for a sleeper, I would not have experienced queuing to board the train with my fellow economy-class travelers and their families of crying infants. But, as I later found out, the flexible timetable suited patient travelers such as myself – in no particular hurry and just happy to savor every moment.
When the boarding of economy-class passengers finally started, some three hours later than the train’s scheduled departure at 8:30pm, we formed up in an orderly march of "refugees" along the platform to The Canadian’s first two carriages. Fortunately, every solo passenger could claim two seats on which to stretch out. Some couples shared and snuggled while others split for more room and solitude elsewhere in the carriage.
Shoes off, seat back, I hunkered down for the night as The Canadian lurched off through Vancouver’s eastern rail yards, outer suburbs, and numerous level-crossings with lights streaming red amid a clamor of clanging bells. The train’s plaintive blasts always heralded its approach to these crossings, counted while often half asleep – two long sheep…one short…one long…a change of position…more sheep…lights and bells…then just the chaos of reflected, interior lights to intrude upon my reveries.
Suddenly, I awoke to the first blush of dawn along the North Thompson River. Time for a decent cup of tea and a breakfast of eggs and bacon quickly served up by short-order cook, Simon in his galley located beneath the viewing compartment of the Skyline observation car. His "Café Express" menu offered economy-class passengers a selection of substantial breakfast, lunch, and dinner options ranging from C$8-$12 per meal. Throughout the day, a take-out menu provided a variety of snacks and light meals, hot beverages, and juices. The Skyline observation car soon became my second home from home, both for well-cooked sustenance and the visual stimulation of the world without. It also became a favorite place for those in economy to meet and chat. Passengers riding the sleepers had their own observation car further back along the train.
Some ten hours and 400 kilometers from Vancouver, The Canadian crossed the North Thompson River and pulled into the Kamloops North station. The gray, morning sky of stacked cumulus and the black lines of oil tankers queued in the rail yards imparted a desolate aspect to the arid-brown hills of this part of British Columbia. But the cheerless environment did not last long after Kamloops.
As The Canadian rolled north and east, the clouds remained but seemed now to enhance the lushness of the taller pine and the white water of the North Thompson and Clearwater Rivers far below. About midday, The Canadian slowed for passengers to marvel at Pyramid Creek Falls, a broad froth of white water that drops from some 300 feet down Mount Cheadle before racing beneath the tracks and on down to the North Thompson River. Next to loom into view, Mount Robson, at 12,972 feet, the loftiest peak in the Canadian Rockies unfortunately appeared heavily shrouded in mist.
We reached Jasper, some 800 kilometers from Vancouver, later that afternoon. Stepping from the train, I immediately felt insignificant standing amid the surrounding peaks and valleys of Jasper National Park. Here were the awe-inspiring Rockies as I had imagined them, with their soaring pinnacles dwarfing all else. As I strolled the streets of outfitters, souvenir shops, and cafes, I had a sense of enterprise and adventure just being there in that small place carved from raw wilderness. The stop of an hour would not be nearly enough to fully absorb the majesty of it all, but, with a few photos taken, passengers heeded the "All Aboard!" call, and we were soon eastward bound to a second night on the train.
The Canadian commenced a gradual descent through the foothills of the Rockies toward Edmonton. As darkness once again intruded, plaintive blasts announced our passage through the small settlements of Hinton, Edson, Carrot Creek, and Evansburg. Despite the lateness of the hour, the density of road traffic increased as we approached Edmonton’s western suburbs of underpasses, traffic lights, and the familiar sign of a McDonald's. In fact, the CN station at Edmonton is hardly bigger than a McDonald’s. It is also located on a spur off the main line, so it required a considerable amount of maneuvering to position some of The Canadian alongside.
By 1:30 on the second morning, the train had regained the main line and departed Edmonton. The city’s eastern rail yards and suburbs became another sleepy blur of whistle blasts and a pandemonium of level-crossing bells and lights as we sped on toward a Saskatchewan dawn. Crossing the South Saskatchewan River over one of many bridges provides a magnificent entrance to Saskatoon – the "Paris of the prairies" – just over 500 kilometers from Edmonton. However, as the station is again situated miles from the city center, there is little to see apart from the modest station building and rail yards.
On the train you do learn curious historical tidbits that might otherwise go unnoticed, such as Saskatchewan's "Old Bone Trail" where early settlers used to collect the bones of slaughtered bison and ship them by rail to the United States to be processed into fertilizer. That was back in the 1880s before bison became nearly extinct. Nowadays, growing bison herds are farmed commercially.
An hour later, The Canadian left Saskatoon and, for the rest of the day, skimmed across acres of browning grassland and the scarred fields of yellow earth where reaping blades had cut deeply into the wheat, barley, oats, and canola crops. After having reached the end of long, rolling marches, tight bales of hay crouched upon adjoining fields like regiments of infantry ready to defend their farms against winter famine. And then, as a reminder that there is some purpose to the ravages of the land, gray silos lunged upward above railway spurs and dusty roads that ran straight to the far horizon.
By late afternoon, that straight-line horizon became ruffled by the contours of higher ground, which grew steadily on approach like the dark clouds of an impending storm. Our arrow-like progress, mile after mile across the prairies, also seemed to labor as we encountered the lumpier ground west of Winnipeg.
At dinner time, The Canadian skirted along the high country above the Assiniboine River Valley, one of the most serene, greenest places on earth at that time of late summer. As the train continued along the valley, a fellow diner, a German tourist, suddenly dropped his cutlery to stare at two mule deer grazing just a few yards from the train. "A constantly moving picture," he exclaimed.
Just after 8pm on the second day, The Canadian pulled into Winnipeg's Union Station, and all passengers disembarked so the carriages could be cleaned and the crew changed. At last, I thought, a station reminiscent of the glory days of train travel. It is no coincidence that the station’s entranceway, arched between imposing Roman columns, resembles New York’s Grand Central Station, as both buildings had been designed by the same architects. The foyer of Winnipeg station continues the tradition of grand buildings, roofed as it is with a magnificent, translucent dome framed in white and azure and fringed with gold.
Reboarding had finished by 10pm, and I settled into my seat for the final, and longest, third day of my journey – only 1500 kilometers to go. By this time, my seating area had become my new home with camera, sunglasses, books, and a cryptic crossword within easy reach. While I dipped into a book occasionally, I mostly used my camera and glasses during the journey. The crossword never had a chance while Canada paraded past my window.
As the suburbs of Winnipeg drifted past, I now found it easier to slide into a sleep of sorts despite the distractions of whistle blasts and level-crossings. I also had a feeling of anticipation that the morning would bring with it the lakes, rivers and forests of Northern Ontario – the landscape of my youth. Consequently, the night is remembered as a series of repositions until breakfast and a welcome cup of tea.
Nearly 3000 kilometers from Vancouver, we reached Ontario with a short, morning stop at Sioux Lookout. The settlements of Mud River, Longlac, Hornepayne, and Foleyet (the home of the white moose) then followed. As the day wore on, the progress of The Canadian through lanes of fir, maple, poplar, and birch kept pace with a stirring parade of memories of a distant time – the final step of my journey.
Shortly after midnight, The Canadian pulled into Sudbury Junction. I packed my stuff, checked the seat pocket for the third time, and left the carriage that had been my home for three days. Outside, absolute darkness and a barely lit, unmanned station greeted me, a reminder that, during my hours aboard The Canadian, I had come to resent nightfall and its concealment of so much country. With that disgruntled thought, I had to ask myself: Why not just fly?
I thought about that a bit and then realized that, all things considered, the trip was worth a certain amount of discomfort and annoyance, if for no other reason than to have three days of guilt-free idleness. What a pleasure to have nothing more important to do than sit by the broad windows of my railway carriage and admire the immensity and diversity of the great Canadian landscape. I could not have experienced anything like it from the confines of an aircraft fuselage. And with that thought I said to myself: I might just ride the rails across Canada again someday and, next time, maybe I'll make it a true cross-Canada trip, coast to coast, Pacific to Atlantic.