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Leaving for Canada

The Canadian, a train that runs between two oceans

The Canadian, a train that runs between two oceans

Pierre-Brice Lebrun - 2011-06-14

The Canadian crosses Canada from coast to coast, from the Great Lakes to the port of Vancouver, taking three days and four nights. From Ontario to British Columbia through Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, this journey of 2775 miles is interspersed by a dozen stops in the vast natural wilderness of this, the largest nation of the Americas.

Sioux Lookout, Ontario. It’s one in the morning. The Canadian’s silver carriages are immobilised along the platform. The station is tiny. Sioux Lookout sees no more than six trains per week; there’s no chance of any crowds here - no staff, waiting room, or desk, just a closed building and a ViaRail sign that displays the timetables. Opposite, across the deserted street, are a few painted wooden houses with pickups parked outside. The imagination conjures up sleeping lumberjacks and hunters, under a caribou head with guns slung under their arms. It’s perfect for a nocturnal postcard: nothing is missing, there is even a maple leaf flag flapping in the wind next to a lamppost.

The train, which had been rumbling along for hours is now still, our comfortable berth no longer bumps around at every turn or with every brisk acceleration, and there are no more passing trains that love nothing better than to sound their loud horns.

Between Capreol and Kamloops

The unexpected calm that greets passengers arriving in Sioux Lookout has something unreal about it. Sounds and lights are muffled and seem to come from elsewhere. Three or four shadows in pyjamas make the most of the stop to smoke a cigarette, hurriedly. It must be said that the train has not stopped since Hornepayne, nine hours previous. The staff on duty on the platform at Sioux Lookout shuffle around out of a sense of duty, not looking too convincing: no one is getting on or off. It’s difficult to imagine a tourist spending his holidays here ...

The Canadian has been moving for nearly thirty hours.  On Tuesday at 10pm it departed Toronto’s Union Station - but it still hasn’t left Ontario: it should get to Manitoba in the early morning, just after Rice Lake. Then it will arrive in Winnipeg – where we’ll have a four hours stop to have a look around the city. Then on to Saskatoon, Edmonton...

Saskatoon is a mythical name which sounds like Timbuktu, Kerguelen or Pondicherry and evokes far-off destinations. Saskatoon was founded in 1883 by immigrants and was named after a berry, the cousin of the blueberry which also has the same name as the river running through the city, unless of course it’s the other way round!

The Canadian has to cross three time zones before arriving in Vancouver. The first change plunges even the greatest morning types into pangs of reflection: the Central Standard Time, which replaces Eastern Standard Time is (CUT* -5). You wonder whether the dining car’s opening time should be put forward or back? The journey follows the rhythm of the mealtimes which are the day’s only appointments. Fortunately the food is good aboard the Canadian. A la carte menus offer three course meals, fresh bread, Californian wine (with a surcharge), copious breakfasts with bacon, sausages, , muffins and scrambled eggs, baked beans, pancakes and maple syrup.

The great plains of Manitoba

The windows close along with ones eyes when the train starts again slowly. It’s just five hours before the large plains of Manitoba loom ahead. Canada starts to become agricultural whereas Ontario consisted of endless lakes and rivers in this huge province of 600,000 square miles of which two-thirds is covered by water and forests. The Great Lakes (Superior, Michigan, Huron, Erie and Ontario) are fed by thousands of small streams and wetlands which abound in this province and make up 18% of the planet’s freshwater reserves.

The cows, grain and oil wells of the Great Plains of Manitoba have replaced the beavers and the rapids of Ontario. One passenger swears he even saw an elk and the next day a grizzly bear, just before Jasper. The other, sceptical but conciliatory opposite him at the table, pretends to believe him. Here the Indians once hunted bison and stagecoaches made their way westward, guided by trappers and protected by the blue tunics. However they were overrun by gold miners who colonised the Yukon by vanquishing the Klondikes. In the privacy of one’s compartment, you can just close your eyes for a moment and imagine the scenes.

When the solitary traveller retires to his narrow cabin it has something of a monastic feel. In front of the screen of your window, you can let your thoughts wander freely. You think, you remember, you reflect and make decisions, alone with yourself in the immensity of Canada, which has the same soothing effect on one’s neurons as Gregorian chants.

The Canadian’s carriages have a fifties charm: in first class everyone has a small single, double or family cabin (which sleeps four), and everyone has their own toilet and sink, but showers are at the end of each car. Sleeping in costs you dearly: as testified by five or six people waiting in the hallway, with towel and toiletries in hand telling their stories of what they did yesterday in the Skyline lounge, with panoramic windows and sunroof and cup of coffee in hand.

Welcome to Saskatchewan!

Unfortunately we don’t get the time to see much of Saskatchewan, nor of Saskatoon, its main city either, because its station has been relegated to the suburbs. So the train bypasses the downtown area and by three o'clock in the morning it is already entering Alberta, having changed the time zone once again.

The serious stuff begins after Edmonton: the Rockies, the Rocky Mountains! A picture postcard Canada unfurls, all day long, before the travellers’ eyes, amazing them and moving them: raging rivers, forests of fir trees, unfathomable, snowy, inaccessible peaks, and endless raging torrents until we get to Jasper and beyond.

Jasper is a very touristy wooden village which seems to be the most photographed in Canada. Located in the heart of National Park of the same name, it’s a paradise for hikers, bears, wolves, cougars, elk and moose and is irrigated by the River Athabasca. Travellers enjoy time off to shop in the downtown boutiques. Reassuringly at every street corner, a sign reminds visitors to beware of the brown bears, who have no fear of venturing into the town. Leaving food lying around, or greasy papers, or unsecured dustbins are offences punished with heavy fines.

Jasper is also the terminus for other trains train which reach the Pacific coast in two days. They cross the Rockies, but connections with the Canadian are impossible. As we move away from Jasper, we now depart Alberta. Welcome to British Columbia! Welcome to Pacific Standard Time! The journey's end is near, but the sunset over the Rockies is so beautiful that the tables at dinner are almost empty.

When the sun rises, Vancouver is only a few miles away. The convoy slows down and starts to drag along as if it understood its passengers’ desires. It moves along at a reasonable speed allowing passengers to enjoy their last breakfast, pack their bags while watching log rafts floating down the Fraser, led by skilled loggers observed by lazy seals.

Travellers arrive back on the Caribou floors at Vancouver Pacific Central Station, on Station Street in front of Thornton Park at the corner of Terminal Avenue, when a seaplane flies overhead. Wow! We’re still in Canada! And the thrills are not yet over...

* CUT: Coordinated Universal Time (CUT 0 which corresponded until 1972 with Greenwich Mean Time).

ViaRail – The Canadian crosses Canada three times a week in both directions and takes 83 hours. The cost is roughly £1900 to £2550 (meals and drinks included) for a couple in a 2nd class cabin (from £1700 to £2300 for couples over 60 years old £1000 to £1500 for a single person, £2300 to £3400 for a family of 3 to 4). One can also travel seated without berths or meals.

For further information, contact ViaRail Canada: www.viarail.ca

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