Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Canadian Rockies, part 1: train journey

An e-mail from VIA Rail the morning of departure:

Please note that train 1 will now leave at 01:30 AM from Toronto which is 3h30 hours later than originally scheduled. 

 Ah well.  Gives me some extra time to prepare.  Preparation for the trip has been hectic, because my return from Iowa City was delayed from Monday night to Wednesday morning — that's a 36 hour delay right there, on a 1000 km flight.  So the 3½ extra hours to prepare for the Rockies is not so bad.

Although the train starts in Toronto, we cannot enter the train early to sleep.  We'll have to wait.

Around midnight I take the subway downtown.  I need to check my luggage on the train — a suitcase and a backpack — and wait for the boarding calls.  The Canadian way.  While waiting, we don't sit at the platform, but in the hall below.  It seems very empty, only later I realise that by the route I took from the subway, I somehow bypassed the main hall and don't see where most people are sitting.  More waiting.  Finally, a bit after 01:30, the general boarding call is issues.  Up to the platform and down to the very end of the very long train.

The sleeping car attendent awaits us and shows us where to go.  My upper berth is what is technically called a section.  During the night, it is a longitudinal bed separated from the corridor by a curtain.  The lower berth (which is empty) has a window.  The upper berth does not.  During the day it converts to a seat.  My home for the next 67 hours.

I ask the sleepin car attendent why we are so late.  The answer is simple.  Freight traffic.  The train came in to Toronto 10 hours late, and departs it 4 hours late.  OK.

The sleeping car ticket includes three meals per day and unlimited snacks in the lounge and activity cars.  Breakfast is served from 6:30 to 8:30.  Having boarded at 02:00, I'll miss the first breakfast.

I wake up at around 09:00 and get out to see where we are.  Sudbury Junction.  The delay is not getting any less.  For breakfast I take muffins and fruits in the observation car, where I spend most of my time.  We're in the boreal forest now, and will be so for at least another 24 hours.  I used to think the Swedish forest was empty.  And I used to think the Swedish train had tiny stops.  Some of these stops make Sjisjka seem major.

Ruel central station.  A typical Northern Ontario stop.
The train is slow and waits frequently.  The landscape is similar to Sweden, but emptier, with less forestry and considerably less cottages.  Trees, trees, rocks, lakes, trees, and more trees.  Feels like we're in the far north, yet we're only at around 50°.  My stay in the observation car is interrupted only for lunch and dinner, which are called in two sittings.  I end up in the early sitting, but it's slow food, so we don't actually start eating until more than half an hour after we arrive in the dining car.  The time is spent talking to other travellers.  Most are above 65.

The train has frequent and long stops to wait for very long and very slow freight trains.  I count more than 250 containers on some.  Most of it is grain from the prairies.  By following on the map where we are, comparing with the timetable, and being awed by the emptiness of the land, I thoroughly enjoy my day.

Second morning, Saturday 30 August.  Sioux Lookout.  That means we're 7 hours late now.  Still deep in the boreal forest.  By now I've been longer on this train than I've ever been on any (but it's not, and won't become, my longest train journey — that's still Kiruna-Ronda + 1½ day delay, although it is my longest scheduled train journey), and I'm thoroughly enjoying it.  Today we will leave the forest!

More lakes and hills, some steep enough so the track goes through a tunnel:

Between the stations we seem to make up time by going fast, but only to be stopped for 45 minutes waiting for another freight train.

Another small stop, Redditt, not to be confused with a popular internet forum:

And then, suddenly, around lunch time, we leave the forest.  For the past 36 hours we have seen only trees and lakes.  Not a single field, not even the tiniest patch of an odd fellow trying agriculture as far north as 50°.  And then, suddenly, just after leaving Ontario and entering Manitoba, we're on the prairies.  When you leave the shield, you leave the shield.

We have a 5 hour scheduled stop in Winnipeg.  It becomes much less, which means the delay is a bit shortened, but there is still time to explore the area around the train station a bit.

Canadian Museum for Human Rights

Bridge over Red River, Winnipeg

The Forks National Historic Site

And then we're off again, for the next segment: the prairies.  It's almost evening.  The prairies are a lot more interesting than I thought.  Just as it gets dark we leave Manitoba and enter Saskatchewan.

And I prepare for my 3rd night on the train.  We left Winnipeg with only a 3 hour delay, but now we're on 5 hours again.  And the next morning it will be 7.

Sunday.  Today we're supposed to arrive to Jasper by 13:00, but it's clear we're going to be nowhere near to making that.  Saskatchewan and eastern Alberta, too, look nicer than I'd thought.

In a curve, one can easily photograph the front of the train from the rear.

While we stop in Edmonton — the last major stop before my final destination — I receive a text message from the manager of the Maligne Canyon Wilderness Hostel where I have booked lodging for tonight.  My last-minute parcel (a Garcia Machine Backpacker's Cache Bear Resistent Food Container) has arrived and he picked it up for me and took it to the hostel.  Great service!

Not long after leaving Edmonton, we finally see the Rockies.  Now the ride gets really scenic.  I'm almost there.

Just after 19:00 MDT we arrive to Jasper, a little over 6 hours late and just a little bit too late for the visitor centre.  I wanted to visit it before heading off on my trip, but it'll have to be without.  Not completely as one should, but I have a long day tomorrow, and I don't want to mess up my schedule.  I had a great, great railway journey.  Now I'm in the mountains.  Now I want to hike.

No comments: