Tuesday, March 25, 2008

My Trans-Canada Rail Journey – Part 7

The next morning is a beautiful day – clear blue skies and bright sun – and after checking out of the Royal York Hotel, I cross the street to the massive Union Station, ready to begin the last and longest leg of my trans-continental journey – the three-night trip across two-thirds of the continent to Vancouver on the Pacific Coast aboard VIA Rail’s premier train, the Canadian, otherwise and appropriately known as Train #1.

An hour before our scheduled departure time of 9:30, passengers begin gathering in and around the first class lounge, nibbling on the free pastries, checking in with the conductors, and securing luncheon reservations in one of the two dining cars. At 9:00, we begin filing through a glass door and up an escalator to the platform.

The Canadian is there waiting for us – a long line of gleaming stainless steel cars, windows sparkling clean and car attendants waiting at the stairs to welcome us aboard. We’re not yet in the peak travel season, but this is nevertheless a very long train: three diesel locomotives pulling a baggage car, two coaches and a lounge/food service car for the coach passengers. Then come twelve sleeping cars for the first class passengers whose creature comforts are looked after with two lounge cars, each with a glass dome, two dining cars and a lounge/dome car with the classic rounded end, the very last car on the train.

I’m in car 120, three cars from the rear of the train. Waiting there to greet me is car attendant Bob Brown, who says that in peak season – July and August – the train often has 30-31 cars with three diners. Bob, along with the rest of the car attendants and dining car crews, will be with us as far as Winnipeg where a whole new crew will take over for the remainder of the trip to Vancouver.

I climb aboard and step into bedroom 3, my home away from home for the next three nights. After stowing my carry-on bag in an overhead rack, I head back through the train to the observation car at the very rear.

Even before our scheduled departure, a gaggle of passengers has filled the lower level of the Park car at the end of the train and every seat in the dome is taken. Our scheduled departure time of 9:00 comes and goes, and a woman in lounge area asks, “When are we going to leave?” Her husband shrugs, then pointing forward, says, “Whenever. At least we know it’ll be in that direction.” Not 30 seconds later, the Canadian starts moving, but is backing up and the woman gives her husband a withering look. There's good-natured laughter all around and he looks sheepish, but it’s an effective ice-breaker and within seconds there are several conversations underway.

We soon come to a stop and, after a brief pause, begin moving forward. For the next few minutes the Canadian threads its way through a maze of switches. Then, sliding out onto the main line, we gather speed and it really feels as though we’re on our way.

About four hours after leaving Toronto, I’m having lunch in the diner with a Scotish couple, one of several on board. During the meal, a conductor comes onto the PA system and says there is a bear on the left side of the train. There are 15-16 cars ahead of us and by the time the diner reaches the spot the bear has disappeared. With a twinkle, the man -- whose name, believe it or not, is Angus -- observes that dead tree stumps look a lot like bears.

We’re passing through real wilderness now. Thick woods - oak, maple, spruce, birch, with saplings, many bent from heavy snows - plus fallen trees, all causing a thick tangle. Every few minutes we pass a lake and almost every one seems to have a resident loon paddling around on it. We pass occasional small frame houses and conversation turns to wondering aloud about the people living in these homes. Who are they? What brought them here? How do they make a living?

At least some appear to be catering to outdoors people from the cities – campers, hunters and fishermen. Indeed, just during the course of lunch we spot several signs for “outfitters.” The terrain is uneven, rising and falling outside the window of our diner. The train slows and changes direction periodically to pass between great masses of reddish rock.

We cross a modest-sized river that bisects a small town, then burrow back into the Canadian wilderness. The visual pattern continues for miles: thick forest, then a sudden gap revealing a lake or a small house and providing a poster-quality snapshot of this incredible near-pristine wilderness.

I wander three cars back to the Park car where, as usual the dome is near to capacity and, on the lower level, a half dozen people are relaxing with soft drinks and polite conversation. I find myself seated next to a couple from North Carolina. He’s a chemistry professor and a model railroad enthusiast who nods periodically as his wife describes the elaborate set-up that has taken over their garage back home. “It keeps me occupied,” he says a bit defensively. “And out of my hair,” the woman says firmly.

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