Thursday, January 19, 2012

Coast to Coast Across Canada by Rail ... Part Four

By mid-afternoon, we’ve entered the vast rocky area above Lake Superior known as the Canadian Shield. This is real wilderness now, a forest of oak, maple, spruce and birch. Fallen trees and saplings bent double from heavy snows have created an impenetrable tangle. Every few minutes we pass a lake, almost every one with a resident loon paddling around on it. There are occasional small frame houses, one with a man filling an inflatable pool in the backyard with a garden hose.

Sharing my table for lunch is a couple from Scotland and we wonder aloud about the people in these little houses. Who are they? What brought them here? How do they make a living? We pass a number of hand-lettered signs for “outfitters,” so at least some are catering to visiting campers, hunters and fishermen.

Back in the observation car, a half dozen people are relaxing with soft drinks. I settle into a seat next to an American couple from North Carolina. He’s a chemistry professor and a model railroad enthusiast who happily describes the elaborate layout that has taken over their garage. “It keeps me occupied,” he says. “And out of my hair,” his wife says emphatically.

Outside, the landscape is more barren now, almost desolate, with trees struggling up out of rocky ground. We are, in fact, in the middle of a large area rich in minerals, the result, scientists say, of a meteor strike millions of years ago.

After a 30-minute stop in Sudbury, the Canadian resumes its journey, swinging more to the west and plunging back in the forest. Wilderness or no, a massive infrastructure is required to keep the trains moving. For instance, every switch along this route is connected to a tank of propane gas fueling burners that ignite automatically to prevent the switches from freezing in the winter.

After an excellent meal in the dining car, I collect my toiletry kit and a towel provided by VIA and walk to the head of the car for a delightful hot shower. My bed is made up in the meantime and I drift off to sleep as the Canadian passes above Lake Superior.

(This story originally ran in International Living magazine
and subsequently appeared on the web site.)


Anonymous said...

I'm envious, mainly because I think your train is probably on the same route as the Canadian Pacific described in Jack London's classic piece on hoboing passenger trains, "Holding Her Down" from The Road ( or

Jools Stone said...

Wow, this brins back some memories Jim. I took the Canadain last September, terrific scenery, great food and service, interesting mix of travellers, loved every minute of it! Just wish there were more smoke stops and that the bar stayed open a little later! :)
Think they've changed the timing now since you took it. We set off from Toronto around 10pm and Winnipeg was an early morning stop. Funny old place that!
You describe it all excellently, thanks!
Here's my series of posts in case you're interested.

JIM LOOMIS said...

Absolutely correct, Jools. VIA has changed the timetable dramatically since my last trip on the Canadian. What was a 3-night trip (Toronto-Vancouver)now takes four night. It's my understanding that the change was to see that the train stops at larger cities at more reasonable times of the day.