Last year, Catherine Hill won a trip to Canada to travel the country from west to east. In the second part of her prize trip, she finally gets to ride a train
“Look at that!” Probably the most uttered expression on the train from Prince Rupert to Jasper – and probably the most redundant. On a journey where every other glance was a photo opportunity even the most exacting of photographers was sated (that would be Andrew...)
It's a colossal backdrop, and it's Canada as we imagined it. We were so lucky to be travelling touring class – we spent most of the time in the panoramic car. Torticollis touristicus – a semi-permanent condition due to swivelling from awesome scenery on the one side to awesome scenery on the other.
Our VIA Rail hostesses, Diane and Marilyne, were warm and so funny, with a store of great tales. And statistics: heard the one about the entire United Kingdom fitting twice into British Columbia with a chunk left over? We heard it a lot: can't think why...
One of the nice things about rail travel is the bonding with fellow passengers. It even happens (in a surly sort of way) on the daily commute. It didn't take long for our group of travellers to establish a love-hate relationship with the many freight trains which share – no, dominate – this route. Love because they are behemoths of transport – we counted a staggering 178 railcars on one, and it was by no means the longest. Hate because freight is king, and on this largely single track line mere passengers are shunted onto the siding to await the passing of the giant – which could take half an hour, an hour...
As the enormous cavalcade (up to two miles long) eventually appears and lumbers past us we're treated to a very intimate view of the cargo: timber, wood chips, coal, grain, stone chippings, petroleum - petroleum? Hydrogen peroxide? Please keep moving!
Each and every railway story is about people, isn't it? People, often immigrants, who laid the track and hacked out tunnels under the hardest of conditions. People who built the trains, and their communities dependent on this industry. People who work on the trains and their professional but warm and friendly attitude. People who travel on the trains, from all walks of life: tourists like us, Canadians exploring their own vast country, people on business, people visiting family, students going home, people with a purpose, people with no purpose to speak of but a desire to see what lies round the next corner.
We've heard stories about the VIA Rail family – for instance the sheep farmer who lives on the Skeena route; he also happens to be the photographer behind a lot of VIA publicity material. The train whistles when we pass the farmhouse, and if the family's around they come out and wave.
There's another farmer who lives and farms on a bend of the river below a point where the train crosses a bluff. He's cut down a ridge of trees so that we can see his homestead as we pass (unusual behaviour for a farmer, this!)
And there's the postmistress at a tiny hamlet called Penny on the Fraser River, waiting at the side of the track for the train to slow down to deliver and collect a bagful of mail. Impossible to resist adding our own Penny Post to the sack of letters and cards!
“We're just waiting for McBride....” I couldn't understand this gnomic utterance – until, that is, we rolled into McBride, into the Robson Valley with cloud-topped Mount Robson as a backdrop and into the glorious wilderness that is Jasper National Park.
Andrew's on the doorstep of the car hire people as soon as they open in the morning. We're heading up the Icefields Parkway as far as the Athabasca Glacier. Another ridiculously, impossibly beautiful route!
The Icefields Centre is a large and recent addition to the scenery, built to facilitate all the many people (including us) eager to get out onto the glacier.
A coach takes us across the road and up to where the Ice Explorers leave for the glacier. They're specially built for the job with multiple huge wheels, and the speed is cautious down the frozen moraine and then up to the centre of the glacier. We're decanted onto the ice. The sun comes out and it's beautiful, with hints of blue over-riding the mottled surface. Someone has put out traffic cones to mark where there are melting holes. That's helpful.
As we drive away the ice explorers continue to crawl up the slopes like giant beetles. The story is of course the retreat of the ice, and we're glad to have seen it as it is.
We would have stayed longer on the Icefields Parkway, but we had a pressing appointment with sundry fauna. The evening wildlife tour started well with the appearance of a coyote. Apparently they hang out where the ravens gather to collect titbits, and then they mug the ravens. Good strategy for the coyote and for us, but maybe not for the ravens.
We soon learn to detect the signs of the presence of elk. It's a whole bunch of cars and tour buses screeching to a halt and pulling off the road in some disorder. The rut is in progress now, so we don't get too close to the magnificent bull elk who is guarding his harem.
We meet bighorn sheep, too – appropriately named and agile on the steep slopes. Then there's the red squirrel, tiny and delicate – and extremely abusive. It continues to yell what can only be squirrel profanities at us until we move out of earshot.
It starts to rain in Jasper, tentatively at first, and then with an enthusiasm that defies waterproofs. Logically enough we head off to the warm springs at Miette. We're not as logical as other people, though, who have stripped off and are indulging in extra water, warm this time albeit a bit sulphurous.
Glancing at a map we spot a reference to a beaver boardwalk on the outskirts of a nearby town. Not a chance, we think. So we drive there and find the boardwalk at the edge of a housing estate. Not a chance. We walk down along with the dog-walkers and evening joggers. No chance. And that huge beaver lodge over there – that must have been abandoned ages ago with all this human development? And that wet furry creature with the flappy tail carrying a long branch up the side of the lodge...?
This family of beavers (we spot at least six, including a couple of youngsters) has lived here on the Maxwell Lake for more than 20 years. No wonder they're cool about the human thing going on around them.
It's Jasper and it's snowing. That seems kind of right.
Yesterday's unexpected snow brought lots of excitement – tour buses getting stuck, visibility down to nothing, the Icefields glacier tours abandoned (due to snow...). The Inuit may have many words for snow; our tour guide has just the one: British. Apparently this stuff is just too wet and sticky, unlike the fine dry powder they get later in the autumn. British or Canadian, it is pretty!
We climb out of Jasper a bit to visit Maligne Canyon and take a boat trip onto Maligne Lake. The snow has created its magic by turning an already beautiful place into a mind-blowing vista. Maligne hardly seems the name.
Then we see the wolf. She's an older female and is on her own, away from the pack. This may be her last season. The park wardens are tracking her, checking to see where she goes.
They're also checking out the magnificent bull moose and his lady we encounter a little further down the road – but that's more about stopping over-excited tourists jumping out of their cars to take closeups. Bull moose are big animals, right? And tetchy at this time of year.
You're sitting on the VIA Rail Canadian (all 22 cars of it) admiring the Rockies as you start the journey from Jasper. Slam – no more mountains. The Rockies end abruptly and the Prairies begin – just like going through a door. Astonishing.
There's a suggestion that travellers find the Prairies boring. Not us. We respect these vast acres feeding this nation and many beyond. We love the old grain elevators for their decaying charm, but note the new and efficient versions too. We marvel at the numbers of snow geese on the stubbles and lakes, transformed into a white and blue kaleidoscope when they fly up. The MBTs have given way to sporadic groves of aspen, leafless now after the dry summer and the winds. Throw in a few potash mountains and several sawmills, and there you have it: this is a hard-working landscape.
We have a night on the Canadian before reaching Winnipeg. VIA Rail has given us upper and lower berths for this part of the journey, and it's fun nesting down in them after a distinctly elegant supper. Waking in the middle of the night to watch the stars, snuggled under a duvet as the train moves ever on – that's pretty special!
The snow in Winnipeg has taken everyone by surprise. The temperature was in the 30s only a few days ago.
Reminded of Winnipeg's 'Windy' nickname we head for the marvellous Museum of Manitoba, which takes us on a journey from Manitoba's earliest history to today. We were right: this state works hard. But not only that – Manitoba seems a hidden treasure which many tourists miss in their dash westwards to the Rockies or eastwards to Quebec and the maritime provinces. Stay in Manitoba and go north, and you have Churchill, Hudson Bay, the tundra and the polar bears, the rugged Canadian Shield lakes and boreal forests where the caribou still survive. South and you get the Central Plains, the prairies and the Parkland where the grass gives way to the forests.
And the ultimate incentive is Manitoba's very own, unique, comprehensive cinnamon bun trail....
Winnipeg itself is brimming with a red-hot arts culture and a great food scene. However, the Forks is not, as you might think, primarily about restaurants, although there are a number of them there. It's the place where the Assiniboine River flows into the Red River – and the Red River has been the vital transport link running through the history of Manitoba.
At the Museum we learn the difficult history of the mixed descent Metis; we see the long arm of the Hudson Bay Company reaching into the nation's trading. There's a heart-stopping moment as we turn a corner to see the full working replica of the 'Nonsuch', built and sailed to mark the 300 years anniversary of the HBC. Now it sits proudly in its lofty dry dock, a theatre of houses, quays and boats as they would have been in the 17th century.
Today (Monday) is Canada's Thanksgiving Day, and it's a time to celebrate with friends and family. We're surprised and delighted when our hosts invite us to join their families for Thanksgiving Dinner on the Sunday evening. It's huge fun; their lovely old house is decorated throughout with gold and red autumnal foliage, and we're made to feel very much at home.
On the day itself we're back on the train to Toronto, and VIA Rail celebrates too, with a glass of champagne and a special Thanksgiving menu featuring – yes, you've guessed it! – roast turkey and a delicious pumpkin pie.
In March 2011, we asked Wanderlust readers to write 250 words about an adventurous train journey they'd been on. We saw stories from Japan's east coast, Varanasi and Morocco, but our winning tale came all the way from a nostalgic Catherine Hill on Australia's Ghan. Read her winning experience online now.
You can follow the rest of Catherine's journey crossing Canada by train on her blog: travelswitharedhat.blogspot.co.uk.