by Katy Tahja, June 5, 2011
Did you ever hear a folk song that stuck with you the rest of your life? A song full of beauty and wonder that spoke of an unknown world you'd like to see some day? In my starving college student days of the late 1960's that song for me was Gordon Lightfoot's “Canadian Railroad Trilogy.”
The balladeer sang of the building of the transcontinental railway across Canada and I wanted to see “Where the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun” and I wanted to travel “Up the St. Lawrence all the way to Gaspe” and pass “into the muskeg and into the rain.” I wanted to watch as “Behind the blue Rockies the sun is declining” and admire “The green dark forest too silent to be real.”
Well, it took 40 years but I pulled it off and got to ful-fill that dream with a train trip across Canada a few years ago. “From the eastern shore to the western strand” on the very line Lightfoot sang about. I happen to be married to a man who loves long train trips. Our last rail extravaganza review is on the AVA's website under “Train Trekking to the Great White Bears.” We road the rails to Hudson's Bay to see polar bears, but that's another story.
There's a wonderful rail travel company out of Irvine California that specializes in unusual tours. We'd used them for the Hudson's Bay trip and were impressed with the excellent planning, attention to detail and customer service. Mountain Outin' is such a class operation they don't have to advertise. Their repeat customers, like us, fill up their tours and they provide days off so you don't spend your whole tour on the rails.
Many of our tour group boarded the Coast Starlight in Los Angeles heading north to Vancouver B.C. and the official start of the trip. Being experienced AMTRAK travelers the first thing they did was start a betting pool on how late AMTRAK would be arriving in Portland. AMTRAK always ran late then. Always. Regular train travelers in the U.S. always build in delay time into their schedules and plans. You can't micromanage time when AMTRAK has to share tracks with freight trains. Mountain Outin' had allowed for these time gaps whenever we made connections.
We boarded the Coast Starlight in Sacramento May 5. There we were, at midnight, with 50 other folks, at the stated departure time. At 2 a.m. we were still there waiting. That's why we had not reserved a rather pricey sleeping compartment on board. We'd guessed we'd only use it a few hours and for one night we could sit in coach class with economy travelers.
AMTRAK never announces why a train is late. It just is...so it was after 2 a.m. when we boarded. It wasn't crowded so folks could curl up or stretch out over two seats. Lights were out and people were snoozing when down the aisle comes a babbling drunk woman looking for someone to start an argument with. In her own little world she'd mutter and talk loudly to herself and when someone asked her to quiet down she'd launch into them yelling. This behavior got her put off the train by atten-dants at a stop somewhere in the night to the relief of other passengers. Note: Not all night coach cars feature crazies...but some do...which is why experienced train travelers carry ear plugs in their bags or pay extra for a sleeping compartment.
Food on AMTRAK was all microwaved four years ago so we only used the snack car for hot coffee and tea, as we'd brought an edible feast along with us in our carry-on luggage. Sticky buns, fruit, jerky, crackers, cheese, granola bars, candy, juice, beer, you name it-one of us probably had a stash of it in our bags. We'll never starve.
Winding through the Siskiyou and Cascade mountains is a lovely way to spend a day and we were in Portland Oregon by evening...about two hours late. Watching the tour director orchestrate taxi pick ups for 50 people and their luggage to a local motel and getting everyone their right room key was amazing. This guy did it, and did it well, over and over again during the tour.
From Portland we rode AMTRAK's Cascade Talgo to Seattle where we switched to motorcoach for the journey to Vancouver B.C. We were told we couldn't bring raw vegetables and fruit past Customs so bags of mini carrots and apple slices were passed around the bus to be munched up. With passports in hand we waited at Customs but a busload of senior citizens on the way to spend two weeks and lots of their money in Canada must not have seemed too threatening because we were waved right through. After settling in at a motel and a meal we went looking for beer to buy.
Yes, you can buy beer on a train, but it's expensive. My husband has a special bag for carrying a 12 pack around. It clinks suspiciously when boarding the train but no one has ever complained. Since beer is not sold in mini-marts in Canada he had a nice hike to the nearest place he could load up for the trip. Along with trains he really likes beer.
Now Vancouver was getting ready to host a Winter Olympics and a lot of infrastructure work was under way between there and Whistler, where the skiing events took place. A new luxury train between the two locations had started a few weeks before. Called the Whistler Mountaineer it offers “Glazcier Dome” service and a meal for $165 one way. .
The intended market is rich folks and high end cruise ship passengers who want to make the trip in comfort. Everything was splendid, from the attendants who met you at the bus with an umbrella so you wouldn't get wet walking in the rain in the train to the great coffee and good food prepared by real cooks, not a microwave oven. The scenery was spectacular, the staff knowledgeable, the equipment sparkling, well worth whatever price (discounted) our clever tour director had negotiated.
After passing Vancouver suburbs and the Howe Sound we climbed into the mountains. The train stopped for a “Kodak Moment” on a bridge over the cusp of a waterfall. You saw the river under the bridge, then just a razor sharp line and it disappeared as it fell down rocky cliffs. We were dropped off in Whistler. It was like step-ping into Las Vegas, minus casinos, done with trees and European Alps architecture.
All we saw in Whistler were developments built from bare ground with huge hotels interconnected with cobblestone streets of cute shops. No cars are allowed to clutter this landscape-it's for pedestrians-with money-who want to ski. I asked a clerk when ski season ended. She said never. Seems they helicopter you higher and higher into the mountains as seasons change and you can ski all year if you can afford it. Whistler was interesting because its working class is largely populated by Aussies. Seems it has one of then largest expat Australian concentrations outside of their homeland. Every menial clerk and service worker we met was Australian and probably there for the skiing.
We discovered a regional Canadian food there called Beaver Tails. Think pizza crust about the size of a paper plate deep fried and topped with your choice of about 20 different food stuffs. We tried one with butter and maple sugar and one with cinnamon apples but we could have had pesto or chili if we wanted. The return to Vancouver on the Sea to the Sky highway was done by bus. After a tour of Vancouver's Stanley Park we went to the VIA rail station to board the Canadian and begin our 3850 mile trip across Canada to Halifax Nova Scotia.
From this point on we all had private sleeping compartments with bathrooms and showers. VIA rail uses older equipment from the 1950's and 1960's but they spent something like one million dollars a car refurbishing the sleepers, parlor cars, a diners to top notch condition. Day and night we spent hours in the domed observation cars enjoying the views. Car attendants were attentive, beds came with down comforters, and the food featured regional fish and meats. A fish entree was served with steamed fiddlehead fern sprouts-an Ontario regional delicacy. Canadian wines and beers were available and the tea water was always hot and the teapot large. A cheese, cracker and grape plate was a popular desert alternative to sweets and meals were served with crisp linens, china and real cutlery, no plastics and throwaways like AMTRAK featured then.
Exercise onboard can consist of walking up and down the length of the train-often a quarter mile long. We joke Canadian rail travel can be summed up in three words “Eat...Sleep...Repeat.” As there is no smoking allowed anyplace on a VIA rail train about every four hours there was a smoke stop where passengers could get outside to smoke or walk. I thought it perhaps a sign of the time that no one on our tour smoked. Drink yes...but no smokers.
Smoking stops were excellent times to go find more beer too. My hubby combined exercise with a search for liquid refreshment . Did I mention the sink in the bath-room of our compartment makes an excellent ice bucket when filled with ice cubes to keep the beer cold? Of course it gets complicated and messy when you actually want to use the sink for its intended purpose. Oh well...
As we're rockhounds these stops were fun for rock collecting too. We'd wander off looking for the nearest pile of dirt and stone to see what the local geology featured and look for interesting additions to our rock col-lection. This habit weighs down your luggage after awhile...as does that beer.
The ever changing panorama out the window was a delight. Mt. Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies, was passed as was Jasper National Park and its herds of elk. The train sped through the prairies with buffalo, and farmlands of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Winnipeg provided a longer stop where we led fellow travelers to the Forks Market.
Canada has this habit of converting old buildings into urban marketplaces full of produce, bakeries, deli's, gift shops, dining establishments, liquor outlets, T-shirt shops...you name it...you'll find it. In Winnipeg, Ottawa and Toronto we spent hours in these wonderlands of great food and tourist treats. Forks Market is just such a place, but also is full of historical exhibits. The forks of the river here have been a gathering place for natives, pioneers, immigrants and tourists for hundreds of years.
Leaving Winnipeg headed east we passed out of the prairies and into birch and pine forests interspersed with ponds, lakes and rivers. Before this trip the Canadian Shield was something I read about in geology books. Glaciers covered Canada, when they retracted they left bare rock which has managed to produce a little soil. I saw this area go on for hundreds of miles and with all the ponds of still water could only imagine what the mosquito population must be like in summer time.
Toronto gave us a day off from the rail trip to relax, explore and do laundry. We visited galleries featuring Inuit art from the natives of far northern Canada. While rock and bone are the only materials available to carve they manage to produce stunning and magical sculpture. We spend our tourist dollars at shops that support native arts and crafts artisans back in their homelands. Nunavet, Canada's newest province, carved out of the Northwest Territories, is just such a homeland.
The St. Lawrence Marketplace was mind boggling. Not some cute tourist destination this is where chefs from the best restaurants come to buy provisions. Butcher shops were just that...a side of beef or pork hanging on a hook awaiting attention. Meat products were not wrapped in plastic but stacked in artistic piles in refrigerated cases awaiting inspection. I saw a steak that weighed 15 pound circled in marbled fat. Any conceivable cut of flesh from any creature on four legs in Canada or a British colony seemed available-even cuts of kangaroo.
Passing the butchers a person found seafood sellers with fish I'd never heard of, followed by cheese booths. I looked at a cold case six feet long of cheese from Portugal. Just Portugal. There were, of course, cheese stalls from any country on earth that made cheese and exported it. The bakeries and pastry shops were aromatic and made you drool. The produce vendors vied for space with the Canadian wine merchants. Some stalls just featured candy, some just jams and honey. A housewares booth sold hundreds of cookie cutters in a myriad of designs. And yes, some sold T-shirts and postcards too.
Excuse me, maybe I've spent too much of my adult life in Comptche, a very small town in rural Mendocino county, but these marketplaces were heaven to me. Train trips are fun, museums are nice, but a location you can EAT your way through is worthy of review and praise. Just deciding what to eat was the decision crisis of the day. And they sold beer too. Happy hubby.
After a day in Toronto we took off again for Nova Scotia switching trains in Montreal. VIA rail's train called the Ocean had an interesting past. It was built by the government of Great Britain to run in the “Chunnel,” the rail link under the English Channel between Britain and France. Soon after the train cars were built the government decided not to pursue the project and turned it over to private enterprise. So the whole train, engines, coaches, sleepers, diners, and observation cars were sold to VIA rail which now runs the train through the Maritime Provinces. The club car still has British Rail emblems up in inconspicuous locations.
We really liked New Brunswick and Nova Scotia because it's uncrowded. There's miles of open farmland and forests and little population outside the urban areas and it's green. We left the train a Truro to spend two days in the Annapolis Valley near the Bay of Fundy. Settled by the French, who were deported by the British, it is the setting for Longfellow's poem “Evangeline.” And then there's the Bay of Fundy, where Mother Nature's design of landscape result in an area where the variation in high and low tide was 37 FEET the day we were there. Twice a day. Makes for interesting mooring techniques in the harbors. Imagine Noyo Harbor as we know it, then imagine coming back six hours later and every boat is sitting on the mud floor of the harbor.
With all this rushing of tides you'd wonder what could live in these waters? Lobsters and scallops. Boy, did we eat good for two days. We learned more about lobsters than any intelligent person would want to know. We traveled to the Atlantic at Peggy's Cove and stood on the edge of the continent admiring the ocean and the rocks beneath our feet. Some of those rocks came back with us. Up through the eastern reaches of Nova Scotia we reached the port of Halifax.
Time to start home. We retraced our way back through the Maritimes to Montreal. The food choices in the shops and stalls around the station reminded me the French love good food. While you could grab a burger at Burger King there were delicatessens, pastry shops, expresso bars, cheese stalls, fruit vendors and beer all just minutes from the tracks. Our tour went on west to Ottawa, Canada's capitol, for another day on our own.
After visiting Parliament and Rideau Hall, the home of the Governor General (who at the moment is a woman of Haitian descent), we treated ourselves to a fancy dinner. This is where I consider the internet a handy invention. I had investigated Ottawa restaurants on-line looking for a cuisine offering dishes unknown to us. We found it in the Amber Garden Restaurant offering foods found along the amber trade route from the Mediterranean to the Baltic.
A mix of Russian, Polish and Hungarian cuisine found us eating Borscht, Hunters Stew, Tartra Pork Schnitzel, Kulebiake (Russian pastry stuffed with meats and wild mushrooms), Samovar Tea, a fruit torte and wine and beer. It was one of those meals of a lifetime-a truly enjoyable dining experience. We ate so much we could hardly move.
While I took in the Canadian Museum of Civilization the next day my husband went to ride on yet another train. North of Ottawa in Gatineau the Hull, Chelsea and Wakefield Steam Train left for half day excursions then. This is what serious rail fans do. They take the days off VIA rail to find more trains to ride. Hubby said it was cool. A complete Swedish train with both steam (1907)n and diesel locomotives and a nine car train. Canadian and U.S. steam trains have become prohibitively expensive to buy and maintain. This clever businessman bought his train cheaply overseas, brought it to Canada, and runs a very high class, clean and entertaining excursion. We said goodbye to Ottawa with a visit to their Byward Marketplace.
Some observations on Canada. We didn't hear Spanish spoken for two weeks. Canada has employment for everyone, still takes immigrants from around the world (especially from the former British colonies), and His-panic voices were unheard. Even Mexican restaurants were scarce. What we saw was a multi-ethnic society with races of all colors getting along with each other. If there was ethnic strife going on we didn't see it or read about it.
More observations. Don't ask me why but Canadians seem to love white cars and trucks. We would pass car dealerships and 60% of the vehicles on the lot were white. In a snowy white environment I'd assume you'd like cars that would stood out, but I guess not. We asked locals but no one could explain it. Also observed was the level of graffiti on freight rail cars and blank building walls facing rails. It was astounding. An undecorated pristine solid color paint job on a freight car was unusual. And the graffiti artists were often quite good too. This spray painting behavior seems universal along Canadian and U.S. rail lines.
May 18 we said good bye to Canada and crossed the St. Lawrence River to Ogdensburg New York. We visited the Frederick Remington Art Museum then went on a luncheon cruise through the Thousand Islands area with a stop on Boldt Island. The owner of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City built a castle here of 120 rooms on an island, then abandoned it incomplete when his wife died. A summer thunderstorm with a deluge of rain, lightening and thunder livened up the boat tour.
Boarding AMTRAK's Lakeshore train at Syracuse a good part of the tour group planned to travel on to Chi-cago and then join the Southwest Chief route to Los Angeles and home. Back then my son Matti had recently moved to Knoxville to work in the front office of the Tennessee Smokies, the Arizona Diamondbacks AA baseball team. I left the train in Rochester, spent overnight in the airport (always an interesting experience), so I could get a 6 a.m. flight to Atlanta. Renting a car there I drove to Knoxville for a three day visit and a ball game.
My husband continued west on AMTRAK. We've visited Chicago before by rail so we know all the fun places close to the station. Some of the best coffee I'd ever had came from Lou Mitchell's restaurant nearby and he brought me some and he loaded up on books (and more beer) for the return trip. The trip on the Southwest Chief is a little over two days, through Kansas City and the southwest. Arriving in Los Angeles the train was amazingly on time. A bus shuttled him over the Techa-chipi's to Bakersfield where he caught the San Joaquin train up the Central Valley to Sacramento. I flew in from Nashville and we returned home to beautiful downtown Comptche. Seventeen days, about 7000 miles of rail travel, a pocket full of rocks and a lifetime of memories. That's what vacations are for.
So Thank You Gordon Lightfoot for inspiration. Thank you for singing about that “Iron road running from sea to the sea.” It took me half a lifetime to be able to find a way to do it. It took being married to a rail fan for 35 years. It took saving a small fortune to pay for it. But we did it, we loved it, and we encourage others to do it too.