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British Columbia By Rail

People who love riding trains realize in this 21st century the lines are vanishing. If you suspect a spectacular stretch of rail travel is in danger of eliminating passenger service you GET There and RIDE IT before it’s gone.With that in mind we took off for British Columbia and a 3,300 mile rail/ferry/auto/airplane adventure.

But half the fun, in our family, is getting there. And we love back roads, so going north through Oregon it was on the roads less traveled. I love reading signs along the roadsides. One place had a Truck & Tractor Pull event coming up with special divisions for competing garden tractors and ATV’s. Creeks were called swales and field crops were identified so we knew we were seeing miles of fescue, rye and winter wheat. Bars were called taverns. There were Chestnut, Christmas Tree and Bison farms. Gas was $2.99 a gallon at the crossroads and many farms offered eggs at $3 a dozen.

In Oregon we saw people back their pickups into a blackberry patch and stand in the pickup truck bed to pick the berries. Signs saying “Bus Drivers Needed” were everywhere and state highway signs reminded folks “Seatbelts must be worn day AND night”. Roadside flower stalls at the end of farm driveways offered fresh cut blooms. Water was abundant with rainbird sprinklers shooting 40’ sprays of water over crops.

Traversing these back roads we passed Distracted Acres farm and Poverty Bend Road as we plodded along behind slow moving tractors that ruled those roads. Red clover in bloom turned fields purple. I liked the Relief Pitcher Bar and the place name Dismal Nitch, where Lewis & Clark got stuck for a few days along the Columbia River when on their Voyage of Discovery.

Oyster packing houses were an out of the ordinary commercial establishment enterprise as we drove north through Washington. Clam burgers, clam omelettes, and smoke salmon pizza were advertised on roadside signs. South Bend claimed to be the Oyster Capitol of the World. From the 1850’s to the 1880’s their oysters were sent to San Francisco. Now they grind shells to be a chicken feed supplement, The area also had organic fish fertilizer factories and boat building sites.

At Port Angeles we returned the rental car and caught the Coho ferry over the Straits of Juan de Fuca to Victoria. Grabbing a new rental car we headed north on Vancouver Island to Port Alberni. A group of dedicated volunteers here run a steam powered railroad and sawmill. My husband works with Roots of Motive Power in Willits and here we were, 800 miles from home, talking to folks doing similar restoration work. Due to extreme fire danger the steam for the sawmill was generated with electrical power, not waste wood. Hubby was happy as a cab ride in the locomotive and shop tours were given to him as a fellow steam enthusiast.

Best meal of the whole vacation was German food at the Little Bavaria Restaurant in Port Alberni- a whole platter of German meat delicacies and kraut that would have horrified my vegetarian daughter.

To our next stopping point we drove up the east side of Vancouver Island. There are no fences along these forested landscapes and lumber companies build their own overpasses over highways. Road signs have their own separate pictographs to show you if there are log trucks, dump trucks or fire trucks entering the road and ferry landing signs.

Signs said Caution Roadside Activity, though we seldom saw any, or Vision Limited. Artisans got their own standardized signs saying Woodworker, or Potter, or Painter ahead. Tiny roadside fishing lure sales booths appeared promising Experienced Fishing Guides. A restaurant offered “All You Can Eat Crab”. We admired the snow still present in midsummer on Vancouver Island peaks that reach over 7,000’.

At Port McNeill we took a ferry to Malcom Island and Sointula. A large number of Finnish folks settled the town of Sointula with dreams of a communal cooperative lifestyle a century ago. Economics and personality conflicts in leaders ended the dream but the Finns stayed.

Outside of Fort Bragg on Highway 20 near Noyo Hill the Mendocino Coast had a place called Sointula. I believe our Sointula was founded after the one in Canada with the same ideals of workers supporting each other. At the museum there we shared information about local Finnish family groups and saw their grocery Co-op which has survived one hundred years.

We stayed at a B&B called Dunroven on the south end of the island at Mitchell Bay. In one of those magical moments I hope everyone has on vacation travels we saw whales. Well whoop-de-doo…anyone can see whales on the Mendocino coast. I can see them from my window at work in Gallery Bookshop…BUT…what made it magical was that we were alone on a beach, no sign of man anyplace, no wind, no boats and we had the stillness of late evening. You could hear every breath those orcas and humpbacks released, every exhalation, and every flipper and fluke splash. There was no other sound than occasional bird calls and behemoths coming up for air.

The next day we were back on Vancouver Island headed north to Port Hardy to return the car and catch a ferry. The view from our hotel of a marina had bald eagles sitting atop masts of docked boats watching harbor activities. On board the British Columbia Ferry we had Aurora Lounge seating for the 15 hour trip with reclining soft seats in a private area with huge picture windows on the bow of the boat.

On both VIA RAIL and Ferry the food would have pleased vegetarians along with omnivores. I was surprised to find Quinoa salad, gluten free burritos and coconut water alongside regular dining fare. The skies remained bright until 10p.m. we were so far north.

Ferries are a delightful way to travel because beauty surrounds you and you can pay attention to it. The islands and mainland we saw in B.C. from the ferry did not have beaches, forest grew right down to the water line. Lighthouses were not automated but staffed by real live human beings who actually came out and waved when the ferries passed. The biggest unit in any small harbor was the fuel depot and maritime traffic of every size was ever present. My Inside Passage map had a spotting guide so I could tell halibut, salmon and crab boats apart.

Arriving in Prince Rupert we spent the night then caught VIA RAIL’s “Skeena” train east. Spectacular scenery but the train was only half full in the midst of tourist season. That’s why I mentioned “endangered” lines earlier. This route could turn to freight trains only. We passed freight trains of no less than 100 cars full of containers of trade goods from China over and over again. We did see lumber and pipe, of all things, being transported west for shipment overseas.

VIA RAIL does not want visitors to miss great scenery in darkness so come twilight the train stops in Prince George for the night and everyone disperses to hotel accommodations. Gathering together the next day we were back on board and headed to Jasper Alberta. The further east we went the worse the bug kill of conifers from Pine Beetles got. Around Jasper it looked like autumn gold foliage, but it was July and the trees were dead. Talk about a forest fire disaster waiting to happen. The national park there does not want to damage the viewscape for tourists and no one is doing anything about the problem but talk.

Jasper functioned in peak tourist season frenzy. We found more German travelers than any other European contingent. We were glad we were spending only one night but we got a great meal and Blueberry Vanilla Ale at Jasper Brewing. Twice before we’ve traveled Jasper to Vancouver and the beauty never diminishes. The train actually slows to a crawl at Pyramid Falls for picture taking as this water feature can only be seen from the rails.

Dining on VIA RAIL is a lovely old fashioned experience. Our table setting had six pieces of silverware, china and linen. Tea water in individual pots was always a blazing hot as befits a culture where tea is more important than coffee. Dinner, included with the sleeper compartment fares, offered rack of lamb, seared tuna, a maple baked chicken and a tofu veggie bowl for entrée choices. That lamb was some of the best I’ve tasted in years. How they can produce such gustatory delights in a space about the size of an RV’s kitchen is beyond me, but I’m always impressed.

Singer Kate Wolf in her song “Carolina Pines” sings “open windows, empty doors…nobody lives here any more…” and we saw so many abandoned homes along the tracks. Some were overgrown in briars, some were basement holes with stone chimneys, some were actual log cabins. Often an old rose bloomed in the bushes. The railroad right-of-way was festooned with tilting telephone poles with old glass insulators and broken lines. When current communication technology replaced land lines they left the old lines along the rails.

Looking out the train’s windows you saw shoreline houses along lakes with seaplane hangers and a runway straight into the lake. Log rafts were being assembled to float down river to the nearest sawmill. Riverside dwellers had docks with their own tugboat tied up. While the majestic Rocky Mountains, or the Fraser River, might be noteworthy my rockhounding geology obsessed mind wanted to know how the heck the interior of B.C. had so much sand everyplace? Taking a geology text out when I got home I realized I’d forgotten B.C. was covered in glaciers. When the ice sheets retreated and melted they were full of glacial till…minute particles of sand that settled out to become sandy soil and sandstone.

At Vancouver’s Central Pacific Station we missed our AMTRAK train to Seattle and had to wait four hours for a shuttle bus. In a nice green park across from the station we actually saw Canada Geese IN Canada, not on a California golf course someplace. They were begging food from tourists as blatantly as seagulls do on the Mendocino headlands.

Driving through Vancouver’s city streets we observed the rather strange variety of commercial enterprises any big city has. Supplier of $1 Stores one establishment proclaimed, near to the International Table Tennis Association building. It was just down the road from a Muslim Secondary School and restaurants representing the dining cuisine of every area of India.

Light rail got us from Seattle to Tacoma for an overnight with friends who gave us a ride to Sea-Tac the next morning. Our daughter and grandson awaited us in Sacramento and brought us home. So the “Skeena” route of VIA RAIL got crossed off the bucket list of train trips to make. We recommend it highly if you can get to Jasper or Prince Rupert and figure out a way home. Next summer we’ll catch some rail lines in Canada’s Ontario province and I’d still like to get to the Copper Canyon in Mexico. So many trains, so little time.

One Comment

  1. Jim Updegraff November 19, 2015

    You are so right – so many trains, so little time. I have taken trains in the U. S., Canada, England, Scotland, Australia, Belgium and the Netherlands. If you have the time the only way to travel.

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