VIA Rail Canada: “The Canadian”

Thanks for all the great comments on Part One of my rail journey through Canada. I hope you enjoy the second half as much as I did. If I had to choose one or the other, well, for a train lover, Part Two is the “real deal.”

While the Rocky Mountaineer was everything I hoped it would be, from stunning scenery to pampered luxury, let’s face it, it is a tourist attraction. While I wasn’t sure what to expect from the next leg of my journey on VIA Canada’s “The Canadian” I was pretty certain it would feel a lot more like an authentic train journey offering the true railway experience I was seeking. While the Rocky Mountaineer served people from all over the world, everyone on the train had the same purpose for being there – tourism. The Canadian, on the other hand caters to tourists, but there were also Canadian commuters on board.

The Canadian railway network is the fifth largest in the world. It moves a record 75 million people and over 70% of all intercity surface raw materials and manufactured products every year. That’s no fluffy tourist ride. VIA Rail markets The Canadian as an alternative to air travel. “No squishy seating, cardboard food and coolly indifferent service that is the norm for airline travel these days. It’s a more human way to travel.” Two hundred passengers, each with a story to tell. It’s the stuff of novels.

While The Canadian would be a much longer journey with overnights and all meals included for four days and three nights, the price was actually much cheaper than the two day, one night Rocky Mountaineer. First of all, they offer a 10% discount for those 60 years of age and older. And while their last minute booking didn’t coincide with my travel dates, one can actually save up to 50% on a last minute booking through VIA Rail’s “Discount Tuesdays” online offering should one have a bit of flexibility. (I did not, as I wanted to make this journey on my 65th birthday.)

The Canadian offers several classes to choose from; Economy with reclining seats being the most affordable, all the way up to Prestige Class, billed as offering “privileged service,” complete with private wooden paneled suite, murphy bed, private washroom with shared shower, and your own personal concierge.

I opted for slightly left of in between, Sleeper Plus. These berths are open by day and consist of two couch-style seats facing each other. While passengers enjoy their evening meal in the dining car, a cabin attendant makes down the bed into a curtained, semi-private compartment. Passengers use the toilet and shower facilities at the end of each car. I chose this over the slightly more expensive single cabin. I booked a single cabin on Amtrak once from Atlanta to New Orleans, and the small room seemed quite claustrophobic. And though the single cabins have their own toilet, it serves as support for the bed at night, making it unusable while sleeping. So I found the Sleeper Plus class to be the Goldilocks of accommodations for my budget.

Besides, I didn’t plan on spending that much time there except to sleep. There were more optimal public rooms for chilling out during the day. The Canadian has three cars fitted with café-style dining area, kitchen, lounge, and a scenic dome section on the top floor where the windows extend up to the ceiling. Two of the dome cars are open to all the passengers, while the Park Car is reserved for Prestige guests until 4pm, then open to include Sleeper Plus passengers as well.

Meals in the dining car were every bit as delicious as the Rocky Mountaineer. There was always at least two selections to choose from, and three courses; an appetizer, entrée, and dessert. The main difference is alcohol, as it is purchased separately on The Canadian, whereas it was included on the Rocky Mountaineer.

I did have concerns initially about being on a train for four days. Would my muscles atrophy from lack of use? But moving down narrow corridors on a swaying train can feel like a full body workout. I walked the entire length of the train at least twice per day. And it didn’t take long for the walkers to flock together to assemble a “walking group” at station stops.

Coming off the heels of the Port Townsend Film Festival, I had just enjoyed the Gordon Lightfoot documentary, If You Could Read My Mind. Prior to that time, I had been unfamiliar with this work, “The Canadian Railroad Trilogy,” written in 1967. It is one of Lightfoot’s signature story songs, even commissioned to celebrate Canada’s centennial. So I loaded this song, along with his other top hits on “Gord’s Gold,” to my train playlist, and I was all set to go. Except for one thing….

The Rocky Mountaineer “First Passage to the West” route terminates in Banff. But VIA Rail Canada’s “Great Western Way,” aka “The Canadian” does not pass through Banff. Its closest stop is Jasper. So I would need to shuttle from Banff to Jasper. Fortunately, this passage, the Icefields Parkway, is one of the most famous in the world, so no problem finding a shuttle. Brewster Express operates a “deluxe motor coach” once daily.

Traveling through both Banff and Jasper National Parks, the Icefields Parkway is known as one of the most stunning alpine drives in the world. The twisting ribbon of highway passes glistening turquoise lakes, snow-capped jagged peaks, and glaciers spilling down into the valleys below. There are only half a dozen people on the bus, so I have an entire row where I can focus the camera from side to side, craning my neck so as not to miss any of the scenery, though most views seemed to be on the left side heading to Jasper.

Thinking I had already crossed the Rockies once back in Banff, my expectations were not as high leaving Jasper, so I was delighted by the breathtaking scenery leaving the Jasper station through the majestic, snow-covered Rockies. We would continue on across the prairies of unending fields of gold, past reflective lakes and on into the woods respendant with autumn colors, as the changing scenery of Canada unfolded out my window, frame by frame.

My connection between the two trains afforded me two days to explore Banff.

While I rarely pass up the opportunity to soak in a hot springs, the popularity of Banff’s famous pools caused me to take a pass.

The Brewster Express from Banff to Jasper travels along the Icefields Parkway.

The shuttle is nonstop, with the exception of a brief stop in Lake Louise.

This highway offers many opportunities to see glaciers as we pass the Columbia Icefield.

The Columbia Icefield Skywalk experience, a glass walkway that extends out over the icefield. It’s about $27US to walk 115 ft.

Downtown Jasper, across from the train station.

The Jasper Railway station was constructed by the Canadian National Railroad in 1926, and has been declared a heritage railway station.

I am excited to see what I hope will be more fall colors to come.

Inside the Jasper Train Station, there is a billboard posted telling us on what platform each car will be boarding.

We arrived into Banff on the Rocky Mountaineer after dark, so I didn’t get a chance to get any train shots with the Rockies as a back drop. So I am happy to see such gorgeous scenery from the platform.

These notorious stainless steel cars were built back in the fifties. The most iconic with its domed roof and tapered end is the “Park Car,” cocktail lounge and a dome-level observation deck above it. These are called Park Cars, because each one is named for one of the Canadian National Parks.

Using the “cherry picker” to clean the windows for optimal viewing.

Here it is, my living and sleeping space for the next four days and three nights. 😉 (Actually, I only slept here, as the dome car seats were much more comfortable.)

This is the dome level in the Skyline Car. I spent most of my days here, before I moved to the Park Car for Happy Hour.

This is Anthony, our cocktail waiter. He’s passing a round of bubbly to toast our departure from Jasper.

Its quite exciting seeing this view shortly after we leave the station!

Dome cars all offer 360 degree views.

I loved looking down the rooftop of these sleek stainless steel cars.

Bighorn sheep grazing along the fence line, which keeps them off the tracks.

This is the dining car where I spent three hours a day. 😉 Service was excellent, as was the food.

Here is a peek into the galley. I was amazed at the quantity AND quality of the meals that came out of this tiny space, all while swaying to the rhythm of the rails.

Every meal was not only delicious, but visually pleasing as well. This night, dinner is Lamb chops and Bok Choy.

And of course, there’s an equally delectable dessert.

This staircase leads up to the dome level of the Park Car. While the Park Car is typically reserved for Prestige Class passengers, it opens up to Sleeper Class every day from 4pm to closing.

The dome level of the Park Car is just slightly more plush than the Skyline Car. There was hardly anyone ever in it.

This is my Park Car cocktail of choice, “The Maple Leaf,” bourbon, lemon juice, and maple syrup.

Enjoying the Park Car lounge at the end of the train.

Okay, so the scenery can’t ALL be stunning. But the moon over the prairie adds a nice ambiance.

Ninety-five percent of grain exports in Canada travel by rail. One car of grain can be worth as much as $30,000.

The station in Saskatoon was out in the middle of nowhere. Not even a vending machine! But the “walkers group” managed to find a dirt road to stretch our legs.

Saskatoon is the largest city in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Though it’s the largest city, it has less than 300K residents. The city straddles a bend in the South Saskatchewan River. Pity the train station was five miles out of town, so we saw it only in passing.

Saskatchewan supplies more than a third of the world’s total exported durum wheat and is the world’s top exporter of lentils and dry peas. While the province’s major industry is agriculture, other industries include mining, oil, and natural gas production.

Here’s a look at my bed. Upon returning from dinner, I find it all made down and ready to climb in. It was extremely comfy!

I loved waking up at sunrise and watching the scenery roll by outside my berth window.

Winnipeg’s Union Station. Built in 1908, it was designed in the Beaux Arts style with classical details, with arches and columns topped by a large dome. It is one of Western Canada’s largest railway stations.

We arrive into Winnipeg during the night. By now, I have made acquaintances on the train, so we go out for a stroll. Note the beautiful moon just above the station.

The Canadian Museum for Human Rights is in Winnipeg. It’s the only museum in the world devoted to human rights awareness and education. Good going, Canada! Wish I could have visited!

The province of Manitoba (capital, Winnipeg) is the most easterly prairie province and longitudinal center of Canada. Its north comprises Canadian Shield rock and arctic tundra and is largely uninhabited. It is known as the polar bear capital of the world.

Always arrive at the dining car a little before seating to insure a good view!

I love these little cabins on this island in the middle of this lake! What a quaint place!

Here, we are meeting the westbound Canadian. It’s fun looking at the approaching dome car windows, imagining there is likely someone taking a photo of meeting their eastbound twin.

The further east we go, the more lakes we see.

The province of Ontario is Canada’s second largest, and boasts around a quarter of a million lakes in total. Sharing shores of the Great Lakes with the US, this makes up approximately 20 percent of the world’s fresh water stores.

Finally we are starting to come into areas thick with those maple trees that give the northeast its brilliant fall color.

I’m not leaving my seat in the dome car for this part of the ride! This is what I have been waiting for!

We spend the whole last day traveling through scenery like this.

Every afternoon, there is some kind of activity in the Skyline car. It’s either wine tasting, live music, or today, beer tasting! This is our Activities Manager. I think she likes beer as much as I do!

Fun to try the different beers on offer, but I was not a huge fan, preferring instead my Maple Leaf cocktail.

We are skirting the edge of Lake Huron. I think we are getting near Bayfield Al’s neck of the woods. I am on the lookout for a Jeep with Pheebs looking out the window. 😉

The Canadian is notoriously late, and at one time we were running quite far behind. However, they made up the time, and we are coming in to Toronto right on time!

First glimpse of the CN Tower, indicating our arrival into Toronto. I am sad to see the journey end, but looking forward to a couple of days in Toronto before I fly back to Vancouver and take the Amtrak back to my awaiting Winnie.

Toronto’s beautiful Union Station reminds me a bit of the grandeur of NY’s Grand Central Station. Opened in 1927, it’s another example of Beaux-Arts design.

St. Lawrence Market, with it’s 200 plus food and artisan vendors, is culinary focal point of Toronto since 1803.

Completed in 1976, Toronto’s CN Tower stands 1,815 ft tall. Its name “CN” originally referred to Canadian National, the railway company that built the tower. CN Tower held the record for the world’s tallest free-standing structure for 32 years until 2007 when it was surpassed by the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

Toronto reminds me a little of New York, with excellent people-watching opportunities, like quirky people playing chess on the sidewalk.

Toronto’s theater district. I went to see “Come from Away,” the play about Gander, Newfoundland hospitality during those days when planes were grounded following the 9/11 attacks. It was one of the best plays I’ve seen in a long while. Of course, loving both New York and Newfoundland like I to, it was a sure bet!

Thus concludes my rail journey across Canada. I am proud to report that I have now visited all ten of the Canadian provinces (west to east) British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, (pre-blogging days) New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador. Now, I just have to find my way to the three territories: Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon. I’ll need something to look forward to post-COVID, right??

(Footnote: On March 21, 2020, the Canadian and most other Via Rail services were suspended due to the 2020 Coronavirus Pandemic. This COVID-19 suspension will continue until at least November 1, 2020, to also accommodate inspection and repair work as part of its Heritage Modernization Program.)

Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer: First Passage to the West

Last October, I finally reached that long awaited “Medicare Milestone.” Since it was a significant birthday for me, I wanted to commemorate it in a special way. But the blog typically runs behind, and I ran out of time to document my celebration before I jumped on the plane bound for my Dragoman tour through Sudan and Ethiopia last December. After that, I never seemed to get the blog caught back up.

So now that I have all this spare time on my hands, freed up by lack of travel planning, I am going back to recreate the narrative and share the photos on how I celebrated my Continue reading

Rail Trails, Rim Trails, and Animal Tales

I’ve now been moving about the Cloudcroft area for going on two months. One of the reasons it’s been so hard to leave here is because the hiking is to my liking. Not only are trails abundant, but access to the trailheads is easy. Many can be hiked on foot right from boondocking spots without having to drive to the trailhead, particularly the animal trails which proved invaluable during my 14 day quarantine. Others can be accessed from town, or via spacious pullouts along the “Sunspot Highway.”

It’s not New Mexico without Hatch chilies. They line the aisles in the Alamogordo grocery store.

The town of Cloudcroft is very quaint, only a couple of blocks long. Afternoon storms are quick in passing, leaving behind a rainbow over Burro St.

Many of the hiking trails are designated as cross country ski trails come winter.

Blue blaze in tree denotes the ski trail, which runs amidst what looks like a Christmas tree farm. Would love to X-country ski this trail in winter!

My favorite rest stop along the 4 mile trail into town.

This creative log bench along the OSHA trail is another of my favorite places to stop and reflect on the beauty of the forest.

I keep hoping I can last to see this aspen grove turn, but it’s starting to look doubtful. “One little token branch is all you’re giving up?? Come on guys, hurry up!”

A watched Aspen tree never turns gold?

While there are lots of loops and 9,000 ft lung-burners, I have a special penchant for anything related to rail travel, so I have particularly enjoyed hiking the trails that once served as part of the Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railroad. Who could not be fascinated by a train known as the “Cloud-Climbing Railroad?”

Originally constructed in 1899 by the Alamogordo and Sacramento Mountain Railway, “The Lodge” was a by-product of the railroad. Burned in 1909, but rebuilt in its current site in 1911. There is a gorgeous adjacent golf course with 150 ft vertical drop on the first tee.

Hike down to the trestle is lovely.

Completed in 1900, the A&SMR climbed to an elevation of 8,700 ft, which at the time was the highest altitude in the world for any standard gauge train. Originally devised as a means to harvest timber from the Sacramento Mountains, the railroad averaged a 5% grade across 122 wooden bridges, 58 timber frame trestles, around 330 curves, climbing 32 miles up 4,000 ft in elevation.

Many of the trails follow the tracks of the Cloud Climbing Railroad. One example of these rail trails is the “Switchback Trail.” This part of the rail track now turned hiking trail required the train to travel in reverse.

But the most famous of the rail trails leads to the Mexican Canyon Trestle. Constructed in 1899, it is the tallest of the 58 trestles built along the route, standing 60 ft high and 323 ft long. All the original timbers were cut from local Douglas fir. The trestle lies just below the town of Cloudcroft. Upon approach, trains blew their steam whistle when crossing to alert the awaiting visitors that the train was 15 minutes from the Cloudcroft station.

Fortunately, the Mexican Canyon Trestle was preserved by the US Forest Service in 2010, and now holds a place on the National Register of Historic Places. One end can be viewed from the overlook from Highway 82, while the opposite end requires a under a three mile RT hike to reach the viewing platform.

Sadly, the most unique of the 58 trestles did not survive long enough for preservation. The “S” trestle with its two combined 30 degree turns collapsed into ruin around 1960.

View from Hwy 82 of the Mexican Canyon Trestle, built in 1899 and in use until 1947 by both logging and passenger trains.

In order to get down to the Mexican Canyon Trestle, you must hike down into the canyon for 1.3 miles. Continue on down and up and around with other trails to make different loop hikes.

Sadly, the unique “S” trestle did not survive. It collapsed around 1960.

I would have loved to see this one with it’s 30 degree “S” turns.

This is the beautiful Bluff Springs. You can camp all around here, and the road is in great condition. The only caveat? Zero signal, which is no doubt why it’s not an RV parking lot.

Atop the hill is the source of the spring. Impossible to show in a photo, but it’s coming out of this hole at a pretty good flow. So tempting to take a drink!

From the spring, there is another rail trail, the Willie White Spur that follows and old railroad grade to the east.

I am a bit more uneasy now, as bow hunting season has started. Now hiking in day-glow orange.

Another of my favorite trails around Cloudcroft is the Rim Trail. Sources vary on the actual length of this trail, as it was 14 miles back in 1968 when it was officially established. However, it has been gradually extended, with the most up to date terminus I could find on a current map or app being Sacramento River Road south of Sunspot, making it a little over 30 miles long now.

I started out with the intention to hike the entire length of the Rim Trail. It’s a little like a fun puzzle in that I must piece it together, often with only the aid of my Gaia GPS app. While there are five officially designated parking areas for the trail, they are not always spaced an equal day hike apart, particularly when I must hike both “out and back.” Ideally, one would have a hiking partner to drop off a second vehicle, thereby allowing for a one way hike. And parking areas are not as easily accessed once one gets toward the newer sections of the trail, often requiring a lengthy hike just to intercept the Rim Trail. I have currently reached the end of the original trail at mile 14, which means a total of 28 miles out and back. However, I am in a dead heat race with the weather forecast to see who wins. Nights are getting cold sleeping in a poorly insulated Nabisco box!

The Rim Trail has significance of being the first National Forest trail in New Mexico to be designated as a National Recreation Trail under the National Trail System Act of 1968.

The further away from town one gets, the more challenging it is to find the Rim Trail trailheads. This requires finding the trail on the GPS, along with nearest Forest Service Rd intersection.

Whenever I hear “You must rake the forests to prevent fires,” this is what I think of. I wouldn’t want the job of raking this forest!

I rarely see anyone on the Rim Trail. In fact, I’ve seen more animals than I have people.

While hiking the forest trails of Cloudcroft, I have seen elk, deer, wild horses, and even a small brown bear! But by far the most bizarre encounter happened to me on a hike at the end of August along the Rim Trail.

It was my deceased brother Stephen’s birthday. As a celebration of his life, I always like to go on a hike each year carrying his hiking poles, and wearing his favorite “Cabela’s Guidewear” cap. I commemorate the event with one-way conversations, always telling him I hope he enjoys coming along for the hike I have picked out to mark the day he was brought into this physical realm. I always end the day toasting his memory with a beer, as that was his beverage of choice.

About halfway into the hike, I caught a fleeting glimpse of something ahead on the trail. I could not only see the fluttering, but could hear rustling. As I rounded the corner, the disturbance took off for the tree above, but I was still too far away to tell what it was, or how it got there. Once I got closer, I realized it was an owl perched on an overhanging limb right over the trail. This struck me as being a bit eerie, as I thought owls were nocturnal. This one did not appear to be injured in any way, nor did it appear to be skittish. In fact, it was quite bold in its behavior.

My Mom always muses that our deceased loved ones come to visit us in the form of cardinals, which happens to be her favorite bird. So I thought maybe in my case, it was an owl, and I should sit down and have a chat. After all, my brother spent his entire life being called a “night owl.” So I decided I would wait out the owl, staying until it flew away. Or at least until its staring contest was over. I finally gave in.

Later that afternoon while enjoying an Oskar Blues G’Knight Imperial Red IPA at the outdoor seating area of Dave’s Café, I couldn’t shake the sighting, and how odd it all seemed. So much so that I filled the time while enjoying my beer by googling “the spiritual significance of owls.” One source says, “Some Native American tribes believed that this nocturnal bird accompanies the dead in their journey to their afterlife.” No doubt, that would be just like my brother to try and spook me.

Solomon, the wise old owl.

He never broke eye contact the whole time I was talking to him.

I recently discovered this poem on friend and fellow blogger Sue Malone’s Facebook page. Having spent nearly two months in the Lincoln National Forest admiring, communing, hugging, and talking to the trees, the poem resonated with me, so I am putting it here so I don’t forget it.

When I am Among the Trees
by Mary Oliver

When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.

I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.

Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.

And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”

Cloudcroft, Clouds, and Silver Linings

I reached the breaking point with the Central Texas summer heat. Literally. Every breaker was breaking. My rooftop AC went out, and the portable AC my cousin loaned me was too much for my power supply, having to make the long 30amp journey from its hijacked junction in the equipment shed. I couldn’t sleep at night in spite of the mosquito net I hung like a shroud around my bed. My internal breaker was tripping. Continue reading

Safety, Sanity, and Salvation

During these insane times, we all have to find our own personal balance between safety and sanity. It can sometimes be a delicate balance. Too much safety, and we start to feel like the walls are closing in on us. But let go to preserve our sanity, and it’s easy to let down our guard in protecting ourselves from the risk of COVID 19 exposure. We have to each find that tipping point to know we did our best at staying healthy without completely stripping all joy out of our lives….because joy is as much an asset to our health as worry is a detriment. Continue reading

A Summer to Remember?

One of my absolute favorite quotes is by Anais Nin, “We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect.”  It’s why I have enjoyed writing the blog for the past eight years…because it helps me remember and relive the experiences all over again. But I don’t write much these days.  I didn’t like the taste of this summer the first time around, so I sure don’t want to taste it twice!  Is it a summer best left to fade into the cobwebs of my memory?  Or are there small tastes worthy of savoring over again? Continue reading

My Holi End to India

This is my final post on the six weeks spent in India. It brings me up to the post I made on March 17th, written on the heels of what felt like at the time, a snap decision to flee India, cutting my trip in half, and cancelling my onward tour of Pakistan. Torn between “fight or flight,” I agonized over whether I could fight back the fears of an invisible disease and continue to enjoy an idyllic beach resort, waiting out what had to be just Continue reading

Meetup in Mysuru

I am determined to finish up this India series if it takes me all year. Here’s one more down on a rainy Tuesday, with one left to go…

I’ve known my friend John since 1993. As a colleague with American Express, he was one of the first people I met when I reported to duty as National Account Manager at the United Nations account. I had an office on the 19th floor of the UN Secretariat Building, and John’s office was across the street at UNICEF. We became “fox hole buddies” in Continue reading

All Aboard to Ooty on the Nilgiri Mountain Train

The thought of leaving the beach causes me pangs of regret, as I am not ready to leave yet. I have really enjoyed my early morning walks along the cliffside path, and my sunset swims in the gentle surf. I have made friends across the rooftop breakfast table at Debra’s guesthouse, had dinner with the couple I met in Alleppey, and met a “swimming friend” Piret, a lovely woman from Switzerland whom I met while swimming in the surf. We have taken to meeting up for conversation at the popular “Coffee Temple” along the cliffside path. Continue reading

Varkala, Om My!

Continuing on my “make it up as I go along” tour of South India, I was really wanting some beach time. While the beaches along Fort Kochi were beautiful, they just didn’t look clean to me. Too close to town with too much opportunity for “runoff.” Beaches in Alleppey looked a little cleaner, but they were still city beaches. So instead, I was looking for more of a beach resort vibe with hotels and guest houses right along the coastline, calm waves for swimming, and with a little luck, some semblance of a life guard since I would be swimming alone. Continue reading