Low-hanging clouds hover above the blue-and-gold train as it eases out of a Vancouver rail yard at the beginning of a two-week excursion across Canada. Outside the city, verdant farmland will eventually yield to an ascent through canyons cut by glacial rivers on a stunning 600-mile passage to the frontier of the Canadian Rockies.
And that’s only the beginning.
It’s early October in British Columbia. The diesel-powered Rocky Mountaineer is getting ready to retrace — west to east — Canada’s transcontinental railway route laid in the late 1800s. The hope is to glimpse the land’s natural beauty and the cities and towns along the way, using a mode of transport that has been both romanticized and forgotten.
Train travel is definitely about the thrill of the journey. It’s by no means the fastest way to get where you’re going, it can be expensive and it hasn’t been a transportation priority in North America for decades.
The train departs from cosmopolitan Vancouver’s bustling downtown and waterfront. In the railroad’s formative years, the cars brought grain and lumber from the east, along with settlers. Today, the same freight lines remain active, while passenger trains ferry vacationers in comfort on slow, winding tours of nature and history.
Picking up speed, the Rocky Mountaineer ambles through fertile British Columbia pastures, climbing in altitude until the air begins to thin and cool, and the clouds give way.
The privately owned company has been offering trips between Vancouver and the Rockies for more than two decades.
The ride takes passengers alongside alpine lakes, trundling over narrow metal and wooden bridges, and through tunnels blasted into the mountainside. The train’s glass-domed upper cars allow 180-degree views of the landscape and its wildlife — bald eagles, mountain goats and the occasional grizzly bear. Knowledgeable guides discuss the history, ethnography and geology of the region. Downstairs, chefs prepare succulent gourmet meals paired with regional wines. The experience is not inexpensive, but the views are unparalleled.
Rural communities dot the river-bound route through the interior territory. Some are no more than a handful of weathered gray farmhouses, or abandoned cabins standing stoically as the autumn sunlight punches through their slatted walls. On one hillside lies an odd sight: the front half of a green, 1950s-era pickup truck with its headlights gazing over the sagebrush.
The train moves slowly, pausing along especially scenic overlooks and in narrow stretches to allow the freight trains, which own the tracks, to pass with their dozens of cars of coal, lumber, wheat and sulfur.
There are no sleeper cars on this train. The halfway stop is Kamloops, a high-desert city of about 87,000 with a conservative, frontier feel that serves as a regional rail hub in the beautiful Thompson River valley.
At dawn the next morning, the sunrise illuminates river mist as the train gains speed. But track delays force a late-night arrival into the Canadian Rockies. Still, it’s an exhilarating ride up forested canyons, snaking back and forth across foaming aquamarine rivers and taking in the vast mountain ranges before the natural light fades.
The hotel room in Banff, Alberta, allows a first full look at the placid majesty of the Rockies in the light of morning, their snowy caps drenched in the rosy dawn. This resort town is an outdoors enthusiast’s dream, surrounded in every direction by mammoth peaks and lush green valleys. The range straddles British Columbia and Alberta, its highest peak rising nearly 13,000 feet.
A bus ride north to Jasper — a smaller but equally picturesque ski town where the next leg of the journey begins — provides a dramatic look at the amazing variety of geological formations sculpted by glaciers, and the vast ice fields that created them.
The airy, dignified train station in Jasper, Alberta, was nearly empty on a Saturday afternoon. Built in a Swiss-chalet style in 1925, the walls contain photo essays and art deco promotional posters extolling the history of Canada’s transcontinental rail ?system.
Nestled 3,400 feet above sea level in the Canadian Rockies, Jasper marks a midpoint on this two-week, cross-country passage. From here, Canada’s national passenger train service, Via, will complete the trip through the Great Plains to Nova Scotia.
There were open seats, but those who were taking the journey — many of them vacationing retired couples, some on their first train trip — seemed to savor the experience, chatting with strangers while dining in style and being rocked to sleep in a historic rail car.
After British Columbia and the feast of scenic beauty in the Rockies, the Great Plains might feel like a letdown. But instead, it’s a mesmerizing trek past miles of windswept grain, giant bales of hay strewn across pastures, silently grazing bison, rugged homesteads perched amid wooded oases and weathered gray fence posts arcing into marshland.
The next morning, the train is rolling through Saskatchewan’s factory and farm towns. Under overcast skies, the early-?October sun is a muted golden portal in the east. Within weeks, the amber countryside will become frozen tundra.
The provinces of Manitoba and Ontario bring hill country, lakes and valleys bisected by winding rivers, tangles of white birch forest and fall woodland colors under rainfall.
Toronto offers a churning, diverse metropolis. Canada’s financial center is a welcome cultural respite from the rural interior. The stratospheric CN Tower offers a striking view of Lake Ontario and the city alight at dusk. In the morning, a moving photo exhibit at the Royal Ontario Museum documents the horrors of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.
A few hours northeast by train, on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, is French-speaking Montreal. Blending modern culture with cobblestone antiquity, the city has a decidedly European feel. In the downtown area, museums and churches nudge against skyscraper banking centers, boutique hotels, university buildings and nightclubs. On the historic waterfront, modern art abuts worn docks, factories and a monument to the sailors of yore. Hasidim mix with hipsters in the Mile End neighborhood, which is known for the city’s authentic bagels.
The final leg of the trip, Montreal to Halifax, is endangered. Despite a nearly billion-dollar government investment in recent years to improve passenger train service nationwide, in 2012, budget cuts forced Via’s Ocean route to reduce trips from six days a week to three.
“It’s not a happy time now for a lot of people,” says a young woman who has been working this route for 12 years. Pausing during meal service, she says she is one of many employees on the route who are losing their jobs at the end of the month.
The train appears less than half-full as it speeds past the sun-soaked Nova Scotia countryside, a bucolic autumn nirvana of villages and farms. Passing the Bay of Fundy, it will soon arrive in Halifax, a classic northeastern port city of red brick and stone that bears the remains of a British citadel.
As the two-week rail trip comes to a close, it’s a shame to think more travelers choose to spend their vacation money getting to their destinations faster and more directly instead of absorbing the 4,000-mile coast-to-coast adventure.Ari Burack is a freelance writer who also blogs at http://openskylight.blogspot.com