Mov­ing ex­pe­ri­ences

Trav­el­ing across coun­try by train of­fers var­i­ous op­por­tu­ni­ties

The News Herald (Willoughby, OH) - - Travel - By Janet Podolak jpodolak@news-her­ @JPodolakat­work on Twit­ter

Dis­cov­er­ies are daily aboard Via Rail’s Cana­dian on a 2,775-mile rail jour­ney across Canada.

It’s a huge coun­try — sec­ond largest on Earth af­ter Rus­sia — and trav­el­ing through it by train not only show­cases its vast­ness but its va­ri­ety.

In many places, cell phones could find no sig­nal, and most of the way no Wi-Fi was avail­able, the ex­cep­tion be­ing some sta­tions. To my sur­prise, the dis­con­nect­ed­ness both­ered me only briefly, and soon I em­braced it.

On my Van­cou­ver-to-Toronto jour­ney, I took ad­van­tage of an op­tion that al­lows one free stop along the way and, along with quite a few other pas­sen­gers, I chose a three-day stop in Jasper, Al­berta, in the mid­dle of the rugged Rocky Moun­tains. Its stun­ning scenery and wildlife are great at­trac­tions. Plus, there’s its prox­im­ity to world-fa­mous Lake Louise, a three-hour drive down a scenic park­way with a mid­way stop for glacier views and ex­pe­ri­ences. If you missed them, you can read my sto­ries on that area at and

Pas­sen­gers might choose in­stead to stop a few days at Saska­toon or Win­nipeg. That can be ar­ranged at the time the trip is booked.

My trip from Van­cou­ver to Toronto was in au­tumn as the leaves were turn­ing. En­ter­ing the sec­ond day on­board, Oct. 4, it was ap­par­ent the Rocky Moun­tains were topped with snow. I was really ea­ger to be in the Dome Car when Mount Rob­son came into view so I could pho­to­graph it. That’s when I learned that, de­spite a timetable, the Cana­dian is rarely on time. Be­cause the freight com­pa­nies own the rail lines, pas­sen­ger trains must pull over to a sid­ing and wait when a freight train comes through.

At 12,972 feet, Mount Rob­son is the high­est peak in the Cana­dian Rock­ies. Train staffers as­sured me that even though we were run­ning late, an an­nounce­ment would be made on the PA sys­tem. When the over­head an­nounce­ment came I made bee­line up a set of spi­ral stairs into the Dome Car with my cam­era and got the last avail­able seat — fac­ing back­ward.

But I quickly dis­cov­ered that wasn’t the big­gest ob­sta­cle to my pho­to­graphic ef­forts. There is a 360-de­gree view, but the tinted and rounded glass of the Dome Car tends to dis­tort the cam­era lens.

But it was a clear day, and ev­ery­one was snap­ping away. Mount Rob­son is dis­tin­guish­able by its flat, white crown and lay­ers of rock that give the ap­pear­ance of a path spi­ralling up­wards. It was a beau­ti­ful, even though my pho­tos didn’t do it jus­tice.

I soon learned the Dome Car also was the lo­ca­tion of oc­ca­sional talks about the area through which train was pass­ing.

It was in the Dome Car I learned the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide — near Jasper — de­ter­mines which di­rec­tion wa­ter will flow. Rivers west of the di­vide flow into the Pa­cific, while those flow­ing east go into the Arc­tic or At­lantic oceans.

Yel­low­head Pass, which forms a nat­u­ral route be­tween the Rock­ies, also marks the divi­sion be­tween the Bri­tish Columbia and Al­berta bor­der, the Mount Rob­son Pro­vin­cial Park, the Jasper Na­tional Park and the divi­sion be­tween Pa­cific and Moun­tain time zones.

The train’s pub­lic-ad­dress sys­tem an­nounced those time-zone tran­si­tions dur­ing wak­ing hours, and when we passed into a dif­fer­ent time zone at night, that an­nounce­ment was made in the morn­ing.

One af­ter­noon I spent a pleas­ant hour or two at a concert by singer Noreen

Brown with Alice Fraser on key­boards. Bound for per­for­mances in Ot­tawa, Que­bec City, Mon­treal and Hal­i­fax, they took ad­van­tage of free train pas­sage of­fered by Via Rail for those who per­form for pas­sen­gers.

Via Rail also of­fers re­duced fares for those who be­come Cana­dian cit­i­zens, ex­tend­ing the of­fer to their fam­i­lies. Ja­son Yee, 19, of Toronto be­came a cit­i­zen last year along with his fam­ily. So this year he and his mother in­vited her par­ents to come to Van­cou­ver from China and join them on their cross-coun­try rail jour­ney. Ja­son, who came to Canada as a baby, was the only flu­ent English speaker among them. He spent sev­eral hours in­tro­duc­ing me to his fam­ily and telling me about their lives.

Another af­ter­noon I joined two women as­sem­bling a jigsaw puz­zle. There’s a full sched­ule of

ac­tiv­i­ties from wine and beer tast­ings to card games while aboard the Cana­dian, and sched­ules are posted so pas­sen­gers can make their choices.

Meals were al­ways a high­light, and I was usu­ally seated with a dif­fer­ent group at ev­ery one of them. I quickly dis­cov­ered the food is as good as the com­pany. See that story at

It’s four hours ear­lier in Van­cou­ver than at home in North­east Ohio, which can be es­pe­cially dis­ori­ent­ing at meal­time. But be­ing able to choose din­ing times aboard the train made it eas­ier to ad­just. And by the time we reached Toronto, in the Eastern Time Zone, nor­malcy had re­turned.

Those trav­el­ing in Sleeper Plus class share a shower at the end of each car. Those in Pres­tige Class have pri­vate show­ers in their rooms. A plas­tic bag in the state­room has tow­els and other ameni­ties for show­ers. I was at first in­tim­i­dated at the prospect of show­er­ing on a mov­ing train, so I quickly learned to wel­come and take ad­van­tage of the times the Cana­dian was stopped on a sid­ing or in a sta­tion for my ablu­tions. That worked quite well. My Sleeper Plus state­room had its own sink and a sep­a­rate small room with a toi­let. I had heard that flush­ing was to be done only when the train was in mo­tion, so one day I but­ton­holed the train’s ser­vice man­ager to learn if that was true. Ser­vice man­agers are re­spon­si­ble for pas­sen­ger safety and train se­cu­rity,

so they are busy folks. But know­ing I was a jour­nal­ist with ques­tions, ser­vice man­ager Mario Lau­ren­celle sat down and gave

me some time.

“You can flush any­where in mod­ern trains,” he said, not­ing the sewage goes into a hold­ing tank. “At one

time it spewed out onto the tracks so pas­sen­gers were asked not flush in the sta­tions. But that hasn’t been true for many years.

Ev­ery trip is dif­fer­ent, he told me. On this trip there were 169 pas­sen­gers and 31 staff mem­bers. Chal­lenges on this trip in­cluded a pas­sen­ger who wan­dered into town at a 10-minute stop in Saskatchewan and was left be­hind when the train de­parted.

“He’d been told we would only be there for 10 min­utes,” Lau­ren­celle said. “And he had to hire a taxi to catch up with us at the next stop, which was an hour away.”

A Chi­nese gen­tle­men, en route to an im­por­tant meet­ing in the U.S., would have missed his flight from Toronto when the train be­came hours be­hind sched­ule. Lau­ren­celle and other train staff ar­ranged for

him to dis­em­bark early and catch another flight to his desti­na­tion. He was trav­el­ing with a half-dozen fam­ily mem­bers and busi­ness as­so­ci­ates, who con­tin­ued on their merry way by train.

Re­cov­er­ing from a knee in­jury and us­ing a cane, I had my own chal­lenges trav­el­ing across Canada. Walk­ing the nar­row aisles from my sleep­ing quar­ters to the din­ing car was one of them. I quickly learned the vestibule be­tween cars had the most dif­fi­cult foot­ing and that I needed to time my steps — and my cane — to pass from one car to another. Ex­pe­ri­ence taught me rail­road cross­ings were the rough­est spots, so I learned to look for the flash­ing lights of the cross­ing. I also lis­tened for the train whis­tle, but was sur­prised that I couldn’t hear it while aboard.


The Cana­dian’s dome car af­fords end­less views of the vast prairies of Saskatchewan.


A pair of mu­si­cians en­ter­tains pas­sen­gers as the Cana­dian rolls across the prairies. Via Rail pro­vides free trans­port for those who per­form en route.


Un­pop­u­lated ar­eas are the most fre­quent view from the train even though re­mote On­tario lakes are pop­u­lar des­ti­na­tions for an­glers and hunters.


A cou­ple, who left the train dur­ing a brief stop, strolls the main street of Jasper. The train sta­tion is in the back­ground.

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