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Riding the Rails of Western Canada

by Paris Permenter & John Bigley

We knew from the start just how large western Canada was. Looking at the map, it was easy to see how the west sprawled out from rolling prarie land to the Rocky Mountains to the jagged coastline.What we weren't prepared for was the vastness of it all. Although we had traveled our own western states, it was always by air or by interstate, never cross country. For this excursion, we would be traveling across Canada by rail, from Winnipeg to Jasper to Vancouver. It was a journey that had taken pioneers months but one that we would enjoy in ten days with time to explore small towns, national parks, and cultural cities, and, best of all, just to sit back and enjoy the Canadian countryside while someone else took over the driving.

There are faster ways to travel but probably none as satisfying. As the train clicks and sways through small towns and farms, children wave from road crossings and farmers salute from their tractor seats. In the untamed Rockies, there are no humans around to wave, only curious wildlife stopping to stare as the shiny railcars weave through the damp woodlands.

Trains traverse Canada from coast to coast, but some of the most spectacular routes can be found in the west. Snowy peaks, cascading waterfalls, thick forests, and raging whitewater rivers as well as miles of undulating prairie are part of the western excursion.

Western Canada is home to two passenger train companies, each offering a different type of journey ranging from transcontinental luxury to guided sightseeing to value-priced commuter trains that offer spectacular scenery and easy transportation for about the cost of a good meal.

"Canada is an enormous country. The way to see its people and its culture is by rail," says Laurene Bennett of VIA Rail, the nation's most extensive railway company. VIA spans the country with its transcontinental Canadian which journeys from Vancouver to Toronto.

We started our journey aboard the VIA train in Winnipeg, located almost due north of Austin in the province of Manitoba. The city was once the end of the railroad line and many western-bound immigrants settled in the city.

Starting in Winnipeg

We arrived a day early in Winnipeg to enjoy this city's many attractions. Winnipeg boasts excellent museums, a zoo (once home of a bear named Winnie, immortalized by A.A. Milne's popular children's books), and Lower Fort Garry, a living history museum where costumed interpreters carry on work of the 1880's at this former outpost of the Hudson Bay Company.

But Winnipeg's most popular attraction is found just a block from the VIA station at La Fourche or the Forks. We saved an afternoon to linger here at the spot that's popular with both locals and visitors. Here, at the confluence of the Assiniboine and the Red rivers, man has gathered for over 6,000 years. Two hundred years ago, fur traders and Indians met here, but life remained quiet at The Forks until the 1880's. At that time, steel tracks were laid across the prairies, and the railroad brought in thousands of settlers from around the world. The Forks became a railyard, and the area between the rivers soon housed a reception center for thousands of immigrants, a Canadian version of Ellis Island.

Today the old railway warehouses have been restored and given a new life as a festival marketplace. Here locals and vacationers enjoy a colorful farmer's market, specialty shops and dozens of ethnic mini-restaurants that reflect the international settlement of the city. We enjoyed our first taste of Ukrainian pyrogies while we sat with Winnipegers on the terraced river banks. As the sun went down, we took a stroll on the river walk and viewed the archaeological exhibit that traces the history of this site. Summer days are long in Canada because of its northern latitude.

We returned to the VIA station by early evening when the train starts its westward journey. It's a trip timed for the best viewing of the Canadian Rockies. VIA's Canadian offers vacationers moderately priced coach cars or the elegant Blue and Silver Class, with dome observation cars, fine dining cars, and sleepers with toilets and showers.

VIA's Blue and Silver Class

We opted for the Blue and Silver Class and found that it, as promised, brought back the elegance of the heyday of rail travel. Our sleeper compartment was outfitted with two easy chairs that looked out the large observation window. A toilet kit had all the amenities of a fine hotel, and our attendant was always available to get ice, fold down the bunk beds, or give directions to the dining car.

Because of delays down the line, our train did not pull out of Winnipeg until well past dark, but we awoke to find ourselves being whisked through miles of farmland in the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Rolling on through the night, the train starts its ascent toward the mountains after breakfast. Enjoy the scenery from a dome car (one in coach and one for sleeper passengers only) or from the wide windows of the sleeper compartments themselves.

The Canadian departs Winnipeg in early evening. It's a trip timed for the best viewing of the Canadian Rockies. Before the mountains, the train winds through miles of farmland in the provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Rolling on through the night, the train starts its ascent toward the mountains after breakfast. Enjoy the scenery from a dome car (one in coach and one for sleeper passengers only) or from the wide windows of the sleeper compartments themselves.

In early afternoon, VIA stops in the community of Jasper, nestled in Jasper National Park. Spanning over 4200 square miles, this is Canada's largest Rocky Mountain Park, boasting numerous lakes, waterfalls, rugged mountains, canyons, glaciers, and a 233 square mile icefield. The park is a wildlife sanctuary, and elk are a common sight even on the park golf courses.

Jasper

VIA's stop in Jasper is only a little over a hour before continuing to Vancouver, but you can disembark here. Depending on availability at the time you make reservations, you can split the trip into several legs and extend your visit in Jasper. VIA's westbound train stops in Jasper three times weekly.

We ended our journey on the VIA Canadian here to stay the night in Jasper. Another option is to take the Rocky Mountaineer train from Jasper to Vancouver. The only guided train excursion in western Canada, the Rocky Mountaineer is designed for vacationers who want to enjoy a guided tour through the most beautiful stretch of country.

On its westward journey, two Rocky Mountaineer trains travel from Jasper and nearby Banff (local bus service between the towns means you can enjoy both parks.) The two trains link up at the end of the first day in Kamloops and continue together through day two to Vancouver.

Although the train offers no dome car, the viewing is excellent from both large windows and open air vestibules. This train has the most legroom of western Canada's three trains, enough to stretch out full length and still watch for elk, deer or bear on the route.

An attendant in every car serves meals and unlimited soft drinks and coffee, and more importantly points out scenic and historic spots on the way. The knowledgeable attendants spot wildlife, tell stories of historic figures that once roamed this area, like train robber Bill Miner, subject of the movie The Grey Fox, and provide plenty of warning before upcoming photo opportunities.

Rocky Mountaineer

The Rocky Mountaineer is a day traveler only. So passengers don't miss any scenery, the train stops in Kamloops for the night, and passengers stay at a preassigned motel in what is known as Canada's "desert" city. The next morning, the train chugs on to Vancouver, journeying through scenic British Columbia's misty forests. It follows the whitewater rapids of the Fraser River where salmon return to spawn every fall.

The train arrives in Vancouver by early evening. This waterfront city demands at least a two day exploration. Don't miss Stanley Park, home of the Vancouver Aquarium, or the city's beautiful Queen Elizabeth Park, with its towering evergreens and multi-climate Bloedel Conservatory.

Over a century ago, when the Canadian Pacific Railway first ran rails across the country, the general director was determined to bring visitors to this wilderness. "If we can't export the scenery, we'll import the tourists," reasoned William Cornelius Van Horne.

Riding the rails aboard any Canadian train, it's clear that Van Horne's prophesy has come to pass. All aboard!

 

Photo Courtesy Rocky Mountaineer.