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Article: Riding the Rails

Four-day journey provides a scenic look at Canada

Taking the train across Canada is the land version of taking a sea cruise, without seasickness.

Who doesn't love a train? The sound of the lonely train whistle in the middle of the night has attracted writers for centuries. Most intriguing is the prospect of changing scenery without either having to drive or having to unpack and repack every night.

VIA Rail Canada's flagship Western transcontinental tour, the Canadian, is a four-day, three-night journey across the top of North America. The train took off from Vancouver, British Columbia, late one Friday afternoon and arrived in Toronto on a Monday evening. In between was a continent so vast, it only could be appreciated from the comfort of a touring car.

There were 26 cars, including three engines. As we chugged off from Vancouver about 5:30 p.m. on July 13, the announcement was made for first seating for dinner. We took advantage of first call -- there are three -- and quickly learned that one of the benefits of VIA Rail is the culinary expertise of the staff. The tables are covered with linen cloths and dinner is served on china with silver and crystal. Every attempt is made to cater to the traveler.

Menus include choices of three entrees, soup or salad (or soup and salad) and luscious desserts. We had to try everything.

As the train picked up steam once we had cleared the city, it became apparent that we would have to walk differently on the speeding vehicle. It was just a matter of walking with legs apart for balance, probably similar to walking on the rolling deck of a small ship.

Twilight lingers late in British Columbia because of its northern location, so we watched the scenery pass by from our favorite domed observatory. The touring car was popular with all the passengers because it contained a smoking section, bar and lounge, as well as the second-story dome.

The train took us to Hell's Gate, the stretch of rapids along the Fraser River where the current is so swift that a fish ladder was built to help salmon swim upstream to spawn. By 10 p.m., we were hurtling into the night and headed to our compartment where the porter had made up the beds.

The Canadian offers two types of service: coach and the Silver & Blue class. Passengers in coach typically use the train as a means of getting from town to town. Silver & Blue passengers use the train as a vacation vehicle. The gleaming stainless steel cars of the Canadian have been used as transportation since 1955, and stop in specific towns only if there is a passenger boarding or debarking, or if it's time to take on water.

The sleeper cabins are a testament to man's ingenuity of being able to pack 10 pounds of matter into a 5-pound hole. They're adequately roomy during the day, with comfortable chairs, but at night they give a new meaning to the word closeness. The cramped quarters could make or break a marriage. How crowded are they? When one person needs to change clothes or open the door to use the toilet (euphemistically called the "anteroom"), the second person has to either crawl into the lower berth or step out to the hallway.

Each car has a shower shared by its occupants, and the water is plentiful and hot. Even though a few dozen people shared the facility, there rarely was a lineup; some people shower at night, some in the morning. The trick for us was dressing. My husband usually would shower first and dress while I was showering. By that time, he had stepped out of the cabin and was sitting in the dome, not because we don't dress in front of each other, but because there was no space to dress in front of each other.

After spending a night in our sleeper, it became apparent that we would spend most of our time out of our chamber, enjoying the spacious skies offered in the domed observation car. Overnight our car had stopped in Kamloops, British Columbia, for water. Unfortunately, that was about 2 a.m., so we weren't able to see the area that became a boomtown during the Caribou gold rush of 1862.

The train chugged its way through the Rocky Mountains past its highest peak, Mount Robson, and the Continental Divide at Yellowhead Pass.

Our first opportunity to debark was at Jasper, Alberta, a resort town in the center of Jasper National Park, a wildlife sanctuary known for its ski trails and outdoor sports activities. A prominent sign on the main street instructs drivers to be aware that the moose is a wild and dangerous animal and to give it the right of way. While we didn't see any moose or elk, we did enjoy walking around town as we regained our "land legs" and also toured a local wildlife museum.

A couple of hours later the train was on its way to Edmonton, Alberta. The call for lunch was delayed and everyone was trying to crowd into the first seating. We got the late seating, which means lunch ended about 3 p.m., so we had a late dinner. Meals are an important event on the train, seconded by the turndown of the berths.

Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, was the staging point for explorers and adventurers from the early days of fur trading to the Yukon gold rush and Alberta oil discoveries in the late 1940s. It was at Edmonton that we fellow travelers realized the contrasts in views. While traveling through the countryside, we saw a rush of beautiful scenery: lakes, mountains, amber waves of grain. While traveling through cities, we learned that railroad tracks have become a magnet for all the detritus of mankind: yards filled with rusted machinery, old tires, leaky oil tankers.

Our northern point of the trip also was at Edmonton, so it mattered little that we had a late seating for dinner -- it was light until past 10 p.m. and dusky until about 11. Once again we watched darkness fall in the dome and then made our way to our sleeping accommodations.

It was difficult to sleep the first night -- the unfamiliar noises, the sudden lurches as the engines tried to pick up steam after leaving slow zones -- but we slept well thereafter.

The water stop in Winnipeg, Manitoba, was fun. We watched the train personnel clean the outside of the touring car windows while others raced their water hoses from one car to the next while wearing in-line skates. A porter told us the watering crew uses ice skates in winter. Apparently a train uses a lot of water every 12 hours, because that was about how often it stopped for a refill. The stops were also used to bring aboard groceries, fresh linens and the myriad of necessities for a successful train trip.

By the third day we knew most of the passengers on our section of the train; at one time or another we had shared a meal in the dining car or a deer sighting in the dome car. In Winnipeg, we also changed crews, which gave us some new faces to enjoy and remember.

From Winnipeg to Toronto, the train traveled more slowly as the population became a bit more dense.

Also, it made more frequent stops to let freight trains go by.

Our porter informed us that the rail lines are owned by the freight shipping companies and only leased to the passenger trains, so the freight trains have priority. Not a night passed that I didn't waken to hear the sound of a freight train rushing by as our train was stopped on a siding.

It was with a tinge of regret that we started seeing the outskirts of Toronto. By then, we had our bags packed and in the hands of the porters for debarking and had shared our last dinner with fellow travelers from Vancouver. We enjoyed meeting a father and daughter from Norway, a woman from Arizona and her niece from San Diego, and a husband and wife from Winnipeg who were taking their young granddaughters on their first train trip.

We bid adieu to the porters and food servers as we tipped generously; we also tipped the crew that debarked in Winnipeg.

Train travel is not for someone in a hurry. It's also not for someone who isn't fond of tight places and a bit of inconvenience. But it is an adventure to wake up in the middle of the night while hurtling across the continent, hear the lonely sound of the train whistle, then turn over and go back to sleep.

Source: Las Vegas Review-Journal

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