Voyaging Across the Canadian Prairies

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For some, the Toronto to Vancouver train is a way to see more of Canada's towns and scenery, but some are simply there because they're train enthusiasts who enjoy the experience as a journey from the past.

Photography by the authors

We imagined the Canadian prairies on our trip would be waving their fields of golden wheat, yes, a bit like the opening of the 1955 movie Oklahoma where “the corn is as high as an elephant’s eye.”

But that movie was filmed in Arizona to find such high corn and when we went from Toronto to Vancouver on June 4, 2013, after a long, cold winter we passed field after field of flat ground with stubs of something trying to push through as if in the hope of soon seeing spring.

But as author Robert Louis Stevenson said “I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” Well, we’re moving. We boarded in Toronto for what would be a four-night journey, but we are going to break our trip twice — once in Winnipeg and once in Saskatoon. Why? Mostly because there is so much to see in the world and probably this is the only time when it will be so easy and convenient to visit those great Canadian cities.

You get the feel of Canadian train travel in the Good Old Days from posters in tourist shops, the Railway Museum in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and from the elegant display in the lounge in Toronto’s train station. You get the feel, too, when you sit down to dine in the train’s restaurant where the service and cuisine equals what you might experience in a topnotch hotel — one of the surprises of traveling with Via Rail.

Canadian friends had told us the great scenery comes west of Jasper but we wanted to see this vast interior where it really does seem the Earth is flat. And we wanted to re-discover a place where time moved slowly, and a time when food wasn’t fast and where tea was sipped from fine bone china, and staff gave service, as in the TV series Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.”

Passengers, even if elderly, still have to deal with the adventure of mounting a ladder on a swaying carriage to reach the upper bunk. The mirror over the wash hand basin shows the protection to prevent a cry “Man Overboard!” from the top occupant.

Another surprise comes with the reality that, with the exception of Winnipeg and Jasper, there isn’t a great deal of time off the train to explore far-flung Canada. The train, however, does stop in remote areas for its own purposes (sometimes because freight takes priority over passenger traffic) and a moment outside surely reminds passengers how isolated some parts of North America still are.

The names of the settlements and towns we have passed, some in the night, sound, yes, foreign to American ears. Many of those places were built by the railroad at approximately 240 kilometer intervals to service the locomotives. Washago, population 600. Gogama, population 550. Blue River, population 269. Lytton, population 235 — interesting, because here the mighty Thompson and Fraser rivers run side by side in the same channel, obviously separate because one has less sediment than the other.

Those who like to stay busy find places to move around especially if they can handle steps. Special carriages, “dome cars,” are interspersed along the train with views to delight any photographer with a fast lens.

The view, as you’d expect, keeps changing — from dust rising from tractors to content cows grazing in farm to fields and vast wheat storage bins getting ready for the next harvest.

In train travel across Canada you’re surely capturing the spirit of the past. Posters remind us that rail made the country.

We pass homes and churches in small towns that were part of this growth. In 1888 the president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, William Cornelius Van Horne, justifying his railway, famously said, “If we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.”

Excitement mounts as the train adds on more special observation carriages. The passengers are being imported into the scenery as Van Horne promised. The trees fall away, lakes appear. We have left the prairies behind us.

We are now in Jasper in the Canadian Rockies. The air is brisk, the view clear, the snow-capped mountains seem closer than they really are.

Nature shows its last image as we approach the end of the rainbow — Vancouver.

We chat over coffee with an American couple from Taiwan and an elderly Canadian from Thunder Bay on the north shore of Lake Ontario, the very place where Terry Fox had to give up his Marathon of Peace after running the equivalent of a marathon every day for 143 days with only one leg. The Canadian is a very contented passenger, beaming with pleasure at how he had recreated a favorite memory from his youth by making this Toronto to Vancouver journey.

The Chinese-American woman is making this point: “The Rockies are beautiful, the meals were splendid and the train was fun but the sleeping compartments were cramped and the trip wasn’t, how you say, inexpensive. Flying Vancouver to Toronto, roundtrip with a hotel in Toronto would still be less than what we’ve paid for the train trip!”

The Canadian smiles, looks out the window and turns to us all.

“I’d guess just about everyone on board this train is a railway buff, a train aficionado.” He explains the term to the Chinese couple and continues, “We’re not on this train to save money or even — like the Andersons here — as a way to see Canadian cities!”

We protest but he carries on: "We are train enthusiasts. We feel in many ways this train, even renovated, is still an experience and a journey from the 1970s. And it’s a thrill, especially for Canadians, who know their geography: they can read the mileposts. They know, for example, when they are almost in Vancouver and see a sign ‘Mile 125 Boston Bar’; they are passing Hell’s Gate where the rapids are so strong we had to build a fish ladder to help salmon get upstream to spawn!

“And if you don’t know this stuff, ask your neighbor. Make friends. Have you spoken to passengers and asked them about themselves, why they are onboard? And told them about Taiwan?”

He finishes his coffee and says, “More important, you can ask them for their opinions on favorite restaurants and even what they think is the best buy for a Vancouver hotel. You don’t get friendly passengers sharing their knowledge when you fly. This is a train adventure!”

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the NH Academy of Family Practice, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.