We continue our journey across Canada on The Canadian for our twenty-fifth anniversary.
The train rolled into Edmonton late, scheduled for 2300 (11 pm) we slowed on our passage through the foothills because of a derailment up ahead. A freight had gone off past Edmonton near Wainwright and by slowing down we would hopefully not be caught in a traffic jam of trains at the derailment, held in place for hours. We had finished dinner and gifted-amateur-grade Black Russianing after dinner. After an hour of disconnecting some cars, adding two deadhead cars and the usual scheduling follies we were back on the rails at O-Ghastly o’clock. The night passed without incident, me choosing to sleep on the top bunk, instead of on the precipice of the edge of the lower bunk.
By the time breakfast was called, around 0630, we were on the Prairies proper heading to Biggar, Saskatchewan. Their motto and I kid you not: New York City is big, but this is Biggar.
For those who have never seen The Great Plains, the standard joke is you can watch your dog run away for three days. This isn’t accurate, of course, but makes for a great story. We watched the last of the canola and wheat come off, combines gathering it up. As the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, it would illuminate long swaths of golden hay off into the distance. Small villages, clustered along one street in front of the grain elevator would swish by, grain cars waiting to load on a siding to take the crops to one side of the country or the other.
There is a rhythm to the Prairies that is hard to explain until you experience it. Stand at a cross-roads for more than five minutes between two small Canadian Prairie towns and you get it, seeping up into the soles of your feet. You’re connected to the land, the seasons and the people all at once. Every crossing you would see someone wave to the train and you naturally wave back, complete strangers passing a greeting of shared experience. Even if you are some high-strung Uber-Type A from the 416, five minutes is about all it takes to get it. It’s the quiet confidence that dare I say, is very typically Canadian.
In need of a stretch we decided to ‘walk the train” As The Canadian rolled across the Prairies we walked from our car, Draper, all the way back to the Park Car at the tail end. The Park Cars were built at the same time as the other cars, but rather than being cut off for another car to couple up, the Park cars are bullet-shaped at the end to signify the last of the train. Seats line the walls, with large windows to let you look all around. Of course, there is a bar and a dome too, but the Park Cars are the special ones that only exist on The Canadian any more. With the seats all taken by other passengers, we slid into the empty bar areas. Our server asked us if we would like a special coffee and, of course, we did. Coffee, Bailey’s, whipped cream and shaved chocolate magically appeared in cups. We exchanged pleasantries with the server, based out of Vancouver, going to the far end of her trip, in Winnipeg. It would seem that not many people walk the train, most of the passengers being content to limit their perambulations to one or two cars.
After finishing up our drinks, we walked all the way back past our room, up to the front of the coach class. The Canadian does give you choices of accommodation. Coach means you have a seat that reclines a bit more than that on a bus and bring your own blankets. It’s inexpensive, but we were convinced that for four nights, there was no way in all of creation that we would inflict that kind of indignity upon ourselves. Most of the passengers in coach were only on for a night or two, getting off a various stops along the way.
Dipping into the valley that is Saskatoon, then up the other side towards Melville is one stunning panorama after another. Frost was just barely hitting, the leaves turning on the foliage. Not the peak yet, but enough hints of the colours to come that you feel you want to turn around and come back in about two weeks time. We’re still behind schedule and roll through Portage La Prairie and wave at family members over there in the dark, hints of porch lights off in the distance. We know where their house is in relation to the railway.
After dinner and adjourning to the bar for more drinks and stories with another Aussie couple, a single woman, somewhat unsteady on her feet, staggers to our sever, asking for a drink. She is politely refused, as over-serving is a problem and the bar has to close a hour before the end of their shift, which in our case was Winnipeg, She is not happy and tries to engage us in conversation, which tells us it is time to go to our room.
As I’m passing behind her, I get grinded upon by her modestly lumpy arse, in a very deliberate manner. Any, our server notices and gives me the “Oh crap, she is a mess isn’t she?” eyebrow. Marylou, bless her, recognizes that the woman is, to be generous, shitfaced and only turns a few shades of red. Luckily there were no large bottles or heavy items like a fire extinguisher readily to hand, as Marylou is not above using blunt objects with a combination of zeal and skill to settle discussions in her favour. Grinder-Girl was very fortunate.
We know that Winnipeg, Marylou’s home town is our next stop so we stay up, rolling in to the station about four hours late, recognizing streets from the train. We have an hour to get off the train, see a little bit of the Forks and stretch our legs. Most of the other passengers do too, but it being late, The Forks are closed for the night. We take the night air, exchanging pleasantries with a younger woman who had apparently been sharing a glass with the Grinder-Girl. She didn’t know her but had commented that Grinder-Girl had several drinks in rapid succession and was travelling alone, but with her tiny bait-sized dog in the baggage compartment. We had seen Grinder-Girl on previous days, striding intently to the front of the train, with that just-a-little-too-glittery look in her eye that lead us to comment that Lithium is a powerful chemical and must be kept in proper balance by trained, skilled medical professionals.
After a quick walk across the Forks to the new pedestrian bridge, we head back to the train station. We see Grinder-Girl seated on the curb, her hands behind her back and her hoodie over her wrists. One of Winnipeg’s Finest is speaking with her, one foot on her hoodie to keep Grinder-Girl seated. A second squad glides up, two more officers engaging in discussions of a persuasive nature for Grinder-Girl to get in the back of the squad. Her trip on The Canadian was at an end for the time being.
As the new crew boards and the cars are replenished, we overhear some radio chatter. They’re getting the dog off the baggage car, our unspoken concern that her dog would go on to Toronto, without food, water or companionship, while his keeper got to spend a night in the crowbar hotel. We sit up in bed at watch Winnipeg trundle by the window, the lights fading over to the deep quiet dark of a Manitoba night.
When they were laying out the railroad in 1850 or so, the survey crew reached the Lake of the Woods and noticed the ground was fairly even with very few trees. One surveyor stood at the Ontario border and the other surveyor walked for 450 miles to Winnipeg. They snapped a chalk line and told the railway construction foreman, follow that line until you hit a big building in Winnipeg, then stop. The Trans-Canada highway and the railway are the result. Dead straight on a half-moon night, we go to sleep to the sound of the rails running true following that one warm line from long ago.
The northern part of Ontario from Rice Lake to Sioux Lookout is a result of glaciers millennia ago, scouring the soil from the surface. The soil wound up in the Twin Cities and further down the Mississippi. The Canadian Shield left exposed could support some trees and bugs. It isn’t farming country, the rails roaming around the edges of hundreds of glacial lakes, the trees starting to show off the fall colours a little more flamboyantly. The towns along the way sound like an old Warner Brothers cartoon, Malachi, Ottermere, Minaki, Redditt, Farlane, Canyon, Red Lake Road, Richan, Sioux Lookout, then followed by a long ‘and Cucamonga” in that peculiar Mel Blanc voice from the Bugs Bunny days. Still running late we breakfast, as picture perfect, icy cold lakes peek out from between the trees, living advertisements for “Sport Fishing In Canada”. Except they are real, not a set, or a Photoshop collage dreamed up by advertising mooks in a boardroom on the 35th floor of a skyscraper in Toronto.
We watch the trees and lakes for hours eventually winding up in Hornepayne around time for the third sitting of dinner. The towns that rolled by, like Mud River, Auden or Carmat are not much more than wide spots on either side of the rails. A collection of dwellings, haphazardly dropped among the trees with a weather-beaten pickup out front, two or three ATV’s and a smattering of snowmobiles visible in the yard, smoke curling from the chimney of the houses as The Canadian waddles along. In the depths of summer, black flies and mosquitoes will carry you off. In winter, a moose in your yard means it is Tuesday and no more remarkable than that.
After adjourning for a post-dinner cocktail with some more Aussies, we call it a night. Through the dark we roll past more bugs, trees and rocks, stopping a O-Gawd o’clock in Capreol, north of Sudbury. By the time we get up for breakfast, we’re starting to see signs of habitation. Still in the country, now running down the shores of Georgian Bay, looking cool and blue through the amber and red trees. There are fewer pines with more houses and roads.
Eventually we reach Toronto. We had to get there eventually, as that’s where they put the rails and The Canadian is not very good at off-road adventuring. We peer into the back yards of the houses, a pool there, a garden with a canoe up on sawhorses there, then suburban office buildings, then condo high rises and the skyscrapers that make up downtown Toronto. The Canadian eased to a stop at Union Station Union Station is the nexus of the Toronto Subway, the GOtrain commuter trains and busses that bring 200,000 commuters into downtown Toronto every day. Union Station opened in 1927 and has been restored to something near the original glory. It is the kind of edifice that still speaks of the glory days of travel, when men wore hats, women wore gloves and one dressed up to travel. We had a four-hour layover before our final leg home to Ottawa. After putting our luggage into temporary storage, we headed out to the hustle and construction of Front Street.
More in our final instalment shortly.