Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Great Northern Train Ride Across Canada – Part 1

August 12, 2014

We took the train from Bellingham, WA to Vancouver, BC, which is a lovely train ride along the coast.  (I even saw a bald eagle or two!!!)  We had a few days in Vancouver, a charming city in southwestern Canada, and the largest city in the province of British Columbia.  Our hotel was okay, but in a strange part of town – we knew it bordered on Chinatown and wasn’t far from Gastown, the oldest part of Vancouver that has been gentrified (and named for the old gas street lamps that the area retains).   The architecture and little things like manhole covers and streetlights reflected the history and ethnicity of the neighbourhoods – dragons in Chinatown, flowers and gas lamps in Gastown, and traditional Haida symbols for the First Nations (Native Canadians).

Vancouver really shines in the summer, with flowers everywhere and beautiful blue skies as well as being nearly surrounded by various inlets and bodies of water.  We had a great time just walking through Chinatown, Gastown, and all parts inbetween – looking at the architecture, murals, those little design elements I like, and of course the great variety of people that make up this part of Canada.

Plus great food – we had a Cuban lunch, an Italian lunch, and some good old Canadian pub food in our hotel.  The hotel also provided a continental breakfast, which offered quite a number of options.  And of course I drank tons of tea, because Canada is part of the British Commonwealth.  (In that way that confuses us from the USA – but yes, Canada as well as New Zealand and Australia are all independent and separate countries that have retained ties to Great Britain, and thus are considered part of the British Commonwealth.)

However, we didn’t realize we were essentially in the down-and-out area of town, where there are quite a few street people, junkies, and, well, people who essentially have a difficult time fitting in to modern society for any number of reasons.  Alcoholism, drug dependency, mental illness – you name it, we saw representations of the societal problems.  Probably more a function of the fact that most cities have spread away from the old centers of town, often where the rail stations are located.  So that those old parts of the cities become centers for low-income housing (including our budget hotel), and thus attract people who are not only economically disadvantaged but also have other problems or issues preventing them from fully participating in the more prosperous parts of a community.
So it was a different view of Vancouver than either of us have had previously.

And I think the quotation from the Chinese mural is apt:

"It takes knowledge to understand others, 
but it needs a clear mind to know oneself.

"It takes strength to surpass others,
but it requires a strong will to surpass oneself."

-Lao Tzu

 After our two and a half days in Vancouver, we caught the VIA Rail Canada train to Toronto.  This is a 4,466 kilometer trip!

Now, most people don’t realize how truly huge Canada is, all 3,855,103 square miles of it!  (The USA WITHOUT ALASKA is only 2,939,064.44 sq miles; with Alaska, 3,794,100 square miles.  And that’s Canada at 9,984,670 square kilometers to the USA at 9,926,675 sq km, for my metric friends.  Yes, Canada is almost 1 million square miles bigger than the lower 48 states.  That is one big country!!!)   

 Here’s a map showing the train route. 

Leaving Vancouver, we headed sort of northeast to Jasper, Alberta, going through the Canadian Rockies.  Then almost straight east to Edmonton, where we headed more southeast to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.  (Yes, we were in Saskatoon!)  Continuing SE, we headed to Winnipeg, then went back to a NE approach to Sioux Lookout, skirted north of Lake Huron and Lake Superior, and then headed SE to Toronto, Ontario.  (It’s the red-orange line in the photo.)

And yes, the major Canadian provinces are lined up in a row across the lower portion of Canada; the upper portion is “the territories,” according to some fellow train passengers.  (Although Quebec reaches up to the Arctic Circle, as do the “territories.”)  As you can see, the major cities and towns are in the lower half of Canada, most within something like 100 to 150 miles of the border with the USA.

So we saw much of the central portion of British Columbia, which is very green and hilly.  The train left after 8:30 PM, which is still daylight that far north.  But the sun eventually set, and we fell asleep. 

And awoke in Alberta, amidst the majesty of the Canadian Rockies – wow, huge tall mountains towering all around us, alpine lakes and rivers looking icy cold, glaciers gleaming in the sunrise – absolutely gorgeous and pristine nature (except for the train rails and the electric lines running alongside).  It was so beautiful, everyone gasped when they woke up and peeked outside for their first glimpse of the scenery.  And yes, this is why people take the train instead of fly across Canada.

We arrived in Jasper by the afternoon.  Jasper is almost mystical, an alpine town and park surrounded by flinty grey peaks and snow, almost like a Shangri-la of the north, but with bears instead of yeti.  We had about an hour to wander around, although the town is unfortunately too full of tourists to really enjoy the beauty of the location.  Well, and the town is also full of places catering to all those tourists.  My favourite part, though, was the huge dumpster with big signs about “use this dumpster to keep bears wild” – because apparently the dumpster is supposedly bear proof and difficult to open.  Yes, I also found it to be human proof, and required assistance in figuring out how to open the lid so I could toss in my latte cup.

But even the photo of our train with the mountains as the backdrop, taken at our stop in Jasper, looks like a faked photo shoot.  That’s how picture-perfect the mountains are there, they look almost unreal.  I’d love to spend more time in Jasper, maybe not quite in the middle of tourist season, just to see more of this incredibly gorgeous place.

Oh, for people wondering about the pale grey colour of these mountains – I looked it up, because I wanted to know what kind of rock they were, since the colour seemed rather unusual compared to the US Rockies.  (This is what happens when one is the child of a geologist.)  Turns out the Canadian Rockies are mostly sedimentary rock such as shale and limestone, while the US Rockies are more often metamorphic rock like gneiss and granite.  The Canadian Rockies, while made of softer rock, are more sharply defined and jagged because they were more heavily glaciated (as in more heavily covered by glaciers).  So that answers my questions about the rock colour.  Also probably why the rivers and lakes have a chalky look to the water, both from the cold as well as the limestone runoff.

We climbed back into the train and rolled on, through more mountain passes and along more mountain rivers and lakes.  The big events were a few people sighting a young bear, and one man catching a photo of this bear!  (He was an interesting man, who drove trains for 40 years – and turned out to be the first engineer to drive a train from France to England through the Chunnel!)  He also captured a few photos of deer, and I think we saw an elk – it had that distinctive circle of fur on its rump, so unlike a deer.

Nights were dark, the moon was almost full and reflected beautifully in all those lakes and rivers, and we rode on – not quite silently through the night, but ever on, with our train blowing its lonesome whistle.  And stopping periodically to let a freight train go by, since passenger trains seem to be lowest on the train hierarchy.

We reached Edmonton some time in the middle of the night, where a batch of high school students came on board.  These were French-speaking students from Quebec, who spent a few weeks in western Canada practicing their English.  Other Anglophone students were sent to Quebec to practice (or learn) French.  This is sponsored by the YMCA to help Canadian youth better understand other areas and cultures within Canada, and seemed like a great program.  Although it did make the train suddenly quite busy, but the kids were in a different carriage and we didn’t see much of them, except at meal time.

(Aren't the photos incredible?  There's no way to take a bad photo when the scenery is this amazingly gorgeous!!!  Absolutely breath-taking!!!!)

The next morning, we were in the Canadian plains, the great prairie region of Saskatchewan and Manitoba.  Endless fields of wheat, or low rolling hills with rivers and ponds and hundreds of ducks.  Fields and fields of prairie grasses, or farms of wheat, and sometimes grazing cattle.  This part of Canada is similar to much of the US plains, especially the northern Plains states – occasional farms or towns, and that endless vista of golden grains or bright greens, dotted with a few trees just for variety.  Fields of flowers, rolled up haystacks - this is more beautiful scenery, even if it isn't as dramatic as the mountain region.

I really liked the old barns and silos – at least, I think they’re silos, the have that very tall structure but were square or rectangular, rather than cylindrical.  But some advertised farms or farm implements, others just stood silent, fading in the harsh climate of the plains – relentless sun all summer, snow and ice all winter, and vicious storms in the changing seasons.  I think of these weather beaten structures as the architectural equivalent of Dylan Thomas’s line:  “Do not go gentle into that good night.”  The buildings seem to stand sturdy and tall, no matter how they might be forgotten or left to rejoin the elements – paint fades and peels, wood turns to silver, and still the old barn or silo stands, tall and regal, proud to be part of the landscape, and refusing to fall victim to the seasons.

Okay, I will stop here – it’s getting late, this blog is getting long, and I need to fall into bed.  I’m looking forward to a real bed after four nights in a reclining train seat!

One last story, because I have room - I always look for animals, and we were all hoping to see a moose, just because they're big and rare.  Well, one evening it was almost dark, and I saw something in a light beige colour running across a field of grass.  Not a reddish beige like a deer, but almost a yellow sandy beige colour.  And this animal was large, like a deer, but the legs were shorter, it just wasn't standing as tall as a deer (or elk, or caribou, or moose) would stand.  But I couldn't see the head, only the torso.  And I couldn't see the tail.  The loping gait was rather feline, though, so I'm thinking I just maybe, possibly, saw a mountain lion!!!!!  One of my favourite North American (and Central American) animals!!!!  I don't know if it really was, there's no way to go back and tell, but it was so exciting!!!!

More tomorrow!

(And of course I have more photos for this blog, so I'll just add them to the end.)


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