Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Great Northern Train Ride Across Canada – Part 2

August 13, 2014

Okay, we left off crossing the plains.  After the prairie country came lake country – an area rivaling Minnesota as Land of a Thousand Lakes.  Lake, pond, stream, river, creek, big puddle, more lake – it was sort of like the billabongs of Australia, where rivers and streams and ponds and lakes all joined into one mass waterway system connecting dots and larger dots of water all across the land.  And strangely, there were seagulls amongst all the geese and ducks, despite the fact that this was all fresh water.

Now that I realize we were vaguely north of a few of the Great Lakes, I suppose it makes more sense – seagulls might confuse a Great Lake with a small sea?  Seagulls aren’t the brightest of birds, they seem to be happy with lots of water and some garbage to eat.  So a lake, or a series of lakes, makes them happy and willing to stay around.

Anyway, Saskatoon probably has the best name of the places we stopped – but Sioux Lookout was another good name.  The town is on a bit of a rise, and the original settlers would watch for Sioux warriors who would go by to cross the river.  I’m not sure what they did to each other, the settlers and the warriors, but the town was named Sioux Lookout.  (One hopes the two groups settled things peaceably, but, well, human history doesn’t have the best track record that way.)

And onward, uneventfully, to Toronto.  

All across Canada, two kinds of trees seemed most common – the ever-present dark green conifers, also known as evergreens, the whole family of fir, pine, spruce, cedar, and such.  And then, the other most common trees were the white-barked birch, aspen, and alder.  Maybe they were more visible than maple, chestnut, etc. because the white bark really stands out against the greenery of the forest, especially toward twilight.  We didn’t really see any orchards of fruit trees, but maybe we just missed those.  Hard to say when half the travel is at night.

That brings us to the trip itself.  As with everything, there were pluses and minuses.

We opted for the reclining seats, rather than the berths, for several reasons.  The berths are actual private rooms, so while it might be luxurious, you don’t get to meet other passengers except during meals.  People tend to stay in their little cramped room, watching the scenery or reading or napping.  We’d rather do that in a larger car where we can chat with our neighbours, or go up to the observation glass dome car, or hang out in the café car with other travelers.  And the cost of the reclining seats is a fraction of the private rooms, so that also was a factor.

The staff were wonderful – from the conductors who helped us on and oversaw the organization of the carriages, to the kitchen crew in the café car, everyone was helpful, friendly, and trying their best to keep every passenger happy and comfortable.  When the seats emptied a bit after Edmonton, one conductor moved me to the seats opposite Richard, so we each had two seats and could spread out to sleep – AND wrote a ticket notice keeping the two of us in two seats each.  Then when more people came on later, they somehow managed to juggle the seat assignments and keep most of us with our two seats, which made it much easier to sleep.

The crew also did their best to keep the seventy-some students happy, but contained and not taking over the café or observation cars.  Quite a trick, let me tell you!  I watched one young woman conductor tactfully empty the café car of twenty boisterous teens, so that everyone else could eat or relax in a different setting.  She managed those kids like an expert teacher!

The train also provided music, movies, and such for the children – special treats such as muffins (which Richard managed to get), pop-out and fold-up cardboard trains (which Richard again managed to score, but for me – so much fun to create this cute little train, which I then gave to some small children because I really didn’t need to keep the thing, I just wanted to do the creative part of putting it together).

The downsides – the seats didn’t recline as much as the Australian seats, so weren’t quite as comfortable for sleeping.  Though the seats did have footrests, but for someone who isn’t tall (like me), the footrest wasn’t much help.

There weren’t any showers!  Ack!  After four days, well, I kept trying to stay clean with wet wipes and such, but my hair felt horrible.  We were spoiled by the Aussie trains which provide showers and towels for the economy passengers – and the Canadian trains might take a hint from their Australian cousins.

The café car had the same menu for four days.  Really.  It turned out that there were other options than the one breakfast, two lunch, and three dinner options – they made grilled cheese sandwiches for children, there was cold cereal or yogurt instead of the egg brekkie – but I had chef’s salad for lunch four days running.  There was a dining car, and the meals there were nicer (fresh salad, chicken with fresh vegs and rice or potatoes, and cake for dessert) – but it wasn’t easy getting in, somehow things were confusing and every time we asked we were told that area wasn’t open to us.  We finally managed to have our last night’s dinner there, and it was lovely, with tablecloths and glasses and china dishes – so if you have a choice, head to the dining car rather than the café car. 

I should add that the café car had free hot water for tea, oatmeal, ramen, etc., as well as a toaster.  So if people carry food along with them for the trip, there are amenities for expanding the meals.

All in all, we had fun.  Four days is a long time for a train trip, and next time we probably would break it up a bit, as we did in Australia.  Jasper didn’t have a single free hotel room, and I’m not sure many of the other towns (like Sioux Lookout) would be places I’d want to hang out for a day or two.  But it would break up the trip.

That’s the train report – good, but not all wonderful.  Exceptional scenery, very good service, and pretty good amenities but could be better.  Definitely worth doing, and I’d totally recommend the trip to anyone who likes train travel as much as we do.

And bring your camera, as well as reading material – there’s quite a bit of time to catch up on your reading.  Oh, there wasn’t any wifi, which we had thought was provided.  But each seat had two electric outlets, so I was able to download and sort photos as we traveled, which made my life easier.  (When you take a hundred or so photos a day, it helps to sort and label them every night!)

I know someone is thinking, wow, yesterday had so many photos, and today has so few!  What happened?  Well, scenery is sometimes the same basic view, over and over again.  Lakes aren't as dramatic as mountains.  And artistic energy wanes with such repetition.  Plus I had to repack to disembark in Toronto.  Besides, the photos posted yesterday went with that text, not with today's.

But trust me, the mass quantities of photos will return!

Next up: Toronto!

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