This piece is longer than previous bits of blog. The journey was longer too! There have been complaints from some readers about how the blog lags behind our actual travels. This is true, but caused by a combination of poor wi-fi sites, laziness, and my weak will. We are having a heap of fun!
There is a strange quirk to our out-of-province health coverage, provided through the retired teachers insurance. This is for only 62 days out of Ontario, but can be re-activated with 24 hours back home. Thus … a side trip from Vancouver to Toronto and back.
We decided to make the best of it, and found that “The Canadian” VIA train would take us from Vancouver to Edmonton, with the best bits through the Yellowhead Pass and Jasper in daylight. But the first half of the journey would be at night in an expensive “sleeper car”, so we decided to leave the trailer in Surrey, BC, and drive the truck half way, to a little-known town of Blue River, population 250.
This took us on the Coquihalla Highway, and more magnificent BC mountains. Quite a drive, and a delay on the road gave us a break … at the side of a beautiful valley on a nice sunny day.
There are worst places to wait for the traffic!
After the first batch of mountains, Merritt, in its valley, was interesting for its enormous stacks of logs. Then another pile of mountains on the way to Kamloops, where we saw a warning about sheep. Indeed there were many on the hillside, and bighorn sheep really do have big horns! Up the North Thompson valley and another incredible collection of beautiful river and mountain views. I do not include many views in this blog, since you can easily link to the web-sites for these places and their photography is much better than mine.
Wildlife finds its way into these ramblings, and while we saw neither grizzly bears, nor the cohoe salmon run, we did see a bald eagle on the Thompson riverbank. It was showing its young offspring how to catch salmon as they swam past. No picture of this since we could not stop on this busy highway, and anyway, I lack a telephoto lens. Later in the journey we saw numerous elk, more long-horned sheep and a bear … but this was in a far-away meadow!
We allowed for an extra day, and spent the time exploring the area. There is a Blue River, since it is glacier-fed, and we also climbed some logging roads in our trusty 4 x 4 truck to enjoy the masses of mountains all around the picturesque valleys.
The Glacier Mountain Lodge was an excellent choice in another way, since it was a minor headquarters for CN railway engineers, conductors and other folk. They had all the computers to track the trains, and thus our friendly hotel host knew when to drive us to the tracks.
There really are glaciers all around, and the snowfall is legendary … hence the signs on the hotel walls.
Note that I say tracks, and definitely not a “station”.
The train will only stop at Blue River “by request”, so there we were, looking down the empty tracks.
It was sort of like Anne of Green Gables in reverse. Just Elaine and I, with a sincere hope that the train would arrive, and stop to take us in! The General Store was fascinating, and was considerate enough to provide a bench outside, in case anybody was catching a train.
Finally the train arrived, and yes … it really did stop for us two old folk in the mountain wilderness!
We were initially dismayed to see it was called the “Rocky Mountaineer”, which is entirely the wrong (and much more expensive) train.
But it proved to be only a couple of empty cars at the front, and the stainless steel cars of “The Canadian” were tacked on the rear. We never did find out why those two “foreign” cars were there.
We were welcomed aboard by name, and the friendly conductor did not seem to mind that we had made his train make a special stop, and delay its 5,000Km journey.
There have been many articles, documentaries, and VIA commercials about their legendary coast-to-coast trains. I cannot improve on these accounts, but will say that they do not come even close to the real experience. Of course it helps to be retired to enjoy the slow unfolding of the scenery, and it is good to be gregarious, since you do meet some fascinating characters, especially at shared tables in the dining car. (Real food, real tablecloths, and good service),
The mother with her early-twenties son who was going to Jasper, and then back to Revelstoke. Why? “Best snowboarding in Canada”. The young Australian woman going via Winnipeg to Churchill to find polar bears; she wanted to get into the travel business and thought it good to experience some travel first! But the real surprise was the other Australian guy from near Canberra. He was on an extended holiday in North America and said he had a business. “What do you do?” I asked. He replied that he was a coffee roaster. Turned out to be a “Master Coffee Roaster”, and judge of coffees, etc. This should encourage grandson Harley, since clearly if one sticks at coffee roasting, one might percolate far enough up to afford extensive holidays in another hemisphere!
Then there is the scenery, viewed from the dome car, where you can also check that the engineer stops at his red lights! Good engineers too. They slow down for sights like Pyramid Falls, the Mount Robson glacier, and other wonders on this journey through the very heights of Canada.
The train stops altogether for a while in Jasper, and we shopped a little and checked out this charming town in the heart of the National Park. An old steam locomotive shows what it took to get to Jasper in the old days, and we enjoyed browsing for a souvenir or two.
After Jasper it is all downhill to Edmonton, with the last couple of hours or so on fast tracks in the dark. We checked out this portion on our return, and found that it was mainly trees, oil wells, ranches and coal mines, but somebody has to fuel the Canadian economic engines.
Edmonton is a strange place. It has a fairly good airport close to the centre of town, which is now used only by smaller private planes and those who can afford them. The rest of us have to travel an enormous distance to “Edmonton International”, and the only economic means is the “Sky Shuttle”. This indeed shuttles all over Edmonton picking up passengers here and there, and eventually reaches the airport which seems to be half way to Calgary. If you think trains and RVs have rattles, try the “Sky Shuttle” – perhaps it was its final journey.
We haven’t flown for a while, so were less-than-impressed with the security stuff, but reluctantly admit its necessity. I passed OK, but Elaine got the shoe inspection routine. The WestJet people were excellent, but three or four hours in an aluminum cigar tube with a cookie or two definitely lacks the ambiance of VIA Rail through the Rockies.
Since this was only a flying visit for the health insurance, we had the family come to us, and we gathered for what turned out to be a great meal at Casey’s, just across from our excellent Courtyard by Marriott hotel near Toronto airport. Louise, Alexandra and K. stayed overnight and Keldan and Alexandra tried anew to drown us in the hotel pool.
Really great to see Gary and Fiona again, and see what impressive progress they have made on their new house. Magical that Beau, Harley and Candice could also join us, and since we missed Thanksgiving with them all, this was an extremely welcome substitute.
Candice entertained on her new guitar, and I think everyone enjoyed the evening.
Next day we did it all again in reverse. The plane took longer since it was against the wind. The airport shuttle rattled worse than ever, but we did observe that it served as a tour of Edmonton at no extra charge.
Hotels may seem like luxury after our little trailer, but they are a mixed blessing. The shower nearly knocks you over, and having a bed each means less dispute about who, exactly, is sleeping in the middle of the bed. But the whole routine of suitcases, check-ins, unpacking and packing can be more tiresome than hitching and unhitching a fifth wheel! Also there are a myriad of small charges. Some family member (and it may have been me!) opened our bottle of spring water at our get-together in the room, and this resulted in a $2.99 charge, plus HST of course!! Gasoline is about that price in the USA, but for this you do get a whole gallon!! Then, every so often, bad things happen. Ours was the Edmonton hotel on Saturday night on the way back. This turned out to be party-central for most of Edmonton, and Elaine said that things didn’t quiet down until 4.a.m. I do not sleep with my hearing aids, so take her word for it being the “noisiest hotel I have even visited”.
Ah yes … the train back, and a repeat performance of civilized travel. Not as good weather and views, and no elk in Jasper, but pulling into Blue River was an experience. The conductor made the announcement: “We are stopping in Blue River this evening to drop off two passengers, and since we are running early, we will make this a ten-minute station stop and you can all get out to stretch your legs.” This resulted in a mass exodus, and also touching goodbyes from our “train friends” who gave us hugs and best wishes before we drove off in our hotel car.
Our truck was still there, and we drove back to Surrey to find our trailer still there too. We also were just ahead of the serious mountain snows, and made the following observations, in case you missed the point:
-Road travel is OK, but the driver cannot enjoy most of the scenery.
-Air travel is not fun … it just covers enormous distances quickly.
-Hotels are sometimes not fun, and shuttles to remote airfields are awful.
We now plan to take more trains when RV travel is not appropriate. Stay tuned for our Christmas caper, when we again have to top up our insurance with a trip to Ontario.
John … with much input from Elaine