Gliding on the Canadian Rails

When you think of train travel, you think of noise

—the constant “clackety-clack, clackety-clack” of metal wheel on steel rail. To train buffs, it’s music. But to vacationers intent on a restful interlude, this quaint reminder of days of yore can quickly wear thin. In Canada, where civil behavior is the national pastime, it seems fitting that the nation’s trains are equally restrained. “This is ‘continuous weld’ track,” said conductor Ronald Altman, explaining the absence of clack as we pulled quietly out of Prince Rupert. “Instead of short pieces of rail butted up to one another, Canada’s national railroads have long lengths welded smoothly together so the wheels don’t make that constant clatter.”

Thus began our four-day, 1,020-mile journey—including two nights at the famed Jasper Park Lodge—eastward via rail from the coastal city of Prince Rupert (its slogan, “Where Canada’s Wilderness Begins”) over the Canadian Rockies and down to the Great Plains metropolis of Edmonton (“Cultural Capital of Canada”). En route, we glided through spectacular scenery—pointed peaks cresting in blankets of white; ribbons of white foam gushing down craggy passes; meadows glowing in a greenness as bright as the midday sun. We traveled in early June as winter’s snows were waning, spring’s vibrancy was in full rage and the first sunshine of summer warmed and brightened the days.

Getting there was half the fun

It is somewhat ironic that to ride a train, you must first take a plane. Air Canada and United Airlines fly from the Bay Area to Vancouver, with connecting flights leaving for Prince Rupert in the morning and evening. We missed the last connection, however, thanks to a four-hour delay on our United flight from SFO. The upside was an overnight stay in Vancouver, giving us the chance to glimpse the city’s gleaming skyline, overlook expansive Stanley Park (the third-largest city park in North America) and chat with locals about the surprisingly warm weather (“80s in summer isn’t rare”) and the 2010 Winter Olympics.

We grabbed the early flight the next day and landed 500 miles later in Prince Rupert, just 40 miles south of the Alaskan Panhandle. Port city, rail terminus and mill town, Port Rupert is as downscale as sophisticated Vancouver is up. It’s lucky to muster 13,000 individuals at the height of summer tourist season. “Ten years ago, before the pulp mill closed, our population was pushing 25,000,” Bruce Wishart, the town’s head cheerleader and historian, told us in the Rain Dining Lounge.

These days, the buzz is about container shipping because a new port facility is under construction near downtown. “Because of Prince Rupert’s more westerly location, we can move goods from China to Chicago, by rail, two days faster than from Vancouver and four days faster than from the Port of Oakland,” Wishart says. And if you’re not in the shipping business, what does Prince Rupert offer? “We have cruises to Queen Charlotte Islands,” says Wishart, “grizzly bear tours, whale watching and float plane adventures, and thanks to our abundance of sea life and fresh vegetables, almost every place to eat in town is a good one.”

On to Prince George

We left Prince Rupert the next day bound for Prince George aboard VIA Rail Canada’s Skeena, comfortably ensconced in an air-conditioned panorama car whose glass dome roof descends to armrest level. Conductor Altman provided running commentary. “Those aren’t golf balls you see in that tall pine tree,” he announced during one stretch. “They’re bald eagles. Like elk, moose, and grizzly bears, they’re indigenous to northern British Columbia.” The 435-mile trip took all day—and three meals, which we ate before an ever-changing backdrop as we whizzed along (and sometimes over) the mighty Skeena River, across flowering meadows and through dark passages of dense pine forest.

The Skeena follows a route forged by the historic Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in 1914. Rail Canada is subsidized, so we stopped here and there to deliver the mail in logging towns like Terrace, Smithers, and New Hazelton (“the Telephone Pole Capital of the World”). Each was a good opportunity to stretch our legs and trade smiles with Canadians.

Two of our train mates were Dave and Kathy Kalister, retired California educators now living outside McCall, Idaho. “I’m an incurable train nut who had to cross this scenic route off my to-do list,” Dave Kalister said. When we made a mail stop in New Hazelton, he described the workings of the 225-ton, diesel-electric engine that was pulling our eight-car passenger train.

Around 8:30 we pulled into Prince George (the “Gateway to the North”) and checked into the Coast Inn of the North. We had little time to explore this 80,000-person town, but it’s a popular destination for outdoor adventures and golf. With the northern latitude, darkness was still two hours away, so we headed to the inn’s lively lounge, retiring at 11 so we could get up early for the train. We awoke, a bit short on sleep but with the northern British Columbia sun already fully ablaze, thanks to the 4:30 a.m. summer sunrise.

Image 2:  Photo by Matthew G. Wheeler

Next up: Jasper National Park

Several bridges marked the 375-mile run to Jasper National Park. One of them, over the Raush River, made a graceful left turn, allowing us to see the length of the train, from our perch in the panorama car to the industrial bulk of the yellow, silver and black engine up front. The scene was a poster for rail travel—and we were in it! We traveled through numerous tunnels and made two mail stops where we found a depot, post office, general store and not much more. In Dunster, the 1913 train station, well-preserved, served as combination of all three.

Throughout the day, the landscape was rich with water. Lakes reaching into the horizon, swollen streams, gushing waterfalls and roaring rivers appeared one after another—an all-you-can-view buffet of nature’s aqueous bounty. “Notice that now the water flows eastward,” conductor Altman announced before lunch, “emptying into either Hudson Bay or the Arctic Ocean.” With the Continental Divide behind us, by early afternoon the Canadian Rockies were in sight and we left British Columbia for the province of Alberta.

We pulled into Jasper and its recently restored train station in the late afternoon. Our two-night stop here was the highlight of our trip—not just for the beauty of the park but for the opportunity to hike, raft and, for a change, eat at a table that wasn’t moving.
Similar to the classic lodges at Banff and Lake Louise, the original 1929 Jasper Park Lodge was built to attract Canada rail passengers. A fire damaged much of the original structure in the early 1950s and it was replaced by a larger 442-room property—now the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge—that provides 21st-century guests modern comfort imbued with classic ambience. Our cabin overlooked a blue lake with rugged Whistlers Mountain rising 7,496 feet in the distance.

As time allowed, we rafted the Athabasca River, rode the sensational Jasper Tramway to snowcapped Whistlers Summit, and cruised amid the glaciers on Maligne Lake. There is also a golf course, rated one of Canada’s best for its scenery and challenging layout.

Meals ran the gamut from burgers and fries at the Dead Dog Saloon, where rabid fans were watching the Stanley Cup hockey playoffs, to cocktails and an elegant candlelit dinner in the lodge’s Rainbow Lounge.

The final run into Edmonton

Our final leg, now aboard the Canadian, a transcontinental train connecting Vancouver and Toronto, took us 220 miles from Jasper to Edmonton, where more than a million people enjoy a thriving economy based on oil, timber, agriculture and tourism. Past Jasper the landscape leveled. We sped by towns named Bickerdike, Entwistle and Stony Plain, interspersed with wetlands and wheat fields. Farther east, industrial parks and Arlo Guthrie-esque “graveyards full of rusted automobiles” announced the proximity of Edmonton. We used the time to read the books that had been our close companions throughout the trip (we each finished three).

Our last night in Canada we stayed in downtown Edmonton at the Union Bank Inn, a handsome three-story building constructed in 1911 for the Union Bank of Canada and now refashioned into a 34-room luxury boutique hotel. We dined at the hotel’s Madison’s Grill on grilled Alberta beef tenderloin and slept soundly in a room dubbed the Sheridan with walls and linens of deep bronze and gold.

All in all, a fitting end to an idyllic railroad journey.

Image 3:  Courtesy of Jasper Park Lodge

If you go

VIA Rail System:

Tourism Prince Rupert:

Coast Inn of the North in Prince George:

Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge:

Union Bank Inn in Edmonton: