To cut a long story short, I’ve taken the train from Jasper to Edmonton, from Edmonton to Winnipeg and from Winnipeg to Toronto.
The first trip was only a few hours but both the others were over twenty hours and two nights. In economy you only get a seat but I was lucky to have an empty seat next to me. Even so, it’s not very comfortable and I didn’t get much sleep. When I woke, it was usually with a stiff neck and/or bad back.
The passenger trains are frequently late, as the freight trains take precedence on the busy lines. Due to the summer heat, there were also concerns about the rails buckling, so the trains slowed to speeds between 10 and 25 mph.
It was all worth it, however. As long as you wrap up warm against the air con, you can sit in the observation car. The landscape is superb.
Coming down from the Rockies, there are rolling plains before you reach the true Prairies. Though the land is vast, it is far from boring. The assortment of rushes, reeds, vetches and grasses mean the scenery is multicoloured and moving, waves of diverse grass heads, of different heights, sweeping across the landscape.
There are wild flowers by the tracks and butterflies flutter up in the wake of the passing train.
From Winnipeg to Toronto the conifers gradually give way to deciduous forests, as ever broken up by rivers and lakes. In fact I wonder how much of Canada is actually land. It’s certainly one of the most difficult maps to draw.
Homesteads dot the terrain and “stations” can be anything from a stop at a road crossing, to, in one case, a field, seemingly in the middle of nowhere, when one woman jumped off a quad bike and ran to board the train.
It’s quirky and friendly and quite wonderful.
Pictures are hard to take through train windows, even at these speeds, but here are a couple.
It’s not just the countryside that makes Canada such a pleasure. I’ve stayed with Servas hosts in each of the cities and they’ve all been exceptionally kind, helpful and interesting. In Edmonton I even stayed with a woman who was a friend of my Servas host and expected no remuneration other than my company and conversation.
If any of you are reading this, you know who you are and I hope you realise how happy I am to have met you.
As for the cities I’ve visited, there’s always been plenty to see and do.
My first day in Edmonton, I walked down by the “creek” to Muttart Conservatory – four glass pyramids displaying plants from differing biospheres. What was interesting to me was how many of the plants I have seen in their natural habitat and was able to recognise and identify. In the wild, however, plants are not in such pristine conditions, and there is death and decay all around, as well as insects, fungi and other organisms to process it all.
Whyte Avenue is “the place to be” very close to where I was staying. There were health food restaurants and stores, vintage clothes shops, eclectic book stores etc. Again, the people were so friendly I usually got talking to someone to while away the time and some lovely girls in a specialist tea shop even asked for my blog address.
During my stay, there was the “Taste of Edmonton” festival. You buy tickets at the venue and then exchange them for tasters or drinks at stalls run by local eating establishments. This took place in a square next to the art gallery, with some interesting exhibits but even more intriguing architecture.
The farmers’ market I went to in Edmonton was one of the best I’ve visited, in terms of quality, choice and, (guess what?), shiny, happy people.
So Winnipeg had a lot to live up to. Fortunately I was staying with a truly genial family and the Fringe theatre festival was in full swing, so I had a wonderful time.
I saw several theatre pieces, mostly entertaining. The Forks is a park cum recreational area by the river, where I spent some time before visiting the Museum of Human Rights. This is another building of architectural interest.
It is a brave enterprise. Subjects that it deals with in an informative fashion are the history of residential schools, designed to separate First Nation children from their own culture, (echoes of “Rabbit-Proof Fence” in Australia), the disappearance of indigenous women thought to be due to violence and abuse and an ongoing national scandal, and the laws governing the right to vote, or otherwise, in Canada’s past. Less impressive is the scant attention to human rights abuses in South America, Palestine and China, amongst others and the apologia for Canadian forces in Afghanistan, though they do allow for dissent on this issue.
Nevertheless, Winnipeg is a place where debate is welcome and fresh ideas abound. It may not be perfect, but it has much to recommend it.
While I was there, I decided to use one of my rail tickets to go to Churchill, up on the 58th parallel and a land of sub-Arctic tundra. This turned into a bit of an adventure.
It is only accessible by train or plane. The train took over two days, as the going was slower than usual, thanks to a derailment two weeks earlier that had put everyone on alert.
We passed grassland, forests of spruce, birch and larch, (known as Tamarack locally). Wild flowers were predominantly willow-herb, one of my favourites, due to its profusion on bomb-sites in which I used to play as a child, (here appropriately called fireweed), and golden-rod. There were beaver lodges and dams, though I didn’t see any beavers.
Churchill has its own particular spirit. It has a permanent population of around 800. You wouldn’t go there unless you have family or, like me, are searching for wild beauty. The main attraction is supposed to be the polar bears who hang around here in the winter and in autumn waiting for the ice so they can go and catch seals. None were around while I was there.
I saw plenty of Beluga whales, however, from a zodiac I took out on the estuary. They are very fast, so it’s hard to get good pictures, but they were happy to come up to the boat and poke their heads out of the water to take a look at us.
What I really wanted was to see the tundra in summer. I took “Tundra Buggy”, a huge, Polar Bear-proof truck, into the Wapusk National Park.
The plant life is necessarily adapted to the winds, snow and ice. The black spruce trees only have branches on the side facing away from the sea. There are clumps of shrub willow. Our guide told us that flowers would last no longer than a week, while others would take their place until the brief summer is over.
I realise that after some of the astounding places I have been to, this may not seem so impressive. However, for me this remote and deeply complex environment was quite thrilling. Well, I could get excited by seeing Canada geese in Canada and not just in Hyde Park, but this land is precious and under high risk from climate change and other phenomena. For example, we saw many Snow Geese, which was delightful, but apparently there are now too many of them as they destroy the roots of the trees. They are hoping the predators, including foxes, wolves and bears, may be more inclined to reduce the numbers as their opportunities to catch more traditional prey decline.
The day after my inspiring day in the subarctic wilderness I went to check out of my hostel, to be told that the train had been cancelled as parts of the track had been washed out. Now, there are no roads out of Churchill to the rest of Canada, so I was starting to think I might be staying there longer than I anticipated. Instead, VIA rail was planning to fly the rail passengers to Thompson, where the train had been forced to halt.
At that stage there were no further details as to when we would go, so the hostel let me keep my key and said they would keep me informed. I took the opportunity to visit the small museum. Here I came across tiny figures carved by the Thule people, the first recorded inhabitants.
I visited the Tourist Information Centre, where we learned about the Hudson Bay Company and the trappers. There were skins from all the animals taken in Canada, and though I would not want any animals to be killed, it was an opportunity to feel the fur of a wolf or a beaver.
The previous day I had been in a little shop in town and met an Inuit man who wanted to give his side of the story. He believes that much of what is considered to be the culture of the Inuit is erroneous, including the interpretation of the “Inukshut” or man-like stone figures, said to be a kind of signpost.
I was unable to go to his presentation as my flight was arranged for that afternoon, but for anyone who may find themselves in Churchill in the future, look up Thomas and Joy Kutluk, 431 229 3315, and learn what he has to say.
So, a small group of travellers, some of whom I knew from the train trip up, were taken to the tiny airport. I was in the first of two prop planes, each holding fifteen passengers, to set off to Thompson.
It was really a piece of luck, because there were great views of the landscape, a couple of rainbows seen from above and the setting sun as we were landing.
When we arrived at Thompson airport, a group of young men from the flight went off in their own bus. That left seven of us to get into the Greyhound bus laid on to take us to the station. We had to explain to the driver that there would be another plane arriving later, as he had been expecting the whole group.
At the station it was another story. The three couples with me all had their own transport, so I was all alone when I walked up to the train. There were all the staff and a totally empty train of several coaches, including sleepers, and only one passenger! I felt like a celebrity. It was a source of merriment and obviously I had to inform them that the others would be along later. Anyway, I got chatting to the staff and they gave me a free drink. By eleven that night we were all installed and settled down for the night, as we were not due to leave until the following afternoon. This train was also very late getting into Winnipeg, so we were all treated to a free dinner. Well done VIA rail!
With just one day in Winnipeg before setting off to Toronto, I went to the Living Prairie Museum. This was my opportunity to wander among the tall grasses, listen to the wind, identify tumbleweed and encounter many species of dragonfly as well as a few of my old acquaintances, the Monarch butterfly.