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The International Writers Magazine: Western Canada Train Journeys

A Rocky Adventure
Alison Reed
“The Most Spectacular Train Trip in the World” as the Rocky Mountaineer Railway is billed, begins with a taxi ride through the deserted streets of Calgary at 5 o’clock in the morning. 


The meeting place is at the base of the Calgary Tower and within a few moments we are offered refreshments and a seat on wooden benches.  The staff are polite, helpful and friendly without being obsequious and once our cases are collected and we have our red maple leaf badges, the train is waiting at the platform.  Our on-board attendant is Joan, a cheerful Vancouver woman who keeps us well stocked with fascinating snippets about the journey.  She also provides the food and drinks, and answers with a cheery ‘perfect’ every time we make a selection.

Our two day trip will take us from Calgary to Kamloops and then on to Vancouver.  We will pass through places with names that describe the landscape such as Kicking Horse Pass, Stoney Creek, Beavermouth and Hell’s Gate whilst places such as Sicamous, Lake Wapta, Yoho and Kamloops are attributable to the peoples of the First Nation.  However, Banff (named after Banffshire in Scotland) and Field (after Cyrus Field who laid the first telegraph line to Ireland in 1866) are rather more personal. 

Our first impression of the mountains after leaving the flat plain on which Calgary is situated, is their height.  The silver-grey cliffs rear up out of the ground, sheer and perilous, with tantalising glimpses of white glaciers on their summits whilst their lower slopes are smothered in lush green swathes of towering Lodgepole pine and Douglas fir.  This is the land of the black bear and the bald eagle and it is with eager anticipation that we try to remember and photograph everything.  Orange wood cabins with raspberry red roofs are glimpsed through the trees and at the top of Mount Temple we see a large glacier, stark white against the grey rock in the hot July weather.  The shout of, ‘Bear!’ sees us all pressing our noses to the windows only to find that Joan is laughing at us.  The ‘bear’ is there alright, except it is a carving and sadly will be the only one we see on the whole trip. 

Bridge Criss-crossing our route are the small streams that will later feed into the Thompson and Fraser Rivers.  Their glacial water varies from tranquil sage green to a tumbling, agitated pale mint and all the shades of coffee from placid mocha to a bubbling, cappuccino rapid. 

Joan tells us that the pioneers came up with some truly amazing solutions to cross the Rockies, one of which is the spiral tunnel which turns round through some 288° whilst dropping 55 feet (16.76m) in 0.6 mile (just under 1 km).  It’s staggering to think that an engine driver can watch the rear trucks of his mile long train disappearing into the stygian gloom even whilst he is emerging into the bright sunlight!  We nod in amazement but this achievement is quickly put to one side when a bald eagle is spotted standing on the riverbed.

In winter, the mountains are enveloped in snow deeper than a two-storey house and simple pine roofs called ‘snowsheds’ now protect the track in the most vulnerable areas.  On one cliff, an ancient man-like figure built of stones has been constructed.  This ancient ‘Inuksuk’ was adopted as the logo for the 2010 Olympic Winter Games which were held in the popular ski resort of Whistler, some 75 miles north of Vancouver.

The cars and lorries are reflected in the water of the Shuswap Lake and it isn’t long before we arrive at Sicamous.  This is a very popular holiday destination and there are stacks of houseboats here.  Our guide explains that the name came about when settlers came down from the mountains for supplies and got caught by the snows. 

Having to spend somewhat longer by the lake than expected, the native inhabitants (Shuswap Indians) taught them how to hunt and by the time the thaw set in, you’ve guessed it, they were ‘sick o’ moose’!  Amusing though the story is, it’s much more likely that the name is derived from a Shuswap word meaning ‘narrow’.  The lake is a deep blue and there are osprey poles with wooden platforms for the birds to nest and rafts for swimming and mooring boats.  When the train rattles past, everyone stands by the track and waves! 

Not far from our over-night destination of Kamloops, we spot the strange Hoodoos – geological formations made from a hard layer of stone under which a softer local rock has weathered to make huge bobbin reels.  Kamloops itself is laid out on a typical North American grid and is situated on the meeting place of the north and south branches of the Thompson River.  After an evening meal in our hotel, we go for a walk in the peaceful Riverside Park and watch the sun set over the water. 

After checking out of the friendly hotel next morning, Joan greets us all with a cheerful ‘Good morning!’ and seems genuinely pleased to see us again.  The next part of the journey is through the aptly named Painted Bluff Provincial Park.  Here the stone and strata are very much more defined.  The Black Canyon tunnel is made of black shale striped with cream, brown and white and the quartz veins show clearly in the rock as do the yellow algae by the waterfalls.  Ginseng is grown under tarpaulins and although we don’t see any, we do see acres of cotton lavender (santolina) and tufts of dry, brown grass.  Whilst the green pines still carpet the lower slopes of the mountains, this is now arid, desert like country with sage brush and grey gravel.  It is dry and dusty although the water beside us runs green and clear.  Yellow daisies struggle to survive on the gentler slopes.  In 1885, Scottish missionaries built a stone bridge without mortar; they joined the blocks by hollowing out a hemisphere in each block and inserting a cannon ball.  The bridge stands to this day and we duly admire it as we rumble slowly past.  Suddenly someone shouts that there are big horn sheep on the slopes and we dash to catch a quick glimpse before they too are behind us. 

Hellsgate We can see into a ravine now with swirling coffee-coloured water and before long we reach Lytton where the Fraser and Thompson rivers merge: this really is a sight not to be missed.  The brown and the green of the two separate rivers are quite distinct for a mile or so before they eventually become the one mighty Fraser River. 

This rushes through the Fraser Canyon where the rapids are testament to the mettle of the men who tried to sail their boats through the aptly named ‘Hell’s Gate’.  Here the river is spanned by a red metal bridge and to help revive the stocks of salmon, a fish ladder was also installed.

Again the scenery changes; there are more signs now of human habitation – a fence, a flash of grey tarmac and a glint of sunlight reflects off a window.  We are nearing the built up west coast of Canada and the end of the line.  The engine’s horn sounds repeatedly and it’s a gentle downhill slope for the rest of the trip.  Western red cedar, pines, aspen and arbutus trees line the route and for 15 minutes we are in a blizzard of downy white seeds from the Black Cottonwood trees.

The last run into Vancouver is via the urban eastern outskirts and we are welcomed in by our smiling, waving Rocky Mountaineer hosts.

It’s a marvellous trip to make but sadly not everything is well in this idyllic place.  With the change in climate, the usual months of bitterly cold weather where the temperature drops to 30° F (-34° C) don’t occur so a pest that is normally all but wiped out is now thriving.  This is the Pine Beetle, an insect the size of a grain of rice which burrows into the pine tree and lays its eggs.  Within two weeks of being attacked, the tree will turn red and die and in the Alberta section of the Rocky Mountain National Park we can clearly see this happening.  So far, British Columbia has mostly avoided the insect, but it is just a matter of time. 

Some enterprising people have begun to turn the infected wood into furniture.  It has a pretty blue colour and is called ‘denim pine’ as it is stained blue by a fungus carried by the beetles, but it won’t last as long as ordinary pine.  It is sad to think that in a few years time, the Park might look very different when the green velvet slopes gradually turn red and then grey.  It won’t be the same without them but as with everything in nature, something else will surely come along to take its place.  I’m glad we went when we did, whilst the trees are still green and lush; next time we might not be so lucky.
© Alison Reed June 2010

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