Across Canada by Train


Published in The Sunday Telegraph 2013

My trip gets off to a poor start. A rock slide has rendered a section of the track north of Vancouver impassable so we begin our epic train journey by road. We set off at 8.30pm and after five hours find the Canadian slumbering in a deserted siding in Kamloops, the other side of the rock slide. Snow is falling as we climb onto the train, to learn there will be a further delay while our beds are made up. “It’s all part of the adventure, I guess,” says one of my fellow passengers.

The Canadian takes three days and four nights to cover the 2,775 miles between Vancouver and Toronto. It makes a few scheduled stops and lots of unscheduled ones as it gives way to massive freight trains. Sometimes we’re ahead of schedule, but mostly we’re behind and then we go at breakneck speed to catch up (usually in the middle of the night so that you’re rocked from side to side and from head to toe).

The trans-Canada trip frequently features in lists of the world’s top train journeys and it’s true that many of my fellow passengers are here for the experience rather than the need to get from A to B, but the Canadian is not the Orient-Express. It’s comfortable – accommodation ranges from two-berth cabins with basinette and lavatory, to basic sleeping compartments or just a seat – and the food and service are exceptional. But there isn’t a tinkling piano in the lounge car and no one dresses (or even changes) for dinner. There is entertainment, of sorts: on our first morning there is a knitting class, one afternoon they show The Grinch, then there’s a talk on the moose and a sampling of the wines aboard the train. But this journey is really about the scenery – and it’s some scenery, especially at this time of year.

The most enchanting part of my trip turns out to be soon after boarding, between Kamloops and Jasper: Blue River, Valemount, Mount Robson and Yellowhead Pass. So, no matter if you get to bed at 2am after a five-hour coach journey, by 7am you must have your blind up so you can watch the Rockies unfold in the half light. Birch trees rise from a carpet of thick snow, their bare branches frosted as if dipped in icing sugar; behind them are thick forests of pine; snow-capped mountains; Slush Puppie rivers; granita lakes. Wisps of mist drift over the empty fields; above them, the pale sky is streaked with pink.

After lunch, the service manager calls our attention to the semi-frozen Pyramid Falls; then to Mount Robson (12,972ft/3,954m), the highest point in the Rockies; and then to eight-mile-long Moose Lake. We enjoy the commentary and miss it later in the trip when, if we’re not coming to a major station or town, we haven’t got a clue where we are.

At around 4pm, we glide into Jasper. A fur-trading post in the early 19th century, Jasper prospered with the arrival of the railway in 1911. That it remains a small town (and newly designated Dark Sky Preserve) is due to its location in a national park which controls development; almost all the hotels, shops, restaurants and bars are found in just two charming, low-rise streets.

In many ways this is still a frontier town: there are fences to keep elk off the parks and sports fields; bear-proof bins; and until recently, a ban on taking dogs into the forest as wolves were developing a taste for them.

I am breaking my journey here and a young man in big boots and down jacket scoops me up and takes me to Jasper Park Lodge, a sprawling Fairmont property a few miles outside town. Its famous golf course lies under a foot of snow and I am about a week too early to skate on the lake, but my timing is perfect for skiing.

Marmot Basin, Jasper National Park’s ski area, is open and conditions are perfect: champagne powder across 1,675 acres of terrain, with 86 trails, split between beginner, intermediate, advanced and expert; and state-of-the-art chairlifts, which mean there are rarely queues. When I’m there, there are rarely any other skiers either. It’s bliss.

I spend the morning with Stefan, and the following morning with Jeremy, both instructors at the Snow Sports School. They think Marmot Basin is awesome. By the end of my visit, I am calling it awesome too (though the catering lets the side down a little).

The next day, Bruce from Sundog Tours takes me on a wildlife tour. There are nine packs of wolves in the park (including one that lives close to Jasper Park Lodge) and I would dearly love to see one but I have to be content with elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep. We criss-cross the park, circling snowbound lakes, forging freezing rivers and peering up tracks leading deep into the forest, as Bruce interweaves tales of plucky pioneers with horror stories about bears and wolverines.

My three days in Jasper at an end, I reboard the Canadian, today only an hour and a half behind schedule. The rest of Alberta – Hinton, Edson, Edmonton, Viking, Wainwright – is dispatched while I’m asleep, and we spend most of the next day hurtling across the plains of Saskatchewan – Unity, Biggar, Saskatoon, Watrous, Melville.This is Canada’s bread basket though today it looks more like its cross-country ski fields. I sit in the observation car, drinking coffee and watching the carriages ahead of us moving sinuously along the track, silver against white.

By 4pm it’s dark again. On we go into Manitoba – Brandon, Portage La Prairie. At Winnipeg some of us get off for some air but it’s so cold it’s the briefest of outings. Then Sioux Lookout, Armstrong, Longlac. A waiter sees me looking at a map. “Ontario next,” he says. “You look at it on the map and think we’ll soon be in Toronto. But Ontario is more than 1,000 miles across.”

It is indeed. We wake up in Ontario, have lunch in Ontario. At teatime – still in Ontario – I step off at Hornepayne for a few minutes before we speed on: Gogama, Capreol, Sudbury, Parry Sound, Washago. Hour upon hour of pine forest and snow, snow and pine forest. Occasionally the landscape opens out into a semi-frozen lake, then we plunge back among the pines and snow.

And now it’s dark again. Tomorrow morning we will reach Toronto and I will be flying home. I’m looking forward to a bed that doesn’t move in a bedroom that doesn’t rattle. But will I ever again see anything quite as beautiful from a train as Canada? I somehow doubt it.