Saturday, 9 June 2012

"The Canadian" - Part 1: Vancouver to Jasper

At the Pacific Central Railway station in Vancouver, I was surrounded by musicians. They were involved in some sort of promotional on-board music programme called Tracks on Tracks, the majority of which I would miss out on, partly due to being in Economy class, and partly due to leaving this train in Jasper.
The musicians were all accommodated in the Sleeper class section of the train, and the only two I met were taggers-on who had got involved by dint of being friends of the organizers.

Soon after 8pm, I was ushered into the economy carriage, where I carefully chose a seat with no seat behind it so that reclining could be performed without the need to disturb other passengers. I need not have worried about this, as there were very few people in the carriage: indeed, there were few enough that I felt comfortable squeezing a few chords out of my accordion. Along with the bright sunshine streaming through the window, it was a good start to the journey. It felt good to be getting on a train again. Trains have a greater feeling of potential than buses. The wheels connect to the rails, and the rails run to the destination - the traveller therefore feels connected to the destination in a direct way. My first destination was Jasper in the Albertan side of the Canadian Rockies.

Soon after I put down my accordion, a man came along the carriage, and, telling me what a good choice of seat I had made, settled in to the equivalent seat opposite. Although he was carrying a guitar case, he was not involved in the "official" music scene aboard the train, and I noticed that he was wearing a Victoria busking license. I had done some busking last summer in Victoria, so we talked for a bit about busking and music. Or to be more accurate, he talked, and I listened. His name was John, and by dint of being an ex-railway freight yard worker, he has a free pass for unlimited travel on the railway. He seemed largely obsessed with food, but also covered a wide variety of other topics, all of which flowed together in one long stream-of-consciousness, based partly on the miscellany of  snacks, vegetables and tins of tuna he produced from his bag, partly on what was passing by the windows, and only occasionally based on what he had been talking about in the previous sentence.

It takes effort to listen actively, and my activity on this train journey consisted largely of nodding, chuckling politely, and looking out for gaps in the dialogue that were long enough to allow me time to turn around and look out of the window at the spectacular scenery.

One of the joys of overnight rail travel is waking up early in the morning to find oneself passing through unfamiliar landscapes. On the morning of this journey, I woke up twice in two different and disparate places: first was a greyish desert land through which we passed along one side of a big winding river valley, as freight trains passed along another railway on the other side of the valley.

Early morning Kamloops desert

Having dozed off, I awoke for a second time, to the sound of people wondering how long ago "it" happened. In my somnolent state, I wondered if the end of the world was with us 6 months early, but looking up, I realized the nature of "it": Near the station was the burned-out shell of a petrol tanker, dripping with foam, with a group of firemen standing around and starting to gather up their hoses. We later learned that the tanker had stood there for 3 days unmanned, and the fire had started apparently spontaneously.

This was Kamloops, which seemed to be surrounded by fewer trees than I remember from when I passed through 20 years ago; perhaps this was an optical illusion stemming from too long spent in Whistler's coastal rainforest, or perhaps many trees have been logged and not replenished.

 The journey to Jasper took around 20 hours from Vancouver, and apart from the times he was asleep or wandering the length of the train, John gave me a running commentary all the way. He told me about all sorts of things (I wish I'd had a tape recorder - a whole book could be written of what he told me) including the way the trees have changed - the pine beetle has devastated much of the forest, as can be seen by the patches of reddish-brown colour in the mountains in between Kamloops and the Rockies.

The Great Canadian Wilderness

The elusive Mt. Robson
Entering the Rockies, we passed by the elusive Mt. Robson - "only 100% visible on 14 days per year," according to the train announcer, and clearly less than 50% visible on this particular day - then Moose Lake, one of the largest lakes in the Rockies.

Moose Lake

 On the final approach into Jasper, numerous black bears were seen running into the woods from the grassy sides of the railway line. This prompted announcements over the train's PA system of "Bear on the left! Ours à la gauche!"

Spot the bear, anyone?
 John told me he's seen so many bears in his life that it is no longer a big deal to see them from the train. I must say that after living in Whistler for an autumn and a spring, I feel pretty much the same way.

We were now in the Rockies, and the railway town of Jasper was just around the corner.

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