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Canada’s Pied Piper of the rails
By Chris McBeath
(For Travel Writers Tales)

Stealing away from the comforts of my seat, the mountain air whistled past with such strength my hair swirled straight back, the ground rattled beneath my feet and the pores in my skin tingled with exhilaration. I was like a child again, sticking my head out of the car window with the family dog, grasping at the tantalizing sights and smells as they whizzed by - and basking in that sheer delight.

But the Rocky Mountaineer wasn’t just transporting me back in time, it was providing a spectacular ride through the Canadian Rockies on one of the most sought after train journeys in the world. More than that: in riding the rails laid by the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) that completed the story of Confederation, the Rocky Mountaineer has become the unofficial caretaker of Canada’s passenger rail heritage.

Extraordinary Landscapes

Whether traveling under the glass domes of Gold Leaf Service, or beneath the expansive arched windows of Silver Leaf Service, the Rocky Mountaineer offers ringside seats to awe-inspiring vistas: glacier-capped mountains soaring to 4,000 feet, snow-filled valleys, waterfalls, and lakes. As the train twists and turns through half a dozen mountain ranges, including the Selkirks, the Purcells and the Monashees (watch for big horn sheep), it traverses bottomless canyons over trestle bridges, swooshes past giant osprey nests, and edges along rivers, sometimes so close that it seems possible to lean out and trail a hand in the water.

With every passing milepost (Canadian rail has never converted to kilometers), you can follow the journey with an onboard newspaper. On-board hosts also deliver personalized narration that retraces a rail history that captures the nation’s pioneering spirit of adventure and innovation.

Engineering Ingenuity

Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Continental Divide, the backbone of the Rocky Mountains where streams flow both east to the Atlantic and west to the Pacific. For the CPR, it meant a downward gradient of 4.5 percent – twice the recommended limited for a railway line. By the late 1800s, the dangers of runaway trains down the “Big Hill” were renowned although for Lady Agnes, the wife of Canada’s Prime Minister at the time, it was the best part of her cross-country travels. She would sit on the cowcatcher in front of the locomotive like the figurehead on the prow of a ship, her long skirts billowing like sails, as she thrilled in the stomach-churning descent.

Thankfully, by 1907, Canadian engineers had adapted a Swiss design of circular tunnels that saw the rail line doubling back on itself twice and decreasing the grade to 2.2 percent. The $1,000,000 Spiral Tunnels took 1,000 men, 20-months to complete, and are still considered one of the world’s great engineering marvels.

Cowboys & Canyons

Around Kamloops, the scenery switches from the drama of mountains to sagebrush hills, cattle and cowboys. Here, passengers disembark for an overnight stay in one of the many pre-arranged hotels; the transfers are conducted with military precision. It’s this stopover that enables the Rocky Mountaineer to offer its key magic ingredient: spectacular vistas by day. (VIA Rail offers only an overnight schedule through these iconic mountains).

It’s a 6 am start the following day, but no-one complains. The crimson sunrise floods the eastern sky around Kamloops and within minutes of boarding, you’re offered a blanket, pillow and hot coffee. Before long, you’re heading into a world where white butterflies dance amid wild flowers, holiday houseboats drift on a sparkling lake and blue herons pluck their way through marshlands, oblivious to the train and the dragonflies. In the fall, spawning salmon turn the rivers red, and if you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the black bears that come to feed on them.

Following the Fraser

Soon, the geography changes yet again, as the train hugs the banks of Thompson and Fraser rivers, arguably BC’s most important waterways. Steeped in history, the Fraser River was a part of the gold rush routes of the late 1800s, and was home to BC’s largest salmon run – a journey of almost 900 miles from the ocean. As the train cuts through the Fraser Canyon towards the coast, lodge pole pines give way to Douglas firs and the hardened canyon walls fall to lush farmlands, grassy meadows and fields of corn. Within an hour, Vancouver’s urban fare is apparent and as the train crawls across a maze of tracks, high-rises emerge out of the horizon, and the end of the trip draws near.

Passengers exchange addresses and telephone numbers, a hint of nostalgia touches the air -- the most spectacular train journey in the world was at an end. But I was on a quest.

Would I ever find another window to compare?


ALL PHOTO CREDITS: Rocky Mountaineer
5. train hugs the river banks

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