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ALL ABOARD VIA RAIL'S THE CANADIAN

Story & Photos by Margaret Deefholts

"Happy Days Are Here Again…" warbles Dennis, our conductor and host as he serves us a 'welcome aboard' aperitif of bubbly, and a tray of delectable hors d'oeuvres. "C'mon folks," he urges, "sing along with me!"

The passengers of the glass-ceilinged dome car gladly join in, and on that cheerful note we steam out of Vancouver's VIA Rail station on board The Canadian on our merry way to Toronto. It will be four days and three nights before we get there, and for a train-travel junkie like me, I know I will relish every moment.

To start with, I greatly "relish" the five course meal that evening, where the main entrée is a succulent teriyaki salmon steak with nugget potatoes and lightly sautéed veggies, and the piecè de résistence is a whopping slice of dark rich chocolate cake smothered in cream. As I find out, this is typical of the gourmet cuisine served up in style in the Silver & Blue dining car - a hearty breakfast each morning, and a choice between two entrées on the lunch and dinner menus.

I repair to my cozy (read "miniscule") single cabin, too replete to do anything more than flop down on my seat and watch the lights of Mission and Abbotsford flit by my window.

I wake the next morning to a chiaroscuro world-immense white drifts of snow like giant whipped éclairs and a flannel grey sky. Talcum dusted evergreens crowd close to the track, and when they fall away, they reveal river beds covered in snowy quilts which lie between fat pillow-like embankments. At breakfast we watch the panorama of the Rockies unfold layer upon layer, the mountain peaks encircled with scarves of mist.

One of the joys of rail travel is chatting to people from all corners of the globe, and on this trip, the passengers include several tour groups, including a boisterous lot of seniors from the southern States who are bound for Jasper. My luncheon companions, Elaine and Robert are travelling to Ontario; they hail from Yorkshire, and are celebrating their silver wedding anniversary in the appropriately named Silver & Blue class.

Our meal is interrupted by an announcement over the PA system. "Look on the right side of the train folks-there's a herd of big horned sheep grazing on the slopes!" The train slows down, and a majestic ram, horns curled like enormous ringlets around his ears stares directly at us. Gasps from passengers-accompanied by frantic shutter clicking.

The days unfold in leisurely fashion-brilliant winter sunrises and a couple of clear star-spangled nights. In the privacy of my cocoon-like cabin I read, listen to my CD player or make notes on my laptop. When I feel like stretching my legs I lurch my way against the sway of the train, to the Skyline Car where kids play board games and cards and adults socialize at the bar or congregate for bingo sessions in the afternoons and after-dinner movies.

On the second evening we cross into Saskatchewan. Pearl-grey snow fields merge into the same shade of sky, grain silos rear against the horizon and weathered barns sit hunched like brown gnomes. Little frozen wavelets mark the course of rivers and lakes, and I catch glimpses of animal tracks from time to time-small hoof imprints, or larger paw-like impressions-as well as the criss-cross of sled and ski tracks.

Winnipeg ("Winterpeg") where we have a change of cabin crew, is at Mile 0 and marks the mid point of our journey. According to a sign near the railway platform it is -23o and not surprisingly, a trickle of water that I notice seeping from under my compartment freezes in a matter of seconds!

From the Silver & Blue dome car, the train is a steel-grey caterpillar, winding past small Ontario towns and lake-side holiday cottages roofed with thick slabs of snow. Too cold here for icicles, but when the sun emerges, it catches the lamé glitter of ice-flecks in the banks along the track.

In every journey there comes an "aaah!" moment of sheer delight and for me this was on my return trip to Vancouver. I woke up around 2 a.m. and The Canadian was curling along a narrow ledge in the Fraser Canyon, seemingly within arm's reach of the Fraser River running immediately below the tracks. Brilliantly illuminated by a full moon, the river unfurled like a bolt of shimmering satin, or swirled froth-laced over rocky outcrops. Then, as we approached Hell's Gate, it raged into the chasm, leaping and spitting like a wild animal straining at the leash. A hundred kilometers later, the Fraser Valley opened up, and the river ran smoothly once again, a splintered moon reflected in its waters.

If You Go:

The Canadian runs thrice a week and for further information on all that it offers, including sample menus, a photo album, classes of accommodation, compartment maps, route guide and fares, special offers and discounts, visit their comprehensive website at http://www.viarail.ca/trains/en_trai_toja.html

Photos by Margaret Deefholts:

1. The Canadian, CN Station Vancouver
2. The Silver & Blue Dome Car
3. Near Winnipeg station: a hockey game in progress
4. Passengers enjoying the scenery from the Silver & Blue Dining Car
5. The Silver & Blue Dining Car
6. The Canadian en-route to Jasper
7. Dramatic BC Coastal Mountains

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