Winter 2012

A Spectacular Evening Leaving the Rockies and Well-Fed Day Through the Prairies

Greetings from the Panorama Lounge (where I am enjoying another cup of VIA’s one herbal peppermint tea and another cookie) in wonderfully historic 100 year old Union Station Winnipeg where we finally arrived at 9:00, and I just went for a cold half-hour walk in 3 degree (F weather) through the darkened downtown to stretch my legs without my hat that I accidentally left on the train (don’t worry I didn’t get frostbitten). The only intermediate city stop on the Canadian in the downtown of an actual city!

My final day in Jasper was excellent. I first had a lazy morning in the youth hostel just chatting with other guests from all over the world. At 9:30 the shuttle took me and one other traveler (going on the Canadian just by coach today to Edmonton) back to the VIA station. There we were stuck waiting with our luggage until ten o’clock for the station to open. Then I checked in with the friendly VIA ticket agent who informed me since the train was not in the station yet it would be $3 to check my VIA tote bag full of clothes for the train, it would though be brought to my section free of charge. Next I went to the visitors center because there was one other tour I actually wanted to go on, the Maligane Canyon Tour. I grabbed the 3 brochures all were $55 and called one with a handmade $15 off sticker. Turned out it was the one independent tour company (the others were from two major tour companies in town) and agreed to meet me for a private tour at 11:00. Joe, who had worked for Sundog for years, one of the major tour companies, had bought the third license for canyon tours. Turned out another younger couple from Calgery had called as well and the four of us went down to the iced over canyon for an extremely excellent adventure going down the icy canyon far and wide, ducking beneath icy sheets hanging from the canyon walls. I spent the rest of my time in Jasper enjoying a hot chocolate in a shop that only entitled me to 15 minutes of wifi access before going on a final walk through town and seeing the Canadian come in. I returned to the station at 4:15. At 4:30 all sleeping car passengers were told to present themselves for check in for dining car times, I got second seatings for dinner tonight and lunch and dinner tomorrow. Shortly after 5:00 boarding began and I go this time to the second sleeper from the diner, Carleton Manor. I meet Arthur my sleeper car attendant, been with the railway since ’74 when it was still the CN (VIA began in 1978-79 modeled after Amtrak), and he informs me of some good news. No one has booked the birth beneath me so he will make-up the lower birth instead at least for the next two nights. I don’t complain about having a window to stare from as I fall asleep.

We leave Jasper early at 4:25 (something I really don’t support) and I can finally see the mountains. That evening it is extremely scenic as we slowly leave the Rockies. I go and sit in the dome of the bullet lounge and realize I am one of the few in the sleepers today that lack grey hair. It will not be the same chatter as the first section of my Canadian trip. Robert, our quite inattentive Parc car attendant to Winnipeg who doesn’t organize any commentary and spends the entire trip downstairs at the bar he staffs, comes upstairs with a plate of VIA’s excellent appetizers. These are little round open faced nibbles of salami and cream, salmon and cream, those sorts of things. There is also another round of complementary Champaign. Descending the Rockies is incredible and makes me realize what I missed in the snowstorm 48 hours before. Darkness slowly descends at MP 185 at 6:36 we stop in Hinton with a little waiting shack, soon a full moon rises as we continue descending from the mountains. At 7:00 the second call for dinner comes and I go into the dining car and sit with a mother and 20 year old son from Moncton, New Brunswick. She is amazed at my railroad knowledge and I do eventually directly ask what she does for a living. She works for VIA in their reservations office, and they went as far out to Jasper (just for the night) as you can go on her son’s week off from trade school. I enjoy excellent Seafood Chowder, followed by a small basic salad, than some pork, which is a little small portion wise but quite good. Desert is an excellent piece of chocolate cake. After dinner I debate waiting up till Edmonton reading the paper in the Park car and than enjoying the view out the window of my lower berth that has been made up. I end up waiting until we back into Edmonton arriving at 10:30 in a shack by the downtown airport built in 1999 (two porters had a big debate about the year). I wonder around getting some interior photos of the modern station without character. I am in bed but not asleep when I hear last call at 11:35 MT. I then watch the lights of Edmonton fade away before falling asleep.
At 6:30 CT I awake and realize were an hour early into Bigger (told by some grumpy looking dining car staff going to start breakfast). I walk the sleepers and don’t see a single open door, guess it is not a fresh air stop but we do keep sitting there. Eventually I fall back asleep, my plan is to have a shower, get off in Saskatoon (the dining car is operating on Mountain Time this morning) and go to breakfast. Before I can hop in the shower we arrive in Saskatoon early as well at 8:22 (scheduled 8:45) and I step off and get a full photo essay of the 1960-1970s era station in an industrial part of town. I take a shower as we leave the station (don’t know if we left early or on time). Then it is time for breakfast with the older British couple that loves to travel and his signature is always wearing a bowtie (except when skiing). I spend the morning wear else except the park car and meet two more VIA employees based in Montreal traveling with their families. It is currently spring break in Quebec and all five children on the train (from 3 different families), although all knowing English prefer to converse in French. It is an eventful morning through the flat prairie with the few rolling hills that pop up in it through Zelma and McCarpol when at 11:00 the set up of VIA souvenirs come out, next is Raymore.

Before I know it, it is 12:12 and time for lunch I enjoy it with a man who is a project manager on car restoration projects for VIA (and also worked on Acela for Bombardier) and is really interesting to talk to traveling with his wife and daughter. I run out between the good and simple vegetable soup and my excellent lamb burger for the photo stop at Melville, there is an abandoned building being restored and a little modular VIA shack. Dessert is the excellent ice cream and a brownie I had at my previous lunch.

The afternoon was going across more prairie and through the interesting Capel Valley, there various trees and its not totally flat. There were more VIAs nice little nibbles then the first call for dinner. I enjoy a nice prairie sunset. Arthur my attendant comes and tells me that I’m going to have to at least start the night set up in my assigned birth. There is a couple getting on who booked two lowers and ended up in separate cars. If I wait up until I leave Winnipeg and talk to my new attendent I might be able to get a lower berth again. Dinner was with three excellent old railfan men, like many a meal on Amtrak. It was a little rushed since the crew all changes in Winnipeg, with just a Caesar salad (not a separate soup course), an excellent piece of prime rib, and a sampler for a desert, an excellent piece of cheesecake and one of chocolate cake, an excellent contrast for desert.

After dinner we had our first delay of the trip, we stopped in Portage La Prairie on time before a freight train ahead of us broke down, this delayed us about an hour in the dark (we were told we’d be arriving in Winnipeg early at 8:00pm before). The full moon rose again gleaming red before truning blue as some dustings of snow blows on the side of the train, lights becoming more numerous in the darkened park car as we slowly approach Winnapeg where you can either choose to detrain and be stuck in the station until the reboarding call (at about 10:00) or just stay on the train. Passengers are not aloud on the platform while the train is being serviced. Entering Winnipeg we pass things that look like transit stations under construction with lighted signs that is a dedicated transitway bus system. We also pass a no longer used VIA maintenance facility. This is a new policy for me. I opt to get off obviously and post this using the station’s wifi after my cold walk.