I've crisscrossed the US by train, cumulatively speaking, about five times on all of the east-west routes that Amtrak has offered since 2003 (except for the Sunset Limited east of New Orleans: Lake Shore Limited, Three Rivers, Capitol Limited, Cardinal, Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, Texas Eagle/Sunset Limited). In fact, those journeys are often what I point to as what I find pleasurable in long distance train travel; the experience of seeing the country transform before your eyes at ground level. My experience on the Canadian was no different, which is to say that while it was what I expected, that meant that it was a thrilling experience.
Since I started heading east from Vancouver, the trip started off with a bang: The Canadian Rockies. I departed Vanouver's Pacific Central station at 8:30 PM PDT and when I awoke in the morning, the hills were already big and were getting bigger. At that point, the mountains were looming in the distance, and the immediate landscape was still grass-covered and lush with vegetation. It was a high desert landscape--very similar to what one sees on the California Zephyr just east of Ogden, UT when it detours through Wyoming, for the readers who can relate. By lunch, however, the land becomes much more aggressive: jagged sedimentary protrusions from the earth whose layers were once level with the ground are thrust into the sky at 45-70 degree angles. Vegetation begins to cling to rock faces like snow on the side of a car window; every so often you spot the aftermath of a rockslide where the green has been wiped away in consummate V's, exposing the dark gray rock underneath.
In the afternoon the protrusions become mountains, and the mountains become snow-capped monoliths, standing sentry at the gates to Jasper National Park. The most recognizable mountain on the route is probably Mount Robson, aka "The Monarch of the Canadian Rockies, " or "The Dome." Out here, the angles of landscape surrounding you border on the ridiculous: jagged corners at every turn, impossible slopes of snow around every bend. It's mid-May, but winter is still very much in charge up here; it's a good thing that I'm relaxing in a climate-controlled dome car on the train.
Later that afternoon, the trains squeals to a 1-hour stop in Jasper, Alberta where the crew will restock the train with water and supplies, and where the train will receive a wash-down and window cleaning (wouldn't you love to see that on Amtrak?). This small town is a junction on the railroad where one can also catch a 2-day VIA Rail train to Prince Rupert, BC by way of Prince George, BC (where an overnight hotel stay is required on your own dime). Jasper itself is a bustling, small town that hearkens back to towns of the old west: small streets lined with merchants, a post office, police station, pharmacy, and local townspeople eager to welcome you. Only, the merchants are mostly gift stores and boutiques, and most of the townspeople are tourists themselves; Jasper has found life in the late 20th and 21st centuries to center around world class skiing, hiking, and outdoor sports, and even a small bungalow can set you back $400,000-$500,000.
Once the train pulls out of Jasper, the mountains put on one last show, towering above the dome cars, snow blowing from the ragged peaks in concentric, flowing waves of white. And no sooner do you pass through the final tunnel on the border of Jasper National Park than does the landscape begin to immediately relax back, briefly, into rolling hills, and then flatness. FLAT. I sat there on Wednesday night in the glass-roofed sightseeing car looking miles into the distance across farmland. I'd turn around to look from where we came just 20 minutes prior and there they were: Mount Robson and her gang, looming across the skyline like titans out of Homer. Then I'd turn back around to face our direction of travel and look at NOTHING. Vast nothing. It was an experience of immediate visual extremes that I have yet to discover on American rails--perhaps it's out there, but it's not on a regular or semi-regular Amtrak route today.
The sun set on Wednesday night as the train traced the northern shore of Wabanum Lake and eased its way into Edmonton. The Rockies were behind us, and I feared the best part of the ride went with them. I was wrong.
Thursday was a wash--literally. The rain poured all day as we carved the landscape from Edmonton, through Saskatoon, to Winnipeg. You've heard of Canadian Prairies? This is where they are. FLAT. FARMS. COWS. GOATS. SHEEP. BISON. FLAT. This sort of landscape was immediately familiar to me: I'd seen this before on the Empire Builder through Montana and North Dakota, and when you look at a map, it's not hard to see why the landscape was similar: it's less than 3 hours' drive from the Empire Builder's route at certain spots. Wide swaths of prairie occasionally peppered with barren badlands was the story of the day. Big Sky Country as far as the eye can see. When you sit immersed in it for hours, there comes a point where you are hit with a silent shock of breathtaking beauty.
Friday was the last full day to spend on the train and I figured that we had pretty much seen it all. After all, we had soared from the towering Rockies and landed on the endless tracts of prairie. That pretty much covered the spectrum, right? When I woke up on Friday morning and looked out of the window, I got a hint of what the day would bring, but it didn't immediately register. Outside of the window was a small lake--or a big pond, depending on your perspective. Then we hit another lake surrounded by some trees. And then another.
By the time I had finished my banana-buttered pancakes, I knew what I had overlooked: Woods. Dark, dense wood. Forest so deep and towering that you'd expect Mr. Tumnus to bound out with a package under one arm. Friday was a private tour of some of the densest forest, spotted with countless (and I mean COUNTLESS) numbers of crystal clear, blue-as-the-sky lakes that I've ever seen. Minnesota may call itself the "Land of a Thousand Lakes," but Northern Ontario has the market on the "Land of a Million Lakes" motto. If you look at the territory on a map you'll see pits everywhere, like acne on some poor awkward teenager's face. But filling in the gaps between those lakes on the map, what you don't see is dense forest. At the beginning of the day it was all evergreen. Douglas Fir. Spruce. Hemlock. By the end of the day it was birch. The trees and underbrush were so dense you couldn't walk through straight on if you tried. You'd need a machete to carve a path out unless you found a deer or bear path.
And that brings us to the wildlife. One of the great things about the crew on the Canadian is that the engineers will keep an eye out for wildlife (deer, bald eagles, black bears, grizzlies) and will radio back to the onboard crew, who will in turn alert the passengers over the intercom. If you were looking at the train from the outside when one of those announcements was made, it would not surprise me to see the entire train lurch to one side as the people flocked to the windows, exclaiming, "did you see it! Right there! He was looking right at you!" For my part, I only caught two really good sightings: a bald eagle soaring majestically among the Rockies, and a shy black bear, shallow into the woods of Ontario, looking back at us with her brown snout over her shoulder with an unmistakable inner monologue of "are they gone yet?"
And that's how I spent most of my time aboard The Canadian while not eating delicacies in the dining car. I sat either in a dome or in the rear bullet-shaped observation car sipping martinis and gin & tonics, gazing eye to eye with a black bear, a bald eagle, and the elusive Mr. Tumnus somewhere in that wood.