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VIA Rail Canada Travelogue
By Doug Symons

Saturday, April 12, 2003

It was early in December when I first prepared to take a trip on VIA Rail Canada to the West Coast and then on the Rocky Mountaineer. Never having been past the Canadian Prairies I thought that this would be a wonderful experience, especially travelling on yhe Renaissance Fleet, and then on the Canadian across Canada. Needless to say, time flies and the next thing I knew the departure time had finally come. Arriving at the Brockville, Ontario, station early, Kent Weatherilt and I were greeted by Christine, who opens the station for passengers during the times when the station is normally closed. She opened the station and then called her contact in Moncton, Ontario, to find out if the train would be on time, and she reported it would arrive about 7 minutes early. We are boarding the train in Brockville, which is VIA's busiest junction with 24 passenger trains a day and is located on CN's freight-heavy Montreal-Toronto main. We boarded the train at 02:05 h and began our four-day journey to Vancouver.

Our train consisted of the following:
Engine 2419
Baggage 7005
1st Coach 7204
2nd Coach 7210
Service Car 7306
Sleeper 7506
Sleeper 7509
Sleeper 7514

Our service attendant was Michael Wolfe, who started our last trip going east. He is the great, great, great Grandson of Sir General Wolfe, of the Battle of Quebec in 1759. He has spent thirty-three and a half years on the tracks. Thomas Chow had worked with Michael for over twenty years. The two told us many stories of the old days on Canadian National Railway. With both near retirement, they have a rich history of railway life in Canada. Daniel Montigny, another, much younger, member of the train service staff, was also on board.

Walking down the hallway I could not believe how narrow the hallway was but when we entered the bedroom it was even smaller. I could not enter the private washroom without pushing my back into the blind covering so that I could open the door to the bathroom. Of course, I am not a reliable standard for judging size, as my frame is larger than average. I soon changed and crawled into bed after having been up for the past 20 hours. The bed was oriented crossways to the train and it took some time to adjust to the rocking motion. Having travelled by train before I had expected that the bed layout would be parallel to the tracks. It seemed to take me forever to get to sleep but in reality my eyes closed the minute my head hit the pillow. The train stopped just outside Kingston for about 2 hours on a siding and then pulled into the Kingston station at 05:45 h.

I was awakened about 06:00 h by Kent who was trying to enter the room, a feat that was near impossible. We decided to go for an early breakfast. It consisted of a croissant, fresh fruit, yoghurt, juice and coffee. The eating area was small and had only three tables on which to fasten the trays. After eating breakfast, we changed positions with other passengers so that they would not have to try and eat their breakfast with the trays on their laps.

After leaving Kingston, we travelled along the shores of Lake Ontario through Napanee, Belleville, Trenton, Cobourg, and Port Hope. We arrived in Toronto at 08:20 h.

We were able to walk a very short distance without going into the main station to get aboard our train, the Canadian, heading for Vancouver. The cars on this train were:

Engine    6446
Engine    6413
Baggage    8605
Coach    8118
Coach    8101
Skyline    8512
Monck Manor    8336
Frontenac    8410
Draper Manor    8321
Lorne Manor    8333
Blair Manor    8307
Banff Park    8703

The weather in Toronto was bright, sunny and just above zero. We boarded the train, found our roomettes, and then proceeded to the Park Car, a lounge car with a domed seating area. While we waited for the balance of the passengers to board, I took a picture of the CN Tower through a small opening in the roof covering the platform and train. We pulled away from the station on-time and proceeded through the suburbs of Toronto, heading on our way through Washago, Parry Sound and Sudbury, with a good portion of this part of the trip along the shores of Georgian Bay. We passed through the small community of Brechin at about 11:00 h. I noticed that the old railway station in Brechin is now the new home of Boxcar Willy's Restaurant.

All along the tracks the lakes and rivers showed early signs of spring, with some starting to liquefy after a long winter. Many others, however, were still fully covered in ice. In the domed section we sat with John Woollatt a retired geography teacher from Toronto who was travelling to Jasper and then Prince George. He was a regular train rider and provided us a running commentary of the many sights all the way to Jasper. At lunch, we were introduced to our Chef, Ian, who came prancing out from the kitchen a la Emeril. He described the noon hour meals, told a couple of jokes and promptly disappeared into the kitchen, having provided great comic relief!

The delight our chef described was Pizza Soup, which sounds odd but was excellent. It was followed by a spinach and shrimp salad. It was obvious that he had convinced the passengers to try it, as many ordered this meal. Dessert was a delightfully sinful chocolate truffle cake. This was the first meal of many that were very exquisitely presented and full of flavour... and calories.

After lunch we went back to the Park Car to continue to view the wild expansive landscape of our beautiful country and take pictures of the frozen and open waterways of Northern Ontario. As well, we saw some Canadian wildlife in the open areas through which we were travelling. We arrived at Sudbury and Capreol on-time, according to VIA's schedule. At Capreol we had a thirty-minute break where many passengers got off for some fresh air. After leaving Capreol, the first sitting for supper was called and we were seated with a couple from Ottawa, Ontario. Mr & Mrs Flewelling were travelling to Vancouver to visit their daughter and family and during our conversation we found out that their grandson was a chef for the Rocky Mountaineer Railtours. Mr Flewelling was retired from the Canadian Armed Forces, and they had travelled to Vancouver by train on previous occasions.

For dinner we were served a lovely salad of red oak leaf lettuce with cucumbers and tomatoes, beef tenderloin, garlic potatoes, mixed vegetables drizzled with a Gorgonzola sauce, and for dessert we had a chocolate strawberry torte.

After dinner it was back to the Park Car to enjoy the scenery while there was still daylight. We noted that many little creeks and rivers were flowing, and that there was very little snow coverage on the ground. Having been up since 06:00 h we finally make our way back to the sleeper car at 22:30 h for a much needed sleep. What a nice feeling, to lie in bed with the blind open and see the landscape float by. The roomettes, while being small and compact, are very efficient and provide for a restful sleep. Very little clickety-clack is left as the tracks are now welded together. The only real noise one hears is when there is a siding or roadway to cross.

Day Two: Sunday, April 13, 2003

We awoke to a bright and sunny day. The breakfast of champions was served at 06:30 h. As with all meals it was served with grace and panache. Bacon, eggs, toast, coffee, juice and fresh fruit. What more can one ask for having done nothing for the past day but sit back and enjoy the scenery? We had breakfast with Elke and Ken Browning from Grays in Essex, England, a charming couple who were travelling with their son, Ben and daughter, Kim. They had been to the Southern United States and then were heading across Canada to Jasper to do some snowboarding. They would finish their trip visiting friends on the West Coast.

We arrived at Sioux Lookout at 09:00 h and as we had a thirty-minute stop, a large number of passengers got off to stretch their legs and get some fresh air. The temperature was about 5 degrees Celsius with little wind. While we were on the platform a large Raven landed on top of the old train station. The station is now owned privately and was originally built in 1873; it is now in the process of major renovations. Ken Browning was quite amused at the electrical cords hanging out of the front of most vehicles. We had to explain why and how they were used. He had a hard time understanding how cold our weather can get. Approx at 09:30 h we pulled away from the station on our journey westward passing through the small communities of Richan, Red Lake Road, Canyon, Farlane, Redditt, Minaki, Ottermere, Copeland's Landing, Rice Lake, Winnitoba, Ophir, Brereto Lake, Elma, and Transcona.

For lunch we sat with Mr and Mrs Clark Kippenberger, from Dresden, Maine, who were on their way to Edmonton and then to Calgary, where they would connect with the Rocky Mountaineer to Vancouver. For lunch I had the Double Deli which consisted of soup and grilled beef pastrami on rye bread with Dijon mustard. For dessert, we had a maple chocolate infused cake.

After lunch we had about two hours of flat prairie to observe. About an hour from Winnipeg, our train stopped on the tracks in the middle of no man's land as the train heading East from Winnipeg stopped beside us. A passenger got off our train to begin his journey back to Toronto. 'What an unusual thing to do' was thought by all, however, according to our service manager, Don, this happens quite often as some people like to ride the rails and do not wish to have a layover in Winnipeg for another day or two until the next train arrives. We arrived in Winnipeg at 15:45 h. Since we had an approximately one-hour layover, a large number of passengers disembarked to find the temperature was a very warm 22 degrees Celsius. Most made their way over to 'The Forks', a local shopping mall. This building had previously been a training facility for developing personnel of some sort. Our new service manager, Graham, told us that it had been a shopping mall for at least the past 19 years.

While we were in Winnipeg, I was able to visit the Winnipeg Railway Museum, operated by Midwestern Rail Association, which is located in the VIA Rail Station. I also had the opportunity to take pictures of Tom Baldwin, who is a retired train employee who has restored many of the artifacts on display. His picture is among those taken in front of the station marker, recording trains arriving and departing, along with one of his favourite restorations, his "toy", the three wheeler velocipede.

A new service crew for the train embarked in Winnipeg. After departing Winnipeg, we continued our trek westward through the many small communities of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Dinner was served soon after departing Winnipeg. I had fish chowder and pan-fried Pickerel from icy Manitoba waters, lightly seasoned and served with a tomato-chive 'buerre blanc' sauce. Kent had the Manitoba Pork Loin, oven-roasted center cut, lightly seasoned and served with an apple balsamic demi glace, followed by VIA's famous chocolate cake. We again shared our dinner this evening with Mr and Mrs Kippenberger. We learned that he is a retired Coast Guard Officer while she was an accomplished folk artist.

After dinner, Kent took up playing cribbage with Samantha, a young girl from Hamburg, N.Y. Her mother, Cathy Hoepfinger, and Cathy's mother, Pat McCoy, were travelling to Seattle. Sam proceeded to SKUNK Kent at cribbage, an omen of what was to come. Continuing our trip westward into the dusk to darkness we neared Melville, Saskatchewan. Sitting in the Park Car we noticed a very strong pungent smell. After speaking to Lesley the Service Attendant she said the engineer had radioed back to all staff that he was 'sending back a little gift'. He had just run over a SKUNK. Phew!

Many years ago I attended school in Regina and took a train from North Bay to Regina or to Saskatoon to visit my grandparents. On one of these trips, although I had reserved a berth, I thought it would be better to cash in the ticket and travel by coach. I soon found out that this was not a good move. After just 24 hours of coach travel I purchased back my berth for the rest of the journey. Since we would be travelling through Saskatoon, I thought it would be nice to obtain pictures of the stately station I remembered as a youngster, only to find out that the station is now some 7 or 8 miles from downtown. With all the fond memories of Saskatoon I had to stay awake and take a picture of the sign even though it was at the ungodly hour of 02:00 h. I did manage to stay awake and get the picture. The stop in Saskatoon was about 25 minutes, so I got off for the pictures. I was in bed and asleep before the train pulled away from the station.

Day Three: Monday, April 14, 2003

Another of the finest breakfasts was served at 06:30 h. We finally arrived in Edmonton on-time at 08:00 h and disembarked for a fifty-minute stopover, a good time to stretch legs and take in fresh air while the train took on water and fuel. The temperature was about 0 degrees with a fairly brisk wind was blowing, bringing the temperature to somewhere about minus 10 degrees. The Edmonton Station is located near an airport. Just after we arrived and were standing in front of the station, a small jet approached to land. All of us jumped at the noise as we did not see the plane coming in. Back on board we continued our trip through Alberta onwards towards the mountains. We sat in the Park car with a gentleman from Cambridge, England, who was travelling to Vancouver, flying to Singapore-Japan-Dubai-Frankfurt, and returning to London. As we passed Edson, Alberta there was fresh snow on the ground.

It was time once again to eat and we sat down with a middle-aged couple who boarded the train in Winnipeg. They were travelling to Kamloops then on to Vancouver Island to visit with an elderly friend who had been ill. For lunch this day I had a BC salmon burger, grilled and served with mayonnaise, lettuce and cucumber on Pumpernickel bread. Kent had a warm spinach salad served the traditional way with bacon bits, sliced mushrooms and red onion with a warm vinaigrette dressing along with cottage cheese. For dessert we had lemon cake. The cake tasted as though they had squeezed a whole fresh lemon on each piece. We gave it an AAA+ rating. Hats off to the chef!

We arrived in Jasper in mid-afternoon and disembarked to a lovely temperature and a slightly cloudy sky. Having only previously seen pictures of Jasper that had indicated Swiss style buildings, seeing it in real life I could verify that is how the whole main street was built. Almost all the shops were closed on Monday when we arrived, to our surprise. This was perhaps due to the fact that that they were open on Sunday and the tourist season was only just starting. At this time we said our goodbyes to John Woollatt, the Kippenbergers and the Brownings.

Back on board we again went to the Park car and sat with a woman from Manchester, England, who had got on the train in Winnipeg and was travelling to visit friends in Vancouver, then to Regina and Portage La Prairie, and then back home. Once again it was time for some more calories and dinner was served. We sat with Mr and Mrs Henderson from Peterborough, Ontario, a retired engineer and his wife who were travelling to Vancouver for their 50th Anniversary. They were also going to be aboard the Rocky Mountaineer. For this evening's meal we had fish chowder followed by Prime Canadian AAA beef, slow roasted and served with a delicate sauce made from the pan drippings, accompanied with mixed grilled vegetables. For dessert, we again had the infamous chocolate cake.

While eating supper we passed by the famous Pyramid Falls. Later it was again back to the Park Car, however, it was starting to drizzle and the view was not clear. This weather followed us into Kamloops. It was time to get some shuteye until 06:00 h. When we awoke we went to the Park Car for a light breakfast of coffee, juice and muffins. We pulled into Vancouver an hour early at 07:00 h. We had two days off to visit relatives and friends in Comox and Victoria, BC before beginning our 5-day journey on the Rocky Mountaineer.

Days Four and Five: Tuesday and Wednesday, April 15-16, 2003

While in Comox we had the opportunity to see the Canadian Armed Forces 'Snowbirds' practice their maneuvers for the upcoming summer's air shows that they would attend. In addition, while we were in Victoria, we were able to stand at 'mile 0' of The Trans Canada Highway, a point of interest to many.

Click here for the continuation of this story
aboard the Rocky Mountaineer Railtours!

Monday, April 21, 2003

We flew back to Toronto to catch the 09:30 h VIA 1 train from Toronto to home in Brockville. After arriving in Toronto at 06:30 h my brother was kind enough to pick us up at the airport and take us to Union Station in downtown Toronto. Back to real life, we faced heavy commuter traffic to downtown Toronto on a dull, overcast, slightly rainy day. Upon arrival at the station we proceeded to the VIA 1 lounge and had our morning coffee.

We boarded our train about one half-hour before departure and immediately after departure, Natalie, our service attendant, reviewed emergency procedures. We were then served coffee, juice, fresh muffins and croissants. As we sped along the tracks the small villages and secemery appeared to fly by us. More restful and spacious are the accommodations on VIA 1 versus the past 4-plus hours on the airplane. Our train consisted of two trains as they would travel to Ottawa as train 42 and Montreal as train 56 after separating in Brockville.

Ottawa bound train consist:

Engine 911

Montreal bound train consist:

Engine 910

What an exhilarating experience it was to travel across Canada by train, being able to take in the majestic views Canada offers. From the wilderness of Northern Ontario across the flat prairies, to the unbelievable views offered through the Rocky Mountains, we are truly lucky to live in Canada.

Click to view each set of detailed photos below:
Saturday, April 12, 2003
Set #01 / Set #02
Sunday, April 13, 2003
Set #03 / Set #04 / Set #05 / Set #06 / Set #07
Monday, April 14, 2003
Set #08 / Set #09 / Set #10 / Set #11
Monday, April 15, 2003
Set #12

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