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Riding the rails



I've never had much need for a GoPro, at least until recently.

I would have loved to have captured the reactions of friends and family when I told them I'd be getting set to return to B.C. from my hometown of Winnipeg a couple days early — because I was taking the train.

When I told them of my two-day trek, there were numerous side-eyes and responses of "Umm...why?"

The first reason was pretty easy — my grandpa was a CN lifer, so I'd grown up interested in trains but had never taken a journey longer than an afternoon trip on Manitoba's Prairie Dog Central. After receiving a Facebook tip that this is VIA Rail's slow season, and then finding out my mom had a $100 voucher she wasn't planning on using, I secured a one-way ticket in coach for less than $200.

The second was more of a hunch. A week and a half of reconnecting (read: cavorting) with old friends, taking a couple of days to lounge through a journey of Western Canada didn't seem like the worst idea in the world.

I boarded the Canadian just before noon on Nov. 23, getting set to settle into my home for the next 48 hours. Off the top, I was enthralled by seeing familiar parts of the city where I'd spent most of my life from a slightly different perspective. I embraced the schadenfreude of the first crossing at Waverley Street, where locomotives held me up many a time in my years there.

I'll admit, the once the sun went down and it was more difficult to see the landscape, the ride started to get a touch monotonous in the dark. There was the occasional burst of light as we passed through small Saskatchewan towns with their Christmas displays in full bloom, which was certainly welcome.

Another important note about the prairie portion of our journey is to bring up how often the train stopped. I had heard about this going in, as people explained that freight trains had priority and VIA would defer when necessary. I was under the mistaken impression we'd be at the station and would have the chance to mill about in one of the cities, or at least some midsized town, while we waited. Not quite.

We had the odd stop for a few minutes here or there in Manitoba and in eastern Saskatchewan, but were later stopped for nearly an hour outside the burgeoning metropolis of Lestock, Sask.

I hunkered down for the night shortly after that, shuffling around my two seats to find the best sleeping position and adjusting my blanket for warmth. I decided on resting my head toward the aisle side as heat emanated from the window side and made me a little headachy and uneasy.

Many of the scheduled timings actually weren't necessarily ideal to see much of the locales we passed with Saskatoon being a late-night stop and Edmonton coming into view around sun-up the next day. The best big-city stop, actually, would probably be in Winnipeg, where the train stops for roughly four hours from about 8 to 11:45 a.m. The station, a beautiful piece of architecture in and of itself, is the lone rail remnant of what used to be one of the city's main rail yard sites. After moving the traffic elsewhere, the site was redeveloped as The Forks, which boasts restaurants, shops and attractions like the Manitoba Children's Museum and, of course, the Manitoba Railway Museum.

Our best small-town stop, which came shortly after lunch of the second day, was in picturesque Jasper, Alta. The allotted time was unfortunately cut in half from 90 minutes to 45 as we looked to make up some time lost on the prairies.

Having not left the train yet and not wanting to be stranded in Jasper with the next westbound visit to the station not being for another couple of days, I decided not to stray too far, dashing into the Bear's Paw Bakery to get a good cup of coffee (I wasn't overly pleased with the onboard java) and a pizza pretzel treat.

The return to the mountains was welcome after two weeks on the prairies. When we chugged out of Jasper, we journeyed into the heart of the Rockies, which were breathtaking. It's one kind of joy to drive through the winding roads, though ice and slippery conditions can make it a harrowing experience. It's quite another to kick back in the panoramic dome car and soak in the beauty of all the surrounding peaks and the snowcapped evergreens.

The dome car was located just one car back of the coach car where I had taken up residence. It's set up like a double-decker but with a large bubble of windows that make it much, much easier to truly appreciate the beauty and tranquility all around. I had some worries that the sun would go down before we had the chance to truly appreciate the mountains, but we had a good three hours looking around in awe. I befriended Grace, a retiree and veteran train rider living in Valemount who pointed out attractions like Moose Lake and Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies.

During our chat, she expressed some disappointment that the staff hadn't announced any of the landmarks, explaining they'd done so in the past. Several minutes after she'd pointed out Mount Robson to me and I snapped some photo, though, an employee came on the intercom and informed the other passengers. Some of the most glorious views had already passed, however.

After a two-hour stop in Kamloops and then another night's sleep, I woke up to see the lights of Abbotsford. It was a slow trot into the station in East Vancouver, but still fast enough to bypass a lot of the rush hour traffic. We even rolled into the station about 45 minutes early. How often can you say that?


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