May 16, 2017
“There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run.” – Gordon Lightfoot, “Canadian Railroad Trilogy”
The train from Winnipeg to Toronto is a return to another era—with a few new disadvantages. One is the time. No one takes the train in North America, with the possible exception of Amtrak’s Acela service from New York to Washington, who is on a precise schedule or wants the quickest trip between two points. The railroads who own the tracks barely tolerate passenger service, both charging a premium and regularly sidetracking the trains in order to let more profitable freight trains pass.
Nonetheless, The Canadian, Canada’s remaining partially transcontinental route, is listed on some travel sites as a bucket list experience. The service and food are a level above Amtrak. The cars are dated (built in the late 1950s) but lovingly and carefully maintained, like a glamorous woman in her 50s or 60s who still keeps up her best appearance.
You just have to endure the delays. We were scheduled for a 10:30 pm departure from Winnipeg, somewhat more than half the distance from its starting point of Vancouver to its terminus and connection with other trains at Toronto. By the time they had changed crews, done a quick cleaning, boarded us and finally departed, it was 1:30 am, already three hours past schedule. Through passengers had stories about hitting a rock near Jasper and being sidetracked more than 60 times for freight trains.
I decided to forego the experience of a 37-plus-hour coach trip; the seats have limited reclining ability and a la carte meals are expensive. So there was the choice of a sleeping birth or a compartment, both of them including meals. One of the travel sites pointed out that the berths were actually more suitable for taller people (I’m six-foot-one) in addition to being a little less expensive. The bed was long enough, if barely, and reasonably comfortable; the problem was the noise and rolling of the train cars, and then a sudden lack of the same when sidetracked and stopped for typically about 10 minutes. In two nights of sleeping, I never quite got used to it. The shared showers were private, surprisingly large and mostly unoccupied.
The meals, however, were all I could hope for and more, carefully and imaginatively prepared by only two chefs and a couple of additional kitchen helpers. They featured entrees such as broiled fresh Pacific salmon and tender veal chops, with interesting sauces and lightly cooked fresh vegetables. At least two dessert choices were available with lunch and dinner, and breakfast included wonderful omelets and freshly baked muffins. Fruit and snacks were available throughout the day.
My fellow passengers were mostly older than the train cars, average age about 75. Quite a number of them were part of a tour group that had begun in Toronto, included a cruise ship with passage through the Panama Canal and several Central American and U.S. West Coast ports of call, and then the train back home from Vancouver to Toronto. Their first-class accommodations allowed them priority seating and their own tour guide and activities director. Despite our differences, they were pleasant companions and several of them were actually quite interested in the details of my bicycle trip. Other passengers included rail fans and the usual complement of Australian and Asian tourists.
I happened to reap a partially planned but also unexpected benefit: transportation of my recumbent bicycle, trailer and gear for a ridiculously low price. One of the real stumbling blocks of this trip was getting my equipment to the starting point in Texas. Amtrak would not even hear about transporting such nonstandard items. And trucking firms wanted everything in crates that I would have to have custom built at considerable cost expressly for the trip and then scrapped at the destination. Fortunately, VIA Rail Canada is much more accommodating to what they define as sports equipment, everything up to and including canoes and kayaks, all for charges that anyone would consider reasonable. In fact, the original quote I received over the phone of $75 was reduced to only $25 plus the Canadian goods and services sales tax when I arrived (three hours early) at the station in Winnipeg. Nor did I have to do anything beyond separating the bike and trailer and removing my bags.
From Winnipeg, the route of the train turns considerably northward into what Canadians refer to as the boreal forest, vast stretches of pines, spruces and firs with frequent periodic glacial lakes and wetlands. Most of it is not virgin forest, but it was logged sufficiently long ago that it retains some of that quality. Occasionally the tracks pass through isolated bush communities accessible otherwise via four-wheel-drive vehicles and float planes, but much of it is as little inhabited as it was 150 years ago when the visitors were semi-nomadic natives and the voyageurs. Most of us would call it wilderness. Even in mid-May, winter had not yet released the land from its grip. I saw considerable snow cover and patches of melting ice on the lakes. This was not yet in the realm of spring, and I was grateful not to be on the bicycle (as if anything but the ruggedest mountain bike could have traversed such territory).
Eventually the route returned to more civilized places as it moved father south into Ontario, through what is known as cottage country due to the location of summer homes for several hundred thousand Ontarians. Cell phone service became more available and reliable. Unfortunately so did the delays for freight trains. By the time we entered the edge of the Toronto suburbs we were more than five and a half hours behind schedule, enough so that we were entitled to a complimentary additional unplanned lunch.
The arrival at Toronto’s downtown Union Station was uneventful. Mired in the middle of an eight-year renovation project, business continues as usual amid the unattractive surroundings. I claimed my unusual baggage, put it back together, and wheeled it up the ramp and onto the city’s Front Street, where the only place for loading and unloading is the area also occupied by a long line of taxicabs. I phoned my wife at work, who had driven my car rather than her usual train commute, and waited 20 minutes for her to arrive. I ignored the angry taxi drivers while I loaded the bike onto my roof rack and the rest of the gear into the back of the car.
After a long, nearly 90-minute, journey in early rush hour traffic, we arrived at our house. I hadn’t seen such a profusion of spring since the end of March and Northwest Missouri. The grass was the lush green of mid-May, the fruit trees and tulips in full bloom and the leaves on the trees had more than halfway emerged. I paused to take in the invigorating aroma of the spring air. Then I was through the front door for the first time in 96 days, having completed my adventure and one of the signature events of my life. The traveler had returned.
The Canadian, Canada’s premier nearly transcontinental train:
Winter still holds the boreal forest of Northern Ontario in its grip, even in mid-May:
The view from the dome car. (We were within 20 minutes of arriving in Toronto, which accounts for the emptiness of a normally busy space.):
Arriving at downtown Toronto’s Union Station:
The epic traveler (Odysseus?) returns to his door: