After a day of spine-tingling wildlife-spotting in Jasper National Park, including statue-still elk and a berry-snuffling black bear, it’s time to hit the road. But, rather than jumping in a car for a long drive through the Rockies, I’m slowly lurching from Jasper’s gable-roofed train station, in Alberta, on-board one of Canada’s most remote, but spectacular rail lines. Built by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in 1914 and now operated by VIA Rail, the two-day, 1158-kilometre service to Prince Rupert, known locally as the Rupert Rocket, weaves westward to British Columbia’s fjorded coastline. Sliding past snow-frosted peaks, silvery lakes and pocket-sized communities of eclectic residents, it’s a service for locals that also lures scenery-loving, off-the-beaten-path travellers.
Departing on time past noon, I find a seat in my half-empty carriage a comfortably dated old gal with a 1970s burgundy colour scheme and listen to jocular train attendant John recommend the view from the right side today (but, the left side tomorrow). Then, he adds with a chuckle that “since it’s after 11 am, the bar is also open”. Not quite ready for a tipple, I explore the train instead.
Divided between Regular and Touring class carriages, many of the locals in the former seem to prefer their newspapers to the vistas they’ve seen a thousand times before. Instead, I socialise with some chatty overseas visitors in the main Touring class hangout — a chrome-lined, bullet-shaped lounge car at the end of the train. Built in 1953, it’s like travelling in a museum exhibit.
Along with its easy chairs and picture windows, there’s an upstairs glass-ceilinged compartment where most of us congregate to watch the backcountry diorama unfurl like a visual spa treatment. “We liked the idea of the train’s gentle pace,” twinkle-eyed Margaret, visiting from Tasmania, tells me. “It isn’t like flying where you’re rushing from A to B. This is about the journey.” Most of us with heart rates relaxing to hibernation levels spend the afternoon glued to the windows up here, photographing an occasional moose or a trestle bridge curved over a yawning, forested canyon. The train slows for several sights, including the looming face of Mount Robson. The Canadian Rockies highest peak, its thick mist halo stands out on an otherwise blue-sky day.
After lunch of an airline-style tray of wraps and snacks plus wine, I search out the train’ssenior attendant. Tracy has “30 whiskers”, which, in train parlance, denotes her years of service. An expert on the line, she’s even written a book and is planning to publish it soon. For her, it’s the quirky locals including hermits and old draft dodgers that give the route its character. In fact, she says, there’s a resident celebrity boarding today at McBride, a town of 750 people.
Pulling up to its white and green-trimmed little station, one of 200 that originally studded the route, we’re allowed off for a leg-stretch. Tracy indicates the star passenger on the platform, describing him as an “eccentric genius”, and I sidle over for a chat. Andrew, a neatly-bearded 87-year-old retired engineer, is a model of self-sufficiency. Today, he’s transporting a new bath to his home in the bush a few miles down the line. He’s soon discussing his life in a clipped Eastern European accent from a bygone era. “Why do I live out here?” he asks, repeating my question with an incredulous scowl. “I once read a National Geographic story about Las Vegas. That is why I live here. I can’t stand modern civilisation.” Back onboard, I return to my window seat, eventually dozing under the sinking sun as evening approaches.
After a hotel stopover in Prince George, I’m back on the train for its evening departure the next day. John comes around to make sure we’ve switched to the left side, reminding us that the scenery on day two becomes more spectacular as the day progresses. Having waved goodbye to the Rockies yesterday, today promises the equally grand Coast Mountains. With 12 hours of lazy trundling ahead, a comfortable camaraderie takes over the train. We all know each other now and while conversations frequently break out, there are also long stretches of comfortable silence as the mesmerising scenery takes hold. Small settlements such as Doreen, Telkwa and Fraser Lake blink past as the mountains slowly emerge.
By mid-afternoon, we’re weaving between the peaks. Sheer rock presses close to the windows, tentacled waterfalls tumble into huge lakes and swift, chocolate-brown rivers flirt past, disappearing and remerging between the trees. There are also dramatic bridge crossings and lengthy tunnels, indicating the challenges of building this line — when we inch alongside steep-sided Buckley Canyon, it feels like we’re teetering over the edge. A short stop in Smithers, where the locals are called Smithereens, is our main leg-stretch. But, while there are no major wildlife sightings on land today, there are so many bald eagles soaring overhead that we soon become blasé. By 8 pm, there’s a sleepy, slightly blue feeling among the passengers as our odyssey winds down.
We suddenly hit the wide, sunset-glittered Skeena River and begin skirting its ocean-like shoreline towards Prince Rupert, passing remnants of derelict fish canning operations that once stood on piles over the water. Slowly squealing across our final iron bridge, we ease to a halt just as daylight dissolves. After hearty goodbyes, we scuttle off to our various hotels. Some will rise early for tomorrow’s BC Ferries service to Vancouver Island, an even more languorous journey. But, I’m sticking around in Rupert — museums, a grizzly-watching excursion and a visit to the evocative old North Pacific Cannery site beckon.
Regular one-way tickets for VIA Rail’s Touring class Panorama Car train service from Jasper to Prince Rupert service available between June 15, 2014, to September 28, 2014, costs up to Rs 7,000. Prices do not include the required Prince George hotel stopover.
Information: 1-888-842-7245; viarail.ca.