Riding the rails

Vacations & Travel

On an amazing Canadian rail journey across the wild centre of beautiful British Columbia and on into the mighty Rocky Mountains in neighbouring Alberta I definitely succumb to a scenic overload.

It strikes as I stand in the open air vestibule, the prime viewing platform at the rear of the Rocky Mountaineer tourist train. I’ve already taken way too many photographs of the passing scenery, one stupendous view after another, when the realisation strikes me that I simply can’t stop myself.

We round a bend to be presented with yet another fabulous photo opportunity; a calm and silvery lake surrounded by forests of feathery, dark green pines set against a backdrop of vertiginous grey-black rock that rises beneath snowy summits. And I’m at it again, clicking away incessantly, my sensory short-circuit rendering me insensible to my actions.

I lay blame partly on digital cameras which make it far too easy to simply shoot away, knowing you’ll spend a good part of the evening trashing one photo after another … only to repeat yourself the following day! With film I had to keep changing rolls, each time reminded of purchase and development costs. This effectively curtailed the snap-happy approach and arguably resulted in more considered pictures.

But blame must fall also on the Rocky Mountaineer train. How else would I so comfortably and easily slip through the rugged, remote grandeur of these two spectacular provinces? No other means of transport offers such unrestricted, constant appreciation of the awesome splendour of the Canadian Rockies.

A pioneer route

Early travel into this vast, unmapped interior, then finding a route through the imposing mountain ranges, posed innumerable and at times insuperable problems for the hunters, fur traders, prospectors and gold diggers of the 19th Century. Yet here I am, tracing the pioneer route up the mighty Fraser River aboard a luxury cruise-on-rails, relaxing in fully upholstered comfort while enjoying astounding views through the glass dome of my Gold Leaf carriage. Drinks are served on demand and a fully-equipped kitchen and dining room below produces first a hearty breakfast, then a three-course lunch accompanied by fine wines from the Okanagan Valley. Pioneer spirit? Forget about it!

The first stage of my Canadian rail odyssey is spent on board the brand new Whistler Mountaineer tourist train, climbing steadily from Vancouver up to the famous all-season resort. This journey, via Squamish, takes a mere three hours. It passes all too swiftly in a continuous, gentle unfolding of sea and open sky, the populated slopes immediately beyond Vancouver quickly give way to uninhabited, densely-forested hillsides. The railtrack is hemmed in by trees. Occasional clearings provide glorious views of distant snow-dusted peaks.

A highlight occurs as the train traverses the slender bridge spanning the Cheakamus Canyon. Leaning over the viewing rail I peer down and see glistening ribbons of water surging through carved rock channels far below. Further along the track we pass the 60 metre plume of the Brandywine Falls.

The new Whistler Mountaineer daily service links the twin venues of the 2010 Winter Olympics. Long before then I’m convinced this journey will have established itself as a marvellous one-day or overnight scenic rail excursion, ideally suited for passengers off the large cruise ships which ply the Inside Passage route between Alaskan ports and Vancouver during summer months.

Gold fever

The second and longer phase of my Rocky Mountaineer journey follows the new Fraser Discovery Route, a two-day, all-daylight, luxury experience that, on the first day, runs from Whistler north to the tiny logging town of Quesnel in the seldom visited interior of British Columbia. The route is named after the Fraser River, the longest river in British Columbia. It rises on the western slopes of the Rockies and flows northwest until it makes a sharp turn south at Prince George. The river eventually empties into the sea north of Vancouver.

Following the path of the Fraser the railway track, until now used only by freight trains, passes through the Cariboo-Chilcotin region, a land of innumerable lakes and rivers, home to First Nations people for centuries. Gold fever in the 1860s lured the first Europeans in significant numbers and by 1864 the boom town of Barkerville, east of Quesnel, was the biggest settlement north of San Francisco.

The rail line takes us through the village of Lillooet on the banks of the Fraser. The original settlement was the start of the famous Cariboo Trail, followed by miners and traders in their push into the interior between 1862-1870. Other gold rush towns along the track have prosaic names such as 70 Mile House and 100 Mile House, indicating their distance from Lillooet.

We are now deep into timber territory, passing through log cabin country, a region famous for trout fishing in summer and cross-country skiing in winter. The world’s largest log cabin was built in Williams Lake, about an hour’s journey south of Quesnel. It was subsequently dismantled and moved to Denver, Colorado. At 100 Mile House stands the world’s largest pair of cross-country skies, 11 metres tall, a signature signpost marking the local visitor information centre.

Precious wood 

Quesnel’s equivalent to Australia’s “Big Prawn” is a salute to those gold rush days. The world’s biggest gold pan looks very much like a gleaming satellite dish. Next to it stands an equally huge shovel and inside the pan lies a gigantic nugget. Quesnel’s fortunes, however, long ago shifted away from precious metals to precious woods. Our train rolls past countless yards where millions of axed logs await processing into planks.

Construction of the Pacific Great Eastern railway from Vancouver to Prince George brought the rail track to Quesnel in 1921. The line is now operated by Canadian National Railway which also operates the track between Prince George and Jasper in Alberta, originally built by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. This will be the second stage of our journey.

Taking part in the inaugural passenger journey along these two new western Canadian tourist routes is like temporarily becoming a member of royalty. Whistler provides an honour guard of Mounties, resplendent in their signature scarlet uniforms. In tiny Quesnel it seems the entire population is lining the approach to the station to welcome our arrival. The mayor is wearing the period costume of a 19th Century station master. He’s escorted by the ruddy-faced town mascot and flanked by a bevy of local pageant queens.

Like many Canadian logging towns, Quesnel’s fortunes have recently been seriously affected by pine beetle, an insect currently wreaking havoc in local timber plantations. So the big boost to tourism prospects indicated by the regular arrival of the Rocky Mountaineer is duly celebrated at a big party that evening.

It proves to be a small world. I meet ex-Melburnian Julie Clark, who travelled to the Yukon a few years ago where she met her Canadian husband . Julie runs the local visitor centre and, in winter months, she and Cory operate Ski Troll, a ski and snowboarding location 44 kms east of Quesnel. I also chat with Cheryl Chapman about her heritage village at Soda Creek, south of town, where visitors sleep in teepees while learning about the history of the Xat’sull, the local First Nations people. After the party we are all bused to a local hotel for the night.

Scenic rapture

The next day the Rocky Mountaineer probes ever deeper into the mighty Canadian Rockies, following a line of track first laid almost a century ago. After reaching Prince George we head south east along the wide valley known as the Rocky Mountain Trench to Tete Jaune Cache, named after a yellow-haired Iroquois working for the Hudson’s Bay Company in fur trading days.

At this point the track swings east toward Redpass where it connects with the railway line from Kamloops. We enjoy magnificent views of Mount Robson, at 3,956.5 metres (12,972 feet) the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies. Yes, it totally fills my camera lens and yes, I once again take more photos than necessary. Scenic rapture has maintained its grip on my sanity.

Our day-long and often hauntingly beautiful passage snakes beside rivers, passes beneath towering summits and hugs the gently curving shores of placid lakes. In late afternoon, bidding farewell to views of our constant companion the Fraser River, we enter Alberta via the Yellowhead Pass and cross into Jasper National Park. Not long afterwards we arrive in Jasper, a small resort town surrounded by spectacular mountains.

We tumble off the train and head for the exclusive Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, a collection of luxurious log cabins on a 903 acre property surrounding a golf course and the tranquil turquoise waters of Lac Beauvert. In it’s long history the lodge has hosted many celebrities and various British royals. Its where we celebrate the last night of our trip and I can’t imagine a more fitting place for the finale to one of the world’s greatest train journeys.

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