Ron Brown is a geographer and heritage writer. He has authored more than twenty books, including Rails Over the Mountains, The Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, and The Top 150 Unusual Things to See in Ontario. A past chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada, he also conducts tours along Ontario’s back roads. He lives in East York.
When it’s springtime in the Rockies, It’s time to take the train
Yes, the lakes may still be ice-covered, and shrinking snowbanks might yet line the roads, but the spring season in Canada’s western mountains may be the optimal time to board one of the spectacular train excursions to explore the canyons and peaks of Canada’s finest scenery.
After all, it is the time of year when daylight extends well into the evening and busloads of tour groups have yet to clog the attractions.
VIA Rail offers two routes through the mountains. Both depart Jasper, Alberta, at a remarkable stone-covered railway station built by the CNR to draw visitors to its Jasper Park Lodge
VIA’s Canadian (Train #1), with its sleepers, dining cars, and iconic domes, lurches westward passing below Fitzwilliam and Robinson Mountains before entering the shadow of Mount Robson, the highest mountain in the Rockies. It then bends south to follow the wide glacial valley of the North Thompson River.
At the historic railway town of Kamloops the tracks enter one of Canada’s driest regions before meeting up with foaming waters of the Fraser River and its deep forbidding canyon. At Hope the train makes a final turn to the west and enters the vast fertile Fraser Delta and the sprawling city of Vancouver. Exiting the train will bring the traveller into the grand hall of the stunning 1916 Vancouver station.
VIA’s other mountain train, number 6 (more popularly nicknamed the Skeena), likewise departs Jasper station, but instead follows the banks of the Skeena River northwestward to Prince Rupert. Unlike its sister train, the Skeena does not travel through the night but rather overnights in Prince George allowing the passengers to enjoy two all-daylight experiences. The train will pause at heritage stations in both McBride and Smithers, both bustling communities, unlike the haunting little ghost towns of Dorreen and Pacific which the Skeena simply glides by. While the Skeena carries no sleepers, it does offer dome cars, dining and the famous bullet lounge on the rear coach.
While VIA’s popular trains have been around for more than a century and serves as a “common carrier” one of the world’s most beautiful train experiences is that offered by the exclusive and luxurious Rocky Mountaineer.
The service began in 1990 when the Great Canadian Rail Tour Company acquired the train of the same name from VIA Rail, a service cut by the Mulroney government as part of its gutting of rail passenger service throughout Canada.
Since then the Rocky Mountaineer has gained world-wide acclaim and offers a variety of themed routes such as Journey Through the Clouds, Rainforest to Gold Rush, and First Passage to the West. The Rocky Mountaineer will overnight en route at Prince George, Banff, Kamloops, or Quesnel. Renowned not just for its scenic routes, but its on board meals and service and has been called “The World’s Leading Experience by Train.”
But rugged mountain scenery is not exclusive to the west. As spring warms up, rail service in eastern Canada begins to lure the traveller. One of VIA’s more unusual rail experiences is that on a train known as the Abitibi. A relatively little known route it leads from Montreal northward into the vast Laurentian mountains, travelling to remote communities which still lack roads, including a bustling mill town known as Parent, population 700. The day-long journey ends in Senneterre, in northwestern Quebec.
Another lesser known VIA train, the Superior, uses historic “Budd” cars, chrome coaches with the engine inside, and journeys from Sudbury to White River. The route passes the ghosts of former sawmill towns, such as Biscotasing, one-time home of the infamous Grey Owl, pausing at the railway town of Chapleau before ending the day at the White River station platform. Here, during the First World War, an army captain named Harry Colbourne bought a bear cub, naming it “Winnipeg” after his home town. By the time Colbourne donated the bear to the London Zoo it had become known as simply Winnie. There it became the favourite of a young Christopher Robin Milne, whose favourite toy was a “pooh bear” and was the son of childrens’ book author, A.A. Milne. Today the town celebrates its “Winnie the Pooh” heritage with a roadside image of the bear and a display in its tourist office.