When Kate and I were kids growing up on Sennebec Hill Farm, trains were still running regularly from Brunswick to Rockland. When the humidity was just right on certain summer days, we could hear the train whistle all the way from the Warren depot just south of Route One. My fascination with trains has never left me. When Beth and I went to Colorado a few years ago, we rode on five different trains, four of which were steam locomotives. It was an unforgettable trip and when we got home we agreed that our next big vacation would be a train trip through the Canadian Rockies.
A week after I retired from the Hartland Public Library, we boarded a plane in Bangor and after changing planes in Washington and Toronto, we landed in Vancouver where we were met by warmth and cloudless skies. Transportation was pretty easy and straightforward. You can get a shuttle bus to almost every hotel and the elevated train runs right down to the waterfront. We arrived a day early so we could have extra time to see some of the sights.
First up was the Sun Yat Sen Gardens which combines a traditional Chinese water garden with a waterfall and an authentic Ming scholar’s residence. The entire structure and garden was built by 51 craftsmen who came from China and spent two years building it as close to the way similar ones had been built in the 1300s. The intricate halls and walkways were constructed with precise joinery and without the use of nails, screws or glue. Pottery, paintings and wood carvings from that period have been used to enhance the authenticity. It’s both beautiful and relaxing.
Numerous people cautioned us about avoiding a three block area not far from the gardens. These are where Vancouver’s considerable homeless population gather. We skirted them, but in reality, the homeless are everywhere in the city because its climate is mild. We passed one young woman sitting on the sidewalk looking down at the pavement while a cardboard sign lay across her lap that said “Will eat your leftover food.” The image stuck with me the entire trip. To show you the contrast, North Vancouver which lies beyond the Lion’s Gate Bridge is composed of homes where 80% cost in excess of a million dollars.
We still had time and energy, so Beth and I walked down to the waterfront where a sea wall walkway begins and runs for 2.5 miles around the peninsula that is almost completely covered by Stanley Park. It doesn’t take long to realize how cosmopolitan British Columbia and specifically Vancouver are. I’d almost say that English speaking Caucasians were in the minority as we walked along the harbor. Beth and I wondered just how many different languages we heard that afternoon. Energy conservation and recycling are taken seriously in British Columbia. One of the buildings by the waterfront, the Vancouver Convention Centre has a roof of natural grass and vegetation that has been growing successfully for years. Just to the right of it is a huge pier where two cruise ships were docked as we walked past. On the other side of the convention centre is a smaller dock where half a dozen sea planes are ready to take you on a flight that lasts anywhere from ten minutes to as long and as far as you can afford. The inner harbor where we walked also has a huge cargo port where freighters are loading and unloading colorful containers from all over the world. Further down the harbor, several big bridges span the Fraser River as it empties into the Pacific.
We walked as far as the rose garden in the park and got to watch a wedding take place in covered walkway that had climbing roses of every possible color in bloom. To the left of this walkway stands an amazing cedar tree that looks like it must have died back at some point before resuming growth. The base of the trunk has to be at least eight feet in diameter. I must say that the roses were well worth the aching feet we tended to when we returned to the hotel.
Monday morning we boarded the Rocky Mountaineer and headed east. The train passes through one of the busiest railway yards in north America. I’m not sure, but I believe Adam, our tour guide, said that 30,000 railway cars pass through there daily. For the first thirty miles or so, we ran at a pretty slow speed because of urban congestion, but that made the early photo opportunities all the better. We’d be lazing past fields of high bush blueberries while eagles soared overhead, looking for a meal of salmon in the Fraser River, while we enjoyed snow capped mountains in the distance. We’re used to seeing bald eagles, but there were a number of golden eagles as well. In fact, I saw five flying over the river at one point.
When the train sped up we entered wilder country, more mountains, plenty of rapids on the river and waterfalls in the higher elevations. You tend to think of British Columbia as wet country, but Kamloops, our first stop is actually in high desert country. Beth asked Adam when we could expect to see big horn sheep. He said they’d start appearing around the 23 mile marker west of Kamloops. Sure enough, right after we passed the signpost, they started appearing on the ridges above us. I got one really good shot of a flock that was resting. British Columbia has been dealing with the same drought that afflicts California. In fact, the ski areas shut down in February because of a lack of snow. We could see evidence of its effects on the hillsides and along the roadways in Vancouver. Even so, the rivers were running high because of the snow melt and almost every one was blue-gray in color due to the silt from runoff coming down the mountains.
We passed several big lakes that were carved out during the last ice age. A couple are over 500 feet deep and according to Adam, are very cold no matter what time of year it is. The air temperature, however was right up there. It was 95 when we got to Kamloops. Since our car was just behind the locomotives, we often got to see wildlife before it was spooked. There was a platform between each car where people could stand and take photos without having to deal with window glare. Beth pretty much lived out there both days. On the portion between Kamloops and Banff, we got to cross the river several times, went through numerous tunnels, including two that are known as the Spiral Tunnels because they loop over each other and cut several miles and a couple thousand feet off what the original journey required.
By now, we were seeing areas where avalanches and rock slides are common. In fact, there were several spots where cement or metal shed-like structures have been built over the tracks because of frequent rock slides Everywhere you look there’s something worth photographing. Between us, we must have taken a thousand pictures. That’s the advantage of having a good quality digital camera. We both have Canon Rebels and brought two batteries apiece. When both of our first ones ran out of juice earlier than expected, we worried about having enough power to shoot things all the way to the end of our trip, but that didn’t happen.
Our hotel was the Banff Ptarmigan. A chat with the desk clerk reinforced what I suspected, many of the people working in the hospitality industry in British Columbia are from Australia. The Canadian government seems to be far less concerned about aliens that ‘he who must not be named’ down in Augusta. In fact over half the people we toured with were from overseas. One gentleman I talked to was from Australia. He was semi-retired, but when he worked it was as a tour bus driver running 21 day excursions through Africa. It sounded like a pretty decent job to me. Banff has a population of 4500 who live there year round. During the height of the tourist season, both summer and winter, it can swell to over 90,000. Stores sell bear spray because so many wander into town and they have specially made trash cans that are bear proof. Elk also wander into town frequently, but none did so while we were there. We had a bus tour on our second day there that took us to the Banff Gondola which climbs to the top of a mountain overlooking the town. It’s 7486 feet above sea level and we had a nearly cloudless day to enjoy the view. From there, we drove to a couple scenic trails. On the first, we saw a coyote and several hoodoos. See the accompanying photo to get a look at them for yourself.
Several miles up the road, we stopped to admire three bighorn sheep who were lying right beside the road and looking like they owned it.
Being an avid reader makes traveling a challenge. I packed five books for the trip as well as downloading half a dozen advance reading copies from Edelweiss. However, I had three of them read by the time we reached Vancouver and ripped through the other two before we got to Banff, so off to the only bookstore in town we went. I bought two more YA novels I’d never heard about and wrote down the titles to half a dozen more. We also visited a candy store that had so many different kinds you’d need to visit it daily for years in order to try all of them.
The hotel served a terrific breakfast buffet. Any place that has unlimited bacon cooked well gets five stars in my book. While we were waiting for an open table, I had one of those ‘you’ll never believe me’ tourist moments. I overheard two women conversing in what I assumed was Mandarin, but with Australian accents.
From Banff, we boarded a tour bus and headed north. Our first stop was Lake Louise which has an elegant hotel with a lake right behind it. I have no idea what the room rates are, but I bet they’re a lot higher than Motel Six. Next up was a short walk to a scenic lookout where we could see several lakes below us and glaciers in the distance.
Between the lookout and our next stop at a wild waterfall, we stopped twice to photograph black bears who were so busy gorging on dandelions that they barely acknowledged our existence. We also slowed so we could admire and get quick shots of five mountain goats. Our next to the last stop before entering Jasper was a buffet lunch followed by a trip onto the Athabaska Glacier in an Ice Explorer, a unique vehicle with giant tires.
There are 23 in existence, most running here, but one is in Antarctica. After the glacier, we stopped at a fairly recent addition to the tourism opportunities in Jasper National Park, the Glacier Skywalk. Imagine standing on a sheet of glass while looking straight down 918 feet at the bottom of a canyon. Built in a large semi-circle, this walkway gives you some pretty nice photo opportunities. I expected to feel nervous when I walked out on it because I don’t handle heights very well, but it was too much fun taking pictures and watching other people look nervous for me to get queasy.
We stayed overnight at Whistler’s Inn when we reached Jasper. One thing we agreed on before the trip was that we’d splurge a time or two on meals. That night, we enjoyed an Indian buffet. While the entrees were tasty, the highlight was mango payasam for dessert. I’ve since found numerous recipes for it online and plan to make my own for an upcoming meal. We had half a day to explore Jasper and one of our discoveries was one of the best pastry/coffee shops I’ve ever encountered. My opinion of the Bear’s Paw seems to be shared by lots of other people because it came up almost immediately when I did an online search for bakeries in Jasper. It’s one of those places that if you lived nearby, your clothing would cease fitting properly in just a few weeks, but you wouldn’t care. From there, we wandered around and found an art gallery where both of us bought a print we really liked.
The last stop before heading to the train station was a bit unsettling for me. I’d asked the woman at the are gallery if Jasper had a library. She said they did and it was just a block away, but she wasn’t sure whether it was open. That turned out to be the understatement of the vacation. The town had gotten a 3.5 million dollar grant to renovate and expand it. However, the sign on the fence said it would be completed in July of 2013. It was pretty clear from what we could see that they were nowhere close to finishing the project. While we were looking at it, a gentleman who was a retired engineer stopped to chat and filled us in on the story. He said that the town had hired a very incompetent architectural firm, they hadn’t taken into consideration the fact that there was asbestos that had to be removed and the initial plans had failed to take into account the need to be up to bearing the weight of shelving and books. All this was further complicated by the installation of a roof that began leaking almost immediately. When I asked whether there was an alternative location to use while construction was going on. He rolled his eyes and said the woman who was the town librarian had been forced to house the books under the bleachers at the community center and gave up in frustration. I’m still shaking my head over the fact that a town of that size has been without library services for several years and may well lack them for a couple more.
We returned to Vancouver on an overnight Via Rail train. Sleeping berths take a bit of getting used to, so sleep that night was minimal. Fortunately there was a recreation car with electrical outlets, fresh coffee and unlimited fruit and cookies, so I suffered in comfort. We slowed or stopped numerous times on the return journey. In fact, the train arrived in Jasper three hours late. Apparently this isn’t unusual because freight trains have preference on the tracks and there are lots and lots of them running. I counted over 200 cars on several of the ones passing by. I also noticed that most of them were using only two engines. When I hopped freights back in my college days, similar trains used four or five, so there must have been some major improvements in diesel locomotives over the years.
We had another day and a half in Vancouver, so we tried to get to Granville Island on Saturday afternoon, but couldn’t find it, so we visited the H.R. MacMillan Space Centre near the outer harbor. It was an interesting tour. We don’t think of Canada as being part of space exploration, but several Canadians have been astronauts and there are many examples of equipment developed by Canadians to aid in space exploration. We sat in on a very interesting lecture/demonstration on the history of gravity and the challenge of defining what exactly it is. This was followed by a show in their planetarium. We noticed an abundance of kites behind the museum so we headed that way and discovered there was a kite festival going on. At one point there must have been more than 50 kites flying and we were treated to a synchronized flying demonstration when eight people flew the same design in giant loops. We walked back to our hotel and when we crossed the bridge, we realized that Granville Island was right below us. That particular bridge has a designated bike-way on the right side which includes a counter to keep track of how many bikes cross it. As of June 13th, more than 115,000 had done so in 2015. In fact bikes were prevalent in every place we visited on our trip.
After a quick supper, we took advantage of the final part of our tour package and went to the top of the Vancouver Lookout. This is similar to the Space Needle in Seattle, but is atop one of the hotels. It affords you a view in all directions and is especially pretty at sunset. We both took a lot of photos while waiting for the sun to go down.
We spent the majority of Sunday on Granville Island. This was a bustling manufacturing spot in the 1800s, but progress, fires and a changing economy left it looking pretty dismal in the early part of the 20th century. Fortunately, people saw its potential and today, it’s home to some 300 shops, affords numerous places for musicians to perform and has a huge open air market. It’s one of those places creative people gravitate to time and again. If I lived in Vancouver, it’s where I’d go whenever I had any free time. In addition to enjoying some really beautiful photographs, I bought a print that was more expensive that most things I buy and we had an outdoor meal of fancy cheese and fresh cherries. As we were riding back to the hotel, Beth and I agreed that it was the best part of our time in Vancouver.
The flight home was uneventful and we’re still looking over all the pictures, realizing that there are very few we don’t want to keep. This is a trip I’d recommend to anyone who likes the beauty of nature, coupled with a really nice city experience.