THE TRAIN: THE MOUNTAINS
The next morning, the train pulled into the Albertan capital of Edmonton at 9am. Climbing down from the carriage to take a stroll in the air, I noticed Shawna Caspi walking along the platform towards the city. She was a rather courageous sight – her slim form clutching her possessions and trudging off through the snow to face Alberta. To misquote Paul Simon’s song ‘Homeward Bound’: ‘A rucksack and guitar in hand – a poet and a one-girl band’. The spirit of the Sixties is not dead as long as such pilgrims as Shawna are around.
Edmonton was the furthest north that we reached on the journey. Predictably it was known as the ‘Gateway to the North’ and was home to 1.4 million people. One of the reasons for the surprising size of the population was the huge expansion in the exploitation of the oil sands of northern Alberta. This was the subject of much controversy both in Canada and internationally. In liberal centres like Toronto and Vancouver, Alberta was seen as the heartland of the ‘Three R’s’ – ‘Rightwing, Redneck, and Reactionary’ – Texas with added permafrost. As my total experience of the place consisted of leaning over a fence looking at snow for half an hour, I decided to refrain from comment.
We left at 9 30am and the train ambled on through the sprawling industrial landscape before halting entirely. This was due to yet another of Bill bloody Gates’s bloody freight trains.
One way to take exercise on the railway was to walk the length of the rolling stock – a good half a mile of careening off corridor walls and lurching over couplings. It was on one such expedition that I came across an attractive young woman clasping a handkerchief to her nose – her mouth, chin, and hands were covered in dried blood. She gazed at me silently. I shook my head in sympathy:
“Oh dear, nose bleed, eh? Never mind, just try and hold your head back. That should do it.” With that breezy advice I strolled on along the train.
Going west, we passed Lake Wabamum – the tracks of the snow mobiles used for ice fishing had scoured arabesques on its glassy surface. Thinking back to Joni Mitchell, I remembered the track ‘River’ on her brilliant album ‘Blue’. There was a line in it – ‘I wish I had a river I could skate away on’ – that I had always thought was some throwaway hippie dope fantasy. Now it dawned where the line had originated – she had literally meant ‘a river that she could skate on’. She had grown up with them.
Sean pointed out another nearby stretch of water called ‘Disaster Lake’. He had assumed that the ‘disaster’ must have been a massacre of pioneers or a horrific wagon crash. In fact it had been so named because an early explorer had accidentally smashed his whisky bottle there. They seemed to have had their priorities right in those days.
Having spent almost thirty hours travelling across the dead level plains of the Prairie States, we now finally started to see small hillocks and gentle valleys. The hills grew higher and the valleys deeper – and we began to winding our way into the glorious Rockies. The observation car crammed up with passengers gazing upwards in silence. ‘Awesome’ is an overused word but here in these soaring mountains it was the correct one. Back in Wilde’s day, the then Governor-General of Canada, the Marquis of Lorne, had travelled here. He commented that the Rockies were ‘a mixture of Scotland and Heaven’.
We arrived in Jaspar at 3pm – the temperature was minus ten. Jaspar was a passably pleasant-looking village but seemed inhibited by the vastness looming all around it. While it might be a rip-roaring carousal in the right season, during our visit a desultory silence hung over the place like a sea mist. The atmosphere felt like someone waiting for a bus. We took photographs of the town totem pole and returned to the train.
The construction of the railroad through Alberta and the Rockies had been extraordinarily difficult but the builders had at least one advantage. They had not come under attack from the hostile First Nation peoples. The reason for this lay in an interesting character called Chief Crowfoot, head of the Blackfoot tribe. Crowfoot was a renowned warrior, the survivor of nineteen battles, who at one point considered an alliance with his American colleague Sitting Bull of the Lakota Sioux to oppose the white man’s onslaught. The arrival of the Canadian Pacific Railroad presented Crowfoot with a dilemma – to fight or allow passage. In an unheroic but profoundly sensible move, he decided to allow access. He demanded and received one important concession though – that he should be awarded a lifelong free rail pass.
As twilight fell, the train twisted and turned its way like a cautious boa constrictor past the snow encrusted pine trees, alongside the frozen lakes, and round the enormous peaks of amazing British Columbia.
After a couple of after-dinner drinks I went to bed early leaving Sean chatting with a few people in the mid train cafeteria. Around midnight, I half awoke to hear the voice of a stewardess addressing a passenger in the corridor outside:
“We have a situation here. Do not go forward of this carriage”. She sounded worried and there was a distinct tenseness in the air. However, it seemed to die down and I slumped back into sleep.
Next morning I joined Sean for breakfast in the dining car.
“Did you have a quiet night, Dad?” he inquired.
“Not bad at all. How about you?”
It transpired that after my departure from the cafeteria, an Australian passenger who had been hitting the booze practically all day, turned very nasty indeed. He began insulting various passengers including Sean and when it seemed that they might challenge him in return, he produced a knife and started flashing it in defiance. A train steward had arrived to cool things down but the standoff remained tense.
At roughly the same time a couple of carriages further along, the young lady who I had noticed earlier suffering from a nose bleed, rushed from her cabin with an even more profuse nose bleed and screaming that her dread-locked black boyfriend was trying to kill her. A train guard rushed to her aid.
Meanwhile back at the knife fight, the steward had managed to calm the Australian long enough for the evacuation of the cafeteria. The train controller phoned ahead for police back up and between them arranged a rendezvous at the next station. This turned out to be the town of Kamloops. With relief the train stewards turned the black boyfriend over for arrest and as the Australian was due to depart here in any case allowed him to leave unopposed.
“Apart from that, I had a quiet night as well” said Sean as he ate his cornflakes.
All that I could add was that, according to the guidebook, it was in Kamloops in 1911 that the famous horror film star Boris Karloff joined his first theatre company. Not a lot of people know that.
We spent the morning following the lovely valley of the Frazer River as we descended the western side of the Rockies and for the first time in four days left the snow behind. We were in beaver territory.
Then the valley widened into a plain of neat farms and ploughed fields; we started to see quite large boats working their way up and down the waterway; and at 1pm (eighty-five hours after leaving Toronto) the train arrived at its final destination – Pacific Central Station, Vancouver.
Having checked into the Ramada Hotel on Granville Street, Sean and I strolled out in search of food. We stopped off at a café opposite the Vogue Theatre that was advertising the forthcoming visit of the 1980s British singer Adam Ant (proof of the adage that old pop stars never die – they just go west).
It was in this café that I had my first taste of the one great dish that the country has given to the world – poitine. It consisted of thick potato chips covered in cheese curds and gravy and was splendid. Subtle, no; delicious, yes. Pronounced ‘poo-tin’, some claim that the name derives from the English word ‘pudding’, but the Quebec authorities insist on its French roots and that it translates as ‘a mess’. This conviction may stem from the Gallic disdain for the crudity of its ingredients and presentation.
The following day, we set out to explore the city. It was now raining hard and I was reminded of a quote from my all-time favourite American comedy show ‘Frazier’. When commenting on the weather in Seattle (only 100 miles south), Frazier declared scathingly that “the state flower is mildew!”
Partly for shelter and partly for instruction, we took the trolley bus tour of the city. As we set off, the driver’s commentary started with the observation that: “On your left you will see a hospital. If you get sick, that’s where you go.” As we drove on the quality of his information fortunately became less basic.
The population of Vancouver is now two and a half million of which over half the residents have a first language other than English. Although now it has spread out into miles of far-flung suburbs, the heart of the city was built on the Burrard Peninsula that projects westwards between the Frazer River to the south and the Burrard Inlet to the north. Beyond the Inlet the North Shore Mountains dominate the skyline, while to the west lie the Pacific Ocean and Vancouver Island.
Sir Francis Drake may have visited the area in 1579, but the Spanish definitely came here in 1791. The following year, Captain George Vancouver of the British Royal Navy arrived and distributed English names to its geographical features. Not much happened after that until 1862 when some logging activity began.
The city received its real boost in 1886 when our old friend William Van Horne literally steamed into town on the first trans-continental train and made the place the western rail-head of the Canadian Pacific. In a formal ceremony, he pronounced the settlement to be a city and that it was to be named in honour of George Vancouver.
Two months later, the city celebrated its new status in the usual Canadian fashion by being totally destroyed by fire. It was quickly rebuilt and never looked back.