Holiday day 12 (March 13th) Second full day aboard
For me, this day started in the middle of the night. The original plan (according to that brochure) was to stop in Winnipeg for three hours, and there was some dissent in the ranks when this didn’t happen. The journey had started late due to some technical issue, and we were running behind time. At some point on the journey (I think it was this night), there was a further delay caused by toilets. We stopped somewhere in the middle of nowhere for several hours, and the news in the corridors and lounges was that there was another technical glitch, and we were waiting for an engineer. It wouldn’t take long, he/she was only coming from down the road, which in Canadian terms is about 500 miles away, and apologetic announcements kept us well informed in two languages. It had something to do with compressed air or similar, and I think the repairs focused on the system that is used for flushing toilets. There was a certain amount of backing-up going on in some carriages, and obviously, that was an issue that couldn’t be left to fester.
Eventually, the situation was sorted out by moving the baggage car from the front of the train to the back, and the next morning, we were again underway. The shifting of the rolling stock (no doubt blissfully overseen by Harvey and the Trainspotters) meant those who’d spent extra to have TVs in the cabin and be closer to the caboose with the plush seating in the observation car, now had a view of the baggage truck, rather than rails disappearing into their vanishing point.
The other sad news for those at the back was although our restrooms were fully functioning by the morning, there’s weren’t. Never mind; we were underway.
But that was after we’d stopped at Winnipeg in the middle of the night and not for three hours of sightseeing and museum visiting, but for one hour of taking a quick look at the railway station as some passengers did. I was fast asleep by then but woke around three in the morning, and as the window was at the end of my bunk, sat up to see where we were. We were here:
And I have no idea where that was or still is. So, back to sleep, wake early to the flushing issue but find a way around it (a restroom that was working), take a shower before anyone else gets up, grab a coffee from the 24/7 coffee stand and enjoy the peace and quiet up in our observation car waiting for the sun to come up.
Perfect, until one of the fervent train enthusiasts climbs the stairs, sees a victim and engages in a conversation about freight. In fact, he opened with the line, ‘Ain’t the freight great?’ or some other tacky rhyme stolen Richard Stilgoe’s libretto for Starlight Express. ‘Freight is great. Freight is great. We carry weight cause we are freight,’ is the opening line of one of that show’s contributions to world culture, and is about as welcome on the ear at six in the morning as a lecture on ballast, covered hoppers and rotary dumps. A couple of impolite yawns sent the chap fawning over haulage elsewhere.
The sun came up, and the scenery rolled past as we travelled on from Winnipeg in Manitoba to Saskatoon in Saskatchewan, now roughly 1,300 miles (by train) from where we’d set off in Toronto.
Here’s a Winnipeg bear-related aside as we wait for the dawn. It’s about Winnie the Pooh and starts in White River, Ontario. A Canadian soldier and veterinarian named Harry Colebourn was at a train station when he bought a (live) bear cub for $20. (’Cos we’ve all done that at a railway station.) He named the cub “Winnipeg Bear” after the town he grew up in. Since Harry was on his way to Quebec to join fellow soldiers heading overseas for World War I, the bear went with him. Winnie became the mascot for the 2nd Canadian Light Infantry Brigade, and when that brigade went to war, Winnie went to London Zoo. A. A. Milne took his son, Christopher Robin there, and before you can say “Sometimes the smallest things take up the most room in your heart,” Winnie the Pooh was born. Oh, and he was a she, btw.
And now, back to our regular programming.
As you can see, the landscape was still flat and endless, snowy and yet fascinating because every blink brought a sight I’d never seen before, and still nothing was boring. How could it be when there was a dining car waiting for us, serving breakfast, and later brunch, and when we had a cabin to hide in? There, the bears could take a rest and a bath while we made use of the furniture to make a change from sitting in the observation car or the saloon.
There were also the corridors to explore where you’d pass ladders protruding into the aisle because people had open berths. Privacy was provided by curtaining, and the stewards converted seating areas into sleeping areas and back at certain times during the day. We walked quietly through these areas when the ladders were out and curtains drawn, passing back through after breakfast to find them gone and their occupants in chairs looking at the view, knitting or reading as if there had never been beds there. Passing from one car to the next, from ‘Donald’ to ‘Berkshire’ or whatever, brought the reminder of the outside I mentioned yesterday.
Seeing the laundry bags also reminded me of how slick and organised such a trip must be. I assume other things travel on this train, deliveries from one stop to the next, possibly post to the outlying towns, and, to the enthusiasts’ delight, possibly even light freight. With the train now several hours behind schedule, there must be a robust communication system between one place and the next, and the further down the line you’re waiting for your train, the more chance there is you’re going to have to wait a long time. We were to learn about this the next night when we reached Jasper, but that’s getting ahead of myself. For now, we were happily trundling across plains and past farmsteads, watching out for wildlife and seeing only moose (which turned out to be hay ricks), plenty of deer tracks and those from other animals, and places where they appeared to rear tractors and other farming vehicles.
I don’t remember what time we arrived at Saskatoon, but it was in daylight, and not at 11.50 as the itinerary had said. It was still on day three though, and still cold; probably -15° degrees, certainly cold enough to pinch the ears and freeze a runny nose (I won’t show you that photo). We got off for a few minutes to stretch legs and burn the lungs with icy air, and wandered up and down the platform keeping warm.
Refuelling points also allowed the opportunity to chat with passengers we’d not yet met, and we fell into conversation with a young chap called Chance. He was travelling from Toronto to Edmonton and was going home. He was doing more than that, he said, he was admitting defeat. He’d gone to Toronto to, by the sound of it, seek his fortune, and had ended up homeless, and now, with only $10.00 in his pocket, had no option but to return to a place he didn’t want to be and think again. He was travelling in the front carriages of the train where passengers don’t get berths, but where they do have an observation car and a bar. Whereas our refreshments were included (apart from alcohol), he had to fork out $7.00 for a cup of coffee and hadn’t eaten much for the last 1,300 miles. Remaining cheerful as he puffed gently on a reefer (totally legal in Canada), he told us his story with an optimistic air, accepting of his lot, it seemed, and with as positive an attitude as anyone could expect. We met several times during the journey, ‘lent’ him a twenty or two we were happy to part with, and carried out a couple of semi-illegal raids to help him along. These involved helping myself to a few things from our free bar, juice, fruit, cakes, whatever, and sneaking beyond the ‘sleeping car passengers forbidden beyond this point’ sign between tourist cars and the front end (a sign we never took any notice of anyway), and dropped off some contraband as we passed through on our way to alight at fuel stops. Well, when you’re lucky enough to be able to use some of your retirement fund for a trip like this, what’s a twenty, a few supplies and a friendly chat with someone who has nothing?
Here we are at Saskatoon, photo by Jude. Left to right, Jeremy, Neil, Chase and me, looking like a much-rounded version of my granny. (Layers, mother, I was wearing layers!)
You may notice something slightly odd about Neil in that photo. Take another look…No, not that… I’ll make it easier for you:
Well, needs must when the devil drives, and all that, and gloves do make a good alternative for those who don’t care for muffs, as it were. We learnt later that it’s become all the rage in Saskatoon, and the fashion is spreading to the remoter parts of Saskatchewan as we speak.
Back on board and time for lunch, which I think we’d already had, so time to sit and chat, watch the scenery roll past, wonder what time dinner is, and get an update from our guide.
Remember Keith? Well, he’s still with us, trying to get Maxine to understand what’s going on around her, patiently answering questions and repeating himself several times. When not doing that, he was to be found in his compartment doing his paperwork and checking in with head office about the outside world. News was starting to filter in, from those with roaming or local phones, that the virus was spreading. Roughly around the time we were boarding the train, unknown to most of us, the WHO (not the rock band) were declaring the C19 outbreak a global pandemic. On the 13th, still unknown to most aboard, Europe became the epicentre of the epidemic with more reported deaths than China, and the WHO launched their ‘Safe Hands Challenge’ to encourage better hygiene through the washing of hands. Aboard, there were now hand-sanitisers in the dining rooms and elsewhere, and more people were talking about the spread of the disease.
This included Keith who popped up in the saloon to announce we were okay, no flights had yet been cancelled, and the train was going to get us to Vancouver. The announcement, for me, came out of nowhere, and rather than finding it worrying, as you might expect, I thought it added another layer of adventure to the trip. It was sad though, because we also learnt that the staff so cheerfully serving us would not work again until further notice as this was to be The Canadian’s last journey. They continued to work without complaint or change in attitude despite harbouring concerns about income and families.
The upside of this spreading news, if I may be glib, was that there was talk among the trainspotting faction from the USA of cutting their trip short, and leaving at Edmonton to make their own ways home before borders were closed. As it turned out, many did, leaving only the diehards, like Harvey, to complete the journey.
Another upside was that the news brought our group closer, to the point where even the bears made new friends.
Despite the news, which we could do nothing about, the trip continued in its same fashion, the round of feasting, socialising (now slightly at a distance) and watching the snowy world go by. Even when Keith opened another declaration with ‘Now, there’s nothing to worry about, but…’ We learnt that a lady from carriage ‘Benny’ or somewhere towards the back, had taken herself off the train because she’d coughed and had chosen to self-isolate. Our coterie continued life much in the vein of the first-class passengers aboard the Titanic, but with fewer jewels.
And so, the journey continued towards Edmonton where Neil was hoping to meet up with a cousin he’d not seen for many years. A rendezvous, as it turned out, that couldn’t happen due to our delay. That didn’t stop him trying, and before we’d become wi-fi-less in Toronto, we’d given the cousin Keith’s mobile number so we could stay in touch, something which we did tell our tour manager and yet still came as news to him when he started to get calls from an unknown lady asking for Neil. ‘Knew you were going to be the troublemaker, lad,’ he huffed good-naturedly as he passed along messages, and took over the role of social secretary.
Day three aboard ended with drinks in the saloon (without impromptu crooner concert), and after another perfect day aboard, we went to bed looking forward to the changing landscape tomorrow would bring.