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Slow train to Winnipeg

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There is no fast train to Winnipeg. VIA Rail’s meandering service from Vancouver to Winnipeg fits a country that’s meant to be savoured. Yes, you could fly in under three hours, but if you’re looking for a more immersive experience and can spare three days, take the train. It’s not meant to be fast.

Leah and I checked in at Pacific Central Station in Vancouver on a sunny, Friday morning in late July. The forest fires that shrouded most of western Canada were still two weeks away and clear skies beckoned. Friends had been surprised to learn of a rail connection. Almost as surprised as by our destination. True, Winnipeg’s not the first place you think of for a summer holiday, but we live on the Sunshine Coast. A break from tourists would be good for the soul.

Our noon departure left 15 minutes late, but few passengers seemed to notice. Most people were busy exploring their new home for the next two nights; four nights for Toronto-bound passengers.

Private sleeping quarters in Prestige class come with your own concierge.

A large American tour party, each traveller wearing a name badge, patrolled the corridors for the first hour, marvelling at the cleverly concealed shower closets, the premium-class cabins and the viewing cars. With 72 hours ahead of us, we decided to pace ourselves, watching East Vancouver, Burnaby, and New Westminster pass us by before venturing from our seats.

VIA Rail trains come in three classes and various carriage designations. The best views are to be had in the Skyline cars with their scenic dome sections, and the Panorama car, which features windows to the ceiling. The Park car in the caboose is an elegant throwback to bygone lounge luxury and is limited to the train’s Prestige passengers at certain times of the day.

Prestige is the priciest of VIA’s three travelling classes, offering private sleeping quarters and a personal concierge. We travelled in Sleeper Plus, which saw our seats being transformed by a carriage attendant at night into comfy bunk beds shrouded behind a thick curtain. (The attendant reverses the process in the morning while you’re at breakfast.) For Economy Class, picture your seat becoming a La-Z-Boy with pillow and blanket. All meals are included in the price for Prestige and Sleeper Plus.

An excellent three-course lunch, including a sautéed prawn and scallop salad, set the tone for our meals ahead. Duck, rack of lamb, and beef wellington were among the hot, fresh dinners somehow served from a tiny kitchen, which also offered vegetarian options for every dining course. Canadian wines and craft beer choices from Toronto, Winnipeg and Vancouver, were a nice surprise too. We soon got to know our Winnipeg-based crew, who were proud of their hometown and quick with recommendations.

Seats by day transform into bunk beds by night in Sleeper Plus.

Meal times presented a chance to meet fellow passengers – mostly American visitors, including one woman from San Francisco who had been suffering Trump-induced anxiety attacks. “Two days with no news has done me the world of good,” she confided.

There were other little surprises along the way. Complimentary mimosas went down well on Saturday morning while stuck for an hour outside of Jasper. Informal wine tasting with one of the crew in the dome car eased us through the Saskatchewan-Manitoba border. Lounge car patrons were entertained by a classical guitarist in an afternoon performance.

The real star of the show though was the view, otherwise known as Canada. First criss-crossing the Fraser River and then the Thompson, the train follows a route largely uncharted by the highway. At dinner on Friday night, heads swivelled to see a series of attractions appearing on or by the Thompson: a solitary eagle, a herd of elk, an abandoned church and a forgotten Chevy truck, circa 1960, all punctuated the dry beige canvas of thirsty cottonwoods and parched underbrush.

Dinner-time distractions as we skirt the Thompson River near Kamloops, BC.

Sun set to be replaced by a full, blood moon. It cast its spell on us as we settled into our bunks and watched it rise, glowing red and irresistible over Kamloops Lake. I fell asleep realizing that after almost 12 hours on the train, I had yet to crack a book or suggest a game of Yahtzee with Leah.

VIA Rail’s not quiet. There were times during the night that I thought a crash was imminent, such was the screeching on the rails. “You’ve got all day to nap,” I told myself as I opened the blind to see daybreak in the Rockies. Our attendant told us we’d made good time overnight, getting up to 80 kilometres an hour, which might have explained the noise.

After a night on the train it was good to stretch our legs in Jasper on the Discovery Trail.

The American tour party alighted at Jasper where the remaining passengers had a couple of hours to explore. In minutes we were walking Jasper’s Discovery Trail, heading towards Old Fort Point. At the first viewpoint overlooking the city, a menacing gang of Bighorn Sheep blocked our path. We hesitated for 10 minutes, taking photos from a distance. The sheep looked less menacing when a jogger breezed right by them.

Bighorn Sheep – not so menacing in hindsight.

It took all day to reach Edmonton. Numerous stops for freight traffic, (which have priority) including a two-hour standstill, put us in at 7 p.m., a few hours behind schedule. We disembarked to skip rope a while on the platform (three solid meals a day and a sedentary lifestyle take their toll) and take photos of the City of Champions in the distance. By 8 a.m. the next morning after a better night’s sleep, we’d caught up an hour or two and were in Saskatoon for another 20-minute stroll on the platform.

Our final day of gazing out of the window introduced us to place names that seemed to herald a story: Punnichy, Ituna, Spy Hill and Atwater – population 30. Potash mines are the only hills on the Prairies, looming on the horizon occasionally like elongated pyramids. The old, wooden grain silos, so iconic to this region, seemed harder to find. Kelliher, Saskatchewan produced a nice one though.

Our last stop before Winnipeg was Melville, Sask., home of the Melville Millionaires junior hockey team and named after Grand Trunk Railway president, Charles Melville Hays, who died on the Titanic. We rolled into Winnipeg at 8.40 p.m., 90 minutes late but still warm and sunny outside.

We never did play Yahtzee!

 

 

 

 

One night in Flin Flon

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What minus 40 looks like in Flin Flon, birth place of Bobby Clarke and the phrase, "it's a dry cold".

What minus 40 looks like in Flin Flon, birth place of Bobby Clarke and the phrase, “it’s a dry cold”.

They don’t sell postcards in Flin Flon, Manitoba; at least none that I found. It’s a desperately cold place most of the year.

“Chilly” is how the pilot describes it upon landing. Helen at the car rental desk confirms that, yes, it’s cold. “But tolerable without the wind.”

How cold?

Minus 39.6, according to the airport’s only baggage handler. “We’ll call it minus 40,” he says.

Celsius … Fahrenheit, it doesn’t matter. My idea of cold will never be the same. Lager’s cold. So is a dip in the sea off Margate. But February 1st in Flin Flon is worthy of its own definition of cold.

A kilometre below where Javier is standing it's about 55 degrees warmer - which isn't much consolation really.

A kilometre below where Javier is standing it’s about 55 degrees warmer – which isn’t much consolation really.

My colleague Javier and I are here from Vancouver to film a video in Flin Flon’s copper mine. We try to look casual, hauling our camera gear across the car park to the rental truck. “It’s not that bad,” says Javier. “No, not so bad,” I wheeze, acutely aware of snot freezing in my nose.

The pallid sun we’d last seen during a stopover in Winnipeg has long since set and we drive in twilight to Flin Flon. Manitoba looks grainy monochrome, a stunted boreal forest dotted with lakes frozen into frigid stillness.

In Flin Flon, we plug our truck into a block heater outside the Victoria Inn. Inside, we eat perogies and drink beer. Our server tells us that minus 40 is mitigated by the fact that Flin Flon’s cold “is a dry cold”.

Her tongue is not in her cheek.

Fortified by curiosity, we drive into town, and then walk down Main Street. Most of the houses are old and wooden, with rooftops wilting under snow whipped into drifts. At the Co-op I buy myself a Flin Flon Bombers hockey jersey. I tell the cashier about a friend from Saskatchewan, who hated coming to play hockey against Flin Flon, the toughest team in the Canadian junior league.

At first she’s offended. “Why,” she demands. “Because they knew they’d have to fight,” I tell her. She smiles. “We love our Bombers,” she says.

We tread gingerly on a snowy sidewalk up the street to Flin Flon’s war memorial and a view overlooking the town. Fumes from the mine are the only thing obscuring a sky full of stars. The only other person on the street nods hello as he passes us, and calls us pussies for wearing gloves. He’s not wearing gloves.

A short drive away, we arrive at Flinty, a statue of a cartoonish-looking prospector. Gloves off, I photograph Flinty – built in tribute to Josiah Flintabbatey Flonatin. Flonatin appears in a sci-fi novel called The Sunless City. He pilots a submarine through a bottomless lake and into an underground world through a hole lined with gold. Prospector Tom Creighton had a copy of the book when he stumbled on a rich vein of copper here in 1918.

Flin Flon might be the only town named after a character in a dime-store paperback.

But that’s another story.

Written by nevjudd

May 23, 2013 at 10:25 pm