I slept so soundly throughout the night. The movement of the train rocked me to sleep. The Via Rail Canadian, a massive, metal bassonette provides the perfect mix of ambiance and comfort when dozing off under the stars of the Great White North. My one regret was that I did not get up in the middle of the night to see Saskatoon, which our train made a stop at in the middle of the night. I know that I wouldn’t have been able to see it because it was dark outside but I still would have like to have been awake for it. I had such a good time seeing Winnipeg that had our train time been different, it would have been nice to see Saskatchewan’s largest city.
Morning came with clear skies and sunshine. I struggled to get out of bed as it was so comfortable. I managed to throw myself out once I heard the call for breakfast over the loudspeaker. One hot shower and a quick change of clothes and I made my way to the dining car where my mom was waiting over a cup of coffee. It was tough choice between two delectable options: cheesecake-filling filled French toast topped with wild-berries or my standard pick of two eggs, bacon, hash browns, and toast. My mom and I decided to do it like a Chinese restaurant and let each other taste off each others plate. My eggs and bacon was hard to beat but there are no words to describe just how good that stuffed French toast was. I mean, it was IHOP-level decadent at four-star quality, maybe more.
Along the way, the scenery changed from farmland to city as we slowly approached Edmonton. How did I know it was Edmonton? I spotted a sign on the highway from the train that said Wayne Gretzky Drive, an road that spanned the North Saskatchewan River into Edmonton and past the Rexall Place, the home stadium for the Edmonton Oilers. I also tried to keep an eye open for the famed West Edmonton Mall, North America’s largest shopping mall as well. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see it and the best I could do was the mere skyline of the city; unlike Winnipeg, there would be no sightseeing on this stop. The train pulled into the station, rather an unimpressive long platform with a station office and parking lot with a large marquee out by the road. I was in need of some movement; I just had to stretch my legs. This is where I was introduced to just how frigid Canada truly is. I took one step outside and the frosty breeze pinched my face. It was refreshing at first, but in a few seconds, my face felt numb. I ignored the feeling and went for a quick jog up and down the platform wearing nothing but a pair of jeans, shirt, and a wool fleece. In less than a minute, my fingers went numb and I ran back on board and stuck my hands under the faucet in my bathroom to unfreeze them. I couldn’t remember the last time my hands felt that cold.
After pulling out of Edmonton, it was finally time to see what everyone on that train had paid good money for: the mountains. Just beyond the Alberta capital city lie the majestic Canadian Rockies. En route to Jasper, our train passed by Wabamun Lake which is one of the most heavily used lakes in Alberta, Canada. It lies 40 miles west of Edmonton, Alberta. It is 11.9 miles long and 4.1 miles narrow, covers 32 sq miles and is 11 meters deep at its deepest(36 ft). Its name derives from the Cree word for mirror.
Wabamun was reputedly the best whitefish lake in the Edmonton area and is well known for its large northern pike. A large variety of migrating, breeding and moulting wildfowl visit the lake. Beaver and muskrat use the lake while the surrounding upland supports coyotes, porcupine, moose and white-tailed deer. There are also reported sightings of cougars and wolves and bears. There are natural beaches along much of the shoreline, but emergent vegetation restricts their use. The most popular beaches for swimming are the artificially made one at the provincial park in Moonlight Bay, and the natural one at Seba Beach. In fact, as our train passed by the shore, I spotted several sailboats that were either moored or just bobbing in the near frozen water. Also, the beaches looked quite nice as I can only imagine how many locals pack their umbrellas and picnic baskets when the temperature rises. As we pulled away further and further from Wabamun, I noticed that frost patterns were developing on the windows around the observation car. I’ve seen thousands of frost patterns in my life outside my bedroom window and none had ever looked so perfect as the ones that appeared outside the observation car. Truly, it was yet another magical moment from this long, frozen odyssey.
The scenery grew more and more bucholic; more and more trees popped up all over the place. The lakefront scenery was added bonus. Soon, we got our first taste of the mountains as the train traversed viaducts high above ravines and frozen rivers. It was refreshing to see more biodiversity in the landscape especially now that the land was taking on a more rockier look. The one downside to this leg of the journey was that we were losing daylight. Our numerous freight train roadblocks were catching up to us in a big way. We were supposed to make our way through Jasper in the afternoon and the sky was getting darker. I saw, in the distance, towers that were illuminated in a neon orange and yellow glow. From the tops, smoke or steam was spouting upwards; that meant they were smokestacks. It meant one thing: our train was in Hinton. Our crew told us that since Alberta is a big mining province, Hinton is a well-known mining center and stop off for CN freight service. It is also famous for being the birthplace of legendary pro-hockey star, Bob Nystrom, who was one of the nost famous members of the New York Islanders club.
As the sky went completely dark, our train finally made our way into Jasper. Unlike Edmonton, Jasper had a very nice looking station that looked like it was straight out of the turn of the century. It was built in 1911 for the usage by the old Grand Trunk Railroad. The station house was made from stone, stucco, and wood. As some passengers disembarked, I went outside to snap a photo of the station. Just like Edmonton, it was freezing outside and it didn’t take long for my fingers to numb up. I hurried to take a photo but it was hard to maintain a steady shot when my hands are so cold that I can’t move them.
Around dinner, it was a bit of a letdown that we weren’t going to see Jasper National Park; there isn’t much to see in the dark. It was a bit of a letdown since it is one of the loveliest national parks in all of Canada. I was able to get over it by dinner. It was a lovely meal of roast lamb, soup, and a salad with proscuitto wrapped breadsticks. Delicious, yes. I was keen to notice that my lamb was served with an abundant serving of steamed broccoli. Either it was meant to be healthy or the cooks bought too much of the green vegetable. It wouldn’t be the last time I’d be getting this much roughage on the train. The best part of the meal, however, was a piece of leftover birthday cake! The cooks and staff were kind enough to keep my cake on ice from yesterday. Still as good as it was the night before in Saskatchewan.
Just when I thought our trek through Jasper would be all for naught, I was in for one last surprise for the night. My mom, feeling crestfallen thanks to the endless delays courtesy of the CN freight trains, decided to turn in for the night and went to bed. Me, however, I was not content to just lie down when there was an endless array of scenery outside even in the cold, dark night. It turns out that there was a full moon out and it illuminated the valleys and rocky fields outside Jasper. I went to the observation car in the rear and joined a handful of my fellow passengers for a little window play. We couldn’t have picked a better night as it was the kind of snowbound evening you only hope and wish for. The moonlight reflected beautifully off the shimmering, fresh fallen snow. The light from the snow reflected off the mountains which gave us quite a show. Maybe it was because of the how the darkness made the outline of the mountains look all warped, but I swear some of those mountains looked like giant vertical walls. They just looked so high that one could pass out from vertigo from staring at them for too long.
While we all took turns gazing in awe at the magical snowbound world that Jack Frost put a lot of work into making, I decided to add a bit of fun to our motley crew of passengers. I whipped out my iPhone and pulled up a playlist of songs all of which were by Canadian artists. The passengers insisted I play a little something so, naturally, I chose a rather obscure piece of Canadian pop: Trooper. This group of soft rockers from Vancouver, who were big in the 1970’s, at least north of the USA, are a favorite of mine. I like to think of them as five hairy lads who sing like ABBA but dress like the Jackson Five. I first learned about them on the short-lived Canadian variety show, Whatever Turns You On, a spin-off of Nickelodeon’s You Can’t Do That on Television from 1979. I loved their music so much, I bought a vinyl copy of their album off of eBay! Because almost no one in America knew about them, I’d get a blank stare from almost everyone on the street. Since I was up in Canada, I got nothing but smiles from everyone. It was the first time a group of people sang along with me to my favorite guilty pleasure of the 1970’s. The climax of the evening came, however, when I nervously brought up a song that I wasn’t sure was appropriate for a group of Canadians. It was the 1982 novelty hit, Take Off by none other than Canada’s legendary comedy duo, Bob and Doug MacKenzie (aka Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas, respectively) featuring legendary Rush frontman, Geddy Lee. I thought to myself, “I’ll either be a hero or a villain. I will either be celebrated or shunned for picking this song. Do I dare play this song thinking that I will be mocking Canada?!” I took a deep breath, hit play, and in a matter of seconds, the entire observation car broke out in laughter and smiles. They considered me an honorary Canuck! I felt like I was back in Sydney at the pub with my Rabbitohs singing Glory Glory and throwing back a few beers. It was a night that I will remember. Thank you, Rush and SCTV!