Sunday, July 10, 2016

Reminiscences of Canada’s National Parks in the Rockies

Achingly beautiful

By William Silveira

On June 1, my wife Marylin and I departed from Fresno for Toronto, Ontario to begin a 14-day “Canadian Train Odyssey.” I had been going to post a running account along the way from hotel computers, but when we arrived at Jasper, in the Canadian Rockies, I got locked out of my e-mail and left a crucial piece of paper by the hotel computer in my exasperation. So all I have now are these reminiscences.
    While in Toronto we visited Niagara Falls again – we had been there about 12 years earlier. The highlight of our stay in Toronto was a superb dinner at the CN Tower, whose giant rotational platform provided a 360° view of the city. That night we boarded our train headed west for a trip of three nights and two and a half days.

The train had 23 passenger cars, including four vista dome cars and two dining cars. Our sleeping room had bunk beds and a private bath, with a shower down the hall. Each of us had a small piece of luggage, which was well – there was very limited space for hanging garments and no drawer space. The cars were advertised as being refurbished 1950’s passenger cars. But if they had been refurbished, it must have been in the early 1970’s.
    Like our Amtrak in the U.S., the train was sidetracked for freight trains (which seemed quite long). The engineer made up for the loss of time at night, when the bunks creaked and the car swayed even more than usual. Every now and then we were treated to more noise, when we encountered what I can only surmise was a piece of rough track. The dining service was excellent – good food and good service, with white table linens. The vista dome cars allowed excellent views of the countryside and snacks and drinks where were always available.
    The portion of the track north of Toronto and Lake Superior was laid over the Canadian Shield – a huge expense of rock and muskeg swamps extending from Hudson Bay south to Lake Superior. This portion of the country is almost uninhabited – probably because it is not habitable. It is covered with forests of scrawny birch trees interspersed with alder and a few stunted pines. The only economically viable activity in the 19th century was fur trapping. I imagine it still goes on. There are also occasional mines. This whole area presented great engineering difficulties in the construction of the Canadian transcontinental railway. Rock had to be blasted, and the seemingly bottomless muskegs had to be filled to create a solid rail bed. Even after the beds were filled and appeared to be solid, they proved not to be, and equipment was lost. But Marylin enjoyed the view of this landscape and was very pleased when she spotted a cinnamon bear.

After leaving the Canadian Shield in northern Ontario, we were out on the Canadian plains provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan. These areas were virtually uninhabited by persons of European ancestry until the 1880’s, when the railroad was completed. It was recognized that the soil was fertile and would lend itself to the cultivation of grains. The Canadian government of that era put itself way out on a limb financially to subsidize building it, for they feared that the region would otherwise be settled by Americans and come under Yankee control.
    I personally loved viewing the Canadian plains provinces from the train. They are a vast prairie only occasionally interspersed with farm houses and barns. One of the immigrant groups settling here were Ukrainians, and we spotted a couple of their distinctive churches. The train went through three or four very small towns, but made only a very short stop at one and then a 4-hour stop at Winnipeg.

    After leaving Saskatchewan and arriving in Alberta, we were soon into the foothills of the Canadian Rockies. At a valley in one spot I saw a large herd of bison. Their black bodies stood out against the green grass on which they were pasturing. I am sure they were being kept for commercial purposes. Bison burger is very popular in western Canada. The vast herds that had ranged over the plains were wiped out in a very short period of time after the arrival of the railroad and the settlers. In fact, the government helped defray the cost of the railway by selling the land to settlers.

The rail portion terminated in the town of Jasper, in Jasper National Park in the Canadian Rockies. There we discontinued our rail travel and traveled thereafter by motor coach. We had a knowledgeable and helpful tour guide, who took us to notable sites in Jasper, including a float trip on the Athabasca River, which had had some slight rapids. The film River of No Return, with Marilyn Monroe and Robert Mitchum, was shot there. I still remember Marilyn Monroe taking charge of their raft in her scanty, water soaked lothing.
    The following day we went out to the Columbia Icefield and walked on the glacier, which was very slippery. From there we went on to Lake Louise and Banff. I won’t go into detail about these experiences. I’ve already written enough and my words are unequal to the natural beauty of Banff and Jasper National Parks.

    While in Jasper, Marylin purchased the second edition of A Hunter of Peace, by Mary T.S. Schaffer. The book is based on journals Ms. Schaffer compiled during the summers of 1907, 1908, and 1911 on packing trips into the far reaches of the areas now covered by the Canadian National Parks. The book is well illustrated by reproductions of colored lantern slides. Ms. Schaffer took the pictures and colored the slides. Her love of the country and her toughness shines through her accounts. (And this was a young woman who had been raised in a well-to-do Philadelphia family of the era!) By reading her account I was able to appreciate the lakes and mountains without the overlay of tourists.

On June 10 we travelled westward over the continental divide (over Kicking Horse Pass) and spent the night in Kamloops. The Rockies and the other ranges to the west are steep and caused big engineering problems for the construction of the railway. Although we were travelling by motor coach, the highway travelled near the rail line and we could see the steep grades (5%) that the locomotives originally had to travel on the western slopes. Locomotive engines and their cars were lost despite side tracks that had been built for use in run-away emergencies. Finally, in 1906, two labyrinth tunnels (one 9 miles long) were constructed to reduce the grade to 2.5%. We stopped and saw a freight train going through these tunnels. Because of its great length we were able to see the engine and front cars on one level, the middle cars on a different level, and finally the end at a different level still. It was a well-thought-out solution to a very difficult problem. But what a construction job!
    Owing to the altitudes and the weather, the western Rockies and subsequent ranges receive very heavy snowfalls. Long snow sheds cover the route to ward off snow avalanches. (There are also snow sheds on some portions of highway.) Until recently the Canadians had Howitzers spaced at strategic intervals to induce snow slides and avoid larger avalanches. During the construction of the railway there was much loss of life from these avalanches – mostly of Chinese laborers.
    Our daughter gave me a history of the politics that went into the building of the Canadian national railway, The National Dream: The Great Railway 1871-1881, by Pierre Berton. I had a hard time putting the book down. The politics and the engineering problems were tortured and difficult. It gave me a greater appreciation of what I was seeing and also for the Canadian fear of being overwhelmed by their neighbor to the south (us). Once again I appreciated how great undertakings were sometimes constructed on blue sky (watered stock and speculation).

After spending the night in Kamloops we travelled on to Victoria and later, to Vancouver. We had a good time in both places and enjoyed their natural beauty. Our hotel in Victoria (The Royal Scot) was particularly nice. While in Victoria we discovered Munro’s Book Store – a fixture in that city since 1908. What a joy to discover an old-fashioned, independent book store with a wonderful selection of books for sale. (I couldn’t resist buying Paris 1919, by Canadian historian Margaret Macmillan – a lively and well-documented account of the Paris Peace Conference at the end of World War I. Her descriptions of the various national leaders in attendance and of their mindsets and agendas impart a deeper understanding of the flaws attending the alleged peace following the Armistice and of the international problems troubling us today (the Balkans and Iraq). Incidentally, the Canadian author, Alice Munro, married into the family of the book store.

Copyright © 2016 by William Silveira


  1. Thanks I enjoyed taking the trip with you.

  2. Your trip through the Canadian Rockies reminded me of my 2014 Canadian rail adventure. (Of course I had to ask Heather, my traveling companion, to remind me of the year). Our trip was a clockwise loop from and to Vancouver. We stayed two nights in Kamloops, the first night out and the last night returning. After one night in Jasper we hopped a bus and also walked the glacier on the way to Lake Louise, a one night stay, and then on to Banff for two nights. From Banff we were back on the train which went through the two circular tunnels you mentioned. We actually were able to see our engine emerge underneath us from the tunnel as we entered it. It was the highlight of the trip for me marveling at the amazing engineering feat. Good to see you and Marylin enjoying retirement.

    1. Jim, I hope you are regretting now that YOU didn't take me up on writing about your own Canadian trip. But in Bill's case, he went ahead and wrote about it before I even knew he and Marylin had taken it.
          But maybe it's not too late - that is, you could STILL write about it, couldn't you? Oh, I guess not, unless Heather can remember the trip and tell you what to say. <smile>

    2. You are exactly right that I asked Heather for her recollection of the trip. However there are gaps in her recollection also. It might even be a better story now if (or because) we collectively remember it wrong. She is keeper of the photos and is going to send them via email to me. I'll see what story pops up when I see them again.

    3. Jim, THANK YOU for taking up the challenge! We look forward to publishing your account, however remembered, here.

  3. Terrific piece and pictures!