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A Grand Canadian Rail Adventure

By | April 29, 2009
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Over the years I have had the privilege of acting as Study Leader on the Smithsonian’s Trans-Canadian Rail trip. As a Canadian, this is the All-Canadian trip and it makes me very proud of my country. For over 3,000 miles travelers sit back and experience the stunning beauty and diversity of the Canadian landscape, and also meet and converse with people from around the world as well as with ordinary Canadians who use the train as a means of transportation. There is also the crew, a mix of younger and older Canadians, dressed in attractive dark blue uniforms who work so hard to help travelers enjoy their journey. This too is typical of Canadians, a people known for their egalitarianism and conscientious spirit. All in all, this is the perfect opportunity to become engaged and familiar with a country and its soul.

The first part of the train journey is my favorite, as it passes through the rugged Shield country of Northern Ontario, with its beautiful myriad of forests, lakes, and granite outcropping. For Canadians, this is our heartland area, a symbol of the wilderness, cold, and challenges that have seared our souls throughout our history. With only a few resource-based towns and a scattering of native reserves in the region, the train travels for a thousand miles through an almost unspoiled landscape.

As I sit in my compartment looking out the window, I savor the wonderful views of nature which give me a deep sense of inner peace and a feeling of closeness to eternity. But at the same time, my sense of well being is also enhanced by the rhythm of the rails, and the partaking in the rituals and camaraderie of our railroad family, on-board meals seasoned with interesting conversation, chatter in the dome car, good books, and shared ideas.

Then suddenly we are out of the Shield and into the prairie with its sun-baked landscapeendless golden wheat fields and the brilliant colors of canola and sunflowers, all swept over by the wind. This is my homeland, where I grew up on a wheat farm near Regina, Saskatchewan. As a boy, I walked through the fields and found the arrowheads and axe heads of Cree hunters and warriors who traveled this land for thousands of years. I breathed in the intense beauty of the incredible blueness of its enormous skies, its clouds endlessly changing in form and mystery.

And always, there is excitement on the train as it approaches to the mountains. It builds up long before we arrive in the early morning in Edmonton, Alberta, capital of a province that contains almost as much oil as Saudi Arabia. I sense the dynamism of Canada and its burgeoning Western economy, and we pass by endless miles or orange and red freight cars with "Canada" proudly printed in large letters on their sides. And then in the early afternoon, you finally see the mountains rise straight up in front of youenormous, twisted, anguished layers of sedimentary rock, pushed straight up into the sky and towering over you with an incredible sense of majesty.

The Canadian Rockies are well known to most travelers, including the stunning mountain vistas of the Glacier Park Driveway, with its glaciers, green-tinted lakes, and rushing rivers. And of course there are the great railway hotelsthe Jasper Park Lodge, the Chateau Lake Louise, and the Banff Springs Hotel. Nothing like these chateau-style structures could more truly evoke the romance of Canada’s history and the Golden Age of Travel. At one time they formed part of one of the world’s greatest travel empires, that of Canadian Pacific, whose trains and ships stretched halfway round the world.

The climax of the rail trip for the passengers is always the last two days, as we cross through the mountain ranges and interior plateaus of British Columbia. The double-decker dome rail cars give us an incredible viewpoint for the endlessly changing scenery, and the space to relax and walk around so that we can share this experience with our new-found friends. It is here that we pass through the famous Spiral Tunnels in the Kicking Horse Pass, constructed to offset some of the highest railway grades in world history.

Trains passing through the tunnels turn twice in quick succession through 360 degrees and lose over 100 feet in total elevation. In some cases, as they exit one of the tunnels, the crews of longer trains can actually see the rear of their train still entering the opening of the tunnel above. Directly above us as we enter the tunnels are towering Mount Stephen and Cathedral Mountain, covered with snow and glacier ice. Far below through the forests, down to the valley floor, one can see the white foam of the Kicking Horse River and the Trans Canada Highway which follows along it.

This is one of the finest views in the Rockies, and each time we go through I cannot help but be awed by the dramatic beauty of the area and the accomplishments of the men who first built the railway through Canada’s deep wilderness. Their contribution lives on in an extraordinary rail journey that reflects Canada’s true spirit.

Click here to learn more about tours to Canada as well as our rail tours.

What do you love about traveling by train? What do you love about your native country? Tell us below.

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Barry Lane

Barry Lane is a historian with special expertise in Canadian history and the railroad. He has accompanied Smithsonian travelers on many journeys across Canada and lectured extensively to cruise ship passengers sailing along the St. Lawrence and in the Canadian Maritimes. Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, he studied history at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. He later served as a captain in the United Nations Emergency Force, Sinai, at its headquarters on the Suez Canal in Egypt. Barry co-founded and has served as vice-president of Canadian Cultural Landscapes since 1983.

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