3 days and 2 nights across the prairies and Canadian Shield
04.10.2008 - 06.10.2008 18 °C
I keep on starting these posts with a conclusive statement. Well, another one is coming.
Canada is huge. Really, really big. Vast.
I've been here for over a month now and I'm amazed at how much I've seen, yet at the same time, how little. To use a cliche, I've only seen a drop in the ocean. One tiny little microscopic drop. The 3 day / 2 night train ride aboard "The Canadian" from Edmonton to Toronto confirmed that to me. The 3529 km goes through Alberta, Mainitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario, through the cities of Saskataoon, Winnipeg to Toronto, moving from the endless praries of the west to the glistening Canadian Shield (boreal forest) of Ontario.
Compared to the previous leg of this train ride (Vancouver to Jasper) it was very quiet. I didn't really speak to many of my fellow passengers - although there were some nice ones - most were very reserved. The staff were very friendly though. The coaches themselves are very comfortable, as it is out of season (i.e. not summer) the trains aren't very full, so there is more than enough space for each solo passenger to get 2 seats to themselves. "Comfort" (i.e. 'cattle') Class has access to a skydome and dinner carriage with a small 'take out'. The skydome is a great place to sit and watch the countryside go by; the glass stretches right overhead allowing almost 360degree views above the train. It also allows an oppurtunity to escape from annoying passengers in the 'sleeper' coaches, particularly on this trip where a 2 year old was running riot - noisy and smelly the entire trip. hmm.
The scenery is endless - grain fields and cattle pastures. Grain elevators puncture the skyline at regular intervals, but the horizon is largely ended by lines of trees or electrical pylons in the middle distance. After noticing the lack of birdlife in the west, I was thrilled to see huge flocks of ducks and Canada Geest on the water bodies; and later, hundreds of dots in the sky forming massive 'V's heading south. Perhaps the western birds have already made their way to the warmer south...
The landscape around Edmonton was quite picturesque - lots of patches of trees, small water bodies and rivers. Further east it is flatter, more monotonous with fewer houses or trees to break the stretches of fields. For such a big country with such huge distances between towns and cities, I'm amazed that every stretch of land is cultivated. I wonder what this landscape would have looked like before it was cultivated, before it was rudely divided up by surveyors without concern for existing structures, be they natural or manmade. Although, travelling through it as I am now there is not much to dictate lines of ownership - no clearly visible natural boundaries or structuring elements.
We pass through Winnipeg - the geographic centre of Canada. It is a small city, but the biggest between Edmonton and Toronto. I walked around during our break, it was quite a loosely structured town, based (as most Canadian cities seem to be) on a grid, and around the "three forks" area that was a pivitol area historically, in relation to trading routes and political uprisings. There are so many Canada Geese in the fields next to the train line, all getting ready to fly south, or perhaps on their journey from the far north already. It must freeze here in the winter...
As we travel further eastwards towards Ontario the landscape changes again. Trees - lots and lots of white-barked, yellow-leaved Birch. None of them seem very big (especially compared to the massive conifers of BC) but it does look lovely. Lots of dark blue lakes and rivers - again, completely different to the lighter luminous blue of the glacier fed rivers and lakes in the Rockies. The countryside is lovely; I kept looking out for animals - a moose or some deer - but I did spot a couple of bald eagles and loads of beaver dams.
The train stopped a couple of times during the course of the 3 days; to pick up or drop off passengers on some pre-arranged schedule. After leaving Winnipeg we did not go through any settlement bigger than 20 houses. Astounding. The trees are endless, the forest thick. The train is racing away from the setting sun, gaining phantom hours.
After the second night I wake to frost on the ground and all small streams and marshy water bodies are frozen. The trees have changed as well - fewer of the bright yellow birch of western Ontario and Manitoba, and now it is mostly conifers. Firs and Spruce? All of their needles, and leaves of bushes, are coated with a sparkling haze of frost. Even the telephone lines sparkle like a child has been over zealous with a bottle of silver glitter.
Although similar to the western landscape - there are many more marshy water bodies with reeds and grass and low vegetation surrounding them. Not as many big granite rocks as there were before. It also feels flatter. The frost is lovely - all the conifers glisten white, and the water steams. Still clear skies.
It is quite a nice feeling slowly moving time-zones towards Cape Town and London - my two homes. We gain two hours during this train ride.
This countryside is amazing - unceasingly beautiful. I can imagine how easy it is to lose oneself in it. There are quite a few small cabins scattered around overlooking lakes. From speaking to the few people who boarded the train on route to Toronto from their cabins in the woods, they are glorified tents. No water or heating, but what a place to spend a couple of weeks. Literally, the middle of nowhere. Back country exploring is definitely the way to go. There must be any number of backpacking trails around here.
Ontario was named by the local Iroquois and means "glittering waters" - how appropriate. Before Ceapol (the last scheduled stop - of 4 - of the journey) and the scenery is particularly lovely - probably the highlight so far. The train travels alongside the Vermillion River for a while, and there are beaver dams and lodges everywhere. I keep my eyes open, but the closest I get to seeing an actual beaver are sudden ripples on the mirror smooth water.
With this landscape to the east and the spectacular Rockies and BC to the west, it is no wonder that Canadians consider the praries boring. I did think they were lovely - so different to what I'd seen before - but they do pale in comparison to this.
It gets hiller further east, with some red autumn colour adding to the yellow of the birch trees. Birch, Poplar, Tamarack, Jack Pine make up the trees typical of the Canadian Sheild, I was informed by one of my fellow passengers. The Canadian Shield covers two thirds of Canada and is low lying rock crushed up and flattened by glaciers during the last ice age. That is why there are so many water bodies all over the place, and the soil is very acidic and thin, which is why it hasn't been cultivated unlike the fertile praries to the west.
3 days and 2 nights passed very quickly, but also took an age, in a good way. I really did feel as though I crossed a continent, and wouldn't have had it any other way. It was very strange stepping off the train in Toronto, but I was very excited to start exploring the eastern coast. Toronto and beyond.