A Travellerspoint blog

"The Canadian"

3 days and 2 nights across the prairies and Canadian Shield

sunny 18 °C
View Canadian Odyssey 2008 on tessab's travel map.

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.

Posted by tessab 23:51 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

The Canadian West- oil and cattle country

amazing autumn colour in Calgary and Edmonton

sunny 27 °C
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Calgary isn't actually that bad. Contrary to my expectations and many, many opinions, it is actually quite a nice place. This could be because I caught it on a fabulous sunny autumn day, what is apparently a 25 year high. The trees are all amazing - luminous yellows and greens.

It is a city of tremendous contrasts; extremes of hot and cold, particularly the cold. Apparently average winter temperatures are -10 and below; but when the Chinook (a warm wind that comes over the Rockies from the West) blows the temperatures can rise from -30 one day, to +5 the next. The city is designed for it, with a "+15" elevated walkway system that allows people to walk through the entire downtown core year round indoors.

I spent a day wandering around the downtown area with one of my hosts, and had a fantastic time. The sun was shining and most of the office workers seemed to be making the most of it. The streets were packed with people walking around and eating on the (few) sidewalk cafes. There is a central pedestrianised street (Stephen Mall on 8th Avenue) that was particularly vibrant. Apparently this is an unusual thing for Calgary as most people are normally inside due to the temperatures! Conditions get so bad in winter that there are 'mall walking groups' that walk through the (many, many) malls along the '+15' system to get exercise. There are also ballroom dancing groups that use the mall atrium's to practice in! It does add a different dimension to the typical mall...

Calgary is the centre of the Canadian oil business - the management and administration component, at least. As a result, the town is fueled by the oil money... The number of huge SUV's and gas-guzzling vehicles is astounding. As has been usual for me in Canadian cities I've experienced so far, the houses are not obnoxious. The suburbs of Calgary are typically Canadian - planned on a grid with fairy tight but generous plots. The houses look small and slightly shabby on the outside, but inside are really big - most seem to be 3 bedrooms minimum. I suppose there isn't much point in regularly painting your house if it is covered in snow for 8 months of the year...

After 2 nights in Calgary I boarded the Greyhound (with due care as to who I sat next to ;) ) and arrived a couple of hours later in Edmonton. I was greeted at the station by old family friends, and was really happy to be welcomed into my second proper home in 2 days. The Davey's treated me to a fantastic salmon dinner, and then took me to visit the fabled (ha ha) West Edmonton Mall. It was quite an experience... Although, I can understand why it is such a popular place as the temperatures outside are so cold for most of the year. The fantastic (typically European) shopping streets aren't really viable when it is -20degrees centigrade outside. The West Edmonton Mall was the biggest mall when it was built (it is now the 3rd biggest, apparently) and has everything inside; from a water park complete with waves to an amusement park. I'm glad I saw it, but also happy that it was out of hours so it wasn't crazy with manic mall-goers.

The next day Tom and Ros drove me around, showing me the sights. Edmonton reminds me a lot of the highveld - especially with the dry yellow and orange autumn colours. There wasn't as much to 'do' as there was in Calgary, and the town is incredibly car-based. The most of all the Canadian cities I have been to so far. There were some lovely areas in 'Strathcona' and the university precinct.

After an afternoon of sightseeing, I boarded the "Canadian" train for the 2 night / 3 day journey to Toronto.

Posted by tessab 15:39 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Jasper and the Rockies

sunshine and glaciers

sunny 19 °C

I arrived in Jasper in the pouring, pouring rain. I had to go inside the station to pay for my ticket (as the system in Vancouver had crashed, which meant that the rest of the train was trying to do the same thing) and then went outside to wait on the platform, in the pissing rain, for my luggage. While on the platform I met 2 other women who were also headed to the hostel, and in typical backpacker form we soon struck up a conversation. Kate (UK), Suzy (Aus) and I handed our bags in for storage at the station and headed off to buy supplies and explore the town - all 2 streets of it.

A visit to the pharmacy was also required, as I had stubbed my toe a few days previously and the long train ride had got it horribily infected. I was informed that, at a cost of $100-$500, antibiotics were required, as well as a visit to a doctor to prescribe them... I bought some epsom salts and spent the next few days soaking said toe, leading to many jokes in the hostel.

First day, a group of 4 of us (Kate, Suzy and Nige (UK)) headed up the Whistlers Tramway - to the top cable station at an elevation of 2277m. From there we walked (slid over the snow / hiked) up a further 300m or so in elevation to the summit - where we had the most astounding 360degree view over the Jasper Townsite and about 3 mountain ranges on all sides. The weather was spectacular, not a could in the sky, so we could even see the fabled Mount Robson - highest mountain in the Rockies - which is apparently obscured by clouds all but 19 days each year. Breathtaking. Also cold... We spent a wihle marvelling at the scenery and playing in the snow, before headed back down to the station to grab the obligitary hot chocolate. Heavenly!

Later that day we headed down to Jasper to explore and have coffee and cake in a great local bakery. Jasper is a really nice place - quiet and set in the most amazing valley. It is not as immediatly scenic as Banff (as the mountains are set a little further back) but walking around, you can appreciate why people choose to live there. Apparently the planning regulations are quite strict, and all alterations (no new houses are allowed to be built) have to be approved by the Jasper National Parks Board. All houses and shops are between 1 and 2 stories, which allows the amazing mountains to leer overhead.

The hostel is quite far away from the town (very inconveniently) but with 4 people, a taxi ride isn't too exorbitant. The following day we hired the taxi to take us out to Mount Edith Cavell and the Angel Glacier. This spectaular (aren't they all!) mountain is named after an English WWI nurse who was executed in Belgium by the Germans for helping Allied Soldiers escape. We walked up to the base of the mountain along a 'terminal moraine' (loose rocks that are crushed by a moving glacier and left in ridges once the glacier retreats) to the glacier lake below 3 glaciers on the mountain face.

It was breathtaking! Due to the rock flour (fine crushed up rock suspended in the water) the water was amazingly turquoise blue, and as it is autumn the glacier lying just above the lake periodically breaks up and drops huge icebergs into it! These huge chunks of blue and white ice were strewn across the lake shore; I even drunk some of the melting ice which in hindsight was probably not such a good idea... When I felt my dry hands after they were covered in a fine layer of grit - so I can only imagine what my insides thought of that!

The whole experience was amazing; I had walked on the Athabasca Glacier on my previous trip up to Jasper, but this was completely different. There were hardly any people around (amazingly) and the sound of cracking ice filled the silence. It is something that I will remember forever, and don't know when I'll get the chance to experience again.

After being escorted back to Jasper earlier than anticipated (following a misunderstanding with the taxi company) we decided to make the most of the astounding weather and do another short hike close to the town. We walked up to the Cottonwood Slough - which is a series of marshy lakes just to the north-west. The colours were amazing - yellow and rust trees against the brown and grey mountains, contrasting with the dark green evergreens and the deep blue cloudless sky. And all of this in a perfect mirrored reflection on the water, not to mention the perfect silence.

We kept an eye out for bears and elk, especially the elk as it is the rutting season and apparently they kill more people in the Rockies each year than all the other animals combined! I did spot a few spoor, as well as what I thought was bear scat, but no animals. Probably not such a bad thing ;)

Later that day I was picked up by the Moose truck to complete the return leg of the Banff - Jasper trip, to spend the night at the Athabasca Falls HI wilderness hostel. I stayed up until the early hours of the morning next to the camp fire, watching shooting stars and keeping an eye out for the northern lights... The sky was crystal clear, and as the moon was not up the stars were endless.

Posted by tessab 15:34 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Leaving Vancouver - musings and mumblings

final musings, starting the journey eastwards - towards the rising sun...

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Vancouver is a peculiar place. Stunningly beautiful at times, but quite ordinary at others. I thouroughly enjoyed my week here, but felt the call of the Rockies quite strongly during the past few days. The city is immensly liveable and easy, but when the fantastic wilderness of the Rockies is waiting, it is hard to resist. I ended up leaving 2 days earlier than planned as I had arrived a day earlier from Victoria, and felt that it was time to start the journey eastwards!

The few days before my departure were really busy. I spent a lot of time catching up with old friends, which was fantasic. It also rained, a lot. Apparently it rains a lot in Vancouver; I can believe it! I met up for lunch, ate loads of sushi and wandered around Granville Island again.

I was really impressed by the town planning in Vancouver; there seems to be a lot of educated decision making that has created very positive and friendly public spaces of many different types throughout the downtown area. As I have mentioned previously, the sea wall is one excellent example. Vancouver reminds me a lot of Cape Town - in a sense, it has the feel of the city that Cape Town could become, provided developers and planners are led that way. In a city where it rains most of the time, it is admirable that so much investment is placed in the public spaces, and in Cape Town (where our weather is largely pleasant bar the South Easter and occasional winter downpours) there is so much oppurtunity for guenuine positive change.

One thing that did strike me about Vancouver, was the amount of homeless people around. Apparently most of the vagrants in Canada move westwards to Van because of the milder winters. This may sound incredibly crass, but looking at the situation with South African eyes, it does seem to be more of a lifestyle choice than necessity. While walking down one of the streets at night, I came upon a guy shooting up in front of a shop. He didn't seem to mind that I was walking past (it was in fact, quite a busy street) and simply finished what he was doing before collecting his tools and lurching away. The area around Hastings and Main (east of the downtown area) is renowned for being rough, and most of the vagrants seem to gather there. It is quite a contrast walking around there though, as one road (Hastings) has loads of homeless people in tarpaulin shacks and trollies, while 2 roads up (Cordova) is the centre of Gastown - quite a well-to-do and touristy neighbourhood! The sightseeing bus even stops along Hastings Street so that the tourists can take photos, before they stop in Gastown to spend lots of money in souvenir shops.

After a chilled morning at the Vancouver Public Library using their free internet and fending off a really weird guy who spent the entire time shouting to himself and looking at my screen, I left for the train station. I spent a while trying to draw cash (and not succeeding) and amongst the confusion (as the ticketing server had "gone down") missed the boarding call for the train. Fortunately, all this involved was an extremely long walk down the platform next to the longest passenger train I have seen in my life - there were more than 18 'upper class' carriages alone! I had to sit at the end of one of the train waiting for the economy class carriages to join on...

The train ride itself was a breeze - the train was extremely comfortable, and I was amazed by how many friendly and nice people I met. Instead of sleeping and reading, as I had planned, I ended up playing cards and drinking beer until the early hours of the morning. The skydome / viewing carriage was really special - the windows stretched overhead and the scenery streaming by was stunning. I did watch for the northern lights; to no avail, sadly.

I arrived in Jasper the next morning, after a surprisingly good sleep, in the pouring rain.

Posted by tessab 12:40 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

Vancouver part deux

hockey and mountains. and good friends :)

rain 11 °C
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Tuesday morning began with profuse sunshine, and upon receiving an invitation from two family friends from SA to join them on Grouse Mountain, I accepted. I had intended climbing up the 'Grouse Grind' - what is apparently a Vancouver right of passage, but instead was kindly heralded up the mountain in a cable-car and treated to lunch to top it all off!

Grouse Mountain is one of the three ski hills in close proximity to the city centre, and is heavily used by city-dwellers during the ski season as all the slopes are floodlit. During the summer season, the ski-lift functions to ferry tourists to the top and hikers back down! The summit itself is quite commercialized, with a number of packaged experiences such as zip-lines, helicopter rides and 2 captive grizzly bears on offer... We found this a bit disappointing, but it is incredible to have such a place so easily accessible. The view towards the south and Mount Baker in Washington State (USA) was particularly spectacular - the icy peak poking up above the line of low (although still incredibly high!) mountains - looming over the Vancouver floodplain.

Last night I headed out to watch a pre-season Ice Hockey (or, if you are Canadian, just "hockey") match between the Vancouver Canucks and the Edmonton Oilers. I found it more interesting as a cultural exercise (especially when comparing it to rugby) as the whole timing system seems really strange... Three 20 minute 'periods' with two 15 minute breaks in between, not to mention all of the shorter 'time outs' that are calling during the periods. And above those - the time-outs for fighting! I was amazed when, mid game, one of the players threw his stick and gloves onto the ice, put his hands in front of his face and started a fight with one of the opposition. What was even more amazing was how the refs simply stood back and waiting for them to finish! Crazy. Our South African commentators would refer to that as 'throwing handbags', and not treat it with much tolerance. Strange...

Equally amazing (and part of my assessment of the whole affair as a cultural reflection) was the obsession with crazy advertising. As far as I was concerned, the myriad of breaks and pauses were merely marketing vehicles for beer and food... At each break, massive illuminated signs would 'advise' "fans" that "beer stations are to the left of each exit!!" Every person coming back to their seat would be holding some beverage or food... I am being very cynical though, and can only imagine that the States is 100 times worse.

Overall, the hockey match was great. The crowd really got behind their team (the Canucks) and 'oohed' and 'aahed' or 'ouched' every time one of their players got the puck or got thrown (or threw himself) into the glass safety barriers around the ice. I would like to know more about it so that I can enjoy it more; who knows, maybe I'll go watch a match when I'm on the east coast!

During my week here I have also been able to catch up with some old friends from Cape Town, which has been really great. There are a couple more people who I'm still to meet on my travels east, which I'm really looking forward to.

The weather today was very rainy and miserable, especially after the wonderful weather yesterday. I was quite shocked when, after spending the day in relatively cool 'autumn' clothes, I walked outside this evening to what felt like mid-winter on a snowfield! I may need to re-assess my wardrobe for the the trip eastwards...

Posted by tessab 09:35 Archived in Canada Comments (0)

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