A few minutes past 11 p.m., a Via Rail Canada train pulled into a film-noir-lit station in New Brunswick. Two passengers, insufficiently dressed for the frigid outdoors, hopped off. Eyeing their escape route, they scaled a snowy bank and dropped into a parking lot. Shannon Flood was several strides ahead; I trailed behind, picking my way around the black ice. We had only 15 minutes and counting to complete our escapade. If we failed, the train would depart for Montreal without us. I couldn’t risk a twisted ankle.
Shannon arrived first and placed the order. I joined him at the counter and, in a confessional voice, informed the other customers that this was my first time inside a Tim Hortons, the country’s version of Dunkin’ Donuts.
“You must not be from the Atlantic Maritimes,” replied the patron ahead of us.
With the clock ticking, I quickly relayed my narrative: American but just discovered my Canadian citizenship (long story), crossing the country by train, never sampled the nation’s venerated coffee. Then we grabbed our purchases and high-tailed it back to the tracks. We were settled in our seats, sipping hot cups of Hortons coffee, when the train lurched forward, bound for lands west.
For Canada’s 150th anniversary this year, there are infinite ways to fete the unification of its British colonies. You can visit a national park, historic site or marine-conservation area free. (Thank you, et merci, Parks Canada.) Buy a commemorative stamp. Attend the Canada Day festivities on July 1 in Ottawa, the capital. Binge-watch Ryan Reynolds movies. Or for the ultimate pan-celebration, traverse the country by train.
“You don’t really get the scope and breadth of the country — how much real estate there is from coast to coast” on other modes of transportation, said Daryl Adair, who wrote the “Canadian Rail Travel Guide” and runs a train-travel agency in Winnipeg, Manitoba. “On the train, you can appreciate how big the country is, from the Atlantic to the Pacific and to the Arctic.”
And we Americans thought we were supersized.
Our northern neighbor is the world’s second-largest country by area, after Russia; the United States ranks fourth, after China. We close the gap at the border, considered the world’s longest international boundary. Via Rail, the nationalized passenger line, offers 19 routes in eight provinces, including a transnational journey from Nova Scotia on the Atlantic to British Columbia on the Pacific.
The trip is epic in terms of scenery and experience but not in time or expense. If you leave Halifax, Nova Scotia, on a Friday afternoon, you will arrive in Montreal the next morning, catch a train to Toronto and then board the Canadian, which pulls into Vancouver, B.C., the following Wednesday. (Other departure days might require an overnight or two in Toronto or Montreal.) If you can sleep curled up like a shrimp in a takeout container, the economy-class fare costs about $500. To stretch out like a noodle, you will pay more than twice as much, but chef-prepared meals, non-boozy beverages and snacks are included. Plus, the U.S. dollar is slightly trouncing Canada's currency. So, you can treat your train travelmates to a Tim Hortons run.
Reasons to pull an all-nighter
“You missed it,” said the agent behind the counter in Halifax. “It left an hour ago.”
“The next bus leaves later today.”
Easy mistake: The bus and train share the same building along the waterfront, where — to add to the transportation cluster — cruise ships also dock. The man directed me to the Via Rail entrance, where I would pick up the Ocean, the first of my three trains. But before releasing me, he reminisced about his own rail journeys across the country, including a stretch of track that overlooks his childhood home.
“I’m envious,” said the bus company employee. “It’s my favorite way to travel.”
At check-in, I received a paper bracelet for my meals (a la an all-inclusive resort) and selected my dining times (late seating, please). On the boarding platform, I met my cabin attendant, Joanne, who was still spunky after 40 years on the job. She escorted me to my cabin, a snug lair with a bathroom, clever storage and seating that she would transform into a bed in the evening. She showed me how to escape through the window, warned me not to stand in the vestibule and reminded me to always wear shoes. Then she asked if I would be willing to act as my car’s “able body.” I agreed, but: How many times has she called upon a passenger to assist in an emergency? Never, she replied. A car once derailed, but the pajama-clad passengers evacuated through the main doors — no window-smashing required.
After the thorough debriefing, Joanne returned to her position on the platform and I set off to explore the oldest continuously operating named passenger train in North America. (How old? Try 1904 old.) I shut my cabin door, locking myself out. Joanne had to help her incapable-bodied passenger back inside.
While the train was still parked, I roamed the narrow aisles from nose to tail. I visited the economy section, where passengers had arranged their belongings for a public slumber party, the Wi-fi lounge and the dining room elegantly set for lunch. At the bar, I scanned the menu of Canadian beers and wine, and at the hot beverage station I poured myself a cup of fancy tea and gingerly climbed the stairs to the second level of the Skyline dome car. Surrounded by windows framing the Earth and the sky, I tucked myself in for the nearly 24-hour ride.
The mood was festive, a party-in-progress. Several passengers were deep in conversation, shouting over the seat backs rather than turning their heads to face each other and miss a moment. One topic: the travel habits of the Canadian Football League.
“That’s really cool that they take the train,” Shannon said of the athletes. “That is so Canadian.”
Out the window, I watched sea gulls smash shellfish against the rocky shoreline.
The subject matter switched to ice hockey and politics.
“In Montreal, we boo and throw towels,” remarked a French Canadian. “In Ottawa, you want to throw all of the politicians.”
“No, the hot air would melt the ice,” responded his companion.
The steward issued the last call for lunch. The car emptied out.
Shannon and his father, who I met within the first hour of my adventure, invited me to join them. John, a retired cop from Ottawa, was on his third Halifax trip in six months, and he knew the route — and the food — well. He ordered two pieces of chocolate-mousse pie and told me that he planned to stay awake for the entire trip. He didn’t want to doze through any of the sights, some of which would appear in the afternoon (Bay of Fundy) and others in the wee hours of the night (Matapedia Valley) or at dawn (Quebec City).
After lunch, he loaned me his copy of Adair’s guidebook, which details many of Via Rail’s itineraries mile by mile. Suddenly, the landscape grew more dynamic and engaging. At Mile 98.2, we passed the Dorchester Penitentiary, a medium-risk prison that a less-informed me would have mistaken for a posh resort. I excitedly read about Mile 44.4, the town of Rogersville, New Brunswick, which holds a Brussels sprouts festival in August. All three of us turned solemn at Mile 123, where a ring of concrete remnants appeared alongside the track. In 1928, a woman’s dress caught on fire inside an ice-skating rink. Neither the reveler nor the structure survived. Shannon and I discussed holding a seance in the panoramic car after dark.
I left the scenic car about an hour after our coffee jaunt in Campbellton, New Brunswick, which was really the same hour once I factored in the time change from Atlantic to Eastern time. (Over the course of six days, I would lose four hours.) From Toronto to Vancouver, I had booked a lower bunk bed with a privacy curtain that swished with every change in the air current. My excuse for not pulling an all-nighter: I wanted to enjoy my last night with a door.
I awoke at dawn as the sun was yawning over the St. Lawrence River. I found the Floods in the dome car. John had nodded off at 3 a.m. but was alert for the remaining stretch through Quebec. Shannon and I searched for wildlife as we inched toward civilization. “Cat,” he called out. I noticed a horse on a rooftop, but plastic ornaments didn’t qualify.
As the train neared Central Station, passengers started to disappear, preparing to disembark. I waited until we were in its belly before returning to my cabin to pack up my bags. I wanted to say farewell to Joanne and found her on the platform, likely searching for her next “able body.”
Test your French in Montreal
The train was all business and leaned more toward the pragmatic than the poetic. We didn’t pull into a town to soak up its natural beauty or culture but to swap out passengers and sometimes crews. I usually had enough time to peek into the station, chat with the smokers or play with a traveling dog named Rory — but never all three. However, I had a few layovers (Montreal and Toronto) and lengthier stops (Winnipeg and Jasper, Alberta) baked into my schedule. I relished walks that lasted longer than the 3 minutes 47.82 seconds it took me to cover the length of the 10-car train. (I timed it during my daily constitutional.)
In Montreal, I spent nearly six hours roaming the city before I had to board the commuter-like train to Toronto. I had planned to navigate the Underground City, a miles-long network of tunnels with shops, restaurants and museums, but I craved fresh air, even if it did pinch my cheeks like Elsa’s fingers. I ducked into the Basilique-Cathedrale Marie-Reine-du-Monde, refreshing my college French with a sermon, and visited a Best Buy, to charge my phone battery, which the freezing temps had depleted. At the Musee d’art contemporain de Montreal, I realized the limits of my aforementioned foreign language skills, understanding only a portion of an exhibit about hotels used by foreign correspondents in war zones. At a boulangerie in the station, I bought a baguette, because when in French Canada ...
In Winnipeg, I arranged to meet Adair, who in his Via Rail fleece vest and small tote stood out among the luggage-tethered crowd. He took me to the Winnipeg Railway Museum, on the second floor of Union Station. We started at the beginning. In the late 19th century, British Columbia, which the United States was eyeing for its union, pledged to join the confederation but under one condition: It wanted the government to build a railway connecting the west to the east. Prime Minister John MacDonald backed the proposal, and in November 1885, a ribbon of steel linked the coasts.
Two companies, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, ran the freight and passenger lines until 1978, when train travel started to fall out of fashion and lose profitability. The government took over the leisure unit, though Via Rail still runs on the tracks of its nation-building ancestors.
After playing around in some of the old trains on exhibit, Adair led me back to my 1950s model. He left me with a tip: At around 3 p.m., I should sit on the left side of the scenic car, a prime spot to view the sweeping Qu’Appelle Valley. I began to see a common trait among train sapiens: They carry a topographical map of the route in their heads and hearts.
Let the view entertain you
No offense to Ontario, but boreal forest grows repetitive after a while. So when Martin, a rail employee, announced upcoming attractions in Manitoba, the members of the Scenic Car Social Club shook off our ennui and pressed our faces to the window. (Friendships forge fast in test-tube environments. Among our group: Maureen and Russell from England, Erin and Patti from Dallas, Charles from San Francisco, Sylvia from Ontario and Bill from Winnipeg.)
Portage la Prairie, Martin told us, is the geographical center of North America. Also coming up: the world’s largest Coca-Cola can and the potato fields that feed the fryolators of McDonald’s and Wendy’s. And why stop there? Let’s throw in a pair of frolicking groundhogs, as well.
For once, I wasn’t two blinks behind the sights. I had missed the fox standing by the tracks with prey in his mouth. And the longest bridge in the prairies. And the sign marking the border of Saskatchewan and Alberta. And the mountain sheep outside of Jasper. But the train fairy must have felt sorry for me, because I think I saw the Northern Lights through the window of my lower bunk. Either that or an invisible hand was twisting and pulling the clouds like taffy.
I relied on the scenery for my entertainment. Via Rail’s Canadian does not have WiFi, and cellphone service is spotty. I didn’t have a reading and relaxation room of my own; in the morning, the attendant transformed my berth into public seating. We had a few artists on board. Every time I walked to the economy-class car, I checked on the progress of a man knitting a brown sweater. Sylvia painted watercolor landscapes in a little sketchbook and decorated the cardboard bandage on a shattered window in the dome car. In Jasper, she bought magic markers, but we never got around to the drawing class. Too much staring out the window, I guess.
Shealagh Rose, a singer-songwriter from the Toronto environs, also performed for us, as part of the Artists on Board program. The company covered her travel expenses in exchange for three mini-concerts a day.
“They want me to sing some Canadian songs,” she said from her perch in the cafe car. “This one has some French in it, so I think it’s OK.”
During her sets, she interspersed original material (one song was inspired by a childhood trip to Prince Edward Island) with tunes by the Tragically Hip, Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. A passenger requested Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon.” I suggested “Ironic” but missed her Alanis Morissette cover because I was at dinner.
Martin frequently reappeared in the role of educator. He organized a Railroad 101 class one afternoon, explaining the basic operations.
“What does the ‘W’ mean?” he asked, holding up a sign.
“Weary tired of blowing the horn,” a man shouted from the back.
No, whistle. Two short blows means departing; one continuous sound means grab your coat and sweetheart. S.O.S.!
Approaching Wabamun Lake in Alberta, he recalled one of the worst train accidents in Canadian history. On Aug. 3, 2005, a freight train derailed and spilled more than a half-million liters of oil in the body of water. He was working that day.
“We ran out of champagne,” he said of the exhausted supplies during the 17-hour wait.
The area is struggling to recover.
“The black, the birds — it was horrible,” he said. “But we needed Wabamun to realize that we must have a contingency plan” in the event of a future disaster.
Before dismissing us, he rattled off some important mile markers: entrance to Jasper National Park (Mile 206), Continental Divide (Mile 17) and Mount Robson (Mile 54). The peak of the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies is rarely visible, but you can see it anytime of the year, in any kind of weather, on the $10 note.
Back to civilization
On the final stretch to Vancouver, the Canadian raced the Fraser River. Then we dropped out of the competition: A freight train was in our midst, and we had to wait till it passed. I poked my head out of my bunk’s heavy brown curtain and asked a passer-by if we were on time. We were at least an hour behind schedule, so I drew my head back in.
I soon heard murmuring from the adjoining berth. A pair of hiking boots attached to legs dropped from above. Sleep interrupted.
I ventured into the dome car. Sylvia was peering through binoculars at two bald eagles. Maureen and Russell were gearing up for a second attempt at breakfast, hoping the line had shortened. Erin entered and bid us all farewell. She soon returned and sat back down.
“The bridge is congested, and we will move when we can,” Martin said.
The staff issued a last call for coffee and tea. Patti pulled out day-old baked goods from Tim Hortons. We discovered a stash of creamers in a fridge, which seemed like a crucial find in case the bridge never cleared.
After 12:30 p.m., Martin pointed out a film studio and informed us that we had “officially crossed into Vancouver.”
Now we could say goodbye. I hugged Maureen and Russell, my legs still unsteady but my embrace fully secure. In the station, I felt the ground sway, the train not yet ready to release its grip on me.
If you go: Canada by train
Via Rail, 888-842-7245, viarail.ca/en
Via Rail offers train service across the country, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia. Passengers take the Ocean, an overnight train, from Halifax to Montreal; switch trains for the route to Toronto; and then board the Canadian for the multiday trip to Vancouver. Economy class starts at about $500; meals are additional and you must bring your own bedding. Sleeper Plus accommodations range from four-, two- and one-person cabins with private bath to lower and upper berths on the aisle with public shower and bathroom. Rates start at about $1,300 per person, which includes three meals a day, snacks, hot beverages and exclusive access to select cars. On the Canadian, a new high-end service called Prestige costs about $7,000 per couple and includes the top-of-the-line cabin with traditional bed (vs. bunks), free alcohol and reserved front-row seating in the panoramic car.
Rail Travel Tours, 866-704-3528, railtraveltours.com
Daryl Adair, who wrote the “Canadian Rail Travel Guide,” arranges group and independent rail vacations around Canada. For example, the Across Canada package starts at $1,832 per person double and includes the train ride and hotel stays in Toronto, Jasper and Vancouver. Weekly departures April through October.
Vacations by Rail, 877-929-7245, vacationsbyrail.com
There are five options for the 150th anniversary. For example, the Montreal to Vancouver Trans Canada Adventure starts at $2,315 per person double and includes a Heart of Montreal motorcoach tour, Niagara Falls, hop-on/hop-off Toronto tour and Vancouver’s Lookout Tower. Travel May 2 to April 27, 2018.