Maple Leaf

Canada 1999

Maple Leaf


Having developed a taste over the years for long distance train journeys I decided to cross Canada by rail from Vancouver to Toronto. After Toronto I planned on making my way South down to New York. This was a bit more civilised than some of the places I had been before but still a long journey. I decided to do the train journey in three stages, stopping off in Jasper and Winnipeg.

 News that I intended going “somewhere normal” (not my quote) was greeted with a degree of South Vancouver Habourscepticism from my  i.e. “ Canada? You’ll be like a fish Vancouver Ocean Terminalout of water, you’ll not last five minutes in Canada" etc. etc. I didn't see why.

I flew from Glasgow to Amsterdam and ON to Vancouver. It was quite a pleasant flight for long haul and I got through Canadian immigration pretty quickly. There was an accommodation desk in the airport and in minutes I was booked into an inexpensive but rather stylish hotel in downtown Vancouver. I got something to eat and as it was about midnight went to bed. So far so good.

VANCOUVER: The first thing I did after breakfast next morning was go down to the railway station. Conveniently this was in the same building as the terminals for the ferry and also the city light railway. There were three trains a week so I allowed myself three days to explore Vancouver. After booking my expensive train I took the ferry across the Fraser River and then back just for the sake of it, then took a familiarisation trek round the city centre. That was easy, the streets being laid out on a grid. I walked to Stanley Park and walked the six miles round the circumference and had my first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. I watched an approaching oil tanker with interest and then with even more interest the huge bow wave which proceeded to break over the path as it passed, soaking me to the knees.. Afterwards I went to see the aquarium and a not very P.C. dolphin and killer whale display.


CAPALANO AND LYNN PARK SUSPENSION BRIDGES: Next morning I got a bus Tanker arrivedout of town to the Capalano Suspension Bridge a one Tanker Approachin Vancouverhundred and forty-metre long suspended walkway, which spans a seventy metre deep gorge.. Walking on it was like being on a bouncy castle although a bit safe. The next day the bridge was the top Canadian news story as a woman had dropped her baby off it. By pure luck the landed in a tree and slid to the bottom unharmed. A tourist caught the whole episode on video and the question was whether it was an accident or had the mother, who had been trying to get the baby adopted thrown it over? The woman was arrested but I never found out the outcome. In the afternoon, seeking a more adventurous suspension bridge I took the ferry across to the North side of the River and got a bus to Lynn Canyon Park. This park is set along a very deep canyon and is totally forested. The suspension bridge here was more fun, two people could just about pass each other on it as it swung about and it was even higher than the Capalano Bridge. Afterwards I walked down into the gorge and along the riverbed to the edge of the park.

 GROUSE MOUNTAIN: Next day I went up Grouse Mountain about 10 miles outside Vancouver. It was very warm and about 1200 meters high so I decided against walking up and took the cable car instead.  It was my first time in a cable car,Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge the ones they use here are supposed to be the largest in the Vancouver Bayworld outside of Switzerland; in fact I think they were actually made in Switzerland. The trip up to (nearly) the top took about 15 minutes  with a fantastic view over the city. There was some sort of lumberjack contest going on with the world tree-climbing champion sprinting up thirty feet tree trunks in leg irons. I tried to climb up the last bit, a smooth rocky outcrop but the rock got increasingly smooth and steep, so not wanting to end up in Vancouver Hospital I turned back and got the chairlift. Maybe I hadn’t exactly conquered Grouse Mountain but at least I got to the top.

HEADING EAST: The day of my departure arrived and I went down to the station to catch “The Canadian”. Absolutely everyone I met told me with gloomy satisfaction that the train was always late and they were right, about two hours late in fact. By the time it had been cleaned and watered it was late afternoon, boarding procedures was rather like that on an aircraft than an oversized railway train. Everyone had boarding cards and passengers were called through the barrier in batches at about 5 minute intervals. Travelling economy without a berth of course I was amongst the last to be called but at last we were off into the Rocky Mountains. Although I didn’t have a bed for the night the seats were very comfortable and the buffet car reasonable and the food good. Eventually I fell asleep in the glass-domed observation car and didn’t wake till the morning when we were descending the Eastern side of the Rockies. The early morning scenery was spectacular,. I had some breakfast and returned to the Dome Car. We eventually arrived in Jasper, my first stop, almost three hours late. Time Grouse Mountainto get a B&B.Vancouver Central Station

 JASPER: I started phoning round from the telephone box on the small station platform immediately. As can only happen to myself, it turned out the World Lumberjack Championships were being held in Banff about thirty miles up the road and accommodation was at a premium. Finally I phoned a lady who’s guests had not turned up; she told me to phone back in half an hour and if they still hadn’t arrived the room was mine So I settled down on the seat on the platform and opened my guide book.

THE BEAR: It so happened that the section in my guide I opened to was all about bears. It provided lots of information about how to avoid startling them, how not to attract them  and what to do if they attack. Fascinating stuff but my half hour was soon up and I returned to the phone stand to phone my prospective landlady. It was at this moment that I heard a noise behind me. I replaced the receiver, turned around and... ...about thirty feet from me on the platform, standing on its hind legs, was an enormous great black ear! It lunged forward, whipped me over the cheek with the back of one of its front paws then disappeared past me, running on all fours into the town centre. It all happened so quickly I didn’t even have time to put my new found anti-bear skills to the test. I was also very lucky; if it had hit me with the front of his paw I would probably have lost half my face. Also black bears are supposed to be even more dangerous than grizzlies I later heard that the bear’s next port of call had been a crowded restaurant which I would have given a lot of money to see from a safe distance Later I heard it had been shot with a tranquillizer gun and released deep in the wilderness.

 Anyway I got the room and spent two nights in Jasper. It was a pleasant enough town set in beautiful, scenery. There was no public transport and it was really very frustrating to be surrounded by all these beautiful but totally inaccessible mountains.Jasper -Totem PoleJasper Station - old locomotive

 Two days later and it was back on the train that if I remember correctly was actually on time, although this didn’t last long as you shall see. But at least this time you could just get on without the boarding card routine. The train pulled of into the Great Plain and Manitoba towards Winnipeg.

CROSSING THE PRAIRIE: It soon became apparent why the “The Canadian” was always late. Much of the Canadian economy is based on forestry and the only way to transport huge quantity of uncut timber across the Continent is by rail. Thus every couple of hours or so we would come to a standstill for fifteen minutes or so in order to allow the priority timber trains through. These trains were enormous, sometimes over a kilometre long with double-decker wagons stacked high with twenty meter tree-trunks. In order to pull these loads there was usually four or even five diesel units pulling and pushing the wagons (our train had three diesels, two pulling at the front and one pulling/pushing in the middle. But it didn't matter If my purpose had been to cross from one side of Canada to the other I wouldn't have got the train which was considerably more expensive than flying. Most people I met on board were only doing a single overnight section or people travelling first-class for a holiday or just trainspotter types.

 WINNIPEG: The train reached Winnipeg early afternoon the next day. I got off, in front of me was this city of skyscrapers standing in the middle of  the Great Canadian Prairie and one of the largest expanses of wheat fields in the world. As usual, I found a cheap hotel and once fed and watered, went out to see what the city offered. Sadly, not a great deal.

 It soon became apparent that despite its obvious geographic and economic importance for me it was a Winnipeg under waterrather pointless stop.. Also being surrounded on all sides as far as the eye could sea by endless fields of wheat there wasn’t much to do out of town either, I suppose I could have taken a bus tour or something but even these seemed to be elusive. Normally the kind of place I would devote a single day to but my next train East wasn’t for three days. However at least it gave me a few days to relax and recover; the excesses of hiking and walking on average fifteen plus miles a day in Vancouver was beginning to catch up on me. Also no one can complain about a shortage of restaurants in Winnipeg.Observation car on train

 I took a trip down to The Forks where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers converge. I had heard it was possible to take a boat trip here but despite the weather being hot and sunny  the whole area was flooded from melt-water from the mountains. Even the causeway across the Red River was submerged and all boats were cancelled. So there wasn't really much to do for three days before boarding the train again for the final stretch to Toronto (around 32 hours). And the train arrived fifty minutes late.

 TORONTO: Four and a half thousand kilometres from Vancouver and we drew into Toronto. We were five hours late, it was half past one in the morning and I had nowhere to stay. Fortunately I got a station taxi that took me to a motel way out on the city outskirts but directly beside a tram stop. I booked in for a couple of nights and next morning took a tram into town. I made enquires about onward trains to London, Ontario and also Niagara Falls. Then I had a good walk around town and had my lunch at a café beside Lake Ontario. Then it was time for the obligatory trip to the CN Tower. At the top I enjoyed the view while around me moronic youths jumped up and down on the glass floor trying to impress.

 I  took a ferry out to the islands round the harbour but later, for the first time on any of my travels, I took slightly ill for a couple of days, just intestinal pains but enough to curtail my more strenuous plans for a few days. Recovered, I realised that as time was going I had better do the obligatory trip to Niagara Falls while I had time before heading on to London Ontario. I also tried to phone a Canadian friend I had worked with a few years earlier in Macedonia. Unfortunately she was out so I left a message on her answer phone.

 NIAGARA FALLS: This trip started off disastrously; a guard directed me to the wrong train"The Canadian" so I missed the right one. The next train wasn’t for four Winnipeg skylinehours so I went to catch a bus. Despite waving furiously at it the bloody driver didn’t stop. Eventually someone from the bus station flagged down the next one who also seemed reluctant to stop and I finally got to Niagara by early afternoon. I stepped off the bus and was immediately engulfed in a torrential rain-storm.  I charged into a small park and emptied my daypack upside down to get my Gore-Tex. Suddenly I heard screaming; looking round two elderly women were rolling downhill together in the middle of a six inch torrent of water which thirty seconds earlier had been a steep but dry road. Someone pulled them onto the verge. Then just as suddenly it stopped. I was soaked to the skin but thankfully my camera was OK.

 I won’t bore about a description of the Falls but they were impressive, close up, in real life. I especially enjoyed the tunnels behind the water which I had been unaware of before. Because of my delay in getting there I didn’t have time for a boat-trip but instead spend time getting as close to the cascade as possible, and got some good photos.

LONDON (ONTARIO): I got the train to London, Ontario, the next morning. I had decided to stop here as I (wrongly) thought it would be convenient for crossing the border into the US and also because it was where I had eventually agreed to meet Lorraine. This was quite a pleasant place to end my trip and they certainly make the most of the town’s name! Hence the River Thames flows through the centre, you can shop in Oxford Street or worship in St. Paul’s Cathedral. Lorraine picked me up on my second evening and took me to see her family on their farm near Lake Eyrie for the night. Her parents and some of her relatives who were staying made me very welcome and we spent the evening with Lorraine’s Macedonian photo albums and beers, reminiscing over our time working on the  Macedonian/Kosovo border. Next afternoon Lorraine and myself took a drive down to Lake Eyrie. That evening Lorraine drove me back to my motel in London. Next day I had to backtrack to Toronto in order to catch my Greyhound bus into the US at the Niagara Falls Border Crossing.

 THE US BORDER: U.S. Customs at the Niagara Border was a farce. Firstly one of the Toronto - CN TowerCloudburst at Niagra FallsOfficers on duty noticed that amongst the souvenir lapel badges on my jacket from previous trips one was a tiny Che Guevara badge. He advised me to take it off before it was seen. I did so but forgot to take off another tiny Cuban Flag badge. The next Customs Officer was a real idiot asking me why I had it, had I ever been to Cuba, was I a Communist etc, which was none of his bloody business as I’m not a US Citizen. At first I thought he wasn’t going to let me in but I told him it was a Puerto Rican flag (which is the same only with the colours reversed), and he believed me. Then we had to pay for a border pass but by now I was at the back of the queue and Customs had run out of change. I had to tout round the market stalls to get some with no success. Eventually a Customs Officer had to do it himself and managed to bully a stallholder into coughing up. Fortunately my coach hadn’t left and the journey to New York passed off uneventfully. We arrived at about five o’clock in the morning.

 NEW YORK: As planned, I immediately took a bus out to JFK Airport, put my luggage in a locker and sussed out where my plane would leave from that evening. I then went back into N.Y. and as I had only one day in the city I decided to get on one of the hop on, hop off city bus tours; I had had my breakfast and was on a tour by nine. I suppose it was OK although the commentary was a constant barrage of statistics about how everything was supposedly bigger, faster, taller etc than anything else, anywhere else. At one point they stopped the coach and we stood in front of a huge hole in the ground which we were told in so many days would contain so many new houses each with so many rooms and walls so many inches thick followed by a description of the dimensions and capacity of the planned sewage system. So what? - its a building site! However I did enjoy the Empire State Building and the Cathedral although the constant frisking for guns was a bit depressing. And they did find a gun on one guy at the Empire State. Goodness knows what it’s like now after 9/11. I also stopped off at amongst other things the Brooklyn Bridge (better River Thames - London Ontariothan it looks in photographs) and Time Square for a late lunch. In the evening I returned to JFK airport for my flight back to the UK.

 THE RETURN JOURNEY: Not a good journey. Firstly the plane was delayed for almost two hours making it doubtful that I would catch my connection at Amsterdam. Then when the plane started taxiing down the runway the World’s Fattest Man in the seat in front of me broke its back leaving it hanging over me and halving my legroom. The plane was full so I couldn’t change seat. The woman in the seat next to me had on her knee the Niagra FallsBaby From Hell that started yelling upon take off. After ten minutes it fell asleep only to wake up half an hour later and start yelling again. This yell and sleep pattern continued until we touched down in Amsterdam scuppering my plan to sleep away the flight and arrive in Europe reasonably sane. The in-flight entertainment comprised of a 14 inch TV monitor about twenty five feet away. We arrived in Amsterdam just too late: I had missed my connection. The next flight I could get on was not for seven hours. By this time I hadn’t slept for forty-eight hours and was totally knackered. However I had to stay awake in case I fell asleep and missed the flight. I can’t remember much of the next 12 hours or so but I arrived home in Glasgow on the Sunday evening. I hadn’t been to bed or slept for the best par of three days, I was filthy, could hardly think and was due in at work in only twelve hours. Some hope! My diminishing grasp on reality was enough to set every alarm in the house before I passed into a dreamless sleep.

 POSTSCRIPT: Somehow I awoke on time the next morning. I could hardly stand up. I phoned my work, explained what had happened, took a day's leave and went back to bed. When I awoke it was twilight outside. Monday evening I thought until. I became aware it was getting lighter not darker. It wasn’t Monday evening at all, it was Tuesday morning and I had been asleep for almost twenty-four hours. I could still hardly move. I phoned in for another days leave, got something to eat then went back to bed again. By Wednesday morning I decided I was fit enough to venture to work. However after an hour I was pleased when my Senior Officer said it would be OK to take the day off sick and go home. Before I went I decided I to take a days leave on the Thursday as well; we were running on full staff that week. By the Friday I was back to normal and able to function properly again. So much for the jibes about  "going on a “normal” holiday" for a change; it was the normal holiday that came closest to killing me.

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