The train left Toronto at 10 pm the first night, and rapidly picked up speed in the middle of the night as the freight traffic lightened in Northern Ontario. I woke up at 5:30 to a vigorously vibrating bunk. Groggily with much lack of grace, I managed to get down the ladder to the floor of the sleeper car and staggered to the baggage car at the front of the train, where I visited with the animals until the train stopped and I could let the dogs out for a break.
Having dogs on the train made us into a kind of celebrity. Everyone on board knew who we were: we were “The Girls with the Dogs.” Everyone was always asking us “How are the dogs?” and when we walked the dogs beside the train during brief stops, the train windows would fill with smiling, peering faces. We found out later that we were also “The Girls who Unpacked their Bags in Toronto” and “The Young Girls.” We were the youngest people in sleeper class by 20 years at least. It seems there are two types of people on Via Rail’s flagship trans-Canada train: those on a strict budget with a destination to reach and those on vacation where the journey was the goal. The people in economy class were mostly under 30, and the people in the sleeper class were over 50. Actually most of the sleeper class passengers were in their 70s and enjoying the rollicking, rolling golden age home that was the trans-Canada train.
It makes sense actually. The food on the train was excellent. There were several cars with tables and comfortable chairs where you could sit and socialize, play board games and watch the country slide on by. If you got tired you could go back to your bunk anytime for a nap. No dishes or meal preparation, plenty of scenery and food, no physical demands, just pleasant service and beautiful views.
The dining car was set up like a fancy restaurant with four people per table – no more or less – so we found ourselves paired up with other travelers at every meal. Each meal started with our companions asking “Are you the Girls with the Dogs?”
We met an American couple from Texas – the husband was a retired veteran who’d served during the cold war. He told us about his years in submarines searching for Russian missiles. “Did you find any?” I asked. “Almost every day,” he replied. “I loved it, it was like a video game. I would have done it for free!”
We met the second-youngest couple in sleeper class, a husband and wife in their fifties who were also relocating from Ontario to British Columbia. “We’ve just had enough of the cold weather,” they said. Another husband and wife couple who slept in the berth across from ours were on their fourth tour through Canada on the train. They were from Germany and flew into Toronto so hey could ride the rail out to Vancouver and back before they flew home to Germany again. We met another husband and wife couple who were enjoying a kind of victory trip (or possibly a last hurrah); the husband had been fighting lung cancer and was well enough to leave the hospital. He could manage to walk between the train cars, trailing oxygen tubing and his wife towing the oxygen tank, greeting their fellow travellers like old friends.
It seemed the majority of sleeper class travelers had done the trip before. They knew all the meals, they knew each other and the names of the staff. They knew the miss-prints in the pamphlets and were quick to tell us newbies that the tallest peak in the Rockies was really at mile marker 49 and not 51.
The days on the train were marked by the changing scenery outside. The first day was a monotony of the jack pine and grey sky of Northern Ontario. The conical trees were crammed close together, short, flipper-like branches waving crazily in the wind while the trunks of all the trees swayed in slow, glum unison. They reminded me of throngs of depressed teenagers in standard-issue grunge and Goth clothing swaying together at a Nirvana concert.
On the second day the landscape opened up and spread out into the beautiful prairies. I’d never seen the prairies before, and all I’d heard about them was they were very boring to travel – monotonous. Nothing to look at. I guess those people don’t appreciate farm land. I thought it was beautiful; the miles and miles of open space, dotted with horses and cattle, crisscrossed by fences and roads, the spent fields plowed under a quilt of dark earth for the winter. It was much easier to look at than the claustrophobic press of jack pine from the day before.
The sky, oh the sky – it was lovely.
Below: Mirror Lake, SK.
The third day was the mountain trail. The mountains were amazing, stunning, just impossibly gorgeous. We saw an elk on a ridge, who appeared to be posing for our pictures. We saw mountain sheep grazing beside the tracks. We had an hour stop-over in Jasper where I was able to take the dogs on a short wander through town, and there we found a field just coated with deer scat – for the dogs it was like finding gold! Mocha’s eyes grew large as she sniffed deeply, and then dropped to roll.
Below: Kat, Bonus & Mocha in Jasper, AB
UkeeKat & UkeeDog, high on mountain air.
“The Canadian” Via Rail’s flagship train in Jasper, AB.
Riding through the clouds:
Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Rockies, has snagged the skirt of a cloud:
Sunset over the mountains:
The morning of the fourth day we arrived in Vancouver. The animals were none the worse for wear, although the humans were feeling pretty tired, and we still needed to get on to the Island and across to the west side, which would take another 8 – 12 hours of travel. Here are the cats, Sunshine and Leo, sitting in their litter boxes at the front of their cages asking to be let out. I was amazed at how well the cats did – they didn’t hide or cry on the train, they didn’t even shed. They were totally cool and collected.
Kat stayed with the animals in the train station and I took a cab to the Budget rent-a-truck and picked up our reserved 16’ cube van, ridiculously huge for our purposes, but the only one-way rental we could secure. With this truck we’d only have to return it in Port Alberni, a two hour drive from Ucluelet, instead of driving it all the way back to Vancouver.
By noon I was back at the train station, but the train staff had gone to work on another arrival, so I had to load the truck by myself. Redistributing the weight of the bins in Toronto paid off here – I could negotiate 70lb bins, but I could not have handled 100lb bins without Kat’s help. Sometimes I think everything happens for a reason.
We arrived in Horseshoe Bay to catch the ferry and we shuttled away from the mainland towards Vancouver Island, sailing into the setting sun. We were at our pet friendly hotel in Nanaimo before sunset, and by then we were played out. We had traveled through three time zones and daylight savings had kicked in at the same time, so by 8 pm our bodies felt like it was midnight. We were in no shape to deal with our hotel.
I have a theory about pet friendly hotels: They’re pet friendly because pets could not possibly do anything to the suites to make them any worse.
Our hotel room was prison cell chique: cinderblock walls painted grey, except for the bathroom which was painted a prison-riot-neutralizing pink, a kitchenette with filthy countertops, unwashed dishes and holes in the wall under the cabinets, and a banister railing separating the kitchen from the sleeping area with vertical bars that cast vertical bar shadows over the whole room. The room was unheated and there was no hot water and no blankets for the beds. The whole floor smelled like contact cement, and the patio door locked with a nail. For this we paid $100 for the night.
We convinced the management to turn the single electric radiator on in our room, and after much discussion, we were allowed a key to one of the other rooms in the hotel that did have hot water so we could take a shower. We were ordered to give the key right back when we were done so that the management could be sure we weren’t getting two rooms without paying for it. We opened up the bin with our blankets and huddled together with the dogs to keep warm. What. A. Dump.
The next morning was a blessing – to be finally free of the hotel room! I took the dogs for a walk by the Nanaimo Harbour just in time to greet the sunrise. A harbour seal paddled by, the sun peaked over the mountains in the distance, and the boats bobbed peacefully in their slips.
An early dog walker approached with her dogs, and after explaining to her that my dogs were pent up after 4 days on a train, she said “Well! Welcome home!”
Our first day of our new life on Vancouver Island. It was off to a great start.