I Took the Train Across Canada—For $150

When Via Rail Canada offered youths tickets to take the train across Canada for just $150, these adventurous 20-year-olds jumped at the opportunity.

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Train across Canada - Via Rail locomotive
Photo: Nicolas Mongeon

A Once-in-a-Lifetime Opportunity: Taking the Train Across Canada

My mother always told me you should explore your own country before stepping out into the world. Being from Canada, it seems like a tough mission to attempt to travel all across its expansive and untamed surfaces. But luckily for me, Via Rail Canada offered youths between the ages of 18 and 25 the chance to ride the train across Canada for the month of July in 2017. This coveted “Willy Wonka-like” ticket was bargain-priced at just $150 to commemorate Canada’s 150th anniversary. My best friends—Trevor, Joel and Jeremy—and I impulsively jumped at the opportunity and after several hours of phone calls, endless emails and soothing elevator on-hold music, we secured four tickets on the great Canadian railroad.

For a group of 20-year-olds, this was like the hatchlings’ first flight from the nest. Excitement and wanderlust coursed through our veins as we approached the train station on the morning our 22-day adventure from Sudbury to Vancouver was to begin. As dawn approached, our enthusiasm was at its peak. Eyes baggy from lack of sleep, we jumped on board the passenger vessel like it was the train to Hogwarts in Harry Potter. We headed west in search of our first destination—the scenic town of Banff, Alberta, in the heart of the northern Rocky Mountains. Hiking up to the hazardous rocky top of Pharaoh Peak was our goal, but it would take us three days of commuting to get there.

After just an hour on the train, desperation already loomed over us. The thought of three full days on those tracks covering three Canadian provinces and close to 3,000 kilometres crushed our spirits, but what happened next caught us by surprise.

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Train across Canada - Canadian Rockies in Alberta
Photo: Nicolas Mongeon

An Adult Summer Camp on Rails

As we gazed out towards Lake Superior’s glistening whitecaps and rolled through the lush boreal forests of northwestern Ontario, there was a mutual unspoken agreement within the confines of the train—if we were to be stuck in here, we would need to enjoy our time.

Those three days on board turned into an adult summer camp on rails. The camaraderie between the young passengers and the Via Rail crew was like something only seen in movies. Real friendships were born within that train. We would compare living in our cities, our lives at university and talk about our next travel destinations. Stops were made in small, secluded railroad communities such as Hornepayne, Ontario. The large group of strangers turned travelling companions would rush towards local watering holes to reward their relentless patience with cold brewed beverages. We would return to the train a little tipsy from our short one-hour visits to these boondocks. At night, we would creep over to the glass-domed train car. This wagon was equipped with heavily cushioned seats and a glass roof that showcased the night sky. The train car was raised slightly above the rest, giving a scenic view of the night sky, untouched by the detrimental light pollution. The sounds of the train whistle, the laughter of new friends and a rendition of the Canadian national anthem serenaded us through the night.

Check out more luxurious train upgrades you didn’t know you needed.

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Train across Canada - Young men at Banff National Park
Photo: Nicolas Mongeon

Arriving in the Rocky Mountains

At some point, we wandered back to our seats only to find that they had been taken over by some other people. We settled with crashing in the bubble dome again. The warm sun rays beating down on our faces woke us up for another day on the rails. To my surprise, a sea of golden grain fields dominated the landscape—we were in the Canadian Prairies.

There’s an old saying I’ve heard before, “If you lose your dog in the Prairies, you can watch him run away for days.” Let’s just say the rumours are true. Our clan set up for another evening in the dome, when the train was forced to stop for the night. Our disappointment was brief. The night sky was painted by a fantastic thunderstorm.

Lightning was striking at an incredible rate, using the flatlands as its canvas. It was a spectacular and memorable light show that left everyone in the glass bubble in complete disbelief. The next day when we arrived in Banff, everywhere you looked there was another beautiful sight to see, from a flowing glacier river to a mountain on the skyline. (Here are the best things to do in Banff.) Arriving in the Rocky Mountains was one of the most surreal experiences of my life. But before adventure taking the train across Canada, if I could have skipped the travel and arrived at the destination, I would have. That is no longer true. I’ve learned that the journey can be more enjoyable than the destination.

Next, find out what it’s like travelling onboard the Rocky Mountaineer train.

Originally Published in Our Canada

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