Mountain Memories: My Train Journey Through the Canadian Rockies
As the online editor at Reader’s Digest Canada, it’s always been my secret shame that I’d never set foot in either British Columbia or Alberta. What better way to complete my quest to visit all 10 provinces than on Rocky Mountaineer?
Go West, Young Man!
There are certain expectations people have when you’re the editor of a website renowned for its Canadian travel content. Chief among those expectations is that you’ve travelled the Great White North from coast to coast to coast. And I have—with two exceptions, that is. Somehow in my cross-Canada meanderings, I’ve never made it past the Prairies; something that I’ve always explained away (only half-jokingly) that I love Saskatoon so much that I forget to keep heading west after I hit the Saskatchewan River. That all changed earlier this year, when I made a vow to finish my circuit of all 10 provinces in high-style: a flight to Vancouver from my home base in Toronto (strategically bypassing the distractions of Saskatoon), followed by the adventure of a lifetime: travelling in GoldLeaf Service onboard the legendary luxury train, Rocky Mountaineer. In one fell swoop, I’d tick both British Columbia and Alberta off of my Great Canadian travel list, while being treated to some of the best service—and cuisine—this great country of ours has to offer.
My “First Passage to the West”—Literally
Not one for early morning starts (especially after you take into account the three-hour time difference between Vancouver and Toronto), I wasn’t exactly expecting to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the 7:30AM departure for the “First Passage to the West” route from Rocky Mountaineer’s Vancouver terminal. Nevertheless, setting foot inside the station, with the sun filtering through the floor-to-ceiling windows and the air positively buzzing with laughter, was the equivalent to taking that first energizing sip of coffee. There’s a tangible atmosphere of excitement in the room, which builds to a crescendo with the initial commanding blasts from Rocky Mountaineer’s resident bagpiper. Follow that up with a walk down the red carpet to board the train, a welcome toast, and a wave goodbye from the Vancouver staff as you pull out of station, and you’ve got a send-off to remember.
The View from Here
Pulling out of Vancouver, the GoldLeaf Service coach’s bi-level, glass-dome roof is a mild curiosity; a fun feature that simply allows you to bask in the glorious sunlight streaming overhead. You only begin to realize the full potential of the dome’s unbroken sightlines upon entering B.C.’s Fraser Valley. Blink, and you’re suddenly in the midst of low-lying foothills blanketed in a lush, verdant green, dappled in darker shades as the clouds pack ever tighter against the wall of the Canadian Rockies to the east. Along this stretch of the journey, you’re travelling along the rift carved by the mighty Fraser River itself, with the rock rising ever more steeply on either side—a magnificent spectacle to witness from the comfort of your seat, craning your neck higher and higher until the jagged peaks loom directly overhead.
On the second day’s approach to Lake Louise station, one of the Hosts shared the legend of “The Boss”—a notoriously large grizzly known to frequent this particular stretch of track. This mammoth specimen has actually been tagged by Banff National Park staff to alert any potential passers-by to his, shall we say… Territorial nature.
With only 10 minutes to go before pulling into station, I’d given up hope of glimpsing a grizzly—let alone “The Boss.” Almost as if on cue, the voice of one of the Hosts came over the coach’s sound system, hardened with a note of urgency. “We have a bear sighting on the left-hand side!”
Cue the mad scramble for my camera, and an Olympian leap down the spiral staircase to the lower-level outdoor viewing platform. Heart racing, I scanned the shadows in between the dense pines for any sign of the beast—but I needn’t have bothered. There he was, plain as day, trudging through the slushy snow that borders the track and the forest, completely unfazed by the fact that several hundred pairs of eyes were now trained on his shaggy hide. Although we later learned this wasn’t the Boss of lore (he wasn’t tagged, for one thing), nothing could diminish the thrill of seeing one of Canada’s most magnificent creatures in its natural habitat—and capturing it on camera.
Pulling into Banff station—the final stop on my “First Passage to the West” and my first footsteps on Albertan soil—I couldn’t imagine a more satisfying way to end this leg of my journey.
An Icy Interlude
Instead of simply retracing my route back to Vancouver—and frankly, being in no hurry to return home—my next course of action was to embark on what’s widely recognized as one of Canada’s most iconic road trips: The journey from Banff to Jasper along the Icefields Parkway. Perhaps spoiled by my experience onboard Rocky Mountaineer, I was quite content to remain in the passenger seat for this spectacular mountain drive, and opted to take one of the many sightseeing coaches that run this legendary route.
Although it’s fully paved and perhaps surprisingly well-maintained, the Icefields Parkway is unlike any other highway in Canada. You won’t encounter any semi-trucks or transports along the way (they’re forbidden by law), and there’s only one gas station servicing the 200-plus kilometre ribbon of road that skirts some of the best-known peaks—and glaciers—of the Canadian Rockies.
One of those glaciers, the Athabasca, is the site of the Columbia Icefield Discovery Centre—one of the most popular stops along the Icefields Parkway. Here, 100 kilometres out from Jasper, visitors can trade their sightseeing coach for an enormous six-wheel-drive ice bus that ventures onto the glacier itself. Standing on the surface of this ever-retreating river of ice, you can actually fill your water bottle with the same pristine glacial melt that flows as delicate bridal veil waterfalls along this magnificent mountain-lined route.
Head in the Clouds
In Jasper, I was reunited with Rocky Mountaineer (same luxe GoldLeaf coach, different team of delightful Hosts) for my return trip west. Although the second leg of this new route would mirror my initial trek from Vancouver to Kamloops, the first day’s travel on “Journey Through the Clouds” covered fresh ground—and some truly majestic mountain scenery along the Fraser and Thompson River valleys. It’s here that the train passes into the shadow of behemoths like Mount Fitzwilliam and Mount Robson, which, at a staggering 3,953 metres, is the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies. It’s so high, in fact, that the summit actually has its own weather system and is often cloaked in a shroud of dense alpine clouds.
Having covered travel for the past 12 years of my career as a journalist, I can truthfully say there are few things more annoying than a tour guide who doesn’t know when to stop talking. Thankfully, Rocky Mountaineer has taken this into consideration, and has found a happy medium with Hosts that are neither incessantly rambling, nor unhelpfully silent. Instead, you’re treated to a refreshingly intimate (almost folksy) style of storytelling, as Hosts point out key attractions en route.
Rocky Mountain resilience
Having grown up on the fertile, pancake-flat plains of southwestern Ontario, I figure one of the most amazing things about the Canadian Rockies is the dawning realization of how stubborn nature truly is. Defying wind, chilling temperatures and thin, acidic soil, life still thrives in this unforgiving setting. Scrubby pines eke out an existence even on the highest, most remote peaks; jutting out from the rock face on angles that seem to defy gravity. Prettier—but no less impressive—is the tiny prairie crocus that sprouts from what appears to be barren rock, but is actually a soft cushion of moss and lichen.
Left with these thoughts and memories—and a camera with a memory card at critical mass—I pulled into Vancouver with the sun just dipping below the horizon, the half-light much the same as it had been when I first departed days earlier. It was a truly memorable way to not only wrap up my journey on Rocky Mountaineer’s “Journey Through the Clouds,” but to finally complete my cross-Canada quest.