Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 16, 2017
Bookmark and Share

Interior journey

Plunge into remote BC on one of Canada's least known and most spectacular rail trips

Gilbert Pouliot has been managing the Skeena run of VIA’s train between Prince Rupert, BC and Jasper, Alberta for about 10 years. He’s close to retirement but still relishes going to work. “You haven’t seen Canada until you’ve ridden the train from Prince Rupert to Jasper,” said Gilbert. “It’s a stunning two days. Beautiful scenery and no rush. Most of the time you almost have a private train because it’s hardly ever busy.”

But few Canadians make up the train’s passenger list which is dominated by tour groups and railway buffs from outside the country. This is scarcely surprising since VIA’s own publicity calls the train “a little known treasure” and “a diamond in the rough” and makes little effort to publicize it within Canada. And that’s a pity.

The 1160-kilometre route between the Rockies and the Pacific north coast, built by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway (GTPR), was completed in April 1914. Constructing the section of track through the Yellowhead Pass was one of the heroic feats of the railway era, taking two years to blast through 670 metres of solid granite. Originally Prince Rupert was destined to rival Vancouver as a Pacific port but the ambitious entrepreneur behind the GTPR, Charles Melville Hays, died on the Titanic in 1912 and his grand vision for Prince Rupert died with him. The company went into receivership in 1919 and the route was assumed by the Canadian National Railway.

Cannery row

We decided to take the trip from west to east, flying into Prince Rupert on a sparkling June evening. But the city has by far the heaviest rainfall in Canada and, the next morning, it lived up to its reputation. Still, we spent several hours in the Museum of Northern British Columbia (museumofnorthernbc.com), with its superb collection of Tsimshian and other First Nation’s artifacts, before walking to the Kwinitsa railway station on the waterfront.

Barged down the Skeena River from a few kilometres up the line, it is the only survivor of many identical stations built by the GTPR, and now tells the story of the railway’s construction and the early days of Prince Rupert.

That afternoon we visited the North Pacific Cannery Village Museum (northpacificcannery.ca), a designated National Historic Site, a few kilometres out of town at Port Edward. Once there were hundreds of canneries from California to Alaska. Of the few that remain, this is the oldest — and because of its remoteness is almost intact. Hundreds of Chinese, Japanese, First Nations and European men and women worked here for almost 100 summers.

Our train left next morning at 8AM. We made our way to the Touring Class coach that is added to the train from mid June to September. This service includes access to the classic 1950’s Park Class observation dome car and lounge at the end of the train and all meals, plus wine with dinner.

Panning for gold

The evocative feeling of relaxing in the almost empty dome car of another era almost made up for the later realization that all meals were now served cold since ovens were taken out of the train in one of VIA’s cost-cutting measures. We began to see what “a diamond in the rough” meant. But even though we missed some of the early mountain scenery along the Skeena because of low-lying clouds, the trip itself began to draw us in.

“People think it’s the coolest thing that we’ll stop and pick anybody up,” said Pouliot. “There’s Andrew at Mile 62 near McBride. Sometimes he’ll just stand there and wait for us. He’s just a guy who decided he wants to live by himself in the bush. He’s been living in an abandoned sawmill for about 25 years and traps lynx, wolverine, muskrat and beaver when he can, but he’s getting old now and this past winter was the first he didn’t spend in the bush.”

Gilbert’s favourite regular is Steve who lives along the Skeena River in the Terrace area and comes out every three months for supplies. “He’s such a happy guy when he gets on the train and he loves to talk to people about his life. He pans for gold in the summer and traps furs in the winter. He’ll get on the train with a big bag of them.”

“One night in midwinter, it was pitch black when we stopped to drop him off and I was worried about him. ‘Steve,’ I said. ‘What if you don’t make it to your cabin?’ ‘No problem’ he replied. ‘I would dig myself a snow cave for me and the dog. We’d crawl in there and carry on in the morning.”

There are now very few people living like Andrew and Steve and the Skeena train is their lifeline. “They would have a hard time living in the bush without us being able to take them in and out every few months” said Gilbert.

Totem treasures

One of our unscheduled brief stops was at Kitwanga, a First Nation’s settlement for many centuries and home to some of the finest authentic totem poles in Canada. Two of them were the subject of a painting by Emily Carr in 1912. Most of the poles are tantalizingly out of sight, a short distance from the train, but one weathered pole is close to the rail line.

In mid afternoon, we passed through Burns Lake and then followed the shore of Fraser Lake towards Vanderhoof, arriving in Prince George a little after 8:30PM where the train stopped overnight. We headed for our hotel — which is not included in the train fare — and after a leisurely breakfast the next morning boarded the train for the second leg of the trip. The day’s route would follow the Fraser River between the Rockies and the Cariboo Mountain range to Yellowhead Pass and Jasper.

Along the way, I asked Gilbert how different the trip was in winter. “Well, there’s a lot of darkness, for one thing. It gets dark a little after we leave Smithers all the way to Prince Rupert. But it’s absolutely beautiful in daylight. There’s deep snow and lots of moose. Once, one followed us 29 kilometres along the track. Whenever we stopped, it stopped.” And bear encounters? “I’ve twice seen a huge bear sitting right at the top of a skinny poplar tree, swinging from side to side as he reached for the tender green shoots.”

Under the dome

We entered the mountains again near McBride where the train stopped allowing passengers to look over the heritage railway station built in 1919. When the train pulled out, the station staff, as is their custom, all came out to wave goodbye to us. Like most towns along the route, McBride was laid out by the GTPR and the station was the hub of the town for many years. The mountains surrounded us again but our hopes to see the peak of Mount Robson, the highest in the Canadian Rockies, were dashed with the rain clouds closing in again.

Nearing the end of the trip I sat alone in the lounge of the Park Car observation dome, the ashtray evident in 1950s publicity shots is still firmly bolted to the floor. Now it held the plastic wine glass that Gilbert had just refilled. I sat back, gazing out at the Rockies, and tried to imagine what these wonderful cars were like in their heyday when they still bore original Group of Seven murals and passengers dressed up when they went to dinner. I had travelled across Canada by train in the '50s and should have remembered, but it was hard to bring images to mind.

Those days are certainly gone forever on the Skeena train and the dome car seems sadly incongruous. Perhaps if VIA’s head office in faraway Montreal better appreciated that their “hidden treasure” had the potential to attract more Canadians to see a remarkable part of their own country, they might add a little polish to a unique “diamond in the rough.”

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

Comments

Showing 2 comments

  1. On October 21, 2011, Sylvia said:
    What a wonderful review that my first cousin David Walker of Prince Rupert sent me. I am sure that it was to entice me to travel by VIA and come for a visit, which I do hope to do. A most informative and enjoyable read!
  2. On October 22, 2011, Eleanor said:
    I live in Rupert and love the train trip from the coast to Prince George. My dream is to travel across Canada by train. This West coast train journey is not publicized in Canada ..but sure was in Australia in 1999/2000. There is lots of promotion for the eastern train travels. Shame on VIA.

Post a comment