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Michael Portillo's... rocky ride

On his Great Railway Journey across Alaska and Canada, Michael Portillo tells Ian Belcher how he followed in the tracks of empire and ingenuity …and narrowly missed a close encounter of the furry kind.

Anyone planning a rail holiday on Canada’s wild east coast should break their journey to explore the funnel-shaped Bay of Fundy. Its tides, the highest on earth, peak at around 50 feet – the height of a five-storey building – with 160 billion tonnes of water flowing in and out every single day. You could be in a cave far above the sea at low tide, and if you’re still there hours later, you’ll drown. It’s almost unimaginable.

Fundy, between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, also has the most striking rock formations. At low tide I studied its enormously tall trunks of eroded rock, which fan out at the top like palm trees. It’s a constantly evolving landscape dotted with piles of recently fallen rocks. Take a look at Victorian postcards and you’ll see the formations are completely different.

Fundy’s natural drama was one of many highlights of a railroad journey across Canada for my recent television series. Following my trusty Appleton’s Guide from 1899, I traversed the huge country from the distinctive scrub and dunes of the Atlantic coast, to the dramatic mountains and Pacific Ocean, passing forests, lakes and vast flat prairies in between.

One of the several routes I followed began in Nova Scotia’s capital, Halifax. I found the area’s history very motivating. The British established a town and military base here in the mid-18th century – they had virtually no territory in Canada at that time – with the aim of driving out the French, who owned the huge area of New France. Through the Seven Years’ War, and the cultural intervention of importing Irish and Scottish immigrants as a giant cuckoo in the French nest, this was a very deliberate British conquest: one of the most successful imperialist ventures of all time.

Halifax, North America’s most northerly ice-free port has an immense harbour – the second largest on earth. While not as spectacular as Sydney, it was strategically crucial, allowing the anchorage of any number of ships of any size. You can still see the colonial dockyards today. However, there was a difficulty. It sat on the wrong side of a peninsula attached to Canada by a narrow neck of land: a brilliant harbour lacking a brilliant connection to the rest of the continent. If you were to sail down and around the peninsula, you added days to your voyage through choppy Atlantic waters.

With a railway many years away, linking it to the rest of the country required skill and ingenuity. To get over an initial high ridge to reach the Shubenacadie Canal (a route of locks across Nova Scotia that linked a river and lake) engineers came up with the idea of building a short ‘marine railway’. Boats were raised out of the water, packed into wooden crates and hauled up a track to the canal using hydraulic pressure from pumped water. Imagine the incredible mechanics. All this in a bid to get into the rest of Canada. When I first heard about it, I’d no idea what a marine railway might look like, but I visited a very good reconstruction of its pump house, cradle and stretch of line.

As our train travelled crossed the Nova Scotia peninsula from Halifax, I made a stop at Lake Banook. I was here to try a sport  that gained popularity from the mid-19th century: war canoe racing (visitors can watch spectacular summer contests on the lake over thousand-metre courses). Using the long canoes in which indigenous people once headed off to battle, crews comprising one cox and 14 paddlers kneel on one knee to exert maximum power from the shoulders, elbow and spine.

After a briefing on how to avoid falling in (you’re high in the water with no safety device) the cox shouted, ‘Give me 20 really strong pulls now’ and we surged off, repeatedly stabbing at the water. I found it absolutely exhilarating. We must have hit a good pace – our film crew in a motor boat struggled to keep up.

I also made another short excursion, this time to the north and the maritime province of Prince Edward Island. It’s all very charming. This is where you’ll find a brilliantly preserved house with green shutters and gables. Its former owners were the grandparents’ cousins of author Lucy Maud Montgomery, who immortalized the property in her renowned story about a red-haired orphan, Anne of Green Gables. It has now sold over 50 million copies, been made into a television series and a film. The stage version, which will be performed for the 55th consecutive summer in the capital Charlottetown this year, is the world’s longest-running annual musical theatre production.

After attending rehearsals and meeting some of the many different women who have starred in the lead role, I visited Green Gables where, somewhere between the house and beautifully-maintained stables, I bumped into Anne herself (North Americans do love re-enactments). I complimented her wonderful red hair. ‘It’s the bane of my life,’ she replied. ‘I hate it. It has caused me so much trouble.’

The sweet orphan isn’t Charlottetown’s only claim to fame. Far from it. In September 1864, after its representatives had failed to persuade the Province of Canada (present- day Ontario and Quebec) to contribute to building a railway to Prince Edward Island, it hosted a conference to consider a union of the Maritime Provinces. Instead, a far more ambitious idea emerged: a Canadian Confederation. That means the capital of a tiny province comprising 0.1% of Canada’s land mass was the birthplace of this big idea for a big country – and it was the desire to join the railway race that first inspired that crucial meeting.

Around 4,800 kilometres and four time zones away, the railways also played a very important political role. Before a line was constructed through the Rocky Mountains, the towering peaks were both a psychological and physical barrier to national unification. A journey from Toronto to Vancouver took several weeks and meant a voyage around the bottom of South America. The result was that British Columbia was most naturally orientated towards the western United States, to Washington, Oregon and California. Indeed, the fear was that BC might end up being part of America. To entice it into the Confederation, the Canadian Pacific Railway was promised to the colony by John Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, in 1871.

Of course, the political impact of linking the west coast to the rest of the country by a transcontinental line wasn’t limited to Canada. It was an important new imperial route, linking the British Empire from London, via Nova Scotia, across Canada to Vancouver and onto its Pacific territories. It was a faster journey to Hong Kong than sailing from London.

This colonial legacy is particularly obvious in BC’s capital, Victoria, on Vancouver Island. Everything about it feels particularly British, from the architecture to the neat parks. Nearby Esquimalt harbour includes the base that became the headquarters of the British Pacific Fleet in 1865. It’s a terrific setting, full of Victorian warehouses and military buildings that could be anywhere in the UK. Interestingly, Appleton’s Guide stresses its importance to the Royal Navy. That still holds over a century later. All that’s changed is the insertion of one word – it’s now the Royal Canadian Navy, which still owes allegiance to our queen.

Naturally, a railroad journey through Western Canada isn’t just about history. The scenery is glorious. As our train approached Jasper in the Rockies, engulfed on all sides by great peaks and glassy lakes, people who’d never met before were running around the carriage snapping photographs in every conceivable direction, slapping each other on the back and exclaiming, ‘Have you ever seen anything like this?’

I’ve never encountered such an atmosphere on a railway anywhere else in the world. Faced by Switzerland’s scenic grandeur, people are more reserved, more Swiss – even the foreign passengers – but this was an amazing communal enjoyment of natural beauty.

One of the most spectacular stretches of track comes at the Kicking Horse Pass, just before Banff, with its horseshoe-shaped tunnels. They allow the train to make two subterranean U-turns just as it passes the highest peaks closest to the track. You’re looking at the mountain as you enter the tunnel, then bang, you exit and it’s on the other side – you’ve done an extraordinary snaky manoeuvre and completely reversed direction. Conceptually, if you had a long enough train you could see both ends of it – one entering the tunnel, one exiting it – right next to each other. Railway lovers adore this sort of thing. Everyone oohs and aahs.

There’s a dark side to the scenic drama, however. To save money, the first attempt to put a track through the pass saw labourers building a very steep line – a dangerous undertaking that lead to many fatalities. It was only when the trains started to slip backward that they returned to blast the tunnels, allowing a more gradual ascent.

In fact, while travelling through the mountains, I couldn’t help but think of the human cost of putting a line through such inhospitable territory. Initially they were up against time and money, and the massive – substantially Chinese – labour force built it as quickly as possible to start generating revenue. Large numbers of workers died through disease and accidents. Some are buried in unmarked graves along the track.

Conditions couldn’t be more different for the modern passenger. I travelled along a stretch of the original transcontinental line from Kamloops to Banff (a parallel route, built later, runs to the north) on the Rocky Mountaineer. The world’s largest privately-owned scenic railway, it’s a train of extraordinary luxury.

Each dining carriage has its own kitchen performing the incredibly tricky task of producing a choice of attractive, fresh- tasting dishes. It’s a wonder every time I see it on a train, with cooking and plating facilities in a narrow galley where staff constantly come and go. I tried the tricky, sadistic task of serving soup; even at a sedate 30mph it was a real challenge.

It’s far easier to sit back and watch the natural world outside – including the wildlife. Bears are ever present. The population is immense. There are regular announcements: ‘The engineer has spotted two bears crossing the track from left to right. Look now and you’ll see them.’

Before I was allowed to disembark at the BC Wildlife Park near Kamloops, I practised drawing my can of peppery bear spray like a gun. It’s an essential precaution. When we descended towards a pool lying in a hollow – absolutely perfect bear territory – with a specialist photographer, he deliberately raised his voice. ‘I don’t want any of them around when we arrive.’

It was an experienced tactic. When we later watched footage from the seven GoPros he’d set up beforehand, every piece captured bears, including two of them scampering along a fallen log and frolicking in the water. One animal actually exited stage left as the photographer’s louder voice announced our approach. A close encounter of the furry kind.

The journey also reveals that British Columbia has trees. Lots of trees. Around 60 million hectares of trees, blanketing well over half the province. Many are felled to fuel the paper and lumber industries, then chucked into rivers and ocean inlets for transportation to mills. Which raises a question: how do you gather them together to remove them from the water?

To find out, I headed to the Flavelle Sawmill Company on the Burrard Inlet. I boarded a small, superbly agile boat which, like a fairground bumper car, nudges the cut trees together. While the pilot nonchalantly used the boat’s front, back and sides to smash them into position, often leaning at 45 degrees, I wore a hard hat and clung on for dear life. It was an unrestrained thrill.

He’s typical of the outdoorsy, physical Canadians. It’s little surprise that their iconic national sport is ice hockey, where hard knocks are part of the deal. So in Vancouver, at the very western end of the transcontinental line, I tried out on the ice in Langley, home of the Vancouver Giants.

Despite having only been on skates once before in my life, and a long time ago at that, I was padded up like a Michelin Man and tottered out on a sort of Zimmer frame. After gaining confidence, I let go and supported myself on my stick, and then started to shoot goals, falling several times. I admit, I was quite proud of my rapid progress but am certain my future lies  more with trains than it does with skates and pucks.

A version of this article first appeared in The Times’ Weekend in January 2019.

Michael Portillo’s Great Railway Journeys series are available as both books and DVDs from and high street retailers.

To find out more or plan a tailor- made itinerary to include the Rocky Mountaineer train, please either call one of our North America travel consultants  or complete our tailor-made request form and one of our experts will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.