Making tracks ... across Canada (Part 1)

| June 12, 2019

We have made a habit of arriving in far flung places as our body clocks strike midnight. Chris and I arrived in Montreal two hours after take-off, following a seven hour flight. In the interests of joining local time we opted for three Canadian B’s – beer, burger and bed – in that order. A long haul trip to Canada differs from the usual destinations and introduces a new focus on scenic aspects rather than historical and religious sites. I may well find myself having to seek adjectival support from M. Roget in the descriptive passages to come.

Part One


On an afternoon tour we saw the city’s highlights, beginning with Montreal’s Notre-Dame basilica. The gothic revival Catholic cathedral is several centuries younger than its Parisian namesake. Originally built in the 17th century, the new building was completed in 1829 and has an imposing structure. The cathedral’s most striking feature is the focus of the nave, the reredos, which is backed by a blue and golden starry sky with impressive, atmospheric lighting. 

Notre Dame basilica, Montreal, Canada

Notre-Dame basilica, Montreal, Quebec

We saw old Montreal, the French Quarter and travelled across the St Lawrence Boulevard to the site of the Canadian Grand Prix. We drove along the track used by Formula 1 drivers, albeit at about 5% of their speed. We observed structures left over from Expo 67 and visited the area which hosted the 1976 Olympics. Part of the Olympic stadium’s structure is the Montreal Tower – the world’s tallest inclined tower (175 metres).

Despite 2 million pilgrims climbing the 283 steps to St Joseph’s Oratory, we didn’t. There are 99 that can be climbed in prayer on knees. The Mont Royal Park is Montreal’s highest point and has panoramic views of the city and St Lawrence, which were now bathed in late afternoon sunshine.


Niagara Falls

The following morning we took the train to Toronto. By 11am, the rail company brought a drinks trolley around offering free alcoholic beverages before lunch, which was also provided. From Toronto, we were driven to Niagara Falls. Our driver was from Jordan and proved an interesting interlocutor on the immigrant experience. Arriving in the early evening, we found our 14th floor hotel room had superb views of the falls. It was opposite the Horseshoe Falls, an arc of water 670 metres wide, falling 57 metres into an almost impenetrable cloud of spray. The American Falls and the small Bridal Veil Falls are less impressive – the rocks at the bottom of the American Falls reduce the vertical drop by about half. The water flowing over the three falls is claimed to fall at a rate of 750,000 US gallons (2,839,058 litres) per second – 80% of which is over the Horseshoe Falls.

Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

Niagara Falls, Ontario

The following morning we went for a boat ride to the foot of the falls, wearing flimsy red ponchos, which did little to mitigate the effects of all that water. Suitably exhilarated, we spent the afternoon riding around on buses, utilising a £5 day pass, and visiting the Floral Clock, Butterfly Conservatory/Botanical Gardens (the latter a popular wedding venue – we saw at least four during our visit) and Rapids View, which lived up to its name by providing a view of the rapids leading to the falls themselves.


Rail journey aboard The Canadian

In the early evening, we returned to Toronto to catch VIA Rail’s The Canadian. The train runs all the way to Vancouver, but we abandoned it at Jasper after a three night journey. We were efficiently boarded and shown to our sleeper – in view of my minor mobility issues my good lady wife took the top bunk – probably to avoid being woken in the middle of the night by me falling off the ladder!! Before departure we were treated to canapés and a free drink. We left Toronto station on schedule, trundled a few miles down the line, stopped, and after some delay, backed up, before setting off again.

We retired to our bunks and arose the following morning to a somewhat grey day with intermittent showers (although as the day progressed the weather perked up considerably). The scenery was however pretty good, consisting of what seemed like an alley of Douglas fir trees, whose branches still bore the evidence of recent snowfall, along with other native species. We were able to sight lakes through both large and small gaps in the trees, but signs of human habitation were few and far between.

Scenery aboard 'The Canadian', Canada

Scenery viewed from aboard The Canadian

The one drawback to rail travel in Canada is that the network is used for transporting freight, and these trains are extremely long and slow moving. The answer to the question “how long is a Canadian freight train?” could be either “two miles” or “about ten minutes”. They take precedence, with passenger trains such as ours having to park up (the routes are mainly single track) to allow them unhindered passage. This does mean being subjected to significant delay. We arrived in Jasper eight hours late, at midnight rather than 4pm. We were told that the record is two days late arriving in Vancouver!

We started our second full day in Winnipeg, Manitoba’s largest city, where we disembarked to go for a walk round the areas close to the station, giving us the opportunity to view the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, St Boniface cathedral and the Forks National Park at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine rivers – this was originally a meeting place for aboriginal peoples (and memorialised as such) and subsequently for settlers, hunters and immigrants.

Reboarding, we spent the next two days travelling across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, en route to Jasper, through scenery which varied from prairie, to gently undulating hills and valleys, to the odd lake and river, and to bridges crossing river gorges. The main town on the way was Edmonton, where we stopped to change crew (it’s about halfway along the route), before heaving to yet again on the edge of town in order to allow freight free passage.


Maligne Lake & Medecine Lake

Finally we arrived in Jasper just after midnight. Having dealt with the formalities of recovering our luggage (cabins are too small for suitcases), finding our transport and checking in to our hotel, we disappeared into the arms of Morpheus for a few short hours before rising again to feed and set out on a day’s expedition to Maligne Lake (pronounced Maleen, deriving from the French word for ‘malign’..). Whilst travelling to the lake we came across our first elk, and true to form, finished up with more pictures of its rear elevation (a fetching white in comparison to the grey/brown of its coat) than of its mugshot or profile (an art perfected over the years in many game reserves!).

Elk, Canada

Elk seen on the roadside

On arrival we embarked on a cruise on the lake, which is more or less surrounded by peaks (by now we were in the Rockies) and three visible glaciers, many of which have been named after the early explorers, including Samson Beaver, a member of the Stoney First Nation, who first mapped the area at the beginning of the 20th century. It has to be said that even on a pretty grey day the peaks and glaciers constitute an impressive and imposing sight. The turning point for our cruise was Spirit Island, a place of spiritual significance for the local Stoney Nakoda First Nation, who believe that the mountains, which lie on three sides of the island, harbour the spirits of their ancestors. For reasons of cultural sensitivity, tourists are not allowed on the island, but we disembarked to view it from the shore, where my good lady became seriously distracted by the first chipmunk she had ever seen in the wild.

Maligne lake, Alberta, Canada

Maligne lake, Alberta

Our second major destination of the day was Medicine lake, which isn’t really a lake. During the summer it fills with melt water running from Maligne lake to the Athabasca river. As the flow of melt water increases, the water level of Medicine lake rises. It then falls towards autumn as the volume reduces and the water disappears into an underground network.

In the evening, we headed for a meal at the Jasper Brewing Company, anxious to find beer away from the Coors/Molson nationwide offerings. They had an excellent selection, but some of them had been adulterated by the addition of flavours such as lime, vanilla, blueberry and coriander, not to mention Grahams Crackers, thus removing them from consideration. I did however identify a Crisp Pils which proved an excellent accompaniment to my elk meatloaf (Canadian meals do not come in either small or medium, the standard option being large – the meatloaf was about the size of a normal house brick, and tasty to boot!)


Athabasca falls & glacier

Having already travelled over a thousand miles in our first week, we had a free day in Jasper, taking in what it had to offer by way of scenery (totem pole and historic buildings). The following day we set off for Lake Louise, stopping along the way at the Athabasca Falls, which are not particularly wide or high, but are apparently the most powerful in the Rockies, as the waters of the Athabasca river are fed into the narrow mouth of a twisting canyon.

Scenery en route to Athabasca falls, Alberta, Canada

Scenery en route to Athabasca glacier, Alberta

We then drove on along the Icefields Parkway to the Columbia Icefield, where we were driven in a “snowcoach” up to the Athabasca glacier. Disembarking, we wandered around on the ice and snow and took obligatory photographs. The next stop was the Glacier Skywalk, whose highpoint is the half-an-ellipse, glass-floored structure jutting out from the cliff, which allows you to look down to the floor of the Sunwapta valley approximately 280 metres below.

Athabasca glacier, Alberta, Canada

Top of Athabasca glacier, Canadian Rockies, Alberta

Lake Louise & Banff

Our next destination was Lake Louise. Our room had a lake view, so that we could occasionally peer out at its beauty. We then undertook a fairly extensive day’s tourism in and around Banff. Our first destination was the top of Sulphur Mountain, involving an 8-minute gondola ride (rising some 2,300 ft).

As we rose, we suddenly found that the landscape had disappeared and we were moving through low-lying cloud, from which we eventually escaped before disembarking for a look-around. The sight of the mountain tops emerging from the clouds had a certain ethereal quality about it, and we spent some time scanning the full 360 degrees before deciding that investigating the interpretative centre held more attraction than the alternative of hiking off to a nearby peak on a cold grey morn!

Gondola up Sulphur Mountain, Alberta, Canada

Gondola ride up Sulphur Mountain, Alberta

Returning to ground level an hour or so later, our driver and guide decided to go and look for elk not, as one might expect, in the local countryside and forests, but on the town golf course. This proved an excellent idea, since we found two herds, one at quite close range, primarily consisting of females, but with a proprietorial bull nearby to guard his harem against interlopers. Given that they have a propensity to park themselves anywhere they wish, I attempted to find out whether there were any local rules governing situations in which a golfer might find his ball in close proximity to, or even underneath, an elk, since shouting “Shoo!” and waving arms about seemed unlikely to have the desired effect. Sadly I failed to discover an answer.

Moving on we visited the Bow River Falls (further evidence that the Canadians are big on waterfalls as a component of any scenic trip), and then the Hoodoos, spectacular mushroom-shaped rock formations, before finally arriving at Lake Minnewanka (again almost surrounded by the Rockies) for a cruise along about half of its 17 mile length.

The highlight of the next day was to be a helicopter flight around the Three Peaks, but we were aware of the imminent arrival of inclement weather. When we woke the following morning it was immediately apparent that any attempt to fly round the mountains would stand a fair chance of bumping into them. Whilst in the earlier part of the day the scenery was just about visible through the falling snow, the latter got thicker and heavier and the scenery disappeared from view. We spent our time checking the snow lying on balconies, tables, chairs and balustrades visible from our window. As the day went on this became deeper and deeper, and as night fell it was still going strong. We subsequently learnt that this sort of weather was, to say the least, unseasonal. In nearby Calgary, September expects on average about 4cm of snow, and October (which we had just entered) about 10cm in total; in this one 24-hour period we had received between 40 to 50cm, which was beyond the highest total recorded for the entire month in over 100 years.

Continue to part two of Mike and Chris Simm's journey across Canada here.

Cox & Kings offers a number of rail journeys across North America and worldwide. Alternatively, if you are interested in private travel, please either call one of our North America travel consultants or complete our tailor-made request form and one of the team will get back to you to help you plan an itinerary.

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