Canadian Crossing on VIA's Canadian
Arriving in Vancouver from Seattle in the early morning at 2pm is not a big deal for their is a good hostel across the front lawn from the train station. Vancouver is a cool city and port. I was told about the freshness of air and water. The latter has been piped directly from lakes and rivers into the water mains which is ok if you don't have a record rainfall as occurred before my second, return visit to Vancouver.
The city has a wonderful mass transit system which I immediately put to a test. I was both surprised and harkened by how Vancouver has an honor system. No systemized ticket taking. Buy your ticket, get on the monorail or ferry without lines impeded by ticket stiles, takers or checkers.
Boarding the monorail near the train station, I squeezed in with the morning commuters. Whirl. Dead stop. Moans and groans. Not one to tolerate silence when laughter can be made out of lemons, I offered that it was my fault because I was an American visiting Vancouver and using the monorail for the first time. When the laughter died down, someone provoke greater laughter when it was voiced, "Just like an American to think he is the center of the world."
I visited Vancouver's Chinatown, within walking close to the station like LA's with better Hollywood props than LA. However, I wasn't as lucky to find great Chinese food the first time. Must be a difference between American and Canadian Chinese food.
Boarding the Canadian, one realizes many differences between public rail passenger service in Canada and the States. As detailed more completely in VIA versus Amtrak, the service is cleaner and better with the Canadian employees more genuinely interested in optimizing the passengers' travel. The employees attitudes are more like the employees of the US Veterans Administration than Amtrak. As a vet who visits the VA on a regular basis I have been consistently impressed and appreciative of the genuine warmth, regard and respect the VA employees has for its customers. This genuineness seems present in VIA.
[Retrospectively after many crossing of the world's longest "unprotected" border, one's relative comparison of train crews is affected by whether you come out Amtrak California or Amtrak elsewhere. As noted by self-discovery and confirmed by talking with Amtrak personnel, Amtrak California has a reputation for bad service and attitude--see Thomas, Wesley and Ms. 6oh1. Thus, coming from Amtrak's worst employees may make the VIA personnel far better than just better. On the other end of the VIA system is Montreal where cold weather and cold shoulders are more noticeable than other Canadian cities, including Churchill, Manitoba, where the weather is colder in the polar bear capital of the world but shoulders are warmer.
Complementing the always fun-to-hear bi-lingual presentation of the crew is the greater variety of foreign travelers on VIA compared to Amtrak. I cannot see how Amtrak's reputation does not impact the decision of foreign rail travelers as to which enterprise to take across North America.
One of the pleasant stops on the Canadian is Jasper. One can run around while the train takes on fuel and water.
Consistently, crossing Canada on the Canadian has been the top joy of a 30-day rail pass. The crew allowed a little housekeeping that Amtrak prohibits these days. By swirling an empty seat and acquiring a table that locks into a track under the window, one has a wonderful traveling office. With the seats facing each other, one can raise the foot rests for a comfortable, cushioned area for snoozes. At night, slide the table toward one seat for a less encumbered slumbering sleep. Hot idea during the night of sleep? Wake up your sleeping computer for another session of beating up the keyboard. Tired of your coach? Grab the computer and head for the bubble-top observatory. During the day, be sure to offer to share your table with other travelers since the tables are not numerous. Whether you share your table at night depends on what your definition of "is" is.
Similar accomodations have been found on the Hudson which goes to the polar bear capital of the world, a January-February event. During the summer, Churchill has boat viewings of beluga wells that come into the Bay. When asked if one should worry about polar bears at other times of the year, a dweller of the city named after Winston's ancester, the Duke of Marborough, said that few bears are seen the rest of the year but they are dangerous ones for they are too sick to make the journey for food. "Be sure to keep a safe place to run if you see a bear. Be sure to look backwards every so often." I erred on the side of caution and took his advice though a part of me wondered if, as he was walking away, whether he was thinking, "And, I have two bridges in Brooklyn that I will sell for the price of one."
In riding up to Churchill, I not only watched the foliage for signs of global warming but talked to the aboriginals and others who boarded the train. The Hudson is used as an inter-city mode of transportation. It stops not only at towns but whereever a request is made within 48-hours. Hunters and trappers would be seen throwing their skins into the baggage car after which they moved to coach or cafe car. Range fresh but not fetid to the nose. (Or, it could be my train-stench was greater than their range-stench!)
"See any signs of global warming?" ... "Yep, plants are changing. Animals are acting different." ... "Are you worried?" ... "Yes, can't use snowmobiles when it is warm and muddy."
In Churchill, the same qestion on global warming was asked of the first person. Twisting ninety degrees, he extended his arm toward the river, "The river is flowing a month early." Rotating one hundred and eighty degrees, he pointed to the bay, "That twenty to fifty feet of open water between the shore and ice does not normally happen for another three or four weeks."
The junction of the Canadian and Hudson is Winnipeg. A proud happy city if you talk to the folk. A gentrified block of old buildings to the east makes a nice place for a meal, mementos and snacks. Or, one can spend the time walking across the river through a very pleasing, inviting park.
Asking about global warming, yielded an similar response to the trappers and hunters, "Normally, we get a 50 below day with several 40 below days. This year, we barely got into the 30's. Look out there." While it was in the upper 20's above zero and I was in my parka, I saw not one but several women pushing baby-stollers with both the moms and babes dressed like it was in the 70's.
The eastern end of the Canadian's travel is Toronto. Like all big cities, you can spend a lifetime there and not see it all. Choose your things-to-see list carefully or you will miss your train. From Toronto, you can go into the states on the Maple Leaf or use one of several VIA trains to visit Niagra Falls for a day.
If you go to Niagara Falls be sure to visit Niagara, Ontario--but do not visit Simon's Cafe. Who would want to visit a cafe established before the US Civil War that has more character than the characters of Hollywood, Washington and Ottawa combined, characters who often visit Simons when in the area. Whatever you do, please don't go to Simon's if your gig is tourist traps. You will miss Simon's sweetness. At the minimum, take the walk from the casinos to the original Niagara city along the north shore--great view.
From Toronto, you can visit Montreal. Best not to talk unless you speak fluent French. An early morning train from Toronto will allow you to take an early afternoon train from Montreal. A nice leisurely train is the Gaspe train with a great view of the ocean. Or, take the train to Halifax where you can spend the afternoon and night before a mid-day return. Nice timing allow you return at Montreal about an hour before you can board Amtrak's Andirondack for the states with options in Albany, New York, to go east to Boston, south to New York City, or west to Chicago.
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