Sunrise on the Rails

Train Trip (92 of 404)(This is the last post in a series about a recent train trip across the Canadian prairies. The first in the series is here.)

Sleep eluded me throughout the night. Despite the gentle rocking of the train and the rhythmic lullaby sung by its wheels on the rail (ticatoc-ticatoc—ticatoc-ticatoc), I dozed off for what seemed only minutes at a time. All is quiet in our coach car, and all is dark out, save for the millions of stars dotting the inky black sky. I grab my camera and make my way back to the dome-car, careful not to wake my fellow passengers along the way, curious to see.

 

All alone up there, I marvel at the spectacle on display, just for me, I think. Venus dominates the eastern horizon, almost directly behind the train. And then, something happens: a faint glow lightens the darkness, a glow that would continue into daylight. An oncoming freighter reflects this light, like glowing embers, a dim orangey hue zooming by. Two young Chinese women join me, camera in hand, to capture some of this ephemeral beauty.

The land around us slowly emerges from the darkness, revealing lakes, tractors, buildings. The brightening morning luminescence slowly reveals roofs and fingers of smoke trailing skyward from their chimneys. The scene is magical, whimsical, surreal. Not a word is said.

 

High above us, an airplane races eastward, like an arrow to its target, leaving the twin laces of its contrail to stretch across the sky, lit in orange light. Those passengers, up at 41,000 feet, have probably witnessed the sun rise above the horizon already, unless they are asleep. Meanwhile, colours change subtly, lightening the dark: amber, bronze, copper, orange, yellow, melting into cobalt, indigo, violet, blue, gray, and green.

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The long train contorts itself through a switch, like a snake weaving through short grass. I can see the last car for the first time! In the sky, what seemed to take forever quickly comes to its natural conclusion. The sun breaks the horizon; its light floods the eastern sky and paints the western countryside. One minute, the sky is a bright yellow, the next a familiar azure blue. Beautiful. The Canadian rolls on down the track towards Edmonton, my final destination on this journey.

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Prairie Monuments

These rail sentries first appear as a dot on the horizon. The train pushes ahead, the heat and condensation of its engine blurring the view, like peering through a liquid veil. The dot grows quickly into a familiar shape, with its tower and angular side. The trained eye recognizes the grain elevator… Sneaking up on unsuspecting passengers, it grows rapidly to fill the dome-car’s front windows. The passengers point their cameras to capture a scenery that is fading into history as these grain elevators disappear, one by one, replaced by larger, more modern concrete facilities. That’s progress.

The Butze elevator, a faded stack of brown boards for its walls, comes into sight. The structure was built in 1920. At their peak, 538 brown Alberta Wheat Pool elevators lined the track. Today, less than 12 remain: some privately owned, others maintained as museums.

The scene repeats itself down the track as we race toward Edmonton, our final destination. We approach a structure that contrasts with the previous mostly-white elevators, a brick-red-and-green structure flanked by three grey silos and a blue-and-white pumpjack: the Chauvin grain elevator.

Rolling Into the Night

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The orange half-moon winks at us as it drops to the ground. The Canadian continues its journey westward, unaffected by the darkness that envelops everything around it. In the dark coach car, only a few reading lights point their narrow pencil beams to the seats below, lighting the worn pages of books in the hands of passengers awaiting the sandman.

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I lean my head on the cold window and close my eyes, hoping sleep will come soon. I can hear the young couple chatting and laughing, loudly, a few rows behind. They’ve never heard the saying “use your spa voice,” obviously. The lady across the row, the one with the sleep mask, the fluffy pillows, and the thick comforter, talks to the characters in her dream. I hope she doesn’t sleepwalk. A green light flies by; I see its glow through my closed eyelids.

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Then two red lights. Don’t two red lights mean stop? For a brief second, I wonder if the engineer could have missed the signal, barreling down the track toward the next freighter heading in the opposite direction. I shift in my seat and look around. Seems I’m the only person who has noticed. The train’s whistle blares, its sound sliding by me toward the back of the train. The collision I imagined never comes. The night steals Saskatchewan… The sun will rise in Alberta.

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Night time on the rails
Signal lights break the darkness
Lonely and cold out

Working the Fields

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Harvest arrived early in Manitoba this year, compared to its western cousins. Soya and corn was pretty much all that was left standing in a few fields visible from the train, whereas still plenty of canola lay neatly piled in rows, drying out in the sun, and waiting to be harvested in Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Staring out at the fields, their neatly organized rows mowed down by now, I remembered my first walk in a field of stubble. Unlike a lush lawn, or warm soft sand, the sight awakes memories of walking on nails: rough, dry, unwelcoming. Unless you’re a Canada goose that is, who revel in the seeds that escaped the metal munching machine, before heading south.

A long lonely day
Collecting the year’s bounty
Goodness from the earth

Riding Into the Sunset

(This is the fifth post in a series about a recent train trip across the Canadian prairies. The first in the series is here.)

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For a while, I shield my eyes from the blinding sun peeking directly in the dome-car’s front windows. The dazzle subsides when we eventually turn northwest and follow the meandering Assiniboine River, which at times consists of little more than a lazy creek in this area—after drought-like conditions through the summer—and a collection of orphaned oxbows.

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We race the sun toward the horizon as the shadows stretch onto the plain, and the sun’s golden light turns the train’s metallic skin into liquid bronze. The passengers seated in the dome-car cheer, gasp, point their cameras, and smile at the spectacle. While the sky takes on a hundred different pastel hues, a dreamy palette to paint an unforgettable scene, the trees turn to black, backlit by the setting sun. I feel dwarfed by this grandeur and privileged to witness such beauty.

The terrain changes abruptly at St. Lazare, where the two deep scars carved into the prairie by the Qu’Appelle and Assiniboine rivers meet, accentuated by the deep shadows cast by the fading sunlight. The sun soon disappears below the horizon.

Preoccupied—fixated may be a better word—with losing the sun for another night, I failed to notice the latest celestial contender. Bends in the river flash at irregular intervals, reflecting the half-moon’s light, revealing Selena’s presence in the southern sky: a new beacon to lighten our journey into Saskatchewan. The silver rails thread through green, yellow, and red signal lights, pointing the way forward.

The cadence of the wheels on the metal track continues, ticatoc-ticatoc—ticatoc-ticatoc, like a well-rehearsed drum track to this rocking and rolling ballad. However, the sound of the whistle has softened, blanketed by the falling night. The train’s passengers curl into their reclined seats, or slip into freshly-turned beds, summoning sleep. Good night.

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Saskatchewan-Bound

(This is the fourth post in a series about a recent train trip across the Canadian prairies. The first in the series is here.)

The first 250 kilometres of our journey follow an east-west direction without stops, mostly through farmers fields, save for Portage La Prairie where the train station now doubles as a Greyhound bus station, and a brief hilly interlude over the Pembina escarpment. If I forgot, just for a minute, being on the Canadian prairies, the rolling hills with their numerous creeks and forests could fool me into believing I am back in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, but just for a minute. Created by Lake Agassiz during the glacial period (~13,000 years ago), the escarpment represents a distinct western Manitoba feature, and adds variety to an otherwise flat land.

Train Trip (386 of 404)A sharp turn to the north brings us to a bridge, its shadow sketched onto the floor of the picturesque Little Saskatchewan River valley. It is truly a wonderful day, scenic, picturesque, and relaxing.

Train Trip (392 of 404)We slow down as we roll in to Rivers—RCAF Station Rivers, nearby, was home to No. 1 Air Navigation School, a part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP), in 1942—and stop barely long enough for a few passengers to board. The whistle sounds, the train shudders, lumbers forward slowly, and then gathers speed for the next leg into the night… and into Saskatchewan.

 

 

 

Flying Colours

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(This is the third post in a series about a recent train trip across the Canadian prairies. The first in the series is here.)

The train reaches its cruising speed once again, as we leave some quiet little prairie town behind us; we’ve met but I don’t know her name. Travelling along a dirt road, the locomotive’s whistle announces every crossing; a sound sometimes so faint that I wonder if I only imagined it. The whistle a warning, a wake-up call, repeated several times every minute. I press my face to the window, trying to steal a glimpse of the upcoming intersection, a white post holding x-shaped tracks, sometimes red flashing signals, other times even a barrier. It comes into view, zooms by me in a blur, and disappears in the distance. Maybe I imagined it…

We gain speed. Leaves that blanket the track and its proximity fly skyward as the  speeding train rushes by, swirling clouds, slashing wild prairie grass, shivering reeds, and swaying bullrushes the only signs of its presence. The ticatoc-ticatoc—ticatoc-ticatoc of the wheels on their steel guides resembles the muffled sound of a Sten-gun, continuous, pervasive, almost hypnotizing. The wooooh-wooooh of the whistle pulls me out of it, like the hypnotist snapping his fingers.

At irregular intervals, the endless fields give way to a thicket of colourful deciduous trees, a flash of flying colours—probably aspen, oak, ash, maple, birch, and poplar—that dazzles for only a brief moment, soon replaced by more monochrome fields.

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The train rolls on down the track… Until it slows down, announcing a pause… To give way to an oncoming freight train… Once again.

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Hey! Hmmm, I meant “Hay.”

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Travel by rail across the prairies in late-September will dazzle you with fall colours—not quite as spectacular as the kaleidoscope on display in the Appalachians, but respectable nevertheless—and evidence of farmers’ hard work: combines, trucks and trailers, tractors, and hay. Lots of hay. Bales of hay. Hay, for the most part, is only the visible by-product of all this hard work. The rest of the evidence is stashed away in the bins or already on its way to its final destination.

One fellow passenger lamented the rarity of the old-fashioned rectangular bales. Wouldn’t you know it, just around the next bend in the track, rectangular bales came into view, strewn across the stubble of the freshly-cut field.

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Here’s a collection of hay.

 

All Aboard!

I took the train recently on a trip that crossed Canada’s three prairie provinces—Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta—from Winnipeg to Edmonton. Why? you ask. Just because I felt like it. I missed the train. Call it nostalgia, if you wish. My last train trip occurred more than 20 years ago. Travel on the rails carries a certain charm…

For twenty hours (Yes! Twenty!), we rocked and we rolled, and we sat and waited, then we started again forward, until the next time we would have to sit and wait. The term “sidetracked” now conjures a whole new meaning, but most of the time, it is associated with a freight train travelling in the opposite direction: just a blur. You see, Canada’s passenger rail service—Via Rail—rents track space from one of Canada’s two principal railway carriers, CN (Canadian National). Freight trains, and I realized there are plenty, take precedence. Therefore, as a passenger, you get used to waiting, sidetracked. It’s not all bad…

Seats are wide and comfortable (except when trying to sleep). You can walk about the train and stretch your legs, and use the washroom, which is quite spacious, although the rocking and rolling takes a little getting used to. I spent most of my twenty hours in the popular dome-car, conveniently located above the food-and-beverage service. I saw the sun set, the moon set, and the sun rise; I chatted with a few travellers, some from as far as Austria, Switzerland, and France; I marvelled at the vastness of our country; I was awed by the fall colours; I took in the ever-changing, never-ending prairie scenery (sometimes motion pictures, other times stills).

My camera hung from my neck, my journal clutched tightly under my arm, and my pen in my hand, all essential companions along this journey. I tried to take in as much as I could of this unique opportunity, which I will share in images and words over a number of upcoming posts.

All aboard!

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Meeting a CN freight train

Capturing the Moment, by Daniel Perron