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
(This is the fifth post in a series about a recent train trip across the Canadian prairies. The first in the series is here.)
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.
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.
(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.
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.
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.
(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.
The train rolls on down the track… Until it slows down, announcing a pause… To give way to an oncoming freight train… Once again.
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.
A close-up of the cupola ceiling in Winnipeg’s Union Station
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.