Category Archives: Adventure

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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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

Don’t Believe Your Eyes

Riverside Morning
Early morning along the North Raisin River

The sun’s rays bounced off the surface of the river, through the early-morning mist, painting the tree-tops in an olive glow. The morning dew soaked through my sandals (not an unpleasant feeling), cleared some of the cobwebs, and made me thirsty at the same time. When I reached the perfect observation spot only a few feet from the bank, I stopped, and shielded my eyes with my hand, as if I was saluting the river. I strained my ears, trying to discern the lyrical burble of the babbling brook—maybe I should call it a babble instead of a burble. I don’t know, I could barely make it out through the ever-present symphony, courtesy of the cicadas trapped inside my head, amplified by the remnants of last night’s drinks and cigars. Maybe they hadn’t particularly appreciated lying on the grass, staring skyward at the millions of twinkling dots made even more brilliant by the almost-absolute darkness of the “campagne,” for what turned out to be almost an hour. Well, I don’t care. I know I enjoyed every minute.

I heard the bullfrog’s song: its rubbery hollow vibrato that reminded me of my youth, and of the shoebox guitars we made with rubber bands. Only three or four beats of the amphibian mouth organ, not the usual “rrribbbittt” but more of a “vvvrrroooottt” if that makes any sense, or “mooootttt.” Then I heard the beaver slam its tail in a loud and deep “kasploooosh” to let me know I had invaded his personal space—sorry. I could imagine the top of its head, more than I could see it, at the leading edge of the arrow of water and trailing ripples, only signs of its presence.

My head cleared just like the fog lifted from the river and disappeared, carried away by an oh-so-soft breeze from the east. I stood still long enough to discern the sound of the downstream rapids. Not the kind of rapids you shoot in a canoe or a kayak, only a bunch of rocks that the low water level revealed around the bend. The water tickled the half-submerged rocks, creating an enchanting pianissimo symphony reminiscent of percussion instruments—mostly high-pitched glockenspiels, sopranos xylophones, tubular bells, claves, and wind chimes—echoing between the tall oaks on either side.

The entire scenery hypnotized me and lulled my senses into total forgetfulness; I forgot I was me, there (here, really), with all my baggage, my experiences, my confusions. For a moment, I became part of the landscape, melted into the scenery… Unable to focus, a retinal overload (if such a term exists. If not, well I just invented it). I closed my eyes. I blinked and saw the trees parade in front of me, their leaves fluttering, their limbs swaying. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee drifting down from the veranda pulled me from my reverie. What a way to begin the day…

Foxglove and Tiny Fish

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The foxglove and the poem (story) are total strangers.

Early rays
Piercing through morning haze
Bouncing skyward
Off the blue liquid mirror

Lost in thought
Pulled from my reverie
Mirage or trickery

Like a gentle shower
Hundreds of tiny circles
Perturbing the water

Here one second
Gone in a flash
There with a dash

Breakfast for tiny pike
Watching, eager to strike
Tiny wings and legs above
All it took was one bite
——-
I really liked the foxglove

p.s. If you’re still reading at this point, you probably wonder what the foxglove has to do with the story. Well, nothing really.
I never took a photo of the lake… I wish I had my camera with me, alas I didn’t.
But I had a photo of a foxglove. That’s it.

Stack ’em Up

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Balconies of the Moana Surfrider on Waikiki (Honolulu, HI)
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Balconies of the Moana Surfrider on Waikiki (Honolulu, HI)

An photo essay on vertical growth, stacking them up as high as we can…

Modern architecture. Shapes, geometry, symmetry, colours, lines of the city: a photographer’s candy store… From far and up close, we never lack for something to look at, to compose, to photograph. But soon enough it all starts to look the same, and losing sight of the forest for the trees becomes inevitable. The wide angle lens is never wide enough. Density and vertical expansion create vertigo. Noise, traffic, crowds moving at a dizzying pace; who has time to slow down? Who even knows to stop, take a breath, look around? We’re too busy.

Thankfully, a little distance provides a welcome relief from the constant din, from the incessant assault on the senses, numbing really. But to stack them up we must, to fit more and more of us in that same sought-after space. Growth is inevitable and must be embraced. Faster, faster, we go… Slower, slower, we get… but where?

Nature, beauty, solitude are my refuge. Where sounds and sights abound, senses are filled, yet where I can find a place just for me. Just to be… To discover… Thankful. Undisturbed. Quiet. Even just for a moment.

The stars are still visible in the lightening sky when I set off for a hike. Passed the floating bridge, I step off the trail into the wild prairie tall grass, shiny with giant drops of dew, and venture closer to the water. The white puffs my breath creates mirror the fog rising from the surface of the lake. The air is still. A bird chirps in the distance. A beaver slaps its tail in the water and swims off, only a few feet from me. A lonely merganser emerges from the fog, drifting. Deepening golden hues announce the imminent sunrise and the clouds shuffle over for a better view. A log—one half on land, the other submerged—provides the only seat I need for this show, just for me…

The sun has climbed high by the time I wake from my hypnotic trance, dazed, awed, enchanted, filled with joy, happy. The camper awakes to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and a smile. Morning. Unstacked. Life is good.

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Sunrise on Lake Metigoshe, North Dakota