Thursday July 20 - Day 20
Current Location: Surrey, BC
Distance Traveled: 10,775km
I arrived in Surrey late last night after being in the city, and got to my Aunt and Uncle's house in the suburb of Surrey. The town is located about half an hour south of Vancouver, and I have several members of my Dad's extended family here. Best of all, I'm enjoying a real bed in the house for the first time in a while. After coming across the prairies on the train, sleeping in this morning was a welcome pleasure.
I'm staying here until Sunday; my longest stay in one place this whole month. I'll be visiting the surrounding area with this as a home base the next four days, meaning I have a chance to unpack, clean, and re-pack before i start my way back home in the east.
Th home belongs to my Aunt Sue and Uncle Cam, who *technically speaking are my great aunt and uncle, and their children my first cousins once removed. They both (Karen and Kris) have two kids each, who are my natural second cousins, and three of them I've never met in person before. While the technical descriptions are more complicated, we've always just said "Aunt", "Uncle" and "Cousins". We're family.
I won't see the first of them until tomorrow night, and today is just Cam and I. It was a relaxing, most uneventful day that's really helped me get caught up on both my sleep and my work. I was asleep almost 11 hours last night, and I have no shame in finally getting a good rest.
After a warm shower I sat with Cam and worked for the morning watching the Toronto game in Boston. Because it's an afternoon game on the East coast, it started at 10:30am out here in Vancouver. Better still was enjoying a panini sandwich for lunch, and spending some down time in the house.
That afternoon I'd decided to get some fresh air and explore the Surrey neighbourhood, walking around through the local parks and trails. Even in residential areas, the forests and small parks get lush so quickly, with thick trees and greenery. It was really quiet walking around, only passing some children on their bikes as they rode past me.
I also found the local elementary school and its playground. I really liked some the murals and gardens around the front of the school, which gave it a quaint atmosphere. What was much stranger was seeing a farm right next door! Kids in the school year could look out from the classrooms and see sheep and llamas walking outside in the fields. I sat watching the animals for a bit, and also played on the swings.
Around dinnertime, Uncle Cam and I left for the cinema so I could see Dunkirk, opening with special screenings in theatres tonight. We left early and found a Japanese restaurant for dinner, enjoying soups, teriyaki and noodles with a glass of white wine. Cam and I had a quiet night, and could walk to the theatre next door.
The cinema itself was in an area called Strawberry Hill, and wasn't tremendously busy. I've been to lots of cineplex theatres, but this one had just finished a large renovation installing leather recliners in all the theatres. The tickets cost less than back home in Oakville, and the seats were fantastic. I comfortably reclined with my feet up the entire movie; I wish we had more theatre like this back home.
Cam and I both really enjoyed the movie, and we went home straight afterwards. I wrote my story for the newspaper, and went straight to bed after planning my day with Aunt Sue tomorrow. It's been a short, comfortable day, but I'm glad to have acquired some much delayed and needed rest.
Wednesday July 19 - Day 19
Current Location: Vancouver, BC
Distance Traveled: 10,710km
I woke up this morning feeling much better than I was yesterday - after a rough evening on the train and little sleep, we were less than an hour from Vancouver. Waiting for us were some views of the rockies without any of the pesky haze that ruined the views through the mountains before.
Pulling into the city, we made up almost the entire delay from leaving yesterday morning. We arrived only half an hour behind schedule, and we disembarked the train on a long platform that stretched far beyond the station building. Just as was at the easternmost end of the line two weeks ago, the station was stretched so you walked the entire length of the train to get to the end of the tracks.
It's weird to think I was at the opposite far end of Canada only two weeks ago. I was surprised how similar the station layouts in both Vancouver and Halifax were. Both are in the heart of downtown, close to the water, and seemingly take forever to get from one end of the train to the main entrance.
This is the furthest west I'll travel on my adventure this month.
I've learn to appreciate the different stations, from the small to the more grand designs. After seeing Gare de Palais in Quebec City, I didn't think anywhere else was going to be as architecturally elegant. But Thompson Park here has Pacific Central station.
The first thing I noticed about the city parks was how lush and green so many of the plants are. I've been told there was a tremendous amount of rain this Spring, followed by three recent weeks of constant, brilliant sunshine. The result has been lush gardens and great conditions for booming parks.
Another thing I really like about the downtown area are special roads and bicycle "highways" dedicated for cyclists going far distances in the city. We're close to the old Olympic Village from the 2010 Winter Games, so there's mainly walking and biking areas. Of all the cities I've visited, Vancouver seems to have the most impressive landscaping and contemporary design.
My main destination today is the BC Science World, one in a series of the TELUS World of Science museums across the country. (The site has sister museums in Edmonton, Calgary and Montreal.) The dome and pier were built for the 1986 World's Fair in Vancouver, now renovated into the science centre.
The museum and playground are location on the first two floors, and the dome houses a special Omnimax movie theatre. It's similar to an IMAX screen, but shaped like a dome so the movies are projected 360 degrees around the audience. The cinema inside the dome here at the museum is nearly seven stories tall; it's the largest single movie theatre in Canada.
For a film nerd like myself, it was a neat experience. Even better is a short exhibit after the movie where you can see the operation and projector room. There's a glass wall where visitors can watch them change the film reels and work the several different machines needed to operate a cinema the size of an apartment building.
The movie i chose was an IMAX film called Rocky Mountain Express. It's a special re-release documentary about the history of building the railways through the Rocky Mountains in the early 1900s. Having just been on the same tracks myself, i thought it was an appropriate choice. :)
I enjoyed the rest of the afternoon visiting the other exhibits and playing in some of the laboratories. I think science museums sometimes have a bad reputation of being heard mostly for young children. While not entirely untrue, there was more than enough substance to the displays.
AND AT THE SAME TIME - I have some great memories playing in science galleries as a kid. And if you think I didn't enjoy the afternoon playing with the gadgets and interactive exhibits in the museum, you would be dead wrong. I shouldn't be allowed to have this much fun.
I especially liked the air cannon and the virtual reality set. Thankfully there were some parents entertained by the single grown man enjoying the science museum, and offered to take some pictures of the shenanigans I got up to.
Early evening, I walked through the Olympic Village and through South Vancouver along Broadway. I also encountered a long, steep hill up from the bay - rather unforgiving for anyone with a suitcase and bags to carry. But my destination was in another part of the city to meet a former classmate of mine.
Jess and I worked together in high school with the drama department and our Productions class. She was known as the technical guru, and moved here to study at the University of British Columbia. She chose an Aboriginal restaurant for us, special to the region and the peoples of the area.
The restaurant was called Salmon n Bannock Bistro, with a Metis kitchen staff cooking traditional foods. The room is decorated with native art, and along the ceiling is a wooden canoe. Given the name, there was only thing to have for dinner: Salmon. And bannock. (Bannock is a traditional bread similar to a scone, but plusher and dense. Ours was served with Saskatoon berry jam.)
Dinner was really tasty, but I also enjoyed seeing Jess for the first time since we were both in school. She made a great choice for dinner, especially since Aboriginal cuisine is so uncommon. Catching up on old projects, school, and our old friends was a splendid way to end the day.
I'm in Vancouver until Sunday, seeing cousins and and my great Aunt and Uncle. This is my longest stretch of the trip without a train ride, and staying in the same spot. They live in Surrey and White Rock (south of the city), and I'll be moving between the three cities for the upcoming weekend. But after an exciting day in Vancouver, first thing I'm ready for is a good long sleep in a real bed!
Tuesday July 18 - Day 18
Current Location: On Train to British Columbia (at Kamloops, BC)
Distance Traveled: 10,350km
After a marvellous night on the town with my Uncle Bob, daybreak came much too early for my liking. The train was reported to arrive in Edmonton just after 6:00am today, on schedule for a departure about 7:00. I grudgingly got out of bed at sunrise, enjoyed a coffee with my Uncle, and then I was off to the train station to continue west.
When I arrived at the station, however, I was annoyed and disappointed to learn the train was going to be two hours late. I'd intentionally arrived later (and slept in slightly) thinking it would be delayed, but I shouldn't have been surprised our new departure time wasn't going to be until 10:00am. Not once has the Canadian train been on time since I started riding it; I shouldn't have suspected it would start now.
Once it did pull into the station, it was as long and glorious as ever. These cross-country machines on the rails really are magnificent, with train cars going as far as the human eye can see. This one was actually longer than the one I took from Toronto, carrying over 500 passengers in all. This wasn't a promising start, but today was far from over. And not for the better.
Boarding in the small, crowded Edmonton station was a tumultuous affair, with people cutting in front of others and no real organization to the crowds. It felt like all at once everyone stood up and began jamming the single door to get outside and pick their (unassigned) in the cars.
Though boarding was chaotic, the trip itself was quite smooth and pleasant. The travel was easy-going, and most passengers were civil and sociable together. My traveling companion today is named Colleen; another Canada150 traveler from Toronto, and we were seated next to grade 4 triplets named Viola, Lauren and Sophia. They were going to see their grandparents, and we passed the time doing puzzles.
I had been looking forward traveling through Jasper and the Rocky Mountains since day one, and I was thrilled we finally got the chance to see the British Columbia wilderness. But while most views were charming, they were also quite dreary and ominous. Those aren't filters or even the weather given the above pictures such a gloomy look - that's smoke.
Over the last three weeks in BC there have been terrible wildfires across the province, destroying small hamlets, forests, and provincial parks everywhere around the mountains. The haze and wildfire smoke has been so thick in some places you can't even see the mountains 20 feet away from the train tracks. It's really disappointing for everyone looking out the windows.
Around dinnertime, there was another small hiccup in my day. I was going to get a sweater and my blanket for tonight from my suitcase when the zipper broke. Four teeth in the zipper popped out, and so it was completely stuck, unable to close.
The carry-on luggage storage is right next to the bathroom and the door to other cars, meaning people kept bumping into me or I needed to wait for various doors to close. I spent almost an hour trying to get the stubborn zipper fixed, until finally a steward named Michel came and helped me fix it. He was a former military officer, and used a pin and his (very muscular) arms to pop the zipper back into place.
The rest of the evening was peaceful enough, with my seatmate Colleen and I enjoying dinner and playing cards to pass the time. We also spent some time in the Panorama car come sundown, still struggling to enjoy the Rockies with the smoke. Even though these special observation cars are never empty, there's actually enough of them (5 on this train!) to meet the demand, and everyone on board is doing a great job sharing the seats and taking turns sitting here. They really are spectacular train cars.
After dark there wasn't much to do, but we very briefly had cellular reception to check our phones. I did some social media updates and responded to some text and email messages, but then also saw a note from someone back home. It was sad news about a particular event, and though I needed to read it and couldn't have known what it would say, I wish I hadn't. Especially after a less than enjoyable day.
I've tried to be fair, accurate, and as descriptive as possible here in my journal about my trip. At the same time, some details and events are possibly too personal to share here for everyone to see. One of the biggest challenges traveling nearly three weeks straight now is the extreme lack of privacy and personal time no matter where I go, and sometimes you just need to be alone and cry.
Tonight was one of those times, and trains are not an appropriate or conducive place to effectively or politely do this. It was one of the rare times tonight I was feeling alone, and not in a positive way.
Perhaps it was naïvely optimistic of me not to consider there would be at least one bad day over an entire month, and there would be unpleasant days in my journey. For tonight, I'm going to stew and stand firm on an imperfect night's sleep, and wake up raring to go tomorrow. I'm hopeful a new day will bring new adventures and excitement as I arrive in Vancouver.
Soon the smoke will clear. And I'll be ready to get on my feet and go once again.
Monday July 17 - Day 17
Current Location: Edmonton, AB
Distance Traveled: 9,560km
Before I start with today's fun adventures in Edmonton, I wanted to briefly share a crazy story from last night with you about dinner. It's just too painfully funny I couldn't leave this off my journal.
Vicki and I drove actually drove from Drumheller to Edmonton to stay in a passable motel last night, and arrived just after dusk. We were both hungry wanting dinner, and decided that since we were in Alberta, the most appropriate thing to have, of course, would be a steak dinner. So we went searching for a steakhouse in the city that served Alberta beef.
Now my family will find this shocking and enormously disturbing - I've never ordered beef in a restaurant before, and eaten maybe two or three steaks in my entire life. It's just not my preference; but I knew if there was anywhere in Canada to have it, this was it.
Well, it turns out not many places serve steak dinners after 11:00pm on Sunday nights in Edmonton. We eventually found one open until midnight that had a slew of excellent reviews. Little did we know until after we parked that it was the steakhouse INSIDE A CASINO. We both laughed, shrugged, and went in cautiously to find the restaurant....which smelled amazing.
The menu described their special Josten ovens and broilers serving Alberta AAA filet mignon. It sounded great - except the kitchen had just finished cleaning for the night. The manager apologized, and pointed us to the Casino sports bar downstairs which was open another 15 minutes.
We went in to see the place deserted, and ordered two New York steaks. After being the last customers of the night, close to Midnight in an Edmonton casino - we each had steak, beans, beets and potatoes. And you know what? It was actually pretty good. It was the best and only steak I've ever had.
Anyways, today's main adventure took me to the West Edmonton Mall, which is the premier tourist attraction in the city. It's the world's largest shopping mall, and has a panoply of things to do. Naturally, there's a about a billion different stores for everything under the sun. (I myself bought some postcards, a tea, some socks, and stamps from the post office.) Even the store halls look similar to your local mall.
But then it has some more unique attractions too. For instance, not every shopping mall has an indoor ice skating hall the size of an Olympic skating rink. Or a lagoon with aquarium, sea lion show and replica 19th century pirate ship. There's also four miniature golf courses, a cinema, three food courts and Canada's largest indoor waterpark - complete with 100-foot tall water slide of death.
It's anything but a boring place to be. In weird travel planning fluke, I actually had my ninth birthday party here at the indoor amusement park. Our family was en route to a wedding in BC, and so we stopped here first for a night.
And it's that same indoor theme park that brought me back here today. I did every ride here my height at the time permitted, but the mall's showstopper has evaded me since childhood - The Mindbender. Located inside Galaxyland amusement park, it's the largest indoor roller coster on Earth, with a 130-foot drop and three (yes, three) gargantuan upside-down loops.
I bought my ticket to ride, and after joining the line watched how seriously they take the operation of this ride. The roller coaster is nearly 40 years old, and it shows. They close to do a safety inspection every two hours, and it might be the least efficient theme park ride on the planet, with a maximum of 120 riders per hour.
But after the horrendously slow wait, I finally went on. I've been on roller coasters across North America, but Mindbenders is special. It's wild, fast, and it rocks you on it's old steel tracks. This mix of fear and adrenaline must be what it was like riding old, rickety coasters from the fun, teen-crazed montages now only seen in John Hughes movies. And the ride itself was a lot of fun!
After a thrilling afternoon, I met with my Uncle Bob who lives here in town. He just came back from a weekend away, but offered to let me stay with him tonight before catching the train tomorrow morning. I haven't seen him in years, usually when he comes to visit us in Ontario. But he and I had a grand time together; and he was happy to show me some of his favourite places around the city.
Our dinner was at an exceptionally robust and cozy bar called Three Boars, near the University of Alberta. The kitchen had great plates of foods from mushrooms on toast to some really creative PB&J chicken wings (Made with roasted peanuts and Saskatoon berry jam.)
The real attraction here is Riley, working the six-seat bar with never-ending style, and friends with my Uncle. He made a couple different things for both of us, and I finished by asking me to make something of his totally original. He made an iced tiki drink with three different rums, orchid, bitters and a flaming lime just for fun. His drinks and company were top-notch, and a great local spot.
Underneath the open-air roof to the street outside, I'd somehow found the craziest spots indoors at all three points across Edmonton. Each was emotionally wild and exciting, but all make for some great stories to take home. Best of all is the extra bed I get to enjoy tonight before getting back on the train tomorrow, where the most exciting thing indoors is playing cards in the observation car.
Sunday July 16 - Day 16
Current Location: Drumheller, AB
Distance Traveled: 9,230km
When I was five years old, there were two things that I thought are cooler than just about everything else under the sun. The first one was Dinosaurs - which are the coolest animals to have ever lived, no questions asked, period, end of discussion. They are exciting and dynamic creatures, and most children have an awestruck fascination with them.
The second was my best friend from school, named Emily-Ann. She was my first best friend, and in Kindergarten, we were inseparable. But at the end of the school year, she and her family moved to Alberta because her dad (a pastor,) was called to a new church out west. Even across a country, we remained close friends, and get back in touch every few years or so.
I don't get to see either of these childhood loves very often. But today? I got both. And all I had to do was drive out to the middle of the desert in the Alberta badlands.
About an hour and a half west of Calgary is the dinosaur town of Drumheller, which is one of the foremost archeological sites and research cities in the entire world. The palaeontology here is the town's foremost passion, and tourists flock here to see the dinosaurs and dig sites.
While i was excited to see the research sites and the museum, I was indescribably more excited to see Emily-Ann. She now lives here with her family, having just graduated form the University of Lethbridge this spring. We haven't seen each other in person since 2005; and twelve years later, my train pass today brought me back to see my first best friend.
Emily-Ann recommended her favourite lunch spot in town called Bernie and the Boys, which features wings, oversized burgers, and over 100 different kinds of milkshakes. They were featured on Food Network a few years ago, and our lunch was phenomenal. It was truly a hip, local joint, and we had great service from server and server-in-training Carol and Lydia. (They were both exceptionally helpful when it was time to pick a milkshake flavour.)
I eventually settled on salt and pepper wings, along a pink lemonade milkshake. I also got to try the grapefruit and raspberry truffle flavours - but some of the most creative included Red Pepper, Yuzu, Lavender and Orchid Flowers. And yes, they also had normal ones like chocolate and strawberry.
Our next stop was Fellowship Baptist Church Drumheller, where Emily's father is the pastor. The church is preparing for their Vacation Bible School this week, but I hadn't seen her entire family since I was about ten years old. Her parents Mike and Wendy, along with sister Rachel all found half an hour to take a break and visit in the church.
Part of the fun going across the country has been meeting new people and seeing friends and relatives I rarely get to. Today, however, was the longest reunion in the making, and I was really touched to finally see Emily and her family again after all these years.
But we weren't done yet! Emily works as a tour guide at the nearby coal mine and caves, but today she agreed to give a personal tour of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology for Vicki and I. It was officially dedicated by the Queen in 1991, and is the most famous dinosaur museum on Earth.
Beyond my personal interest and fascination with dinosaurs and their history and science, the museum itself is exceptionally well curated. The design is intelligent and creative, with a smart floorpan that works like one long, continuous exhibit - it travels through history one prehistoric era at a time.
Less than 1% of the museum's collection is on display, but there were fossils, recreated environments, and some really exciting displays. This is the best museum I've visited on the trip by a landslide, and a really terrific attraction. My two favourite parts were the preservation laboratory with actual fossils being worked on, and a new display of an entire new dinosaur they just finished assembling this year. (Both of these are the first two images.)
Emily was a great tour guide, telling us about the history of the area and how the museum has evolved since she moved here several years ago. It was a really enjoyable visit, and both she and the staff really made it an interactive and engaging visit. It also wasn't just for us; everywhere I looked, there were families and other guests who were having the same engrossing experience.
The museum is a bit out of the way, but I truly can't recommend it enough to anyone visiting Southern Alberta. Just outside the main building there's also a lookout over the dig sites and badlands where you can see the surrounding areas and valleys. The museum does offer other tours to the sites and further into the Drumheller desert, but for this visit we just ran out of time.
Today marked the exact halfway point in my trip across Canada, with 16 of my 32 days officially complete. I've gone a little more than halfway in terms of distance and total cities I'm visiting, but I'm looking forward to the less intense and fast-paced travelling in the back part of the journey. After a spiritually and socially satisfying day, I'm totally reinvigorated for the second half of the trip.
Also, to end the day on a light note, Vicki and I found the world's largest dinosaur (verified by plaque and world record certificate) outside town as we were driving out. So of course I took a cheesy tourist photo.
Sometimes my inner child just can't resist. :)
Saturday July 15 - Day 15
Current Location: Calgary, AB
Distance Traveled: 9,070km
Some days of my trip have been leisurely, relaxing, and great for resting or simply enjoying where I am. And I know I'll have more days like those.
But today was not one of them. In fact, though I normally only have one headliner adventure each day, today I was lucky enough to have two of them. And they both claim the same title, though I can't decide if either one deserves it more than the other.
The day began early (much too early) with a drive further into Banff National Park, as Vicki and I continued to the town of Lake Louise. Every few miles through the mountains it seems like the scenery is totally different, and every range is more captivating than the last one. And no matter how dramatic nothing make the park any less captivating with every new area we're exploring.
Being a Saturday morning, there were large crowds in the area enjoying the park. We managed to find reasonable parking and took a short walk through the woods until we came to the Fairmont resort, and one of the famous circular views of Lake Louise itself.
Between the symmetry, the colours, and the intoxicating fresh air, the lake was a majestic and harmonious area impossible to describe. There were some visitors canoeing on lake, and photographers all along the boardwalk. I'd heard some of the parks here out west were struggling to keep things clean and maintained with the mass influx of visitors here for free, but the staff have done a fabulous job preserving the site and offering tips and their stories of the lake.
When on the train to Nova Scotia, I'd met some scouts on their way to the Canadian Jamboree, and one of the leaders named Scouter Chris encouraged me to visit the lake and hike to the nearby teahouse on Lake Agnes. He said it was a secret hut in the woods you could only get to on foot - so off we went.
The park guides showed us the trail, and told us it was a 9km roundtrip hike, about 4.5 km each way. What both the guides and Scouter Chris neglected to mention, however, was the hike was entirely uphill through the Rocky Mountains. It took some stamina and extra effort, but we happily hiked for about three hours there and back to find the house. And boy did we take pictures of the route.
I took dozens of photos of each spot along the mountainside trail, and we kept climbing to the top. The big highlights were definitely the lookout over the entire Lake Louise Valley and the waterfalls. Near the very end we came to a waterfall 200 feet above Mirror Lake, and I carefully walked out to the stones in the centre. It was the most exhilarating and dangerous picture I've ever taken, BUT WHAT A VIEW.
Once we arrived at the top, we found the teahouse, and enjoyed some teas and baked goods they made in the old kitchen. The tea house was built in 1905, and still sources water from the lake the house overlooks. My flavour was a special for the 150th of Canada, which they called the "Canada 1-fif-tea." (Get it? It's a tea joke!)
We also found some birds near our bench, and pleasantly had our snack after our hike up the 1,300+ elevation! We had no clue until we reached the top how steep and how tall the hike had actually been. To put that height in perspective, my walk around the top of the CN Tower earlier this week was 170 feet less than what we climbed on foot this morning.
It was an exhilarating trek through Banff and Lake Louise - but our adventure today was only starting.
We drive back to Calgary in the afternoon, heading straight for downtown to the world famous Calgary stampede. One of my mother's friends lives west of the city, and offered her house to us to sleep in while she's away on vacation.
The stampede is a rodeo, country fair, midway, agriculture show, weeklong party and everything you can cram into fairgrounds. The entire assembly is ENORMOUS, and you could easily spend the full ten days here and still not see every exhibition. And with all the real-life cowboys hanging around, our hosts loaned and encouraged me to wear a cowboy hat, saying I'd "blend in easier."
They weren't wrong. And it definitely helped keep out the sun during the hot evening.
We walked around and saw a twelve-horse hitch being put together, miles of sheep in stocks, and ate some delicious smoked chicken and waffles. I even succumbed and (reluctantly) drank a Budweiser, complete in specially designed Calgary Stampede Bud cans.
But all joking aside, everything was really tasty, and we had lots of fun touring the fairgrounds. And we got a great view seeing the 12-horse carriages.
One very special experience that I wasn't expecting was wandering into the Strength and Fitness Exposition and Summer Final Contest. It's run by the Alberta Strongman Association, and we got a chance to meet some of the strongmen competing, and watched them lift some weights over 600 pounds. One gentleman had even ripped a phone book in half earlier that afternoon.
One of the guys we met was an artist based in Edmonton named Tony Reid, a former competitive strongman who now makes sculptures and artworks out of metal...that he bends with his BARE HEANDS. Beyond being super cool and impressively strong, his work is wildly creative and beautiful to see.
He spent some time talking about his work and how he creates the sculptures, and asked about where we were from. When I told him about my trip across the country, he smiled and gave me one of his pieces from earlier in the day - he'd twisted a horseshoe into a heart and signed it for me.
This gift was incredibly kind, and exceptionally personal for both of us. This was a truly special experience for me, and a great souvenir to bring home from my adventure. I haven't been keeping many things other than paper tickets from my trip, but you bet I'm finding a special place for this.
We spent almost half an hour with Tony and his team, and it was loads of fun hanging out with the strongmen. I even tried lifting one of the weights, and with a two-hand mulligan, I was able to lift a two hundred pound block. A huge thanks goes to Tony and his studio, Mind Over Metal. You can find them on Facebook and Instagram, where his original works are also available for sale.
The grand finale tonight was the famous Calgary grandstand show, done each night of the stampede in a 40,000 person stadium that centres on a mile-long racing track. The show itself is a double event, first showing the nightly chuck wagon races, followed by the artistic grandstand nighttime spectacular.
Our host here, Deborah McCaig and her family, surprised us with two tickets in the stands to enjoy the night's festivities. This was an incredibly generous gift from there, and a totally unforgettable experience. There was so many exciting parts to the night, I've been left no choice but to include a second slideshow for the day.
We begin with the high-intensity chuck wagon races as the sun went down, including the retirement race of 6-time Calgary champion Kelly Sutherland. There was a really nice ceremony with him and his family after his last race, and it ended with his son making his Stampede debut in the closing race of the night.
After the race, they moved th large stage into the field and began the evening grandstand show. This year's was called Together, themed after Canada's sesquicentennial. The show itself is part circus, part variety show/concert and part arena spectacular. The Highlights included a tightrope walker on fire, Aboriginal dancers, Fiddlers in water fountains and a circus comedy act imitating a game of table hockey.
The show was beyond spectacular, and the fireworks at the end was one of the largest (and loudest) stadium finales ever assembled. I owe a very special thank you to Deborah and her family for their hospitality and the tickets for tonight; I'm so grateful for the chance to see the Stampede and the massive scale of sport and entertainment that makes it world-famous.
I learned today just how seriously Alberta takes their horsing around. Even though the stampede is large in size, and anything but modest, I was pleasantly surprised how warm and inviting the atmosphere was. It's loud, rough, and an accurately named "Stampede" - and it was also a truly welcoming environment where everyone was encouraged and invited to be part of the local community for today.
After a long, 19+ hour day, I'm ready for a good night's sleep. The party easily went until after 1:00am (even though the Stampede grounds close at midnight) and the city kept gong well into the night. I can see the attraction to both of the outdoors i got to explore today - both in the city and the park. And both too were unquestionably great.
Friday July 14 - Day 14
Current Location: Banff, AB
Distance Traveled: 8,725km
i woke up this morning on board the train still, and slightly earlier than I'd hoped. My plan was to sleep in as close to our arrival in Alberta as possible. But the train staff had some unwelcome news - we'd lost significant time because of rail traffic overnight. Sure enough, looking out my window I saw the town of Unity, SK. An hour before our scheduled arrival in Edmonton, and we were still in the wrong province.
Including the original delay in Toronto, we had been pushed back eight whole hours from our first arrival time, now coming in at 2:00pm instead of 6:00 in the morning. This meant a lot less time to explore today, but the delays weren't finished yet!
Less than 20km from the Edmonton station, we suddenly pulled to a stop and the conductor came on the PA system. He told us that a CN freight car had broken down on the track ahead of us, and we were stopped waiting for it to be moved. They initially announced there was no way of knowing how long moving the car would take. And almost everyone in the economy cars started to lose patience.
It would add another two hours to the final arrival time, and it was finally 3:45 in the afternoon before the train stopped in Edmonton, finally having arrived nearly ten hours late. There was a noticeable attention and anger on board the car, though it's not unwarranted. People had missed connecting buses, flights and car pick-ups (myself included!).
Including the original time locked in Toronto's Union Station before the train left on Tuesday night, we had been with Via Rail just shy of 68 consecutive hours. Going three days without elbow room, personal privacy or a shower is one thing. Extending that length of time on five occasions? That's intense.
Once I'd at last arrived, I was picked up by my friend Vicki from Ontario. She's starting a new job next week back home, but she's been working on farms and ranches in the Prairies for the spring. She'll be joining me for city-hopping in Alberta for the next three days, and it'll be nice to do all the driving with someone along for the ride. (As you can see, we have *no fun together.)
Because it was 4:00pm, we knew there was major ground to cover. Our destination for today was supposed to be Banff National Park, which is a 4-5 hour drive from north Edmonton. The good news is our drive started going through the rocky mountains at sunset, which allowed for some stunning pictures on the highway.
The bad news is most attractions in Banff start closing between 9:00 and 10:00 each night. Meaning we needed to drive fast if we wanted to see anything that night.
Vicki's been to both Banff and Jasper parks before, and I only once to Jasper for a day when I was 8 years old. She had found and recommended a gondola ride that takes visitors to the mountain summit that overlooks Banff village and the surrounding valley. I thought it sounded like great fun, and would be a nice way to see the park.
And sure, our sunset ride didn't disappoint. Some of the views traveling up the mountain were stunning. But once you get to the top, (about 3,500 feet up) overlooking the park is quite something.
Similar to Kouchibouguac last week, the Visitor's Centre was really well put together. We only had an hour before it closed, but there were no crowds around. We enjoyed endless photography at each spot we could find, and I even ran the 1km boardwalk between mountains to an old weather post.
We each took endless pictures, most of which benefited from the awesome shadows and light from the sun setting behind the mountains. Once I ran to the second summit, I took a short break and prayed, enjoying a rare, serene moment for myself. And on the way returning to the gondola, we saw a pair of bighorn sheep! At their closest they were less than ten feet away from us on the cliffside.
After three days of gruelling travel by train and car, it all suddenly felt worth it to be in such a visually striking place. While anything but modest, there's a calmness and easy freshness to this area, and it's really intoxicating for people as they walk around.
To end the day, I knew there was only one way so I could truly relax...and it was the Banff natural hot springs next door to the lower gondola station. It's a 100% mineral spring, near a sulphur spring a few hundred feet away. After not showering for three days straight, enjoying the 40 degree cleansing waters was heavenly. (Don't worry - I took a real shower before swimming.)
Vicki and I enjoyed the Springs so much we actually closed down the pool until the end of the night. We watched the stars come out both from the park's pool and then from a lookout on our drive out. We have an intensely-packed day tomorrow, partly to make up for today's lost ten hours.
But for all the difficulty getting here comfortably, the long trek was absolutely worth it. I'm really excited to continue exploring the park tomorrow before we go into the city, from the great outdoors to the greatest outdoor show on Earth!
Thursday July 13 - Day 13
Current Location: On Train to Alberta (at Melville, SK)
Distance Traveled: 7,450km
Today has been a simpler, quieter day aboard the train. I enjoyed sleeping in until late this morning, and woke up to the rolling hills of rural Manitoba. I'd also promised myself my hot meal of the day would be the brunch offered daily. Even though I'd slept in, the chef was still working, so he was kind enough to make an omelette breakfast for me. Someone also posted a #sign next to the kitchen and menu today!
With tax, breakfast costs $10CDN flat. I watched the cook making the breakfasts on the grills in the kitchen, and it was a great bonus to have a fresh breakfast made. (He agreed to let me see inside the kitchen, but said there were rules against taking pictures.) I had toast, oranges, juice, hash browns and a western omelette - and everything was delicious. This was my highlight aboard The Canadian so far.
Around early afternoon, we arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba for a brief stop to change crews, clean the train, and let new passengers on and off. We still haven't made up any time from our 5 1/2 hour late departure in Toronto, but we were still chugging along as fast as we could. And after 36 hours straight, everyone was eager to stretch their legs and get some fresh air.
Winnipeg Union Station was busy today, and it was jam-packed with new passengers joining the train. The station itself isn't long enough to store the 25 car train, so it had to be split in two for the couple hours we were there. (This only became unpleasant once us folks in economy class had to watch everyone in the Sleeper class eat their lunch from the other track.)
Mid-afternoon we were back on the rails moving straight ahead at a steady pace. I enjoyed watching the countryside pass us by, and i joined an elderly couple from Saskatchewan in a game of Bananagrams. We happily passed the time, and I even won a few games.
I was somewhat worried a few days ago on the train from Montreal, concerned that the train fatigue and boredom was starting to creep in. Any thought of that has vanished now. The new vistas and these fabulously designed trains to explore have found me fresh as a daisy again. By tomorrow I might even be caught up on my sleep again!
To honour and celebrate National French Fry Day, my seat neighbour Spencer and I eat got some sandwiches and free fries from McDonalds while off the train in Winnipeg. We waited as long as we could before having dinner, and didn't mind they were slightly cold. It was somewhat nice to have something other than small snacks and train food for the first time in two days.
Without realizing it, we crossed over the Saskatchewan border just before sunset! As the sun went down, we enjoyed the yellow fields and endless skies around. But come evening the service car turned into a wild party - and got very busy.
The service and panorama cars got jam-packed with Canada150 passengers ordering rounds of drinks from the bar. Somewhat brought out a guitar, and the whole car started singing along to popular tunes, ranging from Drake to The Tragically Hip. I met a new friend from Toronto named Darien, and we both enjoyed the fun from a couch in the corner. She was knitting, and I was enjoying my puzzle book.
Late at night, it got dark (and calm) enough to enjoy watching the stars from the panorama cars atop the train. Because of the minimal natural light, we all sat and enjoyed looking at the stars around us. And most people dozed off, all of us eager to finally arrive in Edmonton tomorrow!
Today certainly wasn't magnificent and grand, but these days on the train are special because they completely focus on the collection of travellers spending time together. Maybe it's simple. But there's worse ways to spend the time moving ahead.
Wednesday July 12 - Day 12
Current Location: On Train to Alberta (at Horsepayne, ON)
Distance Traveled: 5,800km
Late last night and early this morning was a nightmare. If you've ever imagined what purgatory was like, I think I've had something of a similar experience.
I knew early yesterday there was going to be a delay leaving on The Canadian to the west coast, but the forest fires in British Columbia caused a delayed arrival to Toronto by almost 12 hours. As a result, none of us were entirely sure what time we were going to be leaving. The first estimate was for 1:00am, before it rolled to 2:30am, and from there it only got worse.
About 9:00pm on Tuesday, I took a shower and finished re-packing my bags at Caitie's (my sister) apartment downtown. My extreme packing finally gave way, and the zipper broke on my suitcase. Caitie's roommate Lucy was kind enough to give me an extra keyring of hers, and I used it to tie the zipper back together so I could continue to use the suitcase. Thank you Lucy - that was close.
Knowing i had some time to kill, I visited a downtown Toronto theatre to enjoy half-price night at the movies. I finally got to the romantic comedy The Big Sick, which is opening everywhere on Friday. (I'd recommend seeing it - it's really entertaining.) It was midnight when I finally got back to the station, and it was overflowing with passengers.
Everyone in sleeper class was relaxing in an internet lounge upstairs. The 350 economy class travellers, however, were in the basement of Union Station. And almost everyone was a Canada150 pass holder - ready to take the train to Vancouver.
Knowing there was going to be a delay, and knowing the locked front doors meant nobody could leave the train station, Via was proactive and had a table of sandwiches and cookies for us to have free of charge. I was positively exhausted, and also hungry. The food was an excellent pick-me-up, and kept everyone in good spirits.
Between the food and the extremely helpful and well-trained staff. Via Rail handled this delay like true professionals. I was unbelievably impressed with how Via handled the situation in Toronto last night, and they deserve a huge pat on the back for the excellent customer service and efficiency they displayed. It made a revolting night far more bearable.
But the basement of Union Station is not the Ritz-Carlton by any means. Waiting down there was tumultuous and despairing; it was cold from vents fans, not enough benches, and only two bathrooms for everyone to use. There was no cellular reception or internet access, and no outlets for anyone to plug in or charge the electronics.
And anyone who though about trying to sleep quickly had that dream crushed. Even if you somehow fell asleep on the cold floors, there were massive fluorescent lights shining white lights above us on low ceilings. Worst of all, there were OVERNIGHT CONSTRUCTION CREWS working!
They were drilling, jackhammering stones, and doing the loudest possible jobs they could think of. The sound levels were deafening, and after a few hours, several of us had all developed headaches from the noise and the lights. Adding in my two nights of sleep deprivation, and it was pretty miserable. Some passengers had it even worse - some had been waiting as early as 7:00pm that night.
Finally, after a five hour delay, they announced the train had been cleaned and inspected, so they were finally ready to start boarding. The train itself is massive with over 25 cars, and carrying nearly 500 people in all. Everyone cheered as we found our seats, and most people fell quickly asleep. We eventually left Toronto at 3:30 in the morning; five and a half hours late. We had some time to make up.
After a short sleep, I woke up about 10:30am, and enjoyed most of the day on board the train. The amenities and design of the train are very well run, and it's actually quite comfortable. The chairs are easy to lounge in, there's plenty of tables to work at, and the kitchen even has a proper chef cooking hot foods on request.
I bought a dinner cooked on a real stove tonight of BBQ chicken, potatoes, and vegetables. i also got an apple juice, and it cost $12 including tax. It's not overly expensive, and the food tastes more than okay. It's definitely worth the price, and I really like how it's not a frozen meal - it's a real cook in a real kitchen cooking the food. It's not glamorous, but it is tasty. The only problem is the menu is just two choices, meaning the variety gets slim after a day or two.
I spent most of the afternoon typing on my computer and working in the service car on a cushioned bench, watching the Ontario wilderness pass by. I was able to get most work done, but I can only upload pictures and publish stuff online if we have internet or I get a cellular reception. There are some pockets of this trip where we have neither for 8-10 hours at a time.
The only "major" city we stopped in today was a half an hour leg stretch break in Hornepayne, ON - which is a population of about 2,000. Still, it's a good marker to know where on the route we are. On cruise ships, I like being on the ships more than the ports of call, because the boats are so interesting and there's loads to do. Here it's the opposite, where the destinations are more exciting than the travel.
But Via Rail's done a good job with this long distance train across Ontario to BC; taking good care of us, and having enough elbow room in the walkways. This train is definitely less congested than the Ocean train in the maritimes, and the views are equally stunning. Right now I'm truly stepping into the title of my journal, nestling into the train's name, my citizenship, and the section i'm sitting in.
What they don't tell you is to be prepared for the Ontario wilderness. It's nothing but thick, green trees and rocks for miles on end, all the first day long. We passed through Collins, ON tonight, but we passed the station as nobody was getting on or off. Hopefully we'll stop there on my way back, and i can snag a picture at the spot.
Soon we'll be in Winnipeg, but in the meantime, I can sit back and watch the world pass by. I have another full day of the country tomorrow, and I've started and re-typed this last sentence about 10 times with no better conclusion for today. Maybe that means it's time for bed. Or, "bed" at best.
Tuesday July 11th - Day 11
Current Location: Niagara Falls, ON
Distance Traveled: 4,750km
Another day, another early morning train. I’m leaving late this evening for Alberta aboard the Canadian, the flagship train of the Via fleet. Before that, there’s another iconic Ontario town to visit featuring one of Canada’s great attractions.
There’s just enough time today to visit Niagara Falls, one of the world’s natural wonders, and a famous landmark by any measure. I live only about an hour and a half from here - the train even passes through my home today going there and back from downtown Toronto.
But I still rarely visit to see the actual falls and surrounding area. I also have the grandparents on my Dad’s side who live nearby in St. Catharines, and they invited me to lunch in the afternoon.
For this short trip, the Via Rail service is actually on an American Amtrak train car. After Niagara Falls station, the train switches to an American crew and continues to Albany and New York City. The set up is wildly different from the Canadian trains; it’s much less crowded, so almost everyone had a double seat to themselves. But the chairs are extremely uncomfortable, and the food is almost double the price.
(As an example: Via sells lunch sandwiches for $7CAD tax inclu. Amtrak sells smaller sandwiches for
$8-10US, plus tax. Suddenly Via food seems like a bargain!).
Late morning I met my grandparents at the Niagara Falls train station, and we drove along the Niagara Gorge and Queen Victoria Park to look from the bridges. If you've never visited, there's actually two major waterfalls separating the American and Canadian towns.
The smaller, flat one is called the American Falls (as the flow is only from the United States,) and the much larger, horseshoe falls that wrap around the widened river gorge. These are the famous Niagara Falls, and the river rapid that flow towards it separate the two countries by about half a mile. Put together with the bridges across the gap, the entire vista is a natural showstopper.
Also in this area is the start of wine country, where most Niagara wineries have their vineyards and offices, and many also have stores and fine dining restaurants. As we drove through the countryside, my grandfather was excitedly pointing out many of the wineries we passed. He mentioned his favourites, and some of the popular tourist spots along the route in the country area.
For lunch, we visited one of my Nana's favourite restaurants in Niagara-on-the-Lake called Treadwell's. They specialize in farm-to-table cuisine, including a list of the nearby farms they buy products from on the back of the menu. Most of their fruits, vegetables, cheeses, meat and wines come from somewhere in the area.
Everything was delicious. Some of the plates included red pepper soup, lobster sandwiches, pork cheeks, gnocchi and raspberry sorbet and meringues. Best of all, they had an adorable outdoor patio in the shade to sit on. (The small stone waterfall paled in comparison to the Niagara Falls we'd seen two hours earlier, but it was quaint ambience.)
For the rest of the afternoon, we attended a play at the Shaw Festival. Niagara-on-the-Lake is home to the repertory theatre company that specializes in plays from the era of author George Bernard Shaw. They usually produce a dozen plays at four small theatres across town every summer.
We saw Shaw's Androcles and the Lion, a comedy about a tailor from Greece who's waiting to be thrown to the lions in a Roman Coliseum, only to befriend the terrifying beast. It was a small, charming play, and the songs and fun costumes made for a whimsical show. The theatre was also a thrust stage in the town's old 20th century courthouse - which I found very cool.
In all, the three of us had a splendid short trip to Niagara and enjoying a leisurely afternoon outside. I said a short goodbye to my Nan and Grandpa, and re-boarded the train at the Niagara Falls station. There was a half hour delay while they were loading passengers on the train, but that was nothing compared to what was waiting for me back in the city.
When I returned to Toronto, there were screens and desks beginning to check in passengers for the major train out west tonight, but the forest fires in British Columbia caused an 11-hour delay arriving, meaning our departure was now scheduled to leave 4 hours late...with boarding at 2:00am.
Once tonight is over and we finally board the train I'll share the experience in Toronto tomorrow. But with the enormous delays and nearly 500 passengers boarding Via's biggest train, it's going to be a long wait tonight before we're going anywhere. Small misfortune caused delays on all three trains today - where's a lucky charm when you need one?