Sunday, May 19, 2019

Railroad through the Rockies

We were very excited turning up at Pacific Central station to catch our train to Jasper. This slightly tatty, semi-grand station is the departure point for the Via-Rail cross Canada trains. They are the last passenger service on the longest railway line in the New World. To go from the Pacific to the Atlantic requires a change in Toronto and a full 6 days, but the Vancouver-Toronto leg on its own takes the best part of 4 days of mountains and then a whole lot of prairie.
We had economy class tickets for the first 22 scheduled hours of that journey, the mountain route from the Pacific to the height of the Rockies at Jasper. Boarding is more like jumping on a regional airline then catching your average commuter train. Bags checked and scanned, called by class onto the platform. Once there we were greeted by a shiny rimmed steel train stretching off into the distance.
It took us the best part of 5 minutes to walk to cattle class, but even there we were ushered on by a super-friendly stewardess. The whole crew were from Winnipeg and proved to be approachable, welcoming and helpful. We were all stoked at the prospect of the journey, the kids spilled on to the train, ran up the carriage to find our seats and bounced around to the extent that a day’s ride seemed potentially on the long side…

Once on board, the unavoidable recce up and down our part of the train showed off the full kitsch of 1950's green-blue decorated carriages, right down to a shiny green leather dining car which looked like it could welcome Elvis. A damn cool place to spend an epic journey.


Pulling off at 2pm, our progress through Vancouver was at a crawl though overgrown cuttings and the back end of industrial estates. The first real views were saved for crossing the wide, deep-brown Fraser River. The train then veered West with the river and headed towards the hinterland.

We were lucky, it was a clear day. While the kids settled down to their books and activities, I stared out the window for hours, as suburbia gave way to country, hills gave way to mountains and eventually to wilderness. We followed the Fraser river long into the afternoon, increasingly along narrow escarpments, with long drops down to the river below.

Occasionally the mountains would open up, giving room for a bit of agriculture and a small town, before closing again to steep river valleys and canyons. It was fascinating to watch the different colours of rivers as they converged and mixed. Emerald green or almost blue side streams would be devoured into swirly brown as they entered the Fraser.

All around were forests, cliffs and peaks. As we crossed the Fraser and headed beside the Thompson river, the land took on a more arid feel. Less trees, more exposed banks. Then back to thick forest again. I spent much of my time up in the bubble car – a curious half second story in one carriage that was mostly roofed with curved glass – taking in the views and chatting to others who were sharing the journey with us. I would take the kids up one or two at a time to share in the experience. Our little girl provided particular entertainment to a couple of nice retired guys who were taking the road just for the hell of it.

People had their different reasons for taking this long-slow road, but they all seemed keen to share and certainly had the time. I have always loved the mini life within a life that comes with being trapped with people on some lengthy form of transport. I must have had conversations with a dozen strangers, discussing everything from the winters of Saskatchewan to drug issues in Vancouver and the history of ice hockey. It was an interesting mix of tourists, pensioners, young backpackers, people crossing the country with limited funds and an odd awkward man who would stop, stare, try small talk and then slide off. Him aside it was great.


A curious thing about much of this cross-country rail, is that it is often split into two tracks. A result of heady hey-days of rail when different rail companies laid track side by side. To this day there is still competition between the successor companies, Canadian Pacific and Canadian National. The former was nation forming, part of a deal with British Columbia to bring it into the Federation. The second was the result of competition, bankruptcy and competition renewed. One track across the world’s second largest country is an immense concept and task. Two is nuts and a testimony to ambition and the hundreds of predominantly Chinese workers who died building it.

An offshoot of this quirk of history was that we often had great views across the river at the other track. This impressed both in terms of engineering scale – we could see mirroring bridges, cuttings and tunnels to those we were on – and sheer weight of traffic. We saw freight train, after freight train, after freight train, dragging massive metal shipping containers of raw materials and grain from the inards of Canada out to the coast and Asian markets. We started counting the carriages with the kids, but lost count well beyond 50. Some of these were far in excess of a mile long. One after another after another.

Being one of only two regular passenger trains to use the route that week, we were perhaps unsurprisingly a second class consideration, regularly being shunted into sidings while miles of freight clink-clanked past. 
At times we would not move for hours. The really nice lady who manned the food cart told me that the extend of traffic would usually mean they were hours and often even a day late. It is quite a sight to see in action the level of trade, consumption and demand of the East, signaled by the huge numbers of containers that were marked with Chinese symbols. An irony of sorts that the railroad which so many Chinese workers would die for now feeds the demand of their ancestral home.


It took a while to settle the kids to sleep on their slouched back economy chairs (Chris fell asleep first…), but eventually all settled while we sat for 2 hours or so in a pitch black siding. Moving forward I also finally fell asleep, rocked by the gentle motion of the train and calmed by the tranquil excitement that a long train journey allows.

We all awoke at first light. The train had made good progress North of Kamloops. The mountains had grown and the scenery was even more dramatic. Back to the bubble car for a great breakfast of pancakes dripping in maple syrup and past Mount Robson, the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies. Real wilderness, vast forests climbing the slopes until they gave way to rock and, right at the top, cloud.

It was quite a surprise to come across a very small town trackside, before nature banished man and we pulled through an eerie landscape of mist, stunted trees and mountains. Snow increasingly dominated, supplemented by ice as we passed a series of frozen lakes, including the large Moose lake.

I find it hard to describe just how dramatic the mountain landscape was. Our train was 4 hours late and the better for it. Instead of arriving at 8am, we were given an extra morning staring out the window as we climbed through the high Rockies.
The only thing missing was some wildlife… Beyond a bald eagle that briefly glided past our window, we had seen little other than the odd horse since leaving the low-lands. As we pulled into Jasper that changed. I glimpsed a big black furry thing out the window. Shouting bear, Niko jumped across to the window and spotted another. A mother and cub black bear were foraging by the track. The trained moved on, but what a first taster of the inhabitants of Jasper National Park!
A day and night on a classic train done. Three days in one of the best national parks on earth awaited.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

A Whale of a Time on Majestic Vancouver Island

We hired a car from Downtown Vancouver and headed South through the pouring rain to the port of Tsawwassen. There we boarded a ferry to Victoria, the capital of BC and main city of Vancouver Island.
The route was beautiful. Across the Georgia Straight, with the mountains of Olympic National Park in the US just visible to the South, and then through the Gulf Islands. These islands are straight out of a tourist brochure for Canada. Forested hills climbing out the sea, with perfect little wooden houses and tiny marinas. As the large ferry snaked through the twists and turns of the passage, we ventured out into the cold wind to look for the resident Orca pod. While we had no luck with that venture, we did spot seals and many sea birds. 
We had a short stop in Victoria. While the port side city did not knock me back with beauty, it was charming in its way with some great almost Wild West style buildings and the impressive parliament. 

We then took the look road North and then West to our destination for the next 5 nights, Tofino. It was a wonderful drive. Back up along the Georgia Straight, offering views down to the forest fringed water, and then inland across the mountains. That was the best part. Absolutely stunning scenery past lakes and forested mountains dusted with snow at their summit. Past Port Alberni, it only got better and ever more remote. We counted 13 cars on a 100km stretch. This was the wild land of giant Douglas Furs, cougars, bears and wolves. 

As dusk fell, we drove straight past two white-tailed deer, before heading over a final mountain pass and then hitting the Pacific Ocean (not that we could see anything as it was now pitch dark) and finally into Tofino.


Tofino is a cool place. A combo of surf town, wildlife adventure hub and isolated Pacific fishing port. It sits at the end of a narrow peninsular, crashing Pacific surf on one side, idyllic forest strewn inlet on the other. In between it and the rest of Vancouver Island, lies the Pacific Rim National Park.
 Our days in town were immense. Barely had we arrived when we spotted one bald eagle and then another, swooping over head. We hurried to the shore to sea what was going on and found “Crazy Ron” throwing sushi scraps to be caught by five different bald eagles. He ushered us close and we got within meters of these intimidating creatures swooping down for a snack. I could not get over how big, beautiful and powerful they were.

Taking a whale tour, we ventured out into a rough ocean, spotting sea-otter and a couple of hundred Stella Sea Lions on small treeless island (larger cousins of the better known Californian variety that concentrate in northerly climes). Rocking back and forth with the waves, we got close enough to hear them. Again size was stand out factor hear. The largest males reaching comfortably over a ton.
Our guide was Tim. He is First Nations and grew up in a hamlet just across the bay from Tofino. His local knowledge and guidance was brilliant. Seeking calmer waters, we headed around and behind Vargas Island. Tim was searching the shores for wolves. We found a bald eagle, two more sea-otter and then… whales!

To be specific, two gray whales. These magnificent creatures migrate every year from the fish filled Arctic down to Baha California. The first we saw was the tell-tale puff of whales taking a breath. We slowly approached, getting closer and closer, until we could clearly make out the tops of their backs every time they popped up for air. The sight took my breath away.
We then spent a good half hour keeping position in the water a reasonable distance while the whales serially dived and came up in circles over and over again. Apparently they were feeding on the shallow bottom, opening their mouths sideways to scrape up all kinds of shell-fish and other edible matter.
It was a phenomenal experience and I was so happy that the kids and Christina (and I) got to see these peaceful giants. On the way back, we glided through the now calm waters of the inlet, catching another sea-otter and a whole myriad of sea birds.

The next couple of days were sent exploring trails in and around Pacific Rim National Park. The quality and variety was fantastic. From beach to beach log-path trails through swamps, to high rise rainforest trails and wind-lashed cliff top ocean-viewing walks. 

We must have done at least 15km of hiking with the three small ones in tow. They were great sports, only rarely complaining and constantly excited (if occasionally concerned) by the prospect of the wolves, bears and cougars that live in the park. We were (un)lucky enough not to see any of these occasionally dangerous creatures on foot, but mention of there potential whereabouts proved a great incentive to the kids to keep going and stay close, as well scouring the paths for all sorts of prints in the mud. 
It is fair to say it also put Christina and I on higher alert than normal, looking at each other with every squeaking tree and making us shift pretty quickly when we came across a washed up sea-lion carcass being ripped up by ravens (the wolves had already had their share a couple of days before…). 

Alongside simply ridiculously beautiful ocean views across the wild beaches and rock crashing Pacific surf, the real stars of the show were the trees. This is a land of giants. In the old growth of the rainforest trail, we weaved in between massive 75m tall Douglas fir. Some of these trees were 900 years old and up to 9 meters around. The undergrowth was littered by rotting remains of their predecessors – their forest cycle from shrub to full decomposition being some 1500 years.
Buzzing and a bit tired from our travails, we finished up each day with a great meal at one of the cool little eateries that inhabit Tofino. My favourite was the Shed, a killer combo of laid back vibe, rock music, friendly people, tasty food and ice hockey. 
It happened to be my birthday while we were in town and I was lucky enough to be given a surfing lesson by my family. It was awesome. Surprisingly warm in an 8mm wetsuit I managed to catch a few decent waves and get bashed around by the Pacific, with the spectacular coast for backdrop. I was still grinning when we went back to the Shed to celebrate.
Awesome as the surfing was, its buzz was edged out by our final adventure from Tofino – bear watching! Stepping into compulsory bright red survival suits, we boarded a speed boat and raced away from the ocean into the myriad of channels, islands and inlets that lie behind Tofino. All mountain forests falling into calm green waters.
 Tim’ son was our guide and he gave us quite a thrill with speed and added loops making Niko roar with laughter as his cheeks and hair flapped. After an hour we made it to Fortune Channel and slowed to a crawl in search of black bears. As we creeped, scouring the shoreline, our guide gave us great insight into bears and the wider environment. Initially there was slim pickings,  teaching my kids the smallest amount of patience in the hunt. After close to another hour we were in luck. Another boat had spotted a bear. We raced towards its location, before going back to a crawl so as to not disturb the animal.
As we approached I struggled to spot the bear. Then suddenly, I caught glimpse of the furry black ball. The bear was searching the shoreline for morsels uncovered by low tide. We approached to 50m, 30m and then she went. It was little more than a glimpse, but it was exhilarating. A black bear had just looked up at us and nonchantly walked into the trees.
Despite waiting around, she did not pop back out. Off in the hunt for more, we soon found another bear. A large male was calmly feeding on a wide open beach. Again, we approached slowly. On our own this time, our little boat crept up to no more than 20m from the bear. There we sat, quietly watching the bear get on with his business. We must have stayed for 20 minutes, enjoying one of the best experiences. God I love Tofino!


Sad to depart, we headed back towards Vancouver for the next stage of our adventure. A stop off for a short trail through Cathedral Grove – a remnant of old forest in the middle of the island that contains the largest trees I have ever seen and was the set for Ewok habitat – was the highlight of a day on the road getting home. 
The ferry journey was not too bad either. A clear day lit up the Georgia Straight, rimmed by snow capped mountain tops most of the way from the US to the grizzly frequented land to the North.
A night in Vancouver with a very special sunset and we awoke to the biggest land journey of our kids’ lives. A 24 hour train journey to the top of the Rockies. Bring it on!

Monday, April 15, 2019

Vancouver - Sea to Snow via an Underbelly

We arrived late on a Saturday night, a bit worse for wear from a flight from London via a 4 hour lay-over in Seattle. I was surprised the kids were still even half functioning after effectively the longest day of their lives (full 32 hour day with the time change). 

Through the tiredness I just about took in the remarkable view of Downtown Vancouver at night as we crossed Grenville bridge. A metal and glass forest of apartment blocks, lit-up and showing off the affluence of the city. 

Collapsing, we awoke to the prospect of half a month travelling around British Colombia and Alberta. From the Pacific, to the Rockies and beyond. Adventure beckoned!

First impressions and Stanley Park 

Waking early with the jet-lag, we left our Downtown apartment on Nelson and Burrell and headed in the rough direction of Stanley Park, renowned for being one of the best urban parks on the globe. 

Sunday morning at 7am is a distinctly odd time to first encounter a city. Downtown had a slight feeling of Canary Wharf, so empty and almost desolate. As we meandered our way West, the city slowly awoke, hungover people scrambling for coffee.
Getting away from the commercial district, Downtown took on more character, though I did not understand why people wax lyrical so much about Vancouver until we hit the water. Emerging on Coal Harbor, we were treated to a view beyond the boats of bay, forests and cloud topped mountains. To cap it all off, sea planes circled down to skid stop on the water.
Most of the rest of the day was spent exploring this coastline and vistas. First by foot and then by cycle. We hired the bikes where the city stops and the park begins (Ariadne on a trailer attached to Chris’ bike to make a tandem). The park was of course Stanley Park. Often said to be the best urban park in the world. Some 1000 acres of forest and parkland, jutting out into the sea.
We cycled 15km all in all around the sea wall, stopping off to admire totem poles, spot a seal, admire the views and pick up Niko after a fall. A diversion in land took us through the temperate rain forest to a lake, where we saw a whole lot of avian fair, including a couple of blue cranes busy frog fishing. Mildly alien yellow skunk cabbages grew from the bogs and no less than 3 types of squirrel crossed our path. A special place.
We ended the day with an exploration of the impressive Vancouver Aquarium. It was great to see the concentration on local wildlife, including rockfish, jellies, a white sided dolphin and even a couple of Stella sealions (more on them later…). The latter two species being kept in large part for research purposes, helping people understand the animals and, hopefully, protect them.

Markets, museums and the under belly

On our second morning, the clouds lifted, revealing the full mountainous northern skyline. It made the views even better, and as I crossing the elevated Grenville bridge with Ariadne on my shoulders, I could not help but keep spinning round to look back on the high rise of Downtown reaching up to the mountains.
We had a nice schmooze around Grenville market - it had the feel of Borough Market in London, but cooler and with better food - before jumping on a boat across False Creek to the BC Sports Hall of Fame. Buried in a stand of the city stadium, it exceeded expectations, chocked full of sporting memorabilia from the Vancouver Olympics and a hundred other events. 
Most importantly, it had a trial sports room, which entertained the small ones with a climbing wall, racing track and HOCKEY!
On our walk through to the not particularly impressive China Town and Gas Town, we has a little surprise. We accidently transversed the most deprived area in Canada – the Downtown East Side. For only a couple of blocks, squeaky clean Vancouver turned into a sketchy place. The first guy we past was sitting drinking covered in his own vomit. Others gave us a stare of ‘what are you doing here?’ One guy we walked straight past had his trousers down, shooting up at the bus stop. It was not a place I wanted to be with my kids. We walked fast and firm out of there.

A block later everything was sanitized again. It never ceases to amaze me how much poverty is on open show in North America just next to huge wealth. I have seen this many time in the USA, but, if I am honest, I did not expect to see it in Canada. Looking into it after, I found out that despite its wealth, Vancouver has a large drugs and homeless problem. One reasons for this is its comparatively mild climate. In brutal terms, people can survive outside like this in the winter there in a way that is simply not possible in the other big Canadian cities that freeze over.

First Nations and a colossal skeleton at BCU

We spent our final morning in Vancouver heading back out of Downtown, through Kitsilano on the bus to the massive campus of University of British Columbia (UBC). On our way the high rise gave way to pretty suburbs with great bay views. We were headed this way primarily to visit the Museum of Anthropology. 
In BC, I was keen to learn more about the First Nations heritage. Around the world I have found such a wide range of levels of respect for aboriginal peoples in ex-European colonies, with the average level being pretty damn low. I did not know what to expect from Canada in this regard, but if the Museum of Anthropology is anything to go by, it is better than most.
The place was remarkable. So many fascinating artifacts from the numerous different tribes who flourished in this region pre-European settlement, and still reside in many places. Masks, canoes, all kinds of intricate weaved goods and implements. Then there were the totem poles and array of carved animals. It was so very impressive. Giant, beautiful carvings of animals and other creations perched upon each other. We all loved it and, indeed, it was clearly a place exhibited with a lot of love. I recommend it very highly.
The campus itself was cool to walk around. Vast and welcoming, with views out over the ocean. It is also home to the Beaty Biodiversity Museum, where I go to watch the boys gawp at the sight of a fully grown blue whale skeleton. 

A mountainous gift

My uncle has put us in touch with family connections in Vancouver, sisters Helen and Clare, and the rest of our final day in Vancouver was spent under their wing. They picked us up in two cars, with two of their grandkids in tow as well, and took us up and out of the city towards the mountains.

The views back over the city were awesome, looking back from the Lions Gate bridge and then the view points as we climbed into Northern Vancouver.
Helen and Clare were taking us to a very special place. Less than an hour after leaving Downtown, we were pulling up at the end of the road in a forested snow-scape. Dressed up as warm as we could, and leant ski poles for balance, we trekked off through the trees. It took us half an hour wandering up barely marked paths (I am so glad we were being guided) over snow and ice through massive fur and conifer. This was Cypress Mountain and we were heading to remnants of time past.
The sisters lease one of the remaining mountain huts, built high up on the mountain side the best part of a century ago by adventurous Vancouver folk seeking an escape. No power lines, running water, roads, drains or even mobile signal. A wild place. When we reached the hut, what greeted us was a simple, beautiful wooden lodge, built high above the April snow line (as the snow can be several meters thick). Heated by a wood stove, cozy as hell, with outside loo pit to boot. While we drank wine and ate smoked salmon, our kids played with their Canadian contemporaries, building a snow fort and generally mucking about. 

I could barely believe we were in such an amazing, remote-feeling paradise so close to the city.
Before dark set in we sadly left, making our way back through the deep snow (I had to repeatedly pull my leg out from sink holes in the snow). It was a phenomenal experience and I am so thankful to Helen and Clare for sharing it with us.

Until next time

Year’s ago my mum visited Vancouver and, on retuning, told me I was not allowed to go there. She feared I would so like the place that I would not leave. Having now been there, I see why. Like any city, it has its issues, but the place is clearly awesome.
Next up Vancouver Island in search of whales and bears!