A “gonzo” rail and bike trip around Western Canada

Being on a train is like riding a bicycle: it’s slow, social, historic, and rebellious

What is it about trains? And what was it about a train journey into western Canada that yanked on my heart hard enough to make my eyes water? That wasn’t the idea. When we first batted the idea around, Momentum editor Amy Walker and I played with a “gonzo car-free road trip” that would see me, a buddy, and a couple of bikes onto a few trains and into a few communities for laffs and blog stories.

To select a route I pored over road atlases and train brochures and happily found that, not only can you circle the region by train (as opposed to just going across), but that two rail providers ~ Rocky Mountaineer Vacations and VIA Rail Canada ~ are wowing the tourists doing just that.

Now, I’ve travelled by bike and train in Thailand, New Zealand and the U.S.; but it wasn’t until California-based Dahon put a couple of tour-ready folding bikes into my hands that I even considered doing it at home.

View photos
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Why? Imagine you’re on a train in Thailand ~ a culture where a bike is just a bike. Like suitcases, sacks of rice and butchered pigs, it’s something you bungy into the luggage car. Here in Canada your bike is something precious that must be boxed, marked “FRAGILE”, and charged extra for. If you’re a North American urban cyclist like me, you run out of energy after you’ve done that few times.

My friend Michelle feels the pain from both sides: she’s a fellow bike traveller who also drives public transit buses for a living, including a past stint with Grayhound Canada. She’s the one who ~ when I put an email call-out to my bike-friends that I was looking for someone to join me on a no-guarantees, multi-modal trip into the mountains ~ the “Reply” button the fastest.

I described the journey’s “gonzo” mission to her and presented an intinerary: we would board the “Whistler Mountaineer” from Vancouver to Whistler, pedal around Whistler valley for a couple of days, then board Rocky Mountaineer’s “Fraser Discovery Route” to head north and east to Jasper, Alberta via Quesnel. After a few days in Jasper, we could swap trains and step aboard VIA Rail’s “Canadian” and head east to Saskatoon (in Saskatchewan), then Winnipeg (Manitoba). We’d spent a couple of days cycling around in each city and then take VIA Rail back to Jasper.

I warned her that in Jasper we’d go hardcore: we would clip panniers onto the Dahons and road-test the bikes on the 300-kilometer stretch of mountainous highway between Jasper to Banff. We’d leave our sleeping bags at home and stay at yet-to-be-confirmed Hostelling International wildernous cabins along the way. Once in Banff we’d get back on track and complete the rail circle almost a month later by climbing on Rocky Mountaineer’s “Kicking Horse Route” to return to Vancouver via Kamloops.

What happened? Well, we did go somewhat gonzo: we rebelliously nibbled handmade chocolates in Rocky Mountaineer’s dining car and sloppily sipped bubbly in VIA Rail’s lounge. And we did get chided about our bikes by a tired station staffer who’d just come back from vacation.

I dutifully blogged it all en route and was keyboarding an edgy moment involving marinated chicken, coconut shrimp and Mount Robson when… I felt it happen. A tweak that signaled that something had climbed aboard, knocked aside my cynicism, softened my heart and would now make me go misty over mountains and renditions of “What a wonderful world.”

My gonzo had gone sentimental. Traveller’s magic ~ something I’d only ever experienced in faraway countries ~ had kicked in here, in my own country. I was grinning stupidly, trusting strangers, learning life lessons.

I realized, for example, that much of the landscape we were travelling through cannot be experienced by car or a bike and because of that, it is rare and gorgeous.

A dawn rose amidst rain forests and golden capped mountain peaks and lit jade lakes that seemed impossibly green. Jasper sandbars, spruce trees and a mink-gray range of mountains framed a frost-blue Athabasca River. Eagles, bears and big-horn sheep came into view just metres from my train window, lingered, then continued their foraging.

How is it that ~ when slowed to twenty clickety-clack kilometres an hour ~ time could swirl and pause and then begin to tell tales backwards, like a Martin Amis novel? The train revealed the landscape that way: riding on steel rails, it could pull us back into rural, then rugged, then wild terrain. Canadian history slipped by the curved glass as quietly as the lodgepole pine and white spruce. It also gleamed elegantly in the panelling of a vintage dining car, or the polished steel of a 1950’s era knob detail.

I realized that trains connect us to that, our coasts and communities; but they also connect us to what’s inside. Inside the train, inside the heart.

The stories of a couple of Rocky Mountaineer attendants pricked my eyes, for different reasons. Sophie had invited her parents onboard for a treat because her mum was donating a kidney to Sophie’s 17-year old son. When the train company heard about the procedure it told her that they’d treat her parents . Rob did commentary, and one afternoon I watched his face and hand gestures become soft as he talked about Canada’s Chinese rail workers, their working conditions and the head taxes they were obliged to pay to bring their families here to join them. The story resounded for him and as a Canadian, he felt that it was important to share with the train’s tourists how ours is a country of many cultures and connections.

On VIA Rail’s westbound train out of Winnipeg, Dennis brought a car of passenger to tears as he sang and told us that this would be his very last trip as a VIA Rail attendant as he was retiring after 35 years of service. He and Karim had joined VIA as college students and even more than thirty years later, they still loved the train and the people they worked with.

I learned that when you step off a train with a folding bike under your arm, you can connect with a community and its bike culture within hours. The bike identifies you, and people will point you to the places you want to go almost without asking.

In Saskatoon, staff at the Senator Hotel connected us with the 50-kilometre Meewasin Trail and the cafes it led to on Broadway Avenue. In Winnipeg , hostel staff directed us the Mondragon Bookstore, where members of the collective were preparing for the next day’s World Car-Free Day festivities.

On the Icefields Parkway, proprietors of the Hostelling International cabins went out of their way to make sure there was a hot fire and extra blankets ready for the two snow-covered cyclists.

What is it about trains? I learned that like bikes, trains bring out kindness. They’re slow and social and can tweak your heart when you least expect it. When you ride a bike or a train, you become historic and rebellious. You tell stories, you cause stories, and you write stories.

I ended up writing more than thirty-five stories about the trip. I hope you read them online, but more importantly, I hope you get your self and your bike on a train line and try it for yourself. I’ll meet you in the lounge car.

Published in the Mar/Apr 2008 issue of Momentum Magazine.