If time is on your side, take the train. A good rule to live by. Trains generally arrive in the centre of town, have more space and you are free to walk around and you see, a lot. So it was that we, needing to get from Toronto to Vancouver, found ourselves on the trans-Canada train rumbling through northern Ontario watching the fall trees changing colour before our eyes.
The scenery still seems like it is locked on a loop of lakes trees and rivers as we scale our way around Lake Superior. Virtually no towns at all or signs of human life. The train has a smooth ride and not too busy. Allowing us to have two seats to ourselves and stretch out. We have our packed food supplies which serves us well, although a jar of cumin seems to have leaked into everything. I will never forget the smell of cumin!
Gradually the trees and forests give way to open plains as we enter the province of Manitoba. Shortly after we arrive in the capital Winnipeg round 5pm. Home to Winnie the Pooh. Absolutely freezing. It is strange as we are still a little sunburn from Hawaii weirdly only a few days before but are now under in 4 layers of clothes!
We get the local bus from the train station to the hostel. We amuse everyone on the bus with all our luggage and our questions of how to get where we’re going. Everyone very nice and we realise why. The number plates claim that we are in ‘friendly’ Manitoba. Hostel decent and we head off to catch a movie.
Next day we brave the cold and walk around town. There is a display of many a plaster bear mould, painted in various colours. This leads us to consider a trip to Churchill up north on Hudson Bay, accessible from Winnipeg by train. Our tickets are valid for the trip as we have a number of days to use our train passes. Accommodation and trip out on the Tundra to see the bears could be pricey though. We waver in between going and not going and realise that it could end our trip prematurely if we go, so we say no. Don’t have many regrets but that may have been one.
We continue around town and pass by the Forks. The joining of the Assinbone and Red rivers being the significant geological feature of Winnipeg. We get some soup to warm up in a coffeeshop. Winnipeg is small and a little run down. We head to the mall and organise a few upcoming trips out of Jasper. I manage to lose my beanie. D’oh! Having carried it for 4-5 months and only wearing it for one day is a bit disappointing. Attempts to locate it are in vain I can’t even get anyone to understand me. The word beanie not resonating. If you are ever in search of a beanie in Winnipeg, ‘wool hat’ is your best bet.
We stroll down Osbourne St and come across an Aussie bar named ‘The Billabong’ of all places. Pretty good bar come restaurant though, not your tacky chains or Aussie ‘themed’. But you could buy a Carlton Cold beer. We meet the owner, a somewhat of a bogan Aussie guy but good value. We also are introduced to another Aussie guy sitting at the bar near us. We are informed this is the most Aussies in his bar at the one time.
The second guy was in a bit of limbo land as he’d just been kicked out of the USA, for life. Apparently he had commented on his blog about the fact he had to pay a September 11 tax. The comment made all the more controversial as it was made on September 11. Then as he travelled out to Winnipeg and returned to the US they picked up on this and banned him for life! Very harsh! He is now holed up in this Aussie bar awaiting a way to get home without going via the US. Plus he needs to get his hire car back!
We enjoy the conversation and decide to stay for dinner, which stretches the budget but at least it’s cheaper than seeing some polar bears! We get in further conversation with the owner who brings us some Tim Tams, yum! We also find out that he was also banned from the US for life?! What is happening here! Apparently, this guy saw a dead deer on the side of the road in the US and as he was drunk at the time he moved a street sign from where it was installed to be nearer where the deer lay. Feeling, in his inebriated state that the sign seemed more relevant where he had moved it to. The police officers didn’t see it the same way.
We leave Winnipeg aboard the train on our way west. Next stop Edmonton!
Around 10pm I am cleaning my teeth in the bathroom and a small jolt is felt followed by a sudden deceleration. Finally the train stops all together. Some time passes before it is known that our train just collected a fertilizer truck at a level crossing!
Eventually as we get moving again we pass the wreckage with fire and ambulance in attendance. The truck is totalled. Thankfully the driver is not hurt badly except perhaps needing a change of underwear. It was a contrast in the amount of damage done to the truck and the very small bump we felt on the train. Train 1; Truck 0.
We arrive Edmonton the next morning a little late. Boy is it cold! Edmonton is quite a ways north of Winnipeg and today is a clear, very crisp morning. The ice crunching under our feet as we walk a few blocks from the train station to the bus station and bus into town and on to the Hostel. The Edmonton HI Hostel, once a nunnery, now housing scabby backpackers. But it is fine for the price. The mattresses are simply gym mats but it is clean and close to town.
We stroll around our neighbourhood of Starcoma and come across a farmers market. Plenty of food stalls with taste testing options we find quite tasty and free! We scarily get excited about being invited to take part in a taste testing exercise for a bread company, just for the food. It sounds like we were on our last legs but we weren’t, yet. But we did like finding opportunities to get such a deal and not have to part with any cash if we didn’t have to.
Our penny pinching ways became a bit of a competition as I completed a survey in the local Tim Hortons (coffee shop chain) to get some free tim bits (mini donuts). We then went to use the internet at the library (also free) then continued on to see a movie North Country given it was filmed around Winnipeg and walked into another cinema for a another movie to pass the time on a budget.
West Ed Mall
Next day we make a trip over to the West Edmonton Mall. ‘West Ed’ has the reputation as being the biggest shopping mall in the world including a massive water park. Given the temperature we couldn’t think a swim would be possible but it was yet we declined, instead watching hundreds of kids use the waterslides. Worth a visit despite the non event and headed back to the hostel to chill out, read and cook.
Next morning we are on the train again gathering a small posse we have met on the train whom also spent two days in Edmonton. The familiar plains we have experienced thus far are broken up by some ominous mountains in the distance. The snow capped Rocky Mountains gets nearer and nearer until we have mountains surrounding the rail line and we gaze upwards at the majestic peaks.
Immediately we go into bear spotting mode, or any wildlife really. We spot a moose only briefly. Quite relaxing careening through the mountains. The Rocky Mountaineer train does a similar leg and while ours isn’t as luxurious the view is the same and we have a glass ceiling dome car at the back of the train to get the best views.
We pull in to Jasper which is an entry point to explore the Rocky Mountains. We pick up our hire car for the next few days and first head out to Pyramid Lake, coincidentally reflecting the image of Pyramid mountain towering above. Water is crystal clear with a nice lodge completing the backdrop. As it’s coming into winter most things are closed up and we are the only ones on a small trail around the lake. Ears are pricked up for sounds of bears whom are in their final stages of berry eating before hibernation. Although we feel they would not turn down a couple of warm blooded humans to help them through the freezing winter also.
There are plenty of deer, elks, coyotes and moose in these parts also and deer can be often seen by the side of the road or nibbling the grass on someone’s front lawn. We drive up to the the hostel some way out of town which again is basic but clean and we make up dinner and site with fellow backpackers watching movies.
About The Author
Ever since venturing out the back gate into the bush as a kid, I've had a curiosity to escape and explore as often as I could. It's fair to say that my curiosity has continued to grow instead of fade as the years go on. It eventually came time to turn a few scribbled notes into some legible stories and travel tips for anyone with a similar curiosity as me.