By Steve Bergsman
I’ve traveled from Vancouver to Whistler many times over the past decade but always by car and, more often than not, I was driving. Now that I’ve made the trip by train, I wonder what I was thinking. The trip took longer than it would have by automobile, but this time I had the pleasure of actually getting to look at the scenery instead of focusing on the twisting, climbing road.
It was an unusual journey for me since I usually go in the winter for the skiing. This time it was summer, and I was in no particular hurry. I would head north from Vancouver with an overnight at Whistler, then board the train once again and head farther north to the small city of Quesnel.
The first part of my trip was on the Whistler Mountaineer. This “Sky-to-Sea” route bisects scenic parts of British Columbia that include the fjord-tormented coastal region and the mountainous interior. The train left the station at North Vancouver and slowly wound its way through West Vancouver before turning north. The train isn’t any faster than a car along this beginning stretch, but passengers get to see a lot more of the pricey homes, cabins and gardens tucked away in the deep verdure.
At this point the train was going due west, but it made a right turn and we began to shed civilization. The train headed north along the eastern shore of Howe Sound, the most southerly fjord in North America. Here the best views of the sound, its islands and the majestic snow-capped Tantalus Range beyond are off to the left side of the train. The historic observation car also makes for good viewing and photography since most of it is outdoors.
At first the train hugs the coastline, but as you travel farther north the tracks are laid higher and higher on the mountains, creating some good views of the sound, especially where the Cheakamus River empties.
At Squamish, our train stopped to pick up a few more cars. This was really the bridge point between the sea part of the trip and the sky tracks because as the train began to move north it curved along the walls of the ever-rising Cheakamus Valley, climbing 2,100 feet. The layout of the tracks, a feat of engineering, afforded fabulous vistas of the vibrant river cutting with whitewater through the valley floor.
And this was only the start of the fun.
The Rocky Mountaineer runs what is called the Fraser Discovery Route that officially starts at Whistler then winds its way along the path of the Fraser River north to Quesnel and Prince George before turning east into the Rocky Mountains. I wouldn’t be taking the whole route, instead departing in Quesnel, where the Fraser River meets the Quesnel River. Both the river and the town are named for an aide-de-camp of Simon Fraser, who explored this region.
After a layover in Whistler, I boarded the two-story dome car. We would spend the rest of our journey in what was essentially a first-class elevated observation car. I appreciated this luxury because the stretches ahead were long. This route is not built for a speedy train, with tracks often perched precariously at the edges of cliffs hundreds of feet above a river valley. The trip from Whistler to Quesnel took about 12 hours. Passengers who go all the way to Jasper cross the two highest trestles in Canada.
The mostly glass dome car was comfortable, but it was worth leaving at mealtime. My breakfast was two strips of smoked salmon resting atop a dollop of scrambled egg and nicely accented with caviar.
Western British Columbia as seen from the train offers some of the most dramatic sights nature has to offer. From Pemberton to Lillooet, we journeyed through a tunnel of dense forest, and where the tree line broke, we saw endless snow-capped peaks.
After Lillooet, the climb gets scary as the tracks run along the very edge of a valley wall. The land elevates and the Fraser River below gets smaller and smaller. Slowly but steadily our mighty train climbed, all the while holding to a very narrow stretch of flattened earth between the rocks to the right and the abyss to the left. By the time we reached the high mountain plateau, we had climbed 2,700 feet.
With the deep forests left behind, we traversed an arid stretch of land. The elevation rose and near Lone Butte reached 3,865 feet above sea level, the highest point on my journey. Then we plunged once again back into the forests and a land dotted with mountains and lakes
On the last leg, the vistas opened up to an agricultural countryside of cowboys and cattle cut by patches of birch, aspen, spruce, pine and fir. Here we saw bighorn sheep, bald eagles, ospreys, pelicans and sandhill cranes.
By the time I got off the train in Quesnel, I had seen some of the best landscape British Columbia had to offer, eaten three delicious meals and was completely relaxed. I felt a wisp of jealousy for the folks who were going on to Jasper the next day. At some point after Prince George their train would head straight into the Rocky Mountains — another fascinating journey.
IF YOU GO:
From Vancouver to Whistler: www.whistlermountaineer.com
Through British Columbia: www.rockymountaineer.com
Overnights: In Whistler, Whistler Village Inn and Suites is centrally located between central Whistler Village and Upper Village: www.whistlervillageinnandsuites.com.
In Quesnel: Best Western Tower Inn is the best hotel in town with a good bakery nearby and a short walk to the Fraser River: www.bwtowerinn.ca.
Steve Bergsman is a freelance travel writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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