Sunday, August 26, 2012

Crossing Canada by train: Part 2

We caught the next westward bound Canadian train just before noon and passed numerous green and yellow fields and the odd small town -- including Portage La Prairie, where an old water tower is painted like the world's biggest Coke can. The picturesque Qu'Appelle River Valley made western Manitoba more visually appealing than I thought it would be.
Portage La Prairie's giant Coke can

Potash drives Saskatchewan's economy and we passed two huge mines and plants shortly after we crossed into the province. We made a 20-minute stop in Melville, and my first step down from the train there meant that I've now been in all 10 Canadian provinces (and the Yukon). There wasn't much to see, so I was happy to reboard and keep heading west past more grain elevators and a herd of bison before darkness came down and we made a 30-minute, post-dinner stop in Saskatoon at 11:30 p.m.

The train rolled into Edmonton around 7 a.m. and we stayed there for about 75 minutes, but there was nothing to do or see around the station, so we returned to the train for breakfast and continued the journey -- particularly enjoying the view as we passed Wabamun Lake, one of the most heavily used recreational lakes in Alberta.

It was July 1, and a Canada Day cake was served at 12:40 p.m. The Rockies came into view less than 30 minutes later as the tracks followed the course of the Athabasca River, but the mountains lived up to their name in what was probably the most spectacular and breathtaking section of the train ride. The snow-capped peaks confirmed that I'd made the right choice in deciding to get off the train and stay in Jasper for two days.

We arrived at 2 p.m., walked to the end of town to the Tonquin Inn to drop off our bags and then returned to browse through the numerous souvenir shops that abound in the tourist-oriented town of 4,000. After booking a wildlife bus trip for the next day, we had a casual dinner of bison burgers at Olive Bistro & Lounge.

Centennial Park was hosting Jasper's Canada Day celebrations, so I walked down to hear a nifty bluegrass combo called Fiddle River Band and make proper use of the beer garden before deciding I needed better beer and went to the Jasper Brewing Co. brew pub for a sampler tray of six of their products, the best of which were the Rockhopper India pale ale and the blueberry and vanilla-infused seasonal beer. It was nearing fireworks time, so I returned to the park to witness an impressive 10-minute display of pyrotechnics. After a nightcap at Whistle Stop, it was time to walk home.

The next morning began with a walk to the outskirts of Jasper to the Red Squirrel Trail, which went through a forest, past a small lake and then crossed a bridge over the Athabasca River to begin the Old Fort Point Loop. This trail began in a forested area and gradually began sloping upward alongside occasional patches of moss that were a brilliant green. There were gentle slopes and then a steep climb to an area that provided a great view to the north of the mountains, Lac Beauvert, the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge and its golf course. I continued on the trail through more forested areas before arriving at a clearing that provided outstanding views of the mountains to the east and south. I had the trails pretty much to myself up to this point, but there were large animal droppings along the way and an adjoining trail was closed because of recent bear sightings, so I rattled my metal cooler bottle to make creatures aware that I was in the vicinity.

I arrived at Old Fort Point, where there never was an old fort. A lot of people just climbed up here from the nearby parking lot and didn't hike the trail. It provided a good vista of Jasper and the surrounding area.

I climbed back down to ground level. It was just past noon and I was feeling energetic, so I decided to take on a longer trail that went along the east side of the Athabasca, which has a steady current flowing north. Two white-tailed deer scampered past about 15 metres from me. The trail alternated between open and forested sections until I came to a short trail that branched east to Lac Beauvert. I walked around the beautiful Jasper Park Lodge, where I'd love to stay if I return and have lots of money.

I returned to the trail along the Athabasca and, while I again spotted lots of recently deposited poop, I didn't see any animals. After reaching where Lodge and Maligne roads meet, I crossed a bridge to the west side of the Athabasca and got on the Bighorn Trail that goes above the highway and railway tracks and heads back south into Jasper. It was more open than forested and was the least interesting part of the hike. I got back into town after hiking more than 17 kilometres in five hours, picked up a ham, egg and cheese sandwich for $3.50 from the Bear Paw Bakery and returned to the Tonquin for a soak in the indoor hot tub.

My mom and I had signed up for an evening wildlife tour through Sundog Transportation and Tours, which cost $65 per person. The driver/guide of the small bus was a wildlife and nature expert who shared lots of her knowledge with us as she drove or stopped to let us observe some of the animals we spotted.

Part of the journey went along the Maligne River, which is at its highest in 20 years and has turned into rapids in many areas while flooding others, including some of the shoreline around beautiful Maligne Lake.

We got within six metres of a large bull elk and three black bears, which was a big treat. We also saw four female elk and four white-tailed deer from a farther distance. Unfortunately we didn't spot any big horn sheep, moose, caribou, wolves, coyote or mountain goats, but it was an educational and enjoyable way to spend three hours.

We arrived back at the hotel just after 9 p.m. and elected to dine at the adjoining Tonquin Prime Rib Village, which served excellent 10-ounce sirloins along with freshly baked bread, baked potatoes and steamed vegetables for $29.

The plan the next morning was to catch a shuttle to the Jasper Tramway outside of town, the longest and highest guided aerial tramway in Canada, which would whisk us almost a kilometre up Whistlers Mountain for great views of the surrounding area. But it was pouring rain, overcast and foggy, which would have made the trip useless. So we stayed at the hotel until the 11 a.m. check-out time, getting the most out of the $245 a night we paid for our room, and took a seven-dollar taxi ride to the train station to drop off our bags.

We walked to the Jasper-Yellowhead Museum and Archives, which cost $10 for the two of us. It's small, but features a lot of information and is well put together and was a worthwhile way to spend an hour.

Brunch at Smitty's Family Restaurant provided me with the Texas skillet (a combination of taco ground beef, three scrambled eggs, hash browns, diced tomatoes and green onions) for $12.99, and my mom with her typical bacon and eggs. We returned to the train station, which was late in arriving, but we finally pulled out at 4:20 p.m. Our two-bed berth was somehow double-booked, so we received an upgrade to a private cabin which has its own toilet and sink.


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