Skeena Train: Riding the rocky road
When you come from a poky shoebox like Ireland, it's difficult to grasp how big Canada is. Then again, Canadians don't seem to grasp how big Canada is, either.
After a sleepless nine-hour flight from London, I landed in Edmonton in the south-western province of Alberta, where I had a cab waiting to drive me to my hotel in Jasper.
Woozy and jangling, my mind was still set to Irish time: 12.45 in the morning. "Jasper far?" I mumbled to the driver. "Oh, no," he beamed, squinting in the late afternoon sun, "shouldn't take more than four hours."
A few evenings later, a publicist for Tourism Vancouver told me that Hollywood producers love to film in her city because it's "so close to LA". The two are more than 1,000 miles apart. Vancouver is close to LA in the same way that Dublin is close to Belgrade.
Were Canadians to take the Skeena train (which they wouldn't, because trains in Canada are for tourists or freight), they would probably look on the journey as we would look on a stroll to the post office. To me, though, it might as well have been a trip to the moon.
Travelling from Jasper in Alberta to Prince Rupert on the Pacific coast, you're on the train for two long days. All the same, I was keen to try it, having read about the beauty of the route's views, and having pictured a Narnia of pines and firs and snow-draped mountains.
A woman on the TripAdvisor website wrote that she had glanced out of her carriage window to find bears loping to keep up with the train. I was desperate to have the same experience, provided the bears didn't board at the next stop.
Although the route takes its name from the language of the native Gitxsan tribe (Skeena means 'river of the clouds'), the man behind its construction was from the United States: Charles Melville Hays, president of the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. The track was completed in 1914, but sadly Hays never saw it. Having visited England to secure financing for the railway, he set sail for home on the Titanic.
I boarded the train on a warm Sunday lunchtime. Silver, snub-nosed and built in the 1950s, it looked curiously like a Thunderbirds toy, not least because of its "panorama dome car", a carriage with a transparent bubble of a ceiling. Like any avant-garde design, it had an innocent quality; a self- conscious stab at the future that, now the future was here, seemed endearingly antiquated.
A quick warning. Even if you have paid extra to travel touring class rather than economy, don't expect the interior to be fancy. It's fine -- crimson cushions, laptop sockets, enough leg room to seat a giraffe -- but you will be eating your meals off a tiny, beige plastic table that unfolds from your armrest.
Don't expect the meals to be fancy, either. As the train left Jasper we were served lunch. It consisted of a supermarket-standard, cold beef sandwich, a tub of rubbery pasta in a squirmingly sweet sauce, and a biscuit from Subway. All the same, I did feel taken care of. In the lavatory was a helpful eight-step guide, with pictures, to "effective handwashing" -- "1) Wet hands. 2) Soap" and so on until "8) Open door" (to leave the lavatory).
The dozen of us dotted around in touring class were in good spirits. This was in part thanks to the train staff, the booming Tracy and the deadpan Steven, who strode up and down, telling us about the route and what to look out for, and doing jokey little routines. Tracy: "Steven, can you blow those clouds away from Mt Robson? These people have paid a lodda money to see it." Steven: "Oh, just show 'em the postcard."
What we saw, apart from Mt Robson smothered in cloud, was the Scottish Highlands. Or rather, a version of the Scottish Highlands stretched in every direction -- higher mountains, vaster lakes, broader rivers, thicker forests.
My guidebook told me that 50pc of Canada is forest. This struck me as a severe underestimate. Drop Ireland from a helicopter into a Canadian forest and it would be lost as irretrievably as a pine cone.
Much of the Skeena route, I soon found, was a 40ft-high corridor of trees. Very similar trees, at that. Past the windows they went: fir, pine, spruce, larch, hemlock. Then spruce, hemlock, fir, larch, pine. Pine, spruce, larch, hemlock, fir. Within 20 minutes, I sensed that I had already seen every possible sequence of these five trees.
Still, the view wasn't monotonously green, as a plague of pine beetles had thoughtfully added variety by infesting British Columbia's forests, causing many trees to turn a fiery red.
As we chugged on down the corridor, I had three things on my mind. First, what a feat of stamina it was to lay such a length of track through this mute, prickly wilderness.
Second, imagine living out here. Because people do, or did. Not many -- whole half-hours heaved by during which the only evidence that man had ever passed this way was the track itself -- but now and again we would spot a clearing with a shell of a shack, long deserted, and beside it a neat stockpile of logs that would never be burned.
Or, more remarkably, surviving communities, such as Dunster, with its all-in-one general store, petrol station and post office, but no houses I could see to serve; and McBride, which even had a hotel. I tried to imagine what kind of guests it could possibly attract: honeymooning chipmunks, perhaps, or philandering moose?
Which brought me to my third thought: where were the animals? Until a coyote at 5.25pm on day one, I saw no creature more exotic than a crow. The forests of British Columbia, Unesco says, are home to more life per square yard than anywhere else on Earth -- elk, wolves, hawks, bears, etc, yet there was barely a bird in the trees.
Perhaps it was just my bad luck, or the weather that day, drizzly gloom. Steven told me you often see bears feeding trackside on grain spilt by freight cars. Once, a heap of grain had been rained on before any bears got to it, so by the time they waddled out of the woods it had fermented and was giving off boozy fumes. He gazed at them tumbling and lurching as drunkenly as students.
"Happy hour!" shouted Tracy, with expert timing, and poured out white plastic cups of wine.
As dusk crept over the treetops, we pulled into Prince George. You can't spend the night on the train, so you have to book a hotel here. Prince George, unlike the communities we had seen earlier, is a proper town. It was a fur-trading post in the 19th century; today it is home to more than 80,000 people.
A nice publicist for local tourism took me to dinner and tried valiantly to persuade me of the town's merits. Unfortunately for her, the next morning I saw the place in daylight.
An endless succession of concrete rectangles -- the streets all gridded, the buildings all blocks -- it appeared to have been designed by some bug-eyed evangelist intent on proving, by the proximity of so much verdant, mountainous splendour, the superiority of God's creative powers to man's.
Trudging towards the station I looked up to see a colossal yellow sign saying 'Liquidation World'. It sounded like the planet's bleakest museum, but instead turned out, no less bleakly, to be a discount chain store, flogging goods from shops that had been shut down.
By 8am we were back on board. Tracy and Steven had been up for two-and-a-half hours, preparing our breakfasts and tidying the train. Our final destination was a further 13 hours away. This, mind you, was nothing to Tracy. "My first job on the trains?" she boomed proudly. "1981. Dishwasher, 18 hours a day, six days a week, five months straight."
I have never declared war on a sovereign nation, but if I ever do, I'm appointing Tracy my general.
The train panted on. I slouched in the dome car, scanning the glum marshes, the khaki rivers, the lakes discoloured an alien turquoise by glacier silt. At intervals stood fishermen in waders, an abandoned tractor rotting in a field, a pair of deer, an ancient Indian village with totem poles hard to glimpse through the trees.
By this point you may be under the impression that a lot of the Skeena route is hypnotically repetitive, and that therefore it isn't worth doing. In the first case you would be right, and in the second you would be wrong.
The Skeena route is a test. A test of your resilience, your patience, your ability to hunker down and sit tight till something wonderful turns up. And it does. Over the two days, you will be on the train for a total of 20 hours. And all the most spectacular sights come in the final two.
Suddenly the corridor of forest is gone. In its place is sheer disorientation. Mountains, each with a halo of white mist. Between them, a golden sunset draining down the horizon. The river, sharp as a mirror. You lean out of the window and feel the cold bright air whistling past your face. It's a rush.
The photographs you take will not do it justice. This won't be your fault; the landscape is mischievous. You aim at some astonishing peak or a swerve of the river, then examine the screen on the back of your digital camera. A rogue, blurring tree has dived across like a goalkeeper to block your shot.
The sky seems bigger than you have ever seen it. Almost unnoticed, night descends. The train rattles on through the gathering black. Tracy, doling out dinner, leads the carriage in a chorus of 'If You're Happy and You Know It'. Wind whooshing through your hair, you stand at the window, as stupidly euphoric as a dog sticking its head out of a car.
Eventually, your senses overloaded, you feel the train slow as you close on your destination, the port of Prince Rupert, a looming silhouette of cranes tacked with red lights. As you clamber down on to the platform, you stumble as clumsily as a calf.
"You feel like you're swaying?" barks Tracy cheerfully. You nod. "Same here, every time," she says. "Even in my hotel room after, I stand there and I feel like I'm swaying." Still, she's used to it. She's done this trip 180 times in the past six years. You might not manage to match her. But you will want to do it again.
NEED TO KNOW
Michael Deacon flew with Air Canada: (01 679 3958; aircanada.com); return fares from Dublin to Edmonton via London start at £690.60 (¤790), including taxes. The airline’s new service from Dublin to Toronto begins on June 10.
Michael stayed at: The Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, Jasper, Alberta (001 800 0441 1414; fairmont.com/jasper), doubles from C$229/¤165pn.
The Coast Inn of the North, Prince George (001 250 563 0121; coastinnofthe north.com), from C$124/¤89 a night.
The Crest Hotel, Prince Rupert (001 800 663 8150; cresthotel.bc.ca), from C$139/¤100 a night.
The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver (001 800 0441 1414; fairmont.com/hotel vancouver) from $229/¤165 a night.
THE TRAIN JOURNEY
From where to where? Jasper, Alberta, to Prince Rupert, British Columbia, with an overnight stop in Prince George, BC.
How far? 1,160km (721 miles).
How long? About 20 hours over two days, but there are bound to be delays caused by freight trains (which take priority over tourist trains).
How much? Touring class (with the ‘panorama dome car’): C$500.85 (¤360). Economy (full fare): C$205.80 (¤148). Economy (supersaver fare): C$123.90 (¤89). Note that touring class operates June-September only. For bookings, visit Via Rail website, viarail.ca. More information on britishcolombia. travel
Sitting comfortably? Fairly.
Buffet or banquet? Meals are provided, but they are cold, and hardly haute cuisine. Vacuum-packed chicken salad, sickly Subway pastries, Special K, orange juice in a plastic container...
Time to read A handy Canadian guidebook, ‘Trans-Canada Rail Guide’ (Trailblazer).
Time to listen to The Canadian band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Pretentious though it may sound, instrumental rock suits the sweeping loneliness of the scenery.
When to go Autumn is beautiful, but the bold could try winter, when the temperature can fall to -35°C.
Must pack A fast-action digital camera.