Thursday, September 13, 2007

Whistler to Quesnel by train

Belly leaned against the railing of the Rocky Mountaineer's dome car, 

I am at the very rear of the the car at the very rear of the train. The scenery moves past me, and I feel like I'm in a Martin Amis novel.

The slim book tells the tale of a life lived backwards, and this train is revealing its surrounding landscape the same way. I watch as the train's motion awakens weed fluff and flower petals. A white-rimmed pond appears, and then another. My gaze follows steel tracks that have already been travelled ~ by this train and millions of others before it.

Lunch time approaches and Michelle and I join a dining-car full of other train passengers as our vessel crosses the fields and wetlands of the Cariboo Plateau.

We started Rocky Mountaineer's Fraser Discovery Route in Whistler amidst rain forests, ski slopes and log palaces. We traced the curve of the Green River as it flowed away from the ocean ~ defiant of its westerly position on the Great Divide ~ and drop over Nairn Falls and into Lilloet Lake.

From there, the tacks descended into the Pemberton Valley and joined the Birkenhead River before accompanying first Anderson then Seton Lakes northward. It's early in the day and Michelle is groggy, but a golden cap of rising sunlight warms a nearby mountain peak and the lakes, all of them, are impossibly green, impossibly beautiful.

I feel a prick in my eyes, then a moment of shame for my own sense of awe and pride. I can't take credit for this beauty. I just live here. But it really gets to me sometimes how beautiful B.C. is when you get away form its highways. Gently constrained by the rail lines, parallel tracks, you are visiting first rural, then ruggest, then wild terrain that no car driver's eyes will see.

B.C. history slips by the curved dome car windows as quietly as the lodgepole pine and white spruce. Here in Lilloet ~ a population once so large that it was only exceeded by San Francisco as North America's largest city ~ gold glitters in its past.

The Rocky Mountaineer begins its climb into the Fraser Canyon in Lilloet and passes blue-tarped fish camps staked by First Nations families generations ago. They dangle dip nets into the confluence of the Bridge and Fraser rivers, and cut inch-wide strips into the salmon they hang to wind-dry.

At Pavillion, bunch grass and sagebrush mark the canyon's arid rim and B.C.'s oldest ranches burrow into the folds of the hills. Inside the train, we passengers comfortably burrow into the folds of our reclining seats. Rocky Mountaineer specifically designed the bi-level dome cars to raise sight-seers a storey above ground level, with the tableclothed dining room below. Breakfast, then lunch are called and the car of 40 visitors is divided into two seatings to allow for an intimate, fully-served gourmet meal downstairs.

By the time we are done lunch ~ still sipping Merlot, still nibbling dessert ~ we pass the expanse of Lac la Hache. The train follows the San Jose River which quietly meanders amongst grassy reeds and into a green, rolling countyside south of Williams Lake. It's clear from the number of sawmills along the trains route that Williams Lake maintains a strong involvement in logging.

Over the course of the day the staff and other passengers slowly discover that Michelle and I are the ones with the mysterious bicycles. The idea of cycling the 300km from Jasper to Banff seems like a distant dream from the comfort of these climate-controlled seats. We'll savour our freshly-baked cookies, Bailey's on ice and backwards landscape while we still can. View photos.