A long night on the prairie, tracing the voyageurs' journey to western rivers and beaver, ended thankfully in the mountain resort of Banff. A couple from Alexandria, Va., a day ahead of the rest of us, was waiting to reboard as we disembarked. Their faces had taken on quite a healthy glow. Mine did, too, after an indoor swim and expert massage that night at the CP's Scottish castle hotel, Banff Springs, and a frosty five-mile hike ending with a mineral springs bath the next day.
Thinking I'd like to return some winter and take advantage of the hotel's strategic air country location, I asked the staff for rail/ski package information. It was, I thought, a logical thing to ask. After all, why would anyone torture their nerves climbing th high passes in a car or bus, when the railroad had spent millions to make the rail trip safe and painless, when, in fact, the company had built both the Banff Springs and her sister resort, the Chateau Lake Louise, 40 miles to the north, to attract rail passengers.
I got only some general information and the patient advice that I might want to consider flying to Calgary by CP Air and renting a car for a one-hour drive to Banff.
I forgave them. But the attitude I encountered at the CN's Jasper Park Lodge a week and a half later, on my return trip ws less forgivable. That I was travelling by train in the first place was a nuisance, it seemed. It required tagging my bags and placing them on the train. That I would consider returning by rail in any season was unthinkable.
I posed my question, there in the heart of glacier skiing country, and was finally informed coldly that the lodge was closes every winter, at least until a new airport is completed.
I began to feel like a traveler caught in a time warp, a tango dancer frozen in orange chiffon motion circa 1940. I really didn't mind except that snatches of Glenn Miller's "Canadian Sunset" would float in and out of my head and I can't be nostalgic about that. I hadn't even been born yet. Perhaps, more simply, my return trip with the CN was more solitary and primitive than my outbound trip with the CP.
I used the CN in a rather unconventional way, admittedly, and for all the sour grapes, I wouldn't do it any other way, given the choice. Rather than boarding the CN's eastbound "super" in Vancouver, I chose to start farther north, using the CN's northernmost spur, unofficially known as the "Rupert Rocket." The "Rocket" literally "rocks" from Prince Rupert on the British Columbia coast, through the most rugged and spectacular of the Rockies, finally joining the "Super" in Jasper.
One of the great aspects of using the spur is getting to it, and the most reasonable way, from Vancouver, is by overnight ferry up the fog-shrouded, mountain-banked sound that stretches from the leeward side of Vancouver Island to Prince Rupert. After two days of light drizzle on the coast - Vancouver and Victoria are beautiful, I loved the museums and formal afternoon teas, but I had to get back on the road, trains do that to you - I exchanged three more days for the convenient Grayline bus/British Columbia Ferry Service ticket and was on my ship, the "Queen of Price Rupert," a day and a half later.
The "Queen" was filled with Canadian businessmen and government officials making their semi-annual visits to the tiny fishing villages and logging camps that line the cliffs and islands of her passage. I purchased a berth but never used it. From the first rough sea roll, I grabbed a brandy and spent a very stimulating night between bar speeches about Trudeau and the Yanks and invigorating stints on deck.
The "Rocket" was a riot, beginning with the dining car stewards, a comedy team set off by the train's military decor of neon red, purple and khaki. It was clean, friendly and the sleeping cars purchased long ago from dying U.S. railroads were even elegant in a worn sort of way.
I quickly made friends with the few Canadian passengers who, in that isolated strip of the north country, depend on the train for nearly all their trips. Halfway to Jasper - and I don't think this could've happened on a CP train - the conductor invited me to the engine cab.From this rather frightening advantage, I watched the Fraser River shoot the narrow cliffs and looked up to the most treacherous peaks I'd ever seen, suddenly confronting, after a steep curve, Mt. Robson, Canada's highest.
I reached CN Jasper Park Lodge at twilight. The lodge, a modern, sprawling resort, wasn't the friendliest place, as I've mentioned. But I would return, to walk around its centerpiece, Lac Beauvert, a glacier-fed pool that quite beautifully reflects the mountain ranges towering on all sides and now heavy with snow. I also had the best meal of my trip there, delicate Arctic char, a fresh-water fish tasting something like salmon, complimented by an equally delicate hollandaise.
The "Super" was two hours late and nearly full, with a real mixed bag of travelers - everyone from American families to a Country-Western band headed for a recording studio in Winnipeg. A CN service aide did his best to put me at ease, though, personally handling my luggage and giving me a complete tour of the train's facilities twice during my two-day, two-night journey to Montreal.
The "Super," like the "Canadian," was custom-built in 1955, but, unlike the "Canadian," has recently undergone a renovation, featuring airline seats covered in Scandinavian textures of purple, blue and red, and string sculptured panels in the dining car. I missed the "Canadian's" good food and service, but welcomed the convenience and solitude of dividing my time between the dome car/bar, the dining car and my roomette, which was comfy and small but not too cramped for a pleasant afternoon of reading and napping.
Too soon the trip was ending and I'd have to find my land legs again. I missed the dome car (which had been removed in Winnipeg) when we reached the Ontario border and my second snow of the trip. But I comforted myself with an early dinner and a dream of the Jasper peaks disappearing into the sunset and the crescent moon rising over the flat eastern plains, bidding me goodnight.