A Rocky Mountaineer Experience

Calgary is sleeping soundly in the pitch black of an early fall morning when the Rocky Mountaineer train pulls out of Union Station. It’s 6:15 a.m. and most passengers are bleary eyed but for the jumpstart of coffee, lulled into inertia by the fast movement of the train as we zip through the darkness en route to Banff.

When the morning light creeps in, there are towering mountains on either side of us as the sun breaking gently over their sheer, rocky slopes. Around us there’s a hum of chatter, with accents hailing from Germany, England and Australia. Many of these travelers have come vast distances, lured by the prospect of seeing the day break over the snowcapped Rocky Mountains.

It’s the mountains that steal the show, their silhouettes highlighted by the blue sky of a perfectly clear morning. Some have smooth, snow-topped foreheads, while others, like Castle and Cathedral mountains, have jagged spears and ridges protruding from them, evidence of meticulous sculpting by glaciers millions of years ago.

Rocky Mountaineer Railtours offers a Banff-to-Vancouver circuit, one of its most highly sought-after trips. As I curl up and gaze out of my window from the Gold Leaf dome carriage, it’s easy to understand why. Gold Leaf means raspberry scones and quiches to take the edge off any hunger before the formal breakfast, and champagne and orange juice to toast the voyage. It means white table clothes and exquisitely presented gourmet meals cooked in a swaying kitchen carriage. Passengers are plied all day long with offerings of wine and beverages, chocolate-chip cookies straight from the oven and snacks and canapés to add flavour to the scenery.

We pass through the alpine village of Lake Louise during breakfast, a sumptuous meal of asparagus omelettes, kelp caviar and smoked salmon. Here, we reach the Continental Divide, the point of highest altitude in our journey and the rooftop of Alberta and British Columbia. The Divide marks the place of separation where snowmelt flows into the Atlantic Ocean on east side and the Pacific Ocean on west edge. But, on this day, the waterfalls are frozen into stillness and the initial dusting of powder gives way to large expanses of snow that cake the mountain’s layers of dolomite and limestone rock. Most people know them as the Rockies, but, in fact the Rockies are only one of a number of mountain ranges we will traverse.

On the first day, we move steadily through the Ottertail, Van Horne and Beaverfoot ranges, with brief glimpses at the Kicking Horse River as it tumbles over the sloping rocks. Apart from glaciers and mountains, it’s wildlife we’re watching for. Elk, moose, grizzly and black bear, bighorn sheep, mountain goats, wolves, coyotes and even cougars and lynx might cross the train’s path — and bears are a frequent sighting. On this journey, we pass two of them, both a dark flash in the window before they disappear.

The next day, the scenery changes dramatically. Gone are the snowcapped mountains and layers of forest. In their place, we travel through desert country alongside the Thompson River canyon. The salmon are in their dying throes in October and sightings of bear and bald eagles become more frequent along the riverbank as they feast on the wasting bodies of the fish.

Within a few hours, the scenery changes again and the barren desert yields to the maples and Douglas fir forests of the Fraser River canyon. We’re in a temperate rainforest, the trees turning that magical fall colour of yellow and gold. From 20,000 feet above the rushing river, you can see clouds forming before your eyes.

Travel through this landscape and the view is tranquilizing for the soul, the kind of scenery that makes you sigh deeply in grateful appreciation of living in so beautiful a region of the world. Stone bridges sail by, crucifixes adorn long-unused cemeteries and magnificent expanses of land stretch forever, a reminder of how small and insignificant our cities really are.