Afternoon of the second full day on Via Rail’s Canadian, Thursday October 16, 2014
Winnipeg to Portage la Prairie
After a three hour stopover, the Canadian departed Winnipeg on time at 11:45am CDT. Leaving the station headed south, the train crossed the Assiniboine River, which empties into the Red River nearby at an area called The Forks. The river would be a frequent companion until the train had almost reached the border with Saskatchewan. After reaching Portage Junction in southern Winnipeg, the train began heading more or less due west. We had a pleasant view of the post-harvest prairie, a flat grassland stretching all the way to the Rocky Mountains (about a day’s travel away by train). The train line crossed the Assiniboine River several more times as it intersected with the river’s course, which flowed from west to east in lazy arcs.
Here and there were stands of yellow trees, apparently planted as windbreaks. Indeed, the houses all seemed to be surrounded by them. Tall grain elevators stood along the tracks in towns and cities. Most were rather ugly. Their walls had a texture that could have been simulated with duct tape on a scale model. The grain elevator was developed in the United States during the mid-19th century. The elevators serve to collect, sift, and store grain before reloading it on railway cars for shipment.
One can only imagine what shipping grain was like before the advent of the grain elevator, when farmers shoveled the grain loose or bagged it by hand before hauling the sacks to the railroad. Indeed, according to Patricia Vervoort, “With the [first] elevator, 2,000 bushels of grain could be processed in an hour; previously that amount took an entire day.” Thousands of grain elevators once stood in western Canada, starting circa 1879 when the first opened in Manitoba. The prairies, grasslands in their natural form, were largely converted to farms, mainly growing wheat. More on grain elevators later.
The Canadian travels over CN’s transcontinental line, which is almost exclusively used for freight traffic. The line is a single track in most places, with occasional sidings so that trains headed in opposite directions can pass one another. The CN dispatchers (who my father mentioned are referred to as Rail Traffic Controllers in Canada) was being very nice to the Canadian; three times in a row we passed freight trains waiting in sidings for us to pass without having to do so ourselves. This was remarkable considering that interference from freight trains is a large part of why the Canadian frequently runs hours behind schedule.
We passed through Portage la Prairie, a city west of Winnipeg. It seemed like a pleasant enough town. The first inhabitants of European origin were French Canadian fur traders in the 18th century. According to Via’s route guide, the name refers to the settlement’s function as a base of operations for fur traders carrying their canoes to between the Assiniboine River and Lake Manitoba to the north. Although I don’t remember being able to see it from the train, the river is not far south of the railroad. Half of Portage la Prarie is taken up by Crescent Lake, an oxbow lake created when the Assiniboine River changed course.
Riding on the CN’s rail line, it was odd to come across an old Canadian Pacific station, now a museum. The CN and CPR are competitors, and Portage la Prairie is one of the few places where their mostly parallel lines cross.
West of town, the crew pointed out a water tank repainted as a gigantic Coca Cola can, allegedly the world’s largest. As far as I’m concerned, you can’t call it a Coke can unless it’s filled with Coke! (My wife points out that, by this logic, after you drink your soda, the can would cease to be a Coke can. Yes, it’s surprising that I married such a smarty pants!)
A Gloomy Afternoon on the Prairie
After Portage la Prairie, the trees were completely bare. Combined with the weather clouding over, it made for a dreary landscape.
West of Portage la Prairie the Assiniboine River runs well out of view to the south, but comes back into view north of Miniota. The CN line more or less follows the river running northwest-southeast until the the two part ways for good at the town of St. Lazare near the border with Saskatchewan. Around 4:30pm CDT we pulled into a siding to let the other Canadian, eastbound Train 2 pass ours (westbound Train 1).
We’d just crossed the border from the province of Manitoba into Saskatchewan when the sun poked through the clouds briefly. It formed beautiful crepuscular rays (more poetically known as Jacob’s Ladders) across the prairie. Crepuscular rays make for very high contrast scenes. The photos don’t quite do the scene justice, though with HDR processing a little bit of the detail is recovered.
I salute Saskatchewan for rejecting the obnoxious construct of modern life known as daylight savings time. Saskatchewan is always on Central Standard Time. Of course, since a majority of the year is spent on daylight savings time, and it’s one of the furthest west areas in the Central Timezone, an alternative way of looking at it is that is just spends most of the year on Mountain Daylight Time. Although we had to change our watches crossing from Manitoba, we wouldn’t have to when switching to MDT at the border with Alberta overnight.
It was late enough that I had my berth converted to night mode and tried unsuccessfully to take a nap. There was too much jostling to sleep. When I raised the shade in Waldron, Saskatchewan, I was surprised to see an attractive and increasingly rare old wooden grain elevator out my window. I grabbed my camera and foolishly got up on my knees to take a picture. Although the lower berth on the Canadian is high enough to sit up in bed, it is not high enough to kneel on. I bumped my head on the ceiling (the upper berth, really). Although that didn’t hurt at all, a wave of pain jolted through my upper back due to the freak injury I’d had the day before while traveling through the Canadian Shield. It felt like I’d reset it by 24 hours to be as bad as right after I’d pulled it! It would be another three or so days before the injury was fully healed.
Since the mid-20th century, western Canada’s grain elevators have been in sharp decline. The small family farm gave way to agriculture operated by larger companies aided by increasing mechanization. According to Judy Waytiuk, as the small farmers left the prairies, “smaller elevator companies, unable to attract enough business, closed down or were bought up, leaving grain collecting to a few large companies and the three provincial prairie wheat pools, the farmers’ cooperatives.” In addition, the elevators were completely dependent on the railroads. As trucks siphoned off business from the railroads, it became unprofitable for the railroads to maintain the smaller branch lines to serve the grain elevators alone. Some elevators continued operating until they were forced do close due to the railroads abandoning the branch lines that made shipping their grain possible. According to Gary Storey, the number of active grain elevators in Saskatchewan declined from 3,035 in 1950 to just 197 in 2004.
Imperial Holdouts and Collecting Provinces
One of the new Winnipeg-based crew members put a message on the activities board in one of the Skyline dome cars:
“Welcome Aboard Train #001 ‘The Canadian’ with your host Louise. You train today consists of 2 units and 19 cars, measuring 1842 ft. and weighing in at a whopping 1360 tons.”
I’m used to using imperial units, so I don’t remember finding it striking at the time, but the message was somewhat peculiar considering it was written in Canada. Although it originally used imperial units like most former British colonies, since the 1970s Canada has largely converted to the metric system. The message wasn’t written the way it was to cater to passengers from the US and UK. In fact, the railroads are one of a handful of imperial unit holdouts in Canada. Canadian railroads still measure distances in miles or feet and weights in tons. Off the train, most units I saw were metric. A zany exception was a sign at the parking garage for our hotel in Vancouver which read “CLEARANCE 7′ SLOW TO 5k”!
Around 5:50pm CST we arrived in the small town of Melville, Saskatchewan, running maybe 40 minutes late. We had about ten minutes to stretch our legs on the platform. As a result, I can check Saskatchewan off my list of Canadian provinces that I’ve set foot in. Actually, this trip alone covered half of Canada’s provinces. I’d originally planned on visiting all 50 US states, but during this trip I decided it would be a much easier goal to see all ten Canadian provinces instead. (Four provinces and about 20 states remain!)
I spent about nine hours in my berth trying to get caught up on sleep. Out on the prairie, where the terrain is mostly flat and the rail line straight, the Canadian gets up to its highest speed, 80mph (129kph). The train shakes heavily as a result and I was probably up every hour. Around 4am we were somewhere between Unity, Saskatchewan and Wainwright, Alberta when I raised my shade to take a peek after waking up. I was struck by perhaps the clearest view of the constellation Orion that I’ve ever seen. With the dark skies out on the prairie, the stars were incredibly bright. The Orion Nebula looked huge in comparison to how it looks in areas with heavy light pollution.
As great as the scenery was, I wasn’t particularly sad that this would be the last night on the train for a while. The next night, I’d be sleeping in a real bed in a hotel in Jasper amid the beauty of the Canadian Rockies.
Bibliography on Grain Elevators
- Grain Elevators by Gary Storey
- The Wooden Grain Elevator: An Endangered Prairie Icon from the Basement Geographer.
- “Stalwart Sentinels of the Prairie” by Judy Waytiuk in the magazine Américas
“Towers of Silence”: The Rise and Fall of the Grain Elevator as a Canadian Symbol by Patricia Vervoort
Series on Via Rail Canada’s Canadian
Night of Departure and Day One (Across Ontario by Train)
Day Two (Across the Prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan)
Day Three (Across Alberta by Train: Edmonton to Jasper)
Day Three—journey resumed after stopover in Canadian Rockies—and Day Four (Across British Columbia by Train: Jasper (Alberta) to Vancouver)