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Crowsnest Pass, Alberta


The GPS on my phone isn’t always reliable, especially in remote areas and in the mountains. So before I hit the road each day, I quickly scribble directions in a little notepad. Old school mapping in case of interrupted technological assistance.


First sight of the Rockies

It takes me awhile to leave the city of Calgary as I fill up with gas and pick up a Starbucks breakfast. I drive south on the Deerfoot Trail and am awestruck — as always — by my first view of the mountains on my right. They sit prettily on the horizon, completely covered with snow. Eventually of course I turn west and slowly climb through them.

The north-south Cowboy Trail (Highway 22) leads to the Crowsnest Highway, a long, high, flat windswept road up to the Crowsnest Pass. Along the route, I lose my GPS directions. My phone tells me they’re not available because of road conditions, whatever that means. There’s a little bit of snow on the pass, but the weather is good and it’s sunny. Traffic is light and moving well.

The Crowsnest is a fairly low-elevation pass that crosses the Continental Divide of the Rockies. I drive by the site of the Frank Slide, a field rife with the rubble (and remains of dozens and dozens of buried residents) left when 82 million tonnes of limestone rock slid down Turtle Mountain in less than two minutes, covering part of the town of Frank, The Canadian Pacific rail line and a coal mine in the spring of 1903 when the region was still part of the Northwest Territories. A frozen piece of history.

In fact, the thriving Crowsnest community has a colourful history, complete with train robbery, shootouts and rum-running. A landmark is the 600-plus-year-old Burmis pine tree, twisted and weathered and dead for nearly 50 years, but still standing resiliently against the wind.


The Elk Valley Highway

It’s slow coming down off the pass because there are plenty of icy patches on the road. The shiny blue-grey-green rivulets running through the snow-blasted evergreens are stunning, so it’s really enjoyable to drive at a quiet pace.

I only have another hour to reach my destination: the “Wild at Heart” Rocky Mountain town of Elkford, British Columbia, which sits at an elevation of 1300 metres at the end of the Elk Valley Highway 43 near the Teck Coal Greenhills coal mining operation.


Goodbye to numerous hikes on Kamloops’ trails

I’ve stayed up all night with my daughter watching movies and saying goodbye. At 5:15 a.m., she wakes up her boyfriend and we hurtle towards the Kamloops train station, only to spontaneously backtrack to the only Starbucks open at this time, so I can grab a hot breakfast.

The morning light gilds the folded desert hills with a fluorescent frosting and a rainbow still hovers in the sky from last night’s rain.

Coffee and sandwiches in hand, we race back to the station, arriving to find the train already waiting. We have to walk the full length of nearly two dozen carriages so I can board the front car. I seem to be the only one embarking.

My lack of sleep last night catches up to me and I doze on and off until we reach Jasper at 3:30 p.m. However, I do catch a quick glimpse of the stunning cascading Pyramid Falls, shimmering and twinkling like jewels in the bright late morning sun, and I wake periodically to a large glinting lake or snow-capped peak out my window. It’s hard not to stare infinitely out the window as the view of Canada’s Rockies and wilderness is truly mesmerizing.

pyramid falls

Pyramid Falls

When I’m awake, I snack on some raw vegetables, stretch my legs and hover momentarily in the dome car to watch a brief sudden rain beating down on the metal roofs of the coaches. And I pick up a cup of hot water for tea from the canteen and snuggle under my black pashmina to read “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared.”

We have an hour or so stopover at Jasper – we’ve lost an hour en route and are now on Mountain Time — so I walk around the town for about 45 minutes, pick up a few little treats at a grocery store for the train, and catch up with my email.

At Edson, we are delayed for four hours because of a freight derailment. Some of us disembark for a while, but it’s cool and it’s quite late in the evening by this time, so I keep my stroll brief.

We finally start rolling at nearly 1 a.m. We were scheduled to arrive in Edmonton at 11, but by the time we arrive, dawn is rising over the prairie.


train checkAt dawn, we pass Sudbury’s birch forest stands and graffiti-stained granite rock outcrops, picking up some new passengers at Capreol. One is carrying a fishing rod, which he leaves behind accidentally when they disembark. Pretty impressive how the conductors make arrangements to return it on an eastbound freight!

I’ve slept on and off in one position or another, curling up, straightening out, stretching this way and that, often waking with an aching limb or tingling digits, forcing me to re-arrange myself across my seat and the one next to me. And I’m cooler than is acceptable. I’ll have to dig out my thick red sweater from my suitcase.

The toilet at the back of our car becomes blocked. Then the front one. Then all the toilets in economy class! Apparently they are computerized and it’s a simple matter to re-set them.

Raven, who tells me her eye is recovering from nerve damage to the lid – “I see four of you,” she laughs — tells me about a three-month solo hike she did in the Rocky Mountains two springs ago that changed her life. She shed her fear of being alone, came to understand Nature and now works for an environmental lawyer. She also tells me of an earlier near-death experience, when she was unconscious for eight days.

“There was no white light or tunnel, just the feeling of being safe and loved. But I was where I was supposed to be. It’s hard to describe the experience. Now I understand I have to do the best I can with the life I have left.”

Athabasca River

Athabasca River

The young man behind me overhears us. He leans forward, grabbing the back of the seat next to me. “Was it like floating on water,” he asks the Native woman.

“No,” she says. “It was dark. I didn’t see anybody. No dead relatives.”

The young man, a CN conductor who decides to ride with his Via Rail discount instead of free on a slower freight train, tells us he “died” for a few minutes when he was eight years old after being bitten by a poisonous spider.

“I didn’t see a white light or any people, but I was floating and I felt safe.”

I fall asleep after noon. The day is a fine one, blue sky painted with white tufts. But I dream I’m driving through a snowstorm and I can’t see out of the windshield. I ask my daughter to get out of the car and brush off the snow, but it starts to float into the car interior and I’m getting wet.

I get off the train in Armstrong to stretch my legs and breathe fresh air. The Native environmentalist, Raven, and I chat with Natalie the conductor, a seasoned traveller who has been to 48 countries, including Togo, where she lived as an exchange student.

“We walked six kilometers every day, carrying wood or water on our heads. The people were so happy. The long walk is their social life.”

Natalie brings her daughter with her on the train.

For a brief time, a freight train conductor travels with us. A veteran of the rails, she was the first female freight engineer back in 1986. With retirement four years away, she only works weekends now.

At dusk, I eat a tin of sardines I’ve brought with me and some oat and wheat biscuits, and then I watch the sun set from the dome car. There, I chat with 28-year-old Justin Melville, a Windsor man who is about to embark on a 14-year walking tour of the world. He’ll start in Montana, take in the Grand Canyon and then head south to Mexico and South America. He wears Google glasses.

Our first time change occurs tonight. We get an extra hour of sleep.

Susan Hickman