Journey Through The Clouds

Day 2 Kamloops to Calgary or Bust! (foreshadowing)

Rocky Mountaineer makes it very easy for passengers. Instructions are clear and easy. We are to be ready at 6 am. Luggage is left behind in rooms to be trucked ahead and waiting in Calgary. Very civilized this  leaving behind of luggage to be dealt with by someone else. Buses to the train are to be boarded at 6:15. Train departs at 6:30. We have a potentially 14 hour day or more ahead. By 6:15, 13 passengers are unaccounted for. By 6:30 the buses are told to depart. We leave two behind. What part of 6 am is unclear?

Leaving Kamloops is much like leaving Vancouver. We move slowly through the ‘burbs to the open rail. Soon we are passing cottage country and the houseboat capital of the world, Lake Sicamous. Mountains hover in the distance. Today we are first service for dining. We spend a pleasant breakfast with Jean, a fellow traveler and Sens fan from the capital city.

Shortly we pass by the mouth of the Adams River, the largest Sockeye salmon run in the world. We are fortunate at this time of year to spot bright crimson kokanee salmon in the shallow waters of the Eagle River meandering alongside the tracks. Kokanee are Sockeye salmon that never go to sea but spend their lives in fresh water.

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RMD2 - Rob 007The landscape is dotted with sheep. Firs, paper bark birches and cornflowers fly by. The lake is alive with boaters. Cottagers wave in greeting to the train passing by their front yards. We pass Craigallachie and the cairn monument erected to commemorate the last stake driven in the railway in 1885.

RMD2 - Mo 006The temperature drops noticeably as if a ghost had entered the room. A verdant cacophony of green on green comes to the fore. Every shade in nature is represented here. Deciduous trees become more sparse struggling for sunlight against their dark, heavy, coniferous brethren. Firs dip their boughs elegantly, soft blue-green pines and delicate, lacy cedars add layers of texture to the view. Skunk cabbage however adds a less than charming sulfuric nose to the air. Lemony yellow goatsbeard and vibrant orange fruiting mountain ashes lend a little colour here and there.

RMD2 - Mo 005And we glimpse our first proper mountain…as defined by snow caps. We drift by Revelstoke, British Columbia, a small rail town nestled in the heart of the Columbia Valley, looking up.

RMD2 - Mo 015Our journey continues along the Illecillewaet, Beaver, Columbia and Kicking Horse rivers to Golden and Kicking Horse Pass. We cross over Canadian Pacific Railway’s Stoney Creek Bridge, which due to heavier locomotive weight was replaced in 1929. No other foundation other than the original could be used so the new bridge had to be built directly over the old one without placing any pressure on the old bridge. Onward to Field. Mountains and aspens and Douglas firs fill our senses.

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RMD2 - Mo 012After lunch we are treated to gorgeous views of waterfalls, snow capped peaks and jade green alluvial waters. Around a bend we come to the striking  turquoise waters of Kinbasket Lake. The water takes on colour from “rock flour”, glacial stone that is ground to the consistency of baking soda as it makes is way down the mountain. One of our Rocky Mountaineer crew, Laura, says she passes the lake very day and it changes colour on every visit. Spectacular!

Onward we travel past the Burgess black shale mountains and Victoria Glacier which feeds Lake Louise.

RMD2 - Rob 005Our train is running over an hour behind schedule. We are approaching the Spiral Tunnels, a series of tunnels that are modeled after the spiral tunnels in the Swiss Alps. This engineering marvel will allow the train to ascend the step grade through Ogden and Cathedral Mountains. A train, more than 80 cars long (today ours is only 23. We added an engine in Kamloops for this ascent) can see itself enter and exit the tunnels and pass over itself. We are slowing to a stop and pulling into a siding to allow a 12,000 ft. freight train, that has lost an engine in the tunnel and cannot make the climb, to back down the mountain and allow us to pass. This and other delays due to rail traffic means we will not reach Banff before nightfall and therefore will miss the spectacular views. This delay is beyond the control of the train company and they make an executive decision to have us detrain in Banff and continue our journey to Calgary via motorcoach. Disappointing indeed, but it is a working railway.

RMD2 - Mo 019We emerge from the spiral tunnels to magnificent views of the aptly name Rocky Mountains. The steep, sharp peaks are so high that conifers can no longer be sustained and a demarcated treeline is evident. This, the border of British Columbia and Alberta and the Continental Divide, becomes the highest point of our journey. Rivers have been flowing against us until this time. Water will now flow with us as it makes it’s way to the Atlantic ocean, where previously it’s destination was the Pacific.

RMD2 - Mo 021Darkness has fallen and we cannot see anything from the train. We roll into Banff and decide we will return by car on Thursday. To hopefully see a bear. Maybe a Sasquatch.

This was the experience of a lifetime. A highly recommended way to see Canada’s Western wilderness.



Rocky Mountaineer – Day 1

September 2nd.
Up early, we scramble downstairs to get our boarding passes for the Rocky Mountaineer. The process is smooth. We board a charter bus and head for the train station. The Mountaineer has its own dedicated station. Beautiful, sunny and clean. A piper pipes us aboard Car Number 12 and friendly uniformed staff wave to us in welcome. Feels like what jet travel must have felt like in the 60’s.

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We splurged on “Gold Leaf Service”. Our coach is nicely appointed, spacious and features a clear shatterproof glass top for viewing of some of the world’s most amazing scenery. Staff is gracious, accommodating, informative and funny. Passengers are mostly the grey brigade including a 95 years young gentleman traveling on his own. A snappy dresser with an engaging laugh, he is crossing this trip off of his bucket list. No children on board today. Many accents twitter about among the passengers.  We hear smatterings of German, Dutch, English and Australian. And Gatineau French. One of our fellow passengers is based close to home.

By 8:30 we are slowly proceeding through the suburbs of Vancouver. Past New Westminster, shipping containers and rail yards. Very industrial for a bit.

Our train consists of 22 cars and over 600 passengers for today’s journey. The dining car can only accommodate so many people and we are included in the second seating, which means eating breakfast around 10 am. To tide us over we are served a warm cinnamon scone and tea while we roll through scrub land dotted with goldenrod, purple asters, yellow snap dragons, horsetail, rambling wild blackberries and inexplicably, a fully loaded tractor trailer of new vehicles in the middle of a ramshackle farm yard. The views soon give way to the farm belt of the Fraser River Valley. Tree nurseries, cornfields, blueberry “orchards,” hops and the occasional horse or cow. Fellow vacationers follow roadside towing campers.

RMD1 - Rob 008While today’s first breakfast seating enjoys the gold leaf service, we spend time in the vestibule, an outdoor covered balcony at the rear of our train car. Here we take about 500 pictures of blurry trees whipping by as we learn to adjust to taking pictures from a speeding train. We are entering the foothills. The day is sunny, warm and the air is beyond fresh.

RMD1 - Rob 010Our view changes to mostly mixed conifer and deciduous trees. We pull over to a siding to allow a coal train to pass. Our hostess tells me that we have the right of way as a passenger train and pay a premium for the privilege, but if the freight train is too long for the siding or is late, we will be asked to pull over. This is a working railway. By day two we will understand that we really do not have right of way.

RMD1 - Mo Food 001Now our view shifts to beautiful views of the milky green waters of the Fraser River as it winds by. As we reach Hell’s Gate, the train slows to “kodak speed”, one of the very few times it does, for picture ops. “I believe I have reached the Gates of Hell”, declared wussy explorer Simon Fraser upon first reaching this narrow where more water pours through per minute than spills over Niagara Falls in the same time. Of course, it may have appeared more daunting in a birch bark canoe and knowing that no fine cheese plate and glass of merlot awaits when he returned to his seat.

RMD1 - Rob 011Sandy rock towers rise to one side of the train. Soft rock is overlaid with hard stone and then again with soft rock. As the soft rock erodes it leaves behind artifacts that are reminiscent of the features in the mountains of Arizona. Striated rock faces in shades of grey rise into cornflower blue skies, dotted with cottonball clouds which cast their shadows blissfully on the hills. Conifers and loose pebble beaches line the cool green water. We get an occasional glimpse of a colourful, graffiti decorated train riding the tracks on the opposite bank.

RMD1 - Rob 013Lunch is late as we are part of the second seating. The menu is varied with good choices. The food is decent, artfully presented, fine, “hotel” meets first class airline food.  This is not a foodie slag. Remarkable for just being produced en masse in a small, stainless steel galley kitchen, the food, mildly seasoned is well suited to pleasing a great many people. There are over 600 passengers from around the globe with varied palates. While we are satisfied and sustained, the food is not particularly noteworthy.

RMD1 - Mo Food 017RMD1 - Mo Food 018The stoic, spent towers of mulleins line the tracks and begin to mingle with the grey green sagebrush. The yellow-blooming sage presents itself against the backdrop of the fawn coloured hills. I could be in the Nevada desert. I admit to being surprised by the arid BC interior. The larger mountains have receded to the background. Osprey and bald eagles are eagerly spotted by passengers in and near the dead trees they nest in. As we pass a bend in the Thompson River, we spot a herd of Bighorn Sheep.


RMD1 - Rob 015We continue on our leisurely passage to Kamloops, where the north and south Thompson rivers converge. As the train pulls in to our overnight stop, past homes and yards, we are waved in by two of Kamloops finest on their mounts. Kamloops receives passengers from the Rocky Mountaineer, six days per week, 7 months a year, who comprise the bulk of their tourist and main industry. We are soon whisked away by “chariot” to our accommodations for the evening. Unfortunately our chariot takes issue with hills in a hilly city. Have no fear, our determined driver, backs up and takes a run at it. Luckily the traffic light is with us and we arrive in our rooms, key in hand, already checked in, luggage waiting. Very efficient. This is appreciated because  we are exhausted by 7 pm.

No bears.



Izakaya – Japanese Pub Food!

We wrapped up our evening at an izakaya, one of several in Vancouver. An izakya is essentially a Japanese pub, serving small plates that are designed to accompany the drinks they serve. Guu Gardens is considered to be as authentic as they come.

It’s hardly a quiet place. The staff yelled greetings constantly and loudly announced the food that was ready to be served. We had seats at the bar and watched the cooks create the dishes with aplomb. Our meal consisted of:

2 jumbo Sapporo beers-  essential at an izakaya.

Izakaya 005Edamame with sea salt – Steamed soybeans in the shell. You slide the shells between your teeth to extract the beans.

Izakaya 002Tempura chicken knee cartilage. Yes, really. It tasted exactly like what you’d think it would taste like. It’s “dip” was fine ground black pepper and it was perfect.

Izakaya 003Sweet soy glazed short ribs with garlic chips. The chips were razor-thin rand roasted. They were sweet, crunchy and addictive.

Izakaya 004A Tomato-braised pork belly that was almost Italian in its preparation.

Izakaya 001Black cod cheek tempura. So luscious, but a little bit of work to get the meat from the bone.

It was a terrific meal and a great way to immerse oneself in the casual side of Japanese culture.


Red Wagon Cafe

Today, our last day in Vancouver, also happens to be our 29th wedding anniversary. The sun is glorious and we plan on spending the day sightseeing and checking out a few more neighborhoods, notably Davie Village.

Gotta fuel up first. Rob decided on another Triple D joint…on East Hastings! We visited this “quaint” neighborhood last night because we had tickets to see a comedian at the Rickshaw Theatre. Yikes! We made a hasty exit after the show, hoped to find a cab and swore never to return. But alas that all went out the window as we decided to check out Red Wagon Cafe in the light of day. A Streetview Google confirmed it was many blocks from the war zone we walked into last night.

We have been really lucky with parking in the city and scored a spot right in front of the restaurant where we could see the car. I do think our hubcaps were safe here but one never knows. A small crowd was gathered around outside waiting for tables. A young staffer came out and offered around fresh, warm, sugared doughnut holes. This may have kept the crowd from defecting to the absolutely empty Asian restaurant next door (also could have been the no public restrooms, no phones, cash only welcoming sign in the window) but I expect it was more likely the expectation of great food that lay within.

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Red Wagon Cafe is one of only 6 Triple D joints in the entire city. We have been fortunate to get to two on this whirlwind tour. After a ten minute wait we are seated. It appears that Red Wagon does not seat two at a four top so a wait can be unpredictable. When we left there were people who had arrived before us still waiting.

Decorated mostly in vintage coca cola chic, the ambiance is punctuated by a few quirky objects d’art such as an industrial sized whisk with a plastic shark caught up in it for added interest. A tiny red Radio Flyer wagon has a home in a corner near the kitchen. Overall the cafe feels homey, well worn and welcoming.

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Coffee and water arrive quickly with menus. There are four things at least that attract me immediately, but I settle for the Super Trucker with pulled pork pancakes, pork belly, sourdough toast (rye toast for Rob), home fries and 2 eggs. For an additional charge you can have your maple syrup spiked with JD. Well worth it. Two notes here: I am not a huge fan of pulled pork. Quite often I find it bland, pasty in texture and over sauced. Secondly I rarely order sweet stuff such as pancakes for breakfast. It was more the eggs and pork belly I was after here. Yes I could have had them separately. Not sure what I was thinking. I was, perhaps, blindsided by the prospect of spiked maple syrup.

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Food arrives in about ten to twelve minutes. Wow! Looks amazing. The pork belly, thick, not all fat, is crisped up perfectly. My eggs are a perfect over medium as requested.

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The home fries are excellent, perfectly tender new potatoes dressed with a little bacon and green onion. A hallmark for a breakfast place for Rob and I are the potatoes. Deep frying cubes of potatoes casts suspicion on everything else the kitchen does — an unacceptable shortcut. Red Wagon’s potatoes are among the best we have had. It’s the little things that show a kitchen’s passion for what they serve.

I taste the pulled pork which is piled on top of the buttermilk inch-thick pancakes before dousing them in spiked syrup. This is the best pulled pork I have ever had, knocking Rob’s into second place. The texture is perfect. Not pasty. A little crisped up on the flat top maybe. Tender, sweet, salty and garlicky with some definite chili heat. This pulled pork needs no sauce. It stands alone. The pancakes are a perfect bed for the pork. Light and fluffy, quite amazing on their own, but raised to another dimension when soaked with JD spiked maple syrup.

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This was one of the best breakfast/brunch experiences we have had on the road since Jam in Portland, Oregon.

Off we go into the famous Vancouver sunshine for our final day of exploring. Next up: The Rocky Mountaineer through the Rockies to Calgary!