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To and Across Canada

Vancouver to Montréal

Copyright © 2003-2004 by David E. Ross

Note: The atom, train, and plane graphics are thumbnail links to pages of photographs. All three graphics were obtained from Micro$oft and are not included in my copyright.

Seattle, Victoria, and Vancouver

The final segment of our adventure involved a lengthy detour by train, a visit to our daughter, and the city of Montréal.

2 August
Our trip on VIA Rail from Vancouver was supposed to be through Jasper, across one of the lowest passes on the Continental Divide. We did not learn of the changes until we awoke in the morning.

our VIA Rail train at Vancouver station

The scenery was indeed spectacular: towering mountains with tree-covered slopes (some still with snow in August), wildflowers, and white-water rapids. We saw Mount Baker, which is across the border in Washington state. The detour took us through the Connaught Tunnel (5 miles long) and across the Rogers Gorge.

We went through two spiral tunnels. As we exited the first, we were almost 100 feet above the entrance and moving at a right angle to the tracks below. We saw billowing clouds of smoke, from both the fire in British Columbia and also fires in the U.S. On abandoned utility poles, we saw bald eagles and ospreys nesting.

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Originally, when we first started planning our trip, I wanted to stop in Banff and stay in the beautiful Banff Springs Hotel. We omitted that from our final arrangements because Banff is not on the railroad's main line, and we would have to take a bus both ways from Jasper. We did make it to Banff, but we did not see the hotel.

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For those who were supposed to leave the train at Jasper, the train stopped in Lake Louise. Buses were provided to transport those passengers to Jasper. However, some passengers were supposed to leave at Jasper and board a bus for Banff. Since it was too late for them to make that connection and since the detour actually went through Banff, we briefly stopped there, too. As night fell, we went through Calgary without stopping.

While supplies were indeed running low, it was not as bad as on the Amtrak train from Oakland to Seattle. The train crew remained cheerful and continued to provide excellent service. (We were six hours late reaching Seattle on Amtrak and 17 hours late reaching Edmonton on VIA Rail.)

3 August
We reached Edmonton at about 8:00am. We should have reached Saskatoon before 1:00am. Because we had an extended stop at Edmonton, I left the train and called Heather. With the extensive coverage of the forest fires on the news, she knew our trip was affected. Through frequent phone calls to VIA Rail, she had been following the progress of our train on a map. When she realized we would be very late, she went to bed after calling our hotel to cancel our first night's stay (and thus save us the cost). I love her! Evelyn and I have really great children.

The extended stop at Edmonton was to change trains. We now had the equipment we were supposed to have from Vancouver, with fresh supplies. We had noticed each day that the menus in the dining car changed (very much unlike Amtrak).

After the mountains of British Columbia and Alberta, we finally reached the plains of Saskatchewan. The land is flat with minor undulations. There are many marshes and wetlands. We saw cattle and grain. Along the tracks were some woodlands of birch and poplar.

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I call them girls because they are young females, approximately half my age. Heather will always be my baby, and Nancy (Heather's life-partner) is about the same age as Allen. Males that age are boys. Maybe I am merely expressing my envy of their youth.

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our daughter Heather Instead of half-past midnight, we finally reached Saskatoon about 5:00pm. Both Heather and Nancy were waiting for us at the station. We did not hug the "girls"; we squeezed them! We wondered about where they lived. From the station, all we saw was a rural area — almost wilderness. After they drove us to the hotel, we discovered that — unlike in most cities — the station is not in the heart of town but way out on the fringe. We checked in at the Delta Bessborough Hotel, right on the Saskatchewan River in the center of the city. And (contrary to our first view from the train station) we saw a real city there, with extensive shopping thoroughfares, high-rise office buildings, and distinct neighborhoods.

4 August

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The ship of my diet is wrecked on two reefs. They are named Chocolate and Cheese.

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This morning, we brunched on dim-sum with the girls. While Evelyn stayed at their house, the girls and I went shopping at their favorite nursery. Then we all went to the "Fringe", an annual alternative street festival — hippies 40 years later. Along the street, Heather led me into the Cheese Warehouse. They had oka cheese, a uniquely Canadian variety that I first encountered in Victoria. Unfortunately, they cannot ship internationally. While in the cheese shop, I insisted that Heather have her first taste of halvah (a confection of ground sesame seeds); at first, she resisted but then her face lit up with the realization that daddy is sometimes right.

As on all other nights in Saskatoon, Evelyn and I went to dinner with the girls, who then took us back to our hotel. Evelyn and I strolled along the Saskatchewan River. Since we were so far north and it was summer, sunshine and evening twilight last quite late.

5 August
Happy Birthday to ME!

Heather had us to her house for a breakfast of lox and cream cheese on bagels. (Evelyn used butter in place of the cheese. Nancy was at work.) While Evelyn put a two-week accumulation of our dirty laundry through the girls' washer and dryer, Heather and I went back to the nursery for some tools and advice about the swarms of grasshoppers. (Not much can be done about those pests without risking harm to the girls' two dogs.) me

In the afternoon, the girls took us for a ride in the countryside, to the Saskatoon Berry Barn. Actually, saskatoon is the name of a tart, seedy berry that grows wild in the area, hence the name of the city. While the girls and I had saskatoon pie, Evelyn avoided the seeds and had fresh strawberries. After eating, we wandered through the berry vines. I saw a few ripe saskatoons and tried them. Without the sugar added for pie filling, they were indeed very tart.

The girls treated us for dinner at Montana's, a local steak house. Heather had secretly arranged a birthday sundae for me, presented with song by the restaurant staff. The plan was for them to place a horned Viking helmet on my head — a birthday tradition at the restaurant — but someone stole the helmet some time before today.

6 August
After breakfast in the hotel, Evelyn and I walked up 21st Street, a major retail street that ends at the hotel. We went into a clothing store and bought Evelyn a Tilley hat, similar to mine but with a narrower brim. Heather

Heather took us on a brief tour of the University of Saskatchewan while she made some of the arrangements for enrolling in the Master of Education program.

That evening, the four of us went to the Saskatoon Exhibition (the "Ex"), which reminded me of the Ventura County Fair but without the agriculture. At the Ex, we attended a concert by Chantal Kreviazuk, a very talented singer (sort of soft rock). Then we saw a performance by trained dogs. While I thought the evening was entertaining, Evelyn was quite overwhelmed.

7 August Delta Bessborough Hotel
This morning, we woke to pouring rain. By noon, the rain stopped although the sky remained gray. The streets were quite wet, but I decided to go for a walk along the river. Evelyn refused to go with me. She felt that she would need to bundle up and carry an umbrella, so she stayed in the hotel. The air was actually quite warm and humid, and I was comfortable in shorts and a short-sleeved seersucker shirt (say that fast three times). While I was out, Evelyn had an asthma attack; she was better when I returned, thanks to her inhalers. I guess her decision to stay at the hotel was correct.

graphic of an atom Heather arranged for me to visit the Saskatchewan Synchrotron Institute (at the University), with a personal tour by Dr. Skeeter Abel Smith. Although the synchrotron — a tool for atomic research — will not be completed until 2004, it is already being used. I saw the Institute's computer server room, something of interest to me because of my career. It happens that Skeeter's specialty is computers, so we had an interesting conversation. Each major server process had its own host, which made the system much more robust and reliable than some on which I have worked (where several processes shared a host).

Just as we were going to bed, an electrical storm hit the city. I counted 10 flashes in 30 seconds. I could not tell how far away the lightning was by counting seconds between lightning and thunder because the thunder was continuous.

8 August Evelyn
Despite last night's storm, the day dawned clear and not very humid. Heather joined us in the hotel for breakfast. After eating, the three of us strolled up 21st Street to the Mid-Town Mall, where Evelyn and I had only briefly glanced before. Heather left us there because she had to pick up Nancy at her office for lunch. Evelyn and I explored more of Saskatoon's downtown and then loafed the rest of the day. After all, this was supposed to be a vacation for Evelyn.

9 August
After treating Heather and Nancy to breakfast in our hotel, we checked out of the hotel but checked our luggage in the hotel's lobby.

old fire engine The girls took us to the Saskatoon branch of Saskatchewan's Western Development Museum; this branch is designated "1910 Boomtown", reflecting life in the province the same year my mother was born. Entirely indoors, the museum features a mock-up of a main street with stores, a jail, and offices. A beautiful collection of classic cars and another collection of restored farm machinery were also featured.

Not wanting to keep Heather awake too long, we collected our luggage and had her drive us to the Saskatoon train station at 10:30pm. However, since the train was not due until 12:45am, the station was closed. We sat in the car and talked with Heather for a half-hour until the station opened. The train actually arrived 10 minutes early!

10 August
Like Saskatchewan, Manitoba's flat plains are filled with wheat. We also saw corn, sunflowers (grown for their oil). We also saw old bales of hay rotting in the fields, some of them with weeds growing out of the bales. This was a sad indication of the extreme farm depression that recently afflicted Canada.

After Winnipeg, fields gave way to woodlands with dense stands of birch and some fir and aspen as we entered the Laurentian Shield (an ancient, worn mountain system). I saw angled blocks of rock, many with patches of lichen (indicating abundant rain). There were many lakes, ponds, and other wetlands.

We discovered that our travel agent booked us to check-in at our Montréal hotel tomorrow (11 August) while our train does not arrive in Montréal until the day after (12 August). Both dates appeared on the same itinerary. When the train stopped for a few minutes in Sioux Lookout, I jumped off and ran to a phone to notify the hotel so that we would not have to pay for a night we were not using.

graphic of a locomotive 11 August
Today, the weather was gray and overcast all day. The occasional drizzle that occurred after lunch turned to outright rain by dinner.

We saw evidence of forests having been clear-cut and also of forest fires. Although the land is less flat, there are still many wetlands. The area is sparsely inhabited. Sometimes we see small clusters of cabins, some substantial but many very tiny.

We got off the train in Toronto to change for the train to Montréal. While waiting to board the latter, we were sitting in the train station with another passenger who was also changing trains. Evelyn had started a conversation with him. Suddenly, plain-clothes police arrested him. We heard one officer telling the arrestee that he was carrying far too much cash (which, in the U.S., could be evidence of drug-dealing).

12 August
After the very good service we had on the trains from Vancouver to Saskatoon and then on to Toronto, the train from Toronto to Montréal was worse than a disappointment. It was so unsatisfactory that I wrote a letter to the head of VIA Rail when we returned to California. An executive answered my letter; however, he failed to address the fact that Evelyn could not eat even half of the already poor, grab-it-yourself breakfast. If I had known that this was what the train from Toronto to Montréal was like, I would have arranged to stay overnight in Toronto and then taken a day train (coach class) to Montréal.

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No, we had no trouble communicating in English in Montréal. Everyone was very polite and friendly although we spoke no French. Occasionally, signs were only in French. This was a problem when we used the public transit. However, even then, strangers would still help us and translate.

There might be some animosity in Canada against the U.S. government but not against U.S. individuals.

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My first impression of Montréal was unfortunate, perhaps colored by my experience on the train. I noticed graffiti all over the city, even near the tops of high-rise office towers. I also noticed that parking meters are not placed at the curb; instead, they are against the buildings along the sidewalk. Montreal City Hall

After checking into l'Hôtel Le Cantlie Suites, Evelyn and I visited the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts (in its temporary location while the permanent facility is being remodeled) and then walked through part of Old Montréal. We saw windshield washers attempting to ply their trade at an intersection, using the runoff in the street gutter to wash car windows. Ugh!

Dinner was at a delicatessen, where we had great sandwiches.

13 August menorah in Shearith Israel Synagogue
Service for breakfast in the hotel was marginal. It was especially disappointing after the excellent service we had at the Delta Bessborough in Saskatoon.

Today, we visited Temple Emanu-El Beth Sholom, the only Reform Jewish congregation in Quebec. A guide book said this is the oldest Reform congregation in Canada, but a staff member in the Temple said there is an older congregation in Toronto. After viewing the interior of the Temple, Evelyn and I went to see the Spanish and Portuguese Shearith Israel Synagogue, which is indeed the oldest Orthodox congregation in Canada. bonsai at the Montréal Botanical Garden

In the afternoon we visited the Jardin botanique de Montréal (the Montréal Botanical Garden). We saw the Insectarium, Japanese garden, bog and water garden, and perennial garden. We also walked through the Garden's extensive series of public greenhouses.

We had delicious Greek seafood for dinner. The sautéed eggplant was so good, I cooked it at home when our trip was over.

14 August
The service at breakfast was even worse than yesterday. Yes, when breakfast is a buffet, you have to serve yourself. However, I also had to scrounge sugar and cream for my coffee from other tables — after waiting while the coffee urn was refilled. The staff did not even know the urn was empty until guests started complaining. Evelyn and me

Evelyn and I used public transportation extensively during our stay in Montréal. Today, we took buses to the top of Parc Mont-Royal, the highest point on the island. There were great views of the southern side of the city, including the St. Lawrence River. From the bus stop, we climbed eight flights of stairs (Evelyn counted 99 steps) to a network of walking paths, which gave us even better views.

Legend of Mother Earth From Parc Mont-Royal, we rode buses and the subway to the vicinity of the Old Port along the waterfront, where we found the Mosaïculture International Exhibition. At first, I thought the fantastic "sculptures" were topiary (plants trimmed into shapes of animals and other figures). Up close, however, I discovered that the figures were created by packing potting mix onto large frames, covering the frames with shade cloth, and then densely planting live plants in holes in the shade cloth. As tired as we both were, neither Evelyn nor I wanted to leave until we saw all 60+ entries from 32 nations.

After dinner (Italian), we learned that this was the night of the Great North-Eastern Blackout of 2003. Although Quebec is part of the vast power grid that failed, lights remained on in the province, including in Montréal.

15 August
Today, we were to return home! We had reservations on a 9:20am non-stop Air Canada flight from Dorval Airport (now Pierre Elliot Trudeau Airport) to LAX (Los Angeles International Airport). Because of anticipated delays in checking in and clearing U.S. customs and immigration (done in the Canadian airports before boarding instead of at LAX), we arrived at Dorval before 7:00am. Since ours was a breakfast flight, we did not eat before leaving our hotel.

airplane After standing in line for more than two hours — a line that barely moved — an announcement was made that all morning Air Canada flights were cancelled! While the blackout did not reach Montréal, according to an Air Canada employee it did crash the airline's computers in Toronto. As with too many penny-pinching, corner-cutting companies, there was no uninterruptible power supply to allow for a graceful shut-down of the computers and a later easy start-up as soon as power was restored; and there were no remote backup computers in Vancouver or Halifax. Despite Air Canada's failure to plan for mitigating such a disaster, the airline denied any responsibility for its failure to fly. In the meantime, airlines from other nations continued to land and takeoff at Dorval. Unfortunately for us, carriers bound to the U.S. were already fully booked. To add insult to injury, although we were supposed to receive breakfast on our cancelled flight, Air Canada refused to pay for the breakfast or lunch we had to buy in the airport.

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Earlier in our adventure, I told Evelyn that our next big trip would be to Washington, D.C. I want to show her the sights that I saw when I was traveling to that area on business in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Running through Dulles International Airport is not what I meant.

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As soon as it was 9:00am in California (noon in Montréal), I called my travel agent, who booked us on a later Air Canada flight to Washington, D.C. Finally, around 5:00pm, we took off from Dorval. Landing at Dulles International Airport, we ran from the Air Canada boarding gate to our next flight, on United Airlines. We were the last passengers to board.

16 August
Instead of reaching home around 1:00pm yesterday afternoon, we were at our front door around 1:00am this morning.

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