Canada’s railway stretches from Vancouver to Halifax covering 2754 miles and would take you approximately 129 hours to complete the entire journey. Owned by the freight company and rented by VIARail, it is notorious for its delays as it has to pull aside to let endless lengths of freight train past. On my first leg from Edmonton to Saskatoon, a mere 10 hour hop, the train pulled in 7 hours behind schedule and proceeded to sit through the night. Rather than getting off at 6am the next day, I awoke to watch through the window as we wound out of Alberta, sleepily across the border and into the Prairies. From the reclining chairs of Economy class, we could spread out in the day to enjoy the dining cart and elevated dome cart which had views out into the endless horizon. Knowing that 1st and 2nd class lay just beyond the next set of swinging doors did give me a Titanic-esque feel about the whole experience. Steerage class did have its entertainment perks though. Mid afternoon, a folk singer from Victoria performed his guitar, banjo and harmonica as well as sung country music to his audience. He saved his favourites until we were “officially in Sask!” We also shared our space with the staff when they took breaks to Skype their family or catch up over coffee. Children who had spent too long seated tried to climb, often successfully engineering their way onto ledges, luggage racks and seat backs. Train stories of fellow passengers obsessively cleaning or breaking out into push ups made it all the more entertaining a space to be in.
Saskatchewan’s reputation proceeds it as flat prairie land where you can watch as your dog runs away into the distance for 4 days. Whilst Aus drives her collection of mammoth tractors around, rolling and seeing the fields of Canada’s breadbasket, she has also become Saskatchewans biggest advocate. She picked me up in the provinces capital of Regina and we made out of the city and to the farm. In the dark, the lighting of the houses of the horizon appear to make up 5% of the scenery, the other 95% split between crops and sky. Hot days built into stormy nights and the clouds shook with flashes of lightening in the distance. We were in the land of the living skies.
The next morning it was time to set about exploring. Aus had a jeep which we could use so as to blend in with the sparse traffic. First up, we pulled into the little village of Rouleau, her closest settlement. The town had fully embraced that they were used as the of a TV series called Corner Gas and in the show, renamed Dog River. I played tourist taking pictures of every grain elevator and bright yellow Canola field.
Has there ever been a more intruiging name for a town than Moose Jaw? Home of Mac the Moose, the 2nd largest moose (statue) in the world, we speculated whether his antlers, which had been removed earlier in the summer, had returned. Alas, he was without and we asked the boy at the information counter who explained that Mac had become unhappy with playing second place to a larger moose in Norway who stood only 30cms taller than him. He had had his antlers removed and taken to be made 3 feet bigger, to be returned in September. I really am looking forward to see Norways response to the unspoken competition.
Below: This was rather embarrassingly my second attempt at spelling the word theft.. Attempt one read “Moose Theaft”
Moose Jaw also coined itself Canada’s most notorious city, the sin city of the prairies. In the tunnels below moose jaw, bootleggers supplied Al Capone and his Chicago network with liquor during prohibition era in the United States. We toured the tunnels with Fanny and Gus, actors destined for Hollywood with their dramatic rendition of life at the end of the trainline from the states. Who knows how much was true, but we were totally in for the ride.
Just a casual few hours down the road we headed south for Saskatchewan’s badlands, a mere few kilometres from the Montana border. Here the state defied the opinion that it was pancake flat, breaking out into rolling green mounds which eventually made way for the soft clay formations of the badlands. Aside from a few ranches nestled in between, there was no-one on the vast horizon. Aus and I ascended Castle Butte, 400 metres of soft clay rock, to look out over vast swathes of land and cattle. Gophers poked their heads out of their holes, running with great purpose to the next underground burrow. Their missions were still of great importance despite being in a part of the world which was largely forgotten. We were both astounded by how beautiful the roadtrip had been and what mysteries it continued to reveal.
Back in the car, we pulled into Big Beaver, where the last official census put their population at 15 residents. The roads were long and straight as we traced the border east, then rejoined the road north to Ceylon, population 100, party town of south Saskatchewan. Aus’s work often took her to Ceylon and she had got to know many of the towns residents in the local pub. In the centre of the town the road was unpaved and the few public buildings fronted one intersection. The welcome was friendly and I was caught up on who was who. Mostly the punters worked at the pub on other nights of the week. Later a nearby baseball team came for a post match drink and I saw how a midweek night in a sleepy town could be filled with such life.
We had breakfast in Radville which was 20km down a dead end rough road. Still it had a saloon, rodeo grounds and popcorn stand. We had breakfast with another friendly welcome where we signed into the guestbook. Over 10 years, 3 pages had been filled with out of town guests. Aus also wanted to show me all the various tractors and the anecdotes which came with each one, and we slowly returned to the farm and then on to Regina, Saskatchewan’s capital. Outside the front of its grand legislative building, a statue of Queen Elizabeth II sits on horseback, riding the ladylike way in this city with such a royal name. Saskatchewan had been a treat and I was certainly joining Aus’s campaign to celebrate its unsung beauty. I returned to Saskatoon ready for my next leg on the via rail, this time to Winnipeg, Manitoba.