After our recent family reunion I decided to go home on the train, The Northlander. It has been years since I traveled on a regular train. I believe it was back in the 70's on a trip to Switzerland, where trains are well used, integrated into all other forms of public transportation and run "on time" all the time. By contrast, Canadian rail travel has shrunk back and has been largely forsaken by the government, the rail industry and people. How sad in our time when inexpensive mass transit is needed in our country of vast distances. Some time past, decisions were made to subsidize road ways for motorized vehicles and air travel through government funding of infastructure. The golden age of rail travel has long past. The future of expensive energy and concern for the environment may see a renaissance of rail travel.
I missed connecting with the commuter train from the east side of Toronto so my nephew drove me to downtown Toronto to the magnificent historic Union Station. In the hay day for train travel the rail companies built wonderful stations and magnificent destination hotels. Some of them remain today. Union Station in Toronto and Union Station in Winnipeg are wonderful examples. Across from the Toronto station is the wonderful Royal York Hotel. Unfortunate many of the small stations, gems of architecture, have been torn down.
I made it just in time as I got my ticket in the great hall of Union Station, My plan was to finish reading my book on "Nixon in China" on the trip. As it turned out I spent the five hours watching the scenes of the countryside fly by, fascinated by it all.
I tried to take some pictures along the way. With a little snapshot camera it is almost impossible. The scene passes before the camera is ready. Below is a picture of the "Canadian" train passing. It is the Toronto to Vancouver train across Canada. All I managed to catch was the obervation car at the end of the train. That is a great trip particularly through the rockies.
click to enlarge photo
I wanted to take a picture of the CN Tower but I was caught on the wrong side of the train. I did not realize the Northlander went East instead of West before it turned north on the Ontario Northland Railroad. The ONR was the government subsidized railroad which opened up North East Ontario to development. It runs from Toronto to the shore of James Bay at Moosonee. The last several hundred miles travels across part of Ontario without roads. The train from Cochrane to Moosonee is call, the Polar Bear Express. It is the lifeline for the remote comunities along the James Bay and Hudson Bay coast. It is still a train that you can have stop for you to let you off at some remote spot. It can also be flagged down to pick you up with your gear which may include a canoe in the summer or a snowmobile in the Winter. There are some independent souls you live remote lives along the line.
There are not many such trains left. In Canada, the transcanada train, The Canadian, will do this above Lake Superior and the Algoma Central line from Sault Ste. Marie to Hearst still stops for people as it acts as the local form of transporation for remote people and camps. Some day I would love to take the Polar Bear Express and the Agawa Canyon trip on the Algoma Central Railroad. For now. I am just travelling across southern Ontario on the Northlander.
The train leaves the city travelling up the Don River Valley, a wonderful green belt through the city. Once it had industry in the valley using water power. Now it is mostly parkland. It has been used by homeless people to camp out in and live a rustic country life in the heart of the city. We passed under a couple of long bridges over the Don Valley. The most infamous is the Bloor Street viaduct. It was the bridge of choice for suicide jumpers in large numbers, second only to the Golden Gate Bridge across San Francisco Bay. It now has extensive net barriers to frustrate these upsetting events.
Finally we are free of the urban scene and the farmland north of the city can been seen. Some of it is rural land in transition, doomed by urban sprawl. There are horse farms for the wealthy and remnants of historic small family farms which once were part of a vibrant rural farming life on some of the best land in Ontario. There are lots of grain farms. Corn is plentiful. With the interest in biofuels it is a good cash crop currently. Hay is being harvested everywhere. What struck me is that I saw very few cattle. I think I saw one dairy farm. The truth is this land is too expense to graze cattle on. Cattle raising has moved to the North or gone to Western Canada.
The first trainstop was at Wasaga, a small town where the Muskoka district begins. Here Southern Ontario residents, particularly Torontonians vacation on the lovely lakes of Muskoka. I spend many summers here on a small lake swimming and canoeing. Now it has become the playground of the rich. No longer can average people have a modest cottage here.
Below is a picture I took of some canoes and backpackers, waiting to be loaded on a train to take them North for a canoe tripping experieence, perhaps to the Temagami Wilderness near where I live. They were not loaded on my train. I guess, they had made arrangements to be put on a freight train. I smiled when I saw these teenagers hurrying to get their last junk food meal of hamburger, fries and a milkshake before they spend a week or two eating noodles, noodles with flavouring, noodles (with fish if caught) lots of gorp, wild berries and drinking lots of tea and coffee. It takes careful planning and skillful cooking to have an elegant meal in the bush. Children's camps don't bother. These kids will be bitten by bugs, sunburned, cold at night, wet some days, get to wear smelly dirty clothes and have the time of their life to tell recount to their children years from now. A lucky couple may even find some romance and some wonderful out door sex.
It all makes me wish I were going canoe camping, too. Although I have never gone with a group. I have occasionally go all alone which is a special kind of experience, experiencing the holy in Nature with one's Self.
Our next stop was Gravenhurst which is on the shore of Gull Lake. I had my heart broken here as a teenager as my girlfriend toosed me aside for some camp counsellor. I experience a little heart ache as I sit there remembering. I was glad when the train moved on up the line.
The next stop was Huntsville. The town on the north edge of the Muskoka Lakes District. It is a town on the southwestern edge of Algonquin Park, Canada's oldest National Park, a highland area of lakes and rivers in which some seven rivers have their origins. It is a well used park for southerners who want a taste of canoe camping "wilderness". I make the longest portage of my life in this park carrying my canoe and backpack in one trip back to Lake Opeongo. When I finished the trek I thought I would never be able to lift my head again as the thwart had been resting on my neck. It was a great trip. Lucky the longest portage was at the end and not the beginning. I worked up to it. Besides, I had to do the long one or retrace my trip. I wish I was physically able to still do it but age and a bad shoulder now limits me.
Below is the front of the station. A very functional but older building. If you enlarge it you will see the mileage on the sign.
Huntville represents the the limits of vacation adventures for most Southerners. They think it is the North. They are willing to travel up to three hours to reach a cottage and weekend fun but only a few are wiling to go further north. They are in reality still in Southern Ontario, Northern Ontario begins at North Bay where there is a different lifestyle closer to the natural world. Here people have more rustic camps rather than cottages. Fishing and hunting are more important than boating, waterspots and looking good at the beach or on the dock.
The train stops briefly at South River where the station is just a little shed to keep one out of the weather. Leaving the station the train traverses the Almaguin Highlands. This is a very hilly area with some hilly farms and lots of forest, small lakes and a couple of rivers. Below a a river and fen we traversed after a hilly section on our way to North Bay.
Finally we reach North Bay. Our train waits on a siding as the southbound Northlander leaves the station heading for Toronto . It came down from Cochrane while we travelled north. The station in North Bay is a new one which also is used by the buses ,both city and greyhound. It is next to the large Mall in North Bay so we are once again, briefly in an urban setting. although unlike Toronto you can look across to the skyline above the town and know the trees are part of the Natural environment beyond.
The train ride was very intersting. It was cheaper than bus or plane but took longer than a trip by car. It would be nice if it were faster but an impoved railroad bed would be required. the best way to travel to Toronto is to take the limo service to the airport as if you were going to fly. This is fairly cheap and as fast as driving yourself. A short cab ride gets you to the end of the Subway and then fast to downtown Toronto. I think I will use the train again so I can watch the scene past going south.
My ride met me and in another 1 1/2 hours we were in River Valley,. . . . . home again!