Across the Great Divide
By Stephen A. Nelson
A Taste Of Heaven
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – famed author of the Sherlock Holmes stories - loved Jasper National Park.
His poem On The Athabasca Trail, is a love letter to Canada. And, in a famous anecdote, he once implied that anyone who had been to Jasper would surely be disappointed with Heaven.
Another famous artist, - the Group of Seven's Lawren Harris - was many times inspired by the beauty and majesty of the Canadian Rockies. It was here, he said, that he could hear the universe sing.
Maybe that's why a journey - across the great divide - from Jasper to Mount Robson feels like a spiritual journey. It's as if you are being drawn into the striking colours and bold forms of one of Harris' most-famous paintings.
On this day, we are travelling through the Yellowhead Pass on VIA Rail’s Skeena tour train.
Normally, this involves a two-day trek from Jasper to Prince Rupert, B.C. But thanks to the folks at Sundog Tours, we can cross, see the other side of the mountain and still get back to Jasper in time for dinner.
Our pilgrimage begins at the Jasper Heritage Railway station — a building from the early days of Canadian National Railways that stands as a testament to the role of the railway in Canada’s great story.
The Skeena, we are promised, has some of the best scenery on any railway journey anywhere.
Shortly after we board the train, the horn blows and the train pulls out of the station. The magical history tour has begun.
Magical History Tour
The Skeena train runs all year long but winter and early spring are probably the best times to travel. It's like taking a magic carpet ride into a Christmas card – a winter wonderland.
At the first opportunity, most of the passengers on our trip head to the back of the train to sit in the vintage observation car. Most head to the upper level to view the scenery through the domed roof. They are rewarded with panoramic views of spectacular scenery — snow-capped peaks towering over the half-frozen sapphire rivers and emerald forests.
A buzz of excitement runs through the car when we spot some Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep clinging to the cliffs precariously close to the tracks.
And even seasoned travellers are elated when we spot a mama bear and her two cubs scurrying across a meadow. Digital cameras buzz and whir, then the moment is gone. But everyone feels like they got what they came for.
Some passengers sit in the lower level of the dome car, in what looks like an old smoking lounge, complete with panoramic windows. The art-deco stylings and engraved glass windows that tell you THIS is no ordinary passenger car.
Volumes have been written about the Canadian Pacific Railway and The Canadian, the legendary transcontinental train the riding in which was regarded as one of the 10 greatest railway journeys in the world. Our service manager shows us a book about the great trains from the Golden Age of passenger rail travel. The most famous of these was called „The Canadian.” - Canada's answer to the Orient Express.
When the Canadian Pacific Railway launched its famous train in the 1950s, it commissioned a fleet of first-class passengers cars — stainless steel beauties with sleek modern lines and art-deco appointments. They were known as the „park cars” because each one was named after one of the great provincial or national parks in Canada — especially those on the CPR line. Among this fine fleet were the Algonquin Park (named after famed provincial park in Ontario), and the Riding Mountain Park (named after a national park in Manitoba).
But the very first park car commissioned was named after Canada’s very first national park — the Banff Park. This flagship car was the part of the very first „Canadian” to cross the country in 1958. And it was the very last car when The Canadian made its legendary last voyage across Canada.
It’s the car we are sitting in now — a poignant reminder of how Canada’s story is intertwined with the story of the railways.
We get off the train at Dunster, a small village in British Columbia that seems a perfect portal for our time-travelling back to Jasper. Nestled in the Robson Valley between the Cariboo and Rocky Mountain ranges, it’s a town whose fortunes rose and fell with the fortunes of passenger rail service in Canada. The small railway station is typical of many built by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in the days of heady competition between the Grand Trunk and the Canadian Northern Railway in the glory days of rail in Canada.
The station was constructed in 1913 and named Dunster by a Grand Trunk Pacific Railway inspector after his hometown in England. The railway line came through in 1914.
The first post office, built across the street from the railway station, was built in 1915.
The current General Store and Post office is still operating, though the railway station was abandoned with the demise of passenger service.
The local residents have saved the railway station from a fate worse than death, and still hope to restore it to its former glory. Feeling a bit like we’ve walked onto the set of a TV western, we half expect to see Clint Eastwood or John Wayne walk out of the General Store. Instead, we are met by our guide from Sundog Tours.
We’ve been fortunate to twice take this half-day trip to heaven and back.
We discovered that the best guides are the ones who can successfully combine their knowledge with an enthusiasm to share the Canadian Rockies with the rest of the world.
The guides with Sundog Tours clearly enjoy their jobs and sharing their love of this region made famous by fur traders, the gold rush
Yellow ribbon of highway
As we drive back to Jasper on the Yellowhead Highway, following the spectacular Fraser River, we learn about the layers of history that have literally paved the way for our journey.
The mountain pass we’re travelling through was named for Pierre Bostonais (alias Pierre Hastination), an Iroquois-Metis trapper who worked for the Hudson Bay Company in the 1820s. Because Bostonais had yellow streaks through his mostly dark hair, he earned the nickname Tête Jaune (Yellowhead).
So the mountain pass he traversed became known as the Yellowhead — a name eventually given to the highway that runs through this pass all the way from Winnipeg to the West Coast of Canada.
Nine decades after Bostonais, when the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and Canadian Northern Railways were rushing to build their competing transcontinental railways to the coast, they came through this pass. When the two railway companies were nationalized and merged, two sets of tracks were considered redundant by the new Canadian National Railways (CNR).
CNR chose the best rail beds and best tracks for its main line. The other set of rails was torn up and the rail bed abandoned. Years later, when the highway was built through here, much of it followed the abandoned railway bed. Our way in the wilderness was prepared by the navvies who worked upon the railroad.
About an hour after leaving Dunster, we catch our first glimpse of the great mountain rising before us.
Our guide explains that Mount Robson is so high that weather systems moving eastward from the West Coast have trouble making it over the mountain. That’s why Mount Robson is usually veiled in clouds. It is fully visible for only about 12 days each year.
But, our guide says, even though Mount Robson (3,954 metres) is the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, it is not the tallest mountain in Canada — that honour belongs to Mount Logan (5,956 m) in the Yukon. Nor is Robson the highest mountain in the Rockies — that would be Mount McKinley (6,187 m) in Alaska. But with its striking form and a vertical rise of nearly 3,000 metres above the valley floor, Mount Robson IS the most spectacular and the most imposing.
Certainly there are other regal peaks in this Rocky Mountain range. We have already seen Mount Terry Fox, named for Canada’s most famous cross-country runner.
The jagged spearhead and unusual colours of Mount Fitzwilliam – closer to Jasper – are imposing and inspiring.
But in this Valley of the Kings, Robson is an emperor — regarded by artists like Lawren Harris as the most splendid, most perfect of Canada’s many majestic mountains.
Harris, an unconventionally spiritual man, always said that his mission was not merely to give a photographic representation of the mountains he painted, but to capture and share the emotional and spiritual experience of encountering the mountain.
„What I want is for my paintings to be models of that harmony, reflections of an ordered, spiritual, and creative universe.” Harris said. That was something, he said, that could be experienced only by the awakened soul. Here in the Canadian Rockies – even on a less than perfect day – we have entered into Harris’ world. We are inspired by the Creator and the Creation. The artist’s mission has been accomplished.
The half-day train rides run year-round, several times a week – including Saturdays and Sundays - to Dunster or McBride, B.C.
● Railway journey to B.C. interior is with the VIA Rail Skeena.
● You can book your half-day guided tour (Jasper-Dunster-Jasper or Jasper-McBride-Jasper) with Sundog Tours.
Tel: 780 852-4056 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
It's also possible to take a two-day railway journey (on the Skeena) to Prince Rupert, on the west coast of British Columbia.
How to get to Jasper, Alberta, Canada
● SunDog Tours runs a daily shuttle service to Jasper from Edmonton and Edmonton airport.
Tel: 780 852-4056 E-mail: email@example.com