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Toronto to Edmonton

 

I was leaving Peterborough for another summer to make my way back up north to Yellowknife, where jobs are plentiful and pay twice as much. Like so many before me I would be making the trek west, west to the wide open, west to the so-called land of plenty.

The first stop - the only one really - was an overnight in Toronto to visit a friend. We'd travelled together before, so he knew what I was getting into, and as we parted ways he wished me good luck on the long trip ahead. I don't think either of us really had any idea whether or not it would be successful.

The plan was to ride freight trains at least as far west as Edmonton, and possibly north from there towards McClennan, Peace River, High Level and Hay River. This would be my longest trip by freight so far.

I should confess I didn't catch out right from Toronto. I wanted to ride the Canadian Pacific around the north shore of Lake Superior, and their yard is not an easy one to navigate. It's huge, first of all, and no doubt hot. The other problem is that a train leaving westbound might not go the right way. I wanted a train to Winnipeg, but from Toronto I could just as easily end up in Detroit, and probably arrested and jailed by the border guard thugs.

My solution was to ride GO Transit up to Barrie, and catch an Ontario Northland bus that night to Mactier. Mactier is the first crew change out of Toronto on the CP line. The CN equivalent would be Parry Sound, which is just a bit further north. The two mainlines run more or less parallel through this part of Ontario.

I left Toronto on the GO train at four o'clock PM, and switched to the bus at Bradford. This combination got me to Barrie for ten bucks. Hitching to Mactier looked like a real hassle on the map, and it was already evening, so I shelled out for the bus. Otherwise I might have spent another day or two just getting to the catch out.

The bus dropped me in Mactier around midnight, and I didn't waste any time getting out of sight. The town was asleep, but that's all the more reason for some late night cop to pester the tramp who's wandering around with a big backpack. I had all my standard gear in the bag, plus a tent and bedroll strapped to the outside of it. To top it all off I was carrying a guitar over my shoulder to do some busking. I would have stuck out like a sore thumb in Mactier, which was described to me as being "like the north, but not quite." That means "pretty rustic, but still a little uptight."

The yard was easy to find. It runs more or less north-south through the town, stretching a mile or two south from the centre. It was small - maybe five tracks. There was a work train parked on the eastern side, with lights on and generators running. As I arrived, a Toronto-bound train pulled in, so I was able to watch the crew change from the shadows.

I didn't feel too good about walking right past the crew shack, or too close to the work train (even though the maintenance of way workers were on strike at this time and likely not around). I ended up bushwhacking around behind the station, and walking past the work train under cover of the departing southbound train, which was rolling now and quickly picking up speed.

I ended up south of the station, right where I wanted to be for catching out. The night was filled with thrills. I'm always overly cautious about getting caught, and way too paranoid, usually thinking that somebody's looking for me. I was walking further south, between a string of gondolas and some loaded flatcars, when a headlight started to approach from the direction of the station. I was off to the bushes in no time, hiding like a vagabond in the shadows. I watched as a truck came south a ways, then stopped and turned around.

Later on, two westbounds came in. The first was a junker. It had a rideable grainer near the front, and some open boxcars in the rear. The boxcars were most accessible when the train stopped, so I climbed into one. I was settling in, but just didn't feel too good about it. It only had one door open, for one thing. I made a quick decision and jumped back off. I started towards the head end for the grainer, but the train took off too fast. They did their crew change in less than five minutes - if all the trains changed that quickly I might have a real challenge catching out.

The second one came in not twenty minutes later. This one was a hotshot - all doublestacks. I searched and searched for a well car with a floor, expecting the train to take off any second. Soon there were lights heading my way again, and I stumbled back into the pitch black bushes to get out of sight. This train was no good either, I decided, and I settled down for a bit of a snooze.

I'm not sure how long that train stayed, but it was a while. I woke up chilled, and decided to walk to the tail end of it, partly to warm up and partly just make sure there was nothing rideable. There was no moon that night so it was hard to tell if there were floors in the cars. I checked half the train though, and didn't see a single one. I probably could have found a decent end platform to ride on, but I would have been way too visible for my liking. I walked south along the train, into the glaring red of the block signals that made shadows in the dim light. It remained stopped, and there was no reason for anybody to be around, but I was still edgy. Catching out from Mactier should be simple, so there would be no excuse for getting caught. But so far two trucks had come south along the east side of the yard, for whatever reason. As I rounded the tail end of the doublestacks, I finally had a pretty good idea that nothing was going on. I was somewhat less stressed as I walked north again, along the service road, accepting that I wouldn't be riding this train.

Then for a third time that night headlights scared me into the bushes. I was now convinced of my mind's suspicions - there must be night vision cameras, or infrared heat sensors, or something. Every time I got near the train a truck would show up. And why else would they hold a westbound hotshot there for so long? In the woods I lay down in the leaves and watched the truck approach. This is it for sure, I thought, waiting for the searchlight to shine in my eyes. The truck slowed as it approached, and stopped right there. A man got out with a flashlight. He walked forward a ways, then stopped... and threw a switch on one of the sidings. He wasn't looking for me at all. Before I knew it he was gone again, and then the train left too. I settled down and finally had a real sleep in the bushes.

Once in a while a train would go by on the CN line to the east, and get me all excited. They would blow the whistle for a couple crossings not far away, and I'd start packing up my kit. It wasn't till five-thirty AM that my train finally showed, though. The rumble was heavier, deeper than the highballing CN freights. It would throttle down and coast for a minute before gently easing the engines back up just enough to maintain a slow speed. It was obviously something creeping in to the crew change. I rolled up my sleeping bag, and threw all my stuff together, cramming it into my pack any way possible. From the edge of the bushes I watched my ride approach. It was a mixed freight, with not much rideable up near the front. As the engines rounded the curve out of sight towards the station I ventured out to trackside to get a look. Along came my favourite ride, a bright red CANADA grainer, all alone amidst the manifest freight. Towards the tail end it was autoracks as far as I could see, so I caught the grainer on the fly rather that risk missing another train.

In an instant I was settled into the hole on the rear platform. The car was backwards, so all the brake equipment was there, but that didn't end up being much of a problem. We stopped at the station for the crew change, then quickly pulled out and picked up speed. In no time we were highballing through the lakes and rocks of cottage country, sometimes right parallel to the CN main.

I missed some of the best parts of the trip. Parry Sound would have been good, because the CP track flies high above the town on a huge trestle. I was asleep for that one, and I guess I slept through Sudbury and Thunder Bay too.

In northern Ontario it was all lakes and rocks and trees, and almost no settlement. The first crew change was Cartier, just past Sudbury. The next ones were Chapleau and White River. In Chapleau the engines were disconnected for refuelling, and somehow my car ended up right by the station, where two conductors were talking about the car behind it. It was a load of steel railway wheels (which I wasn't really very happy about having right behind me), and in their thick northern accents they discussed how often they see loads of them heading west. The two of them were mere feet away from where I sat huddled in the grainer hole, and I just waited for one of them to say "what's that in there?" Before long the engines rolled past, though, on their way back to the head end with a couple thousand more litres of diesel. Then there was a hiss, and the conductors were saying "they've got air now." I was relieved to hear that, and even more relieved to be on our way minutes later.

We arrived in White River towards dusk, which was disappointing because I know that the best scenery of the trip is west of there, along the shore of Lake Superior. That was the main reason I was riding CP instead of CN. The latter runs farther north, mostly through swamps and dense forest, away from the rugged lakeshore.

I was able to see some of the lake even though it was almost dark. Its vastness was as I remembered it from another trip, hidden somewhere down below the train on the left. Up high and to the right, the shadows of the cliffs and mountains loomed over the train. I stayed up long enough to see the town of Marathon, and the big horseshoe curve not far to the west where the engines' headlights lit up the cliffs on the far side of the bay, and the train trundled along behind, over a trestle and through a tunnel. In the dark all of this was sensed as much as seen.

I know that I missed lots of great scenery that night, as we raced below the cliffs along tracks protected by slide detector fences. We changed crew in Schreiber in the middle of the night, and continued on towards the Lakehead. Somehow I slept right through Thunder Bay, even though I'd hoped to see it from the perspective of my little grain car hideout. When I woke up in the morning we were rolling across pretty typical muskeg and shield country, and I wasn't sure for a long time where we were.

We might have stopped briefly in Ignace, which is a former crew change, no longer in use due to faster trains that can travel farther. Kenora was a short stop in the middle of the day, unique with its short tunnel right in town, and then we were off to my mid-point destination, Winnipeg.

The transition into the prairies takes about an hour or so, but in that time you go from dense forest and rocks and lakes to just plain flat, and wide open. I probably dozed off some more, but woke up to the train slowing, unsure where I was. We soon crossed a bridge over an unmistakeable valley - the man-made diversion ditch for the Red River floods. As soon as I saw that I started packing up, not knowing for sure how far we were from Winnipeg's downtown yard. I stayed hidden in the hole as we passed stopped cars at crossings, and people standing waiting for the train to pass.

We got onto the old Red River bridge, and I leaned out the side of the train to take a look. The bridge is a through-truss type, and had a wooden walkway on the ties. I thought about dropping my bags out onto the planks, but wisely thought better. I'm sure something would have gone wrong. They probably would have bounced out into the river, or got hooked on the train as it kept rolling past.

As soon as we were across I threw my two bags, one after the other, not watching as they rolled down the embankment. I was committed then too, and had to go. A quick scan of the ground, and I was swinging off the train, guitar in one hand, and dancing lightly down the slope to keep my balance. The train continued on into the yard a mile west, but I was off, and in a nice spot by the river, not far from downtown Winnipeg.

 

Interlude

 

Winnipeg at seven-thirty on a Saturday evening was a ghost town. I walked all the way down to Portage and Main, through the old Exchange District, and hardly saw a soul. It was as if everybody knew something I didn't. There were a few people out and about on Portage Avenue, most of them pretty rough looking. I was starving, having not eaten in two days, but all I saw were a couple dingy fast food joints and one little diner that might have appealed to me more if it hadn't been out of my way by a couple blocks. I continued south down to Osborne Village, where there were a few choices for food. Along the way I spent some time under the Assiniboine River bridge with some punks who told me a bit about catching out from the Peg. They told me that they had a friend waiting to catch out that same night to Edmonton, and told me where to find him - down the road, by the McDonalds, sitting under a trailer behind a used car lot - but I never saw him and I don't think he made the same train as me.

I probably should have been a little trained-out by this time and taken a break, but I was dirty and tired anyway and decided to keep going. I had dinner at a bar in the Village and walked south to CN's Fort Rouge Yard, which is a crew change for through trains but not a stop for anything originating or terminating in Winnipeg. I'd dealt with one of those in Montreal before, and knew that it could be frustrating watching all kinds of great trains roll past, just a little too quick to catch. That was part of the reason I wanted to get to the yard quickly - I could easily have sat there for a day or more.

I was lucky though. Only one or two trains rolled through without stopping before a doublestack pulled in just after midnight. I thought it would be a quick crew change, and got into a well quickly just in case. I started to settle in a bit, but the floor was all wet, and there was a pile of snow in the corner. (This might have been a surprise seeing as it was late May, except that I had already passed through some snow in Northern Ontario on my train). Also there were no ladders on that end of the car and I would have had to cross onto the car behind to get down - not a great situation for disembarking. When the train just sat there for a while I decided to find a better ride. A bit further towards the front, but still ways back, I found a good well. It was shallow with a solid floor, and I could ride on the tail end of the car. This one had two good ladders right on it, and it was perfectly clean. (Well about as clean as you could expect).

I got out my bedroll, and fell asleep till we started to pull out. I watched the bright lights of Winnipeg fade into the distance for a while, but mostly slept all the way to Saskatchewan.

When I woke up, we were running along the side of a big valley. There was a tiny river down in the bottom, which must have been the Assiniboine. The tracks followed the north slope of the valley for a long time, not quite at the top of it, but kind of meandering along mid-way up. Once in a while there were some trestles over side branches of the valley.

Further into Saskatchewan there were potash mines. Sometimes they were close to the tracks and sometimes off in the distance. The piles of tailings were like mountains, all stratified from years of rainwater running down their sides. A few times we stopped to let eastbounds pass. We were always out in the wide open middle of the prairie, and I could stand there without worrying about getting seen.

Saskatoon wasn't too exciting, other than not knowing quite where we were. I thought the CN line passed to the north of the city, but we ended up to the south. When we stopped in the smallish Chappell Yard just after crossing the river I had to check the guidebook to see what was going on. I was worried we might have turned south for Calgary. The guide ended up being right on, though, even down to the detail "some trains might stop to work here." From the curved mainline track I could see the head end, where, sure enough, they cut the air, spotted some cars in the yard, and picked up five or ten new ones. It was only a short break, then we were off again.

It was getting on towards evening as we left town. I saw a spot where I had camped about four years ago, right by the tracks on Saskatoon's western edge. That night I'd watched trains go by late into the evening - now here I was on one of them.

As dusk came on, I was not too worried about being seen. I was standing in the well, watching the sun set off to the northwest. We were highballing along in the middle of nowhere, when all of a sudden there was a guy standing in the tall grass by the tracks, wearing a reflective vest and smoking a cigarette. I froze. I couldn't believe I didn't see him till he was right there, and I was sure he would have seen me, standing in the sun and waist-high over the side of the well. Just before he was out of sight I turned my head to see if he'd reacted. It didn't look like it, but I still couldn't believe he might have missed me. We were now racing past an eastbound stopped in the hole on the south track, and I put two and two together to determine that he was one of the crew off the head end of that train. Luck was with me again. Either he didn't see me, or he didn't mind, because we kept on cruising all night long, through Biggar and Wainwright and on to Edmonton.

I would have liked to see Wainwright. There's a huge trestle just west of there, called Fabian, that crosses a big valley. It's probably one of the bigger bridges on the CN mainline, but we crossed it in the middle of the night, like so many of the other scenic highlights of the trip.

In Edmonton I woke up when we slowed down and there seemed to be a lot of lights. I never know for sure where I am when I get to a city, especially when the skyline is hidden from view. I watched for some clue as I packed up my stuff just in case, and got my answer pretty fast. We crossed over an LRT track, so it had to be Edmonton, and that gave me a good idea of where I was.

Maybe a mile further west we started to enter the yard. A CN truck was stopped, watching the train go by. I kept low, then once we were a ways past it I ditched my bags over the opposite side. The yard at this point seemed to be long and narrow, and my plan was to leave by the east end. I jumped over the side of the well (not bothering with the ladder after all) and collected my bags. I had to keep out of sight of the truck, so once the tail end was past them and they crossed the tracks I climbed into a string of stopped freight cars to hide. The workers were gone in no time and I walked out of the yard, not too concerned any more about getting caught. I'd made it to my destination, and it didn't even bother me that the approach to the yard was fenced in most of the way back to the LRT track.

I left the right of way in an industrial area, where access was wide open. I walked out to the roads, and continued further east back towards the LRT. There was a wide open field that looked like it used to be a rail yard, and out in the middle I camped in some bushes. It was four AM when I got to Edmonton, and probably closer to five by the time I laid down. I guess the early morning commuters had no idea I was there, because I slept undisturbed till about eleven.

The trip to Edmonton was by far the longest I'd ever done, and I didn't have much interest in trying to catch another freight north from there. I ended up spending most of the day in the city, though, riding around on buses trying to find one that would get me out of town. It was the Victoria Day holiday, so everything was running on a Sunday schedule. There was no service at all out to St. Albert, which was where I had to go to continue my trip.

All in all though, everything went about as smoothly as I ever could have hoped for. A few missed trains are all part of the game, and if all the best scenery happens to be at night, that's unfortunate too. But to get from Toronto to Edmonton in three and a half days for less than forty bucks is doing pretty well I think. Even the overall trip, from Peterborough to Yellowknife, only took about a week. That allowed some time to relax, some campouts in nice spots, and some interesting interactions with the folks that picked me up hitchhiking. And of course three days of riding trains, first across the rugged shield on the Northern Ontario CP line and then rolling across the open plains on a CNR westbound.