Train Hopping Across Canada - part 1

by rodney graham for street sheet canada
in winnipeg, manitoba
Prince Rupert British Columbia to Jasper Alberta

tall mountain with train going toward itOver the past ten years or so I've interviewed dozens of people on the street. I've been a journalist/activist the past 15 years, although I at first worked in the bush and as a smoke jumper. But my dream as a youth was to write and studied for that profession until I realized I had a love of freedom and the outdoors - and something else too - I would notice how the twinkies who run the mainstream media (and write for it) usually would take the most outrageous and crazy statement from the worse example when they interviewed some youths on the street - why? Because you learn in school to write for an audience and to write "what sells". To write what certain people want to hear: the status quo. Unfortunately, many in the public have an opinion of the less fortunate and those on the streets and they want the media to feed that to them like pabulum. That's just the way out society is. They know there are monumentally injustice, hypocrisy, corruption, and ineptitude in authority and high places. But in Canada, we're like the three monkeys - hear no evil; speak no evil; see no evil.

The articles I write usually - are meant to put a face on individuals that many in our culture ignore, fear, and misunderstand. We're a prosperous society and although there are plenty of resources out there there's not much for some. Mentally challenged people in Canada are having resources cut more and more. There are others too - if you are under the age of 18 you're not eligible for welfare - most youth who end up on the street are there because of parents who abuse or neglect them. These people have no "voice". What do the bureaucrats and social workers do? They contact the people who abused them and send them back or put them in an equally desperate and inhumane group home run by politically correct, drone like, poverty pimp opportunists. They are merely a "product" despite all the goody-goody rhetoric these bureaucrats spout off. I know - I grew up in that kind of system until I ran away as a youth.

But this story is about train hopping. There's a group of survivors out there who avoid the "'system" and its entire phoney, self-righteous charade. I've come to admire them. A few years ago I started running into train hoppers on the street. They are not exactly like "squeegee kids", of whom I 've interviewed dozens before... but then these individuals are not all alike because they are just that - "individuals" - free agents, and survivors. I noticed some similar virtues, I'm not talking about twinkies and shit disturbers who leave their middle class home for the weekend to be rebellious - but about young men and young women who had no real choice maybe. I've enjoyed meeting these individuals - these vagabonds. Like the squeegee punks I've written so much about - I admire them too.

train heading toward mountainsI decided about a year and half ago to live the lifestyle (for a while) and experience their venue - and train hop across Canada like they do - the wonderful free spirits - the vagabonds out there that make train hopping their lifestyle - especially my favourite tramps - the Canadian "wanderers" and the real squeegee punks.

Vagabond: a person without a permanent home who moves from place to place; wanderer. * A tramp; vagrant.
{From Late Latin vagâbundus, wandering}

My cross Canada adventure from west to east began as my trip out west had. I was alone and it was raining. But things can change quickly, that's a big part of the appeal of it. It's always a gamble. There's always something better somewhere down the line.

Long hours of waiting and watching (and hiding) can change into hours of racing along through beautiful panoramas with the wind in your hair and the sun on your face with lots of room to stretch out - and a feeling of freedom words cannot describe.

To say that the summer of 2005 was a fun experience would be a great understatement - despite the rain. It changed my life - for the good. I lost weight and my health benefited, learned a lot about myself, and learned a lot about life - and about people.

The summer of 2005 was a strange year for weather. It was very wet. But I was fortunate to not have any but a small amount while in transit. Strangely, Prince Rupert on the north west coast of B.C. Canada was quite dry and pleasant compared to the rest of Canada, which I was to find out later - "Rupert" is listed as having one of the highest rainfalls each year in Canada. Such a paradise grows on you and I was sad to leave; a friendly down to earth working class people and a setting of mystical beauty. But after a week I decided to pull up the stakes and head east and train hop from coast to coast.

Black Rooster RoadhouseI met a lot of nice people there: at Black Rooster Roadhouse ( the young couple from Poland who owned the new hostel - Bozena and Stan Sliwa. There was a guy named Jim there who had just finished several years of studying biology and was - what could you call it - obsessed with the hunter-gatherer culture of North American peoples. He had a jeep full of homemade bows and arrows and even spears, which he intended to put to use living in the wilds of the Queen Charlotte Islands, as a side interest, I suppose, he wanted to learn about Bigfoot and maybe do some investigating on the subject. I don't think he intended to use his caveman weapons on old Bigfoot if he found one though.

He showed me a great way to make camouflage. He uses burlap (coffee bean bags) and ties brown and green strips of cloth to it. I haven't made any myself but I do use camouflage when train hopping and it has, I believe, saved me from arrest or fine at least twice. I bought mine at Army Surplus. People have walked by me several times and even stopped not five feet away and not seen me. I think it is definitely a good item to bring. (Unfortunately, however, I have a physical problem that negates the use of the camouflage - I snore like a bear). I remember waking up one morning and looking up to a nice blue sky in the back of a 48 somewhere in the Rocky Mountains and heard laughter..."he looks real comfy in there eh? It looks like a cozy little spot...ha ha ha..." and then the train pulled off. I popped my nose up over the edge and saw a group of CN repair crewmen standing there. They must have heard my snoring and came to investigate!

Canada DayThere was an interesting lady there from Germany at the Black Rooster who was travelling by bicycle. I would have liked to spend more time with her but our paths parted since she was heading south and I was heading east. As travellers often do we mentioned others we met along the way and we spoke about a guy named Aidan from Ireland who had just left Rupert and I had met him and shared a beer with in Jasper on my way west. He had travelled by bike across Europe as well. Interestingly, he put his bike together with parts he scrounged from back alleys! He was also travelling by bike. It seems these long distance bikers are an interesting and hardy bunch as well; I always enjoy their company and their stories.

Head'n out

Walking out to the highway that leads east I had just stuck out my thumb and a guy with long hair and a beard pulled over in a late model car. "I'm just going a few miles east," he said. "That's great," I responded, "Just going to the grain terminal road." I hopped in and we chugged on down the highway. His old beater lurched and sputtered. "Something's wrong with the transmission," he told me. "Been that way for the past year; she still keeps going though, I'm just going to park her and stick my thumb out when she dies," he said with a wry grin.

campHe told me he was an artist who lived in a sailboat and moved to Prince Rupert because of the scenery, something not hard to believe. "Where you headed," he asked. "I'm going camping," I replied, not too sincerely. He looked a bit quizzical, "Near the grain terminal? Not much there to see..."

"I'm going to hop a freight train and head east," I finally admitted. I felt a bit uncomfortable telling him. I had never told anyone before who asked, but I thought an old guy who lives in a sailboat wouldn't turn a poor guy like me in. "I keep it confidential though, " I told him. "Oh, don't worry I won't say nothing. That's really cool, hope you enjoy your trip," he said, as I hopped out at the turn off.

Lost in the barrens

I had caught another ride about a mile down the road, not far from the terminal. I could have just walked down the road a ways to a bridge and then down to the tracks below which are tracks to a pulp mill (I think) just to the north about half a mile but if you go eastwards the tracks meet the mainline heading east and to the waiting grain cars in the main yard.

Unfortunately for me, I'm one of those people who get a "good idea" in his head - and then runs with it down the wrong road. Kind of like a pig headed bureaucrat. That's what happened as soon as I headed down the access road to the grain terminal and tracks. I thought it would be "smart" to ask the people at the grain terminal about the trains. What happened was that security was immediately called and they looked at my ID and escorted me back to the access road and - then watched me with binoculars. A note to others: stay away from the grain terminal! They did tell me that there was about one train every day though and I was smart enough to have hid my baggage at my catch out point, which is 100 yards due east of the main grain terminal buildings before I talked to them.

Another "smart" idea: just to be cautious: I decided I would take a short cut through the jungle instead of walking along the tracks since the terminal security might be watching me. So I walked passed the bridge and north of it along the access road away from the terminal. Then I headed through the bushes and down a steep embankment and towards what I thought was the sidetrack. But I got lost quickly. The vegetation was so thick in places all I could do was keep detouring. To anyone who doesn't know what a Devil's Club is - they are five-foot high growths of vegetation that have large pointy thorns protruding from them. Northwest B.C. has millions of them. My clothes soon became soaking wet too. Why I didn't turn back after 15 minutes I don't know - I suppose it was a bit steep and slippery too. But after an hour of looking for the tracks I gave up and headed back to where I thought I had started down the hill. The sound of the odd cars aided me back to the highway. Luckily it was around 5 PM and many trucks and cars were heading home after work. I finally reached the highway after 45 minutes of toil and travail. The employees of the terminal can hardly see the bridge anyway!

Then after cussing myself out for a short period I did what I should have in the first place - headed to the bridge. Note: I've learned something important over the past year - always realise that where you get off is probably where you want to catch your train too. I always now make sure to look at everything real closely when disembarking in a train yard. The bridge is north of the terminal about 50 yards then the tracks under it head east and angle back to the main line east of the terminal. That's where you want to catch out.

looking down at tracksNo sooner had I gathered my gear and was scouting a catch out point than it started to rain so my train hopping endeavours turned to shelter chores. I have a large fly made to tie above a hammock - it's 8' x 5' and serves well as a rain cover. I unpacked a nice apple pie and cracked open a can of beer. I had just settled down and was listening to a radio talk show on my transistor radio when I heard engines rumbling. Now, one thing the security guards had told me is that the trains "turn around fast". What that's supposed to mean I don't know but I set to tearing down my little camp real fast.

Movin' on

I was quite pleased with myself for tearing apart the little camp and getting all the stuff packed away in my 40-litre pack and briefcase, which is a pc case really but I carry my writing stuff in it. There were a couple of bags of food too - too much really, because I planned to catch an IM from Jasper and I could just as well get stuff there.

It was still light out when I made my move. The security guy was right. The engines turned around and hooked onto another train, which were empty grainers. I managed to run out and slip in-between the newly parked train and to the one heading east and scurried into a hole and pack my stuff inside. (The grainers in Canada have platforms and enough space inside at each end to travel cramped - but dry). And there I waited for about 6 hours! Lost my rain slick in the bushes in the hurry too. I finally fell asleep after a couple of hours. The trip to Jasper was probably the best I've had to that point and I took lots of pictures of the beautiful scenery.

There's not much highway traffic so you can ride outside and not be seen. My only concern was that the train might stop in Prince George and sit forever or turn south and head towards Vancouver. The plan was to get off in Jasper and await a big IM heading up from Vancouver and then heading right on east to Toronto Ontario. The train I got off of in Jasper headed on east but probably stopped in the prairies somewhere and I would much rather ride on a 48 where I can stretch out and be comfortable even if it's a long ride. You can listen to a radio in a 48 too, but grainers are terribly noisy and dirty. Grainers are not my favourite ride. People have told me - "carry lots of water", but I was to learn the hard way that you have to carry a lot more water than you think! By the time I reached Winnipeg I was wishing I had taken more water.

valley and sunAs we charged along eastwards it was a gorgeous summer day, I wasn't thinking of water or long-range plans. Good thing the train had sat all night after all because it was a beautiful morning.

A few short hours and we reached Smithers B.C at 2:45 P.M.- A setting like Shangri-La. I recommend you stop off there. It's a crew change so that's easy to do. There's spectacular alpine mountains surrounding Smithers and it's friendly and laid back. The population is around 5,000. My train waited for an hour before I decided to hop off and be a tourist for a while - I stashed my stuff and wasn't worried because it's a crew change - could always catch another east bound tomorrow. But after touring around town for a couple of hours I headed back to the yard and saw that my train was still there. It left at 8:30 P.M.

The evening ride was just like the old B.C. tourist ad - supernatural! The sight of the Big Dipper high above pointed the away eastwards. I had watched the Big Dipper on the way west two weeks previously too. Early morning and the same grainer left Prince George after a short stay - 8:30 AM we headed east. I think it was about here I was really getting hooked on train hopping. When you leave a town you leave your worries behind. It is very therapeutic indeed.

I kept track of where I thought we were as we meandered eastwards toward higher mountains. The thing that concerned me was that we might turn south instead of east. A year ago and my first train hop (solo) was from Jasper. Then I had been concerned about the same thing. I love Prince Rupert and the northwest of Canada but the lower mainland didn't hold the same attraction for me. October 30/31 I caught out of Jasper and ended up in Port Moody (approx. 20 hours). Then, after a long cab ride from North Burnaby B.C. I arrived at my sister Elaine's house. My sister was shocked to open her door to find a dirt caked person wearing dark clothing. I was so filthy she didn't recognize me at first!

statueThat same year (1994) I met several young men and women in late summer - experienced train hoppers - and found myself fascinated by them all. A strange mixture of hobo, renegade, and pirate they seemed to me. They live on the edges of society and they usually don't use most services offered to people "on the street" knowing they can fare better than the phoney goody good services offered by the bureaucracy who make their living off the backs of the less fortunate. Many of these hoppers work at temporary labour agencies, and often busk, or pan. Everything about them speaks of character. From their candidness, and refreshing honesty, to their clothes even: always dark clothing, usually with a bandana slung haphazardly around the neck (for tunnels) and an assortment of travelling necessities slung round the waist. Dogs are their favourite companion and they travel everywhere with them. Now who could discredit a genuine dog lover? I met Andy in Winnipeg who was traveling all the way across Canada from Halifax to bury his dog's ("Apollo" 1992-2004) ashes at the dog's favourite place on Vancouver Island. They had travelled together for many years.

train in Prince George yardThese individuals are certainly full of character and virtue. They could walk onto a set of a swashbuckling pirate movie in the make and they would fit right into the cast. Interestingly, I never met another train hopper my whole time out west (Northwest) - but I was to meet several later out east on the Atlantic coast. They are resourceful, tough as nails, and just as independent and freedom loving. The bond between them is strong. I realized after a short period of time that they train hopped very regularly and it was a lifestyle. It is just simply the most romantic and adventurous thing one could imagine!