Hobby Hobos

by laura drake for the ottawa citizen

An Ottawa couple risks fines of $10,000 and a year in jail to pursue their passion: travelling Canada's railways by hopping freight trains and venturing into the unknown

As the Toronto-bound VIA train idles at the Smiths Falls station, a dozen or so passengers slowly filter aboard. But when the locomotive pulls away, three people remain on the platform, silhouetted against the blue-and-yellow blur.

This is not the train they are going to take. These three are here to "catch out" - to jump on the back of a freight train unnoticed and ride it where it goes, just for the thrill of it.

Mr. Kazda has been a freight-hopper for 10 years. His girlfriend, Nina Bains, has been doing it for three. The third person, Nick Levy, came from England to hop his first train with the couple tonight. The trio started their evening at the passenger station to have a coffee and relax, but the instant Ms. Bains sees the train, she shifts excitedly.

Minutes after the passenger train leaves, the three drive to a quiet residential sideroad and walk along the trainyard fence. They slip through a hole in the fence and sidle along the tracks, stopping at a place in the ditch.

Here they will sit for the next eight hours, pestered by mosquitoes, awaiting the arrival of the train that will whisk them away to Montreal.

"A famous hobo once said that it's 99 per cent camping and one per cent skydiving," Mr. Kazda says.

"The waiting is the worst part. The absolute worst."

With his sleepy blue eyes and close-cropped hair, little about Mr. Kazda's appearance advertises that he spends weekends dressed in coveralls crawling over freight cars. Yet the 29-year-old is a seasoned veteran.

His interest in the unusual hobby was sparked when he was a child. His father would take him to the trainyards at City Centre and promise his son that, one day, they would hop across Canada.

Mr. Kazda never did go with his father, but he did hop his first train after hitchhiking to the Maritimes when he was 18. He headed to the Saint John railyard just in time to see the train he intended to catch pass by.

In the pouring rain, he waited for 18 hours for another one. He had no idea where he was headed until the train stopped in Moncton.

When he finally arrived, he was cold and wet. He was also hooked.

Several things draw him to freight-hopping, he says: the thrill of doing something illicit; the seclusion that comes with being on a car; and the thoughts that flood his head when he's there. Then there's the look people get when he tells them what he does.

"Everything else I do, everyone else does anyway," he says. "This is different."

The sun's still up, but the trainyard crickets are already making themselves heard. In the ditch, Mr. Levy smokes Indonesian cigarettes in a bid to keep the mosquitoes away.

Freight trains run on schedules, but not the same way passenger trains do. Mr. Kazda thinks a train to Montreal could come as early as 10 p.m., but he's not sure.

He runs over some basics of train-hopping for Mr. Levy.

"The most important thing is research. Know what you're doing and where you're going and execute it," he says.

He points at the tracks and tells Mr. Levy any train on the closest set will go to Montreal, which is where they're heading. He discusses the art of picking the right car to ride, which is based on two main factors: safety and not getting caught, in that order.

Mr. Kazda's depth of knowledge - he knows the names of all the different cars and can rank them by riding preference - goes a long way to helping he and Ms. Bains stay safe.

When it comes to not getting caught by railyard security (bulls, in hopper lingo), Mr. Kazda is always attuned to the possibility of being seen. Canada's two freight railways, Canadian National and Canadian Pacific, both have police forces that patrol their lines and properties. If caught freight-hopping, a person can be charged with trespassing and fined between $130 and $10,000 under the Railway Safety Act. The act also allows for a jail term of up to one year on a trespassing conviction.

The next thing to consider is being prepared for the ride, since keeping warm, dry and comfortable on a freight train requires considerable planning.

In the ditch, Ms. Bains and Mr. Kazda change into dark coveralls and wrap bandannas around their necks. When they are on the train, the bandannas will be pulled up over their mouths to keep out flying grit.

Ms. Bains runs through the items she's brought in her pack: tuque, fleece, wool socks, two bottles of water, trail mix - along with mascara, blush and body butter.

"I'm a firm believer (that) you'll never know when you'll need it," she says of the cosmetics.

Ms. Bains' brown eyes widen each time she talks about freight-hopping.

The petite 31-year-old mother of two met Mr. Kazda in 2005. A few months later, they went on their first date - which doubled as her first freight hop.

The pair hitchhiked to Montreal, then took trains to Halifax and back. As train-hopping - and dates - go, it was rough going: The couple slept under a Montreal bridge their first night waiting for a train.

Ms. Bains also discovered her No. 1 problem with freight-hopping.

"The worst thing about being a female train-hopper is having to go pee," she says. "I'm peeing in a bottle and the train jumps and there's pee - my pee - all over the place."

Urine-scented cars aside, the trip marked the beginning of two romances.

"I loved it," she says, smiling widely. Today, she and Mr. Kazda live together and take care of her five-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter, both from a previous relationship, every other week.

Mr. Kazda and Ms. Bains give matching descriptions of what attracts them to each other: a thirst for adventure uniquely combined with the ability to be responsible most days of the week when it comes to parenting and putting food on the table.

Ms. Bains is a legal assistant for a Crown corporation. Mr. Kazda runs OFL, a corporate furniture store on Catherine Street. Their employers and families have all been briefed on the couple's preferred leisure-time activity.

The couple go freight-hopping as many weekends as they can when the weather is suitable. Ms. Bains describes their hobby as one of the strongest bonds between them - as well as a cheap form of therapy.

"There's been times when we're completely at it and we come here and catch out and by the end we're best friends again," she says.

They don't see the need to get married right now, but if they ever do, Ms. Bains says, she'd like the ring to be made from a piece of steel they find by the tracks.

When the sun finally sets, the trio emerges from the ditch to kill time on the tracks. As the hours crawl by, conversation becomes sparse.

At 10:52 p.m., a horn sounds somewhere off in the distance and re-ignites discussion. They debate whether it's a passenger or a freight train.

Fourteen minutes later, a spray of light hits the trees a kilometre down the track - the headlight of a freight train. The hoppers leap back into the bush where they've left their packs.

"Please be an Alberta grain train," Mr. Kazda says in a stage whisper.

"Please be something rideable," Ms. Bains counters.

As the train nears, Mr. Kazda repeatedly tells everyone to get down and stay low. If they're spotted by a conductor, security could be called.

The conductor safely past, they rush up alongside the train. Up close, it's easy to see why they never hop on a moving train - it would be like trying to jump on a moving roller-coaster.

They stand with their packs as the cars whip by.

"You're waiting to hear squealing from there," Ms. Bains says, pointing to the tracks. "That means it's braking."

This time, the sound never comes.

"You've just missed your first train," Mr. Kazda says, slapping Mr. Levy on the back. The first-timer looks crushed for an instant, then grins.

"If you two weren't here, I'd probably be off by now," he says in his thick English accent.

In a stark contrast to the clean-cut Ottawa couple, Mr. Levy, with his mohawk and earrings, could easily blend in with actual hobos.

"Out of all of us, he's the one that looks like a hobo and it's his first time," Ms. Bains jokes, gesturing at Mr. Levy. He's wearing green jeans cut off at the knees, red socks that show through holes in his Converse All-Stars and a shirt that reads "Live Freaky, Die Freaky."

The skin he's showing is wreathed in tattoos, such as a stick man riding a skateboard and the outline of a bat on his right ankle that are his own handiwork.

An effortlessly charming 30-year-old from a wealthy family in Brighton, England, Mr. Levy has an encyclopedic knowledge of illicit drugs and a never-ending supply of stories that tend to end with someone either getting arrested or knocked out. He's come to Canada on a three-month visa with the sole aim to train-hop across the country.

"I happened to be perusing the Internet one day and I realized that this s--t still goes on," he said with the slightly maniacal grin that's usually on his face.

"It caught my interest and I just let my imagination run wild."

After spending a year tracking down resources and following the Ottawa couple's adventures on the Internet, Mr. Levy boarded a plane to Montreal, where he had previously lived for a year. He hitched a ride to Ottawa so Mr. Kazda could guide him through his first catch-out.

"This will either give me the confidence I need to go solo cross-country or the realization that I need a lot more experience. Probably the latter," he grins.

Ms. Bains and Mr. Kazda tried to cross the country themselves in June, but ultimately failed. Their trip descended into what Mr. Kazda calls a "hell tour."

To start, they missed their plane to Halifax, forcing them to pay extra to secure a spot on a flight later that day. Once there, their first train out of Halifax stopped unexpectedly - someone had spotted them on the train and called the RCMP.

They jumped off and hid in the bushes while two officers walked the length of the train, then jumped through the train and hid on the other side while the officers canvassed the other flank.

Then, before they could hop back on, the train pulled away. As they walked down the tracks, they were intercepted by the same RCMP officers and told their names would be turned over to Canadian National.

After cabbing back to Halifax and catching the next train out, they made it to Quebec City, where things really got bad. They were seen in the yard there and had to escape railyard security by running through a swamp.

They waited four days for security to ease up, but it never did.

"They had floodlights on the whole time - it was set up to catch us," Ms. Bains said. "I felt like we were prisoners of war."

Eventually they had no choice but to pack it in and take a bus back to Ottawa.

"Theoretically, if everything worked out right, you could get out West in five days by hopping," Mr. Kazda says, half-wistfully and half as a way of reassuring Mr. Levy that it's possible.

Nearing midnight, another set of lights come down the track - but they don't belong to a train. A white sedan is slowly driving down the tracks, heading right toward where the three are sitting.

They crash back into the ditch, Mr. Kazda telling the other two to stay as far down into the ditch as they can and back into the trees. As the car's tires pop over the rocks beside the tracks, they breathe quietly with their heads down.

"It could be a bull," Ms. Bains whispers.

Mr. Kazda crawls up to the tracks several times to check on the car's progress. It stays parked past their hiding spot for some time before driving away.

After the bull scare, one more train thunders by before they decide to sleep trackside. Their train, the one that finally stops so they can safely climb on, doesn't come until 5 a.m. - 11 hours after they arrived in Smiths Falls. The waiting has not eroded their spirits in the least.

Upon their arrival in Montreal, they bid farewell to Mr. Levy and turn right around to catch a train to Ottawa, since both Mr. Kazda and Ms. Bains have to work the next day. They catch a train almost immediately, landing back in Smiths Falls at 6 p.m.

For a journey that took 24 hours, the pair has nothing to show for it except empty stomachs and mosquito bites. But if they don't do it again in a week, they'll certainly be out the week after that.

"There's nothing else like it. You get to see untouched parts of the land that no one else sees," Mr. Kazda says in an interview after the trip, his partner finishing his thought: "That's where you really learn who you are."