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Winnipeg Free Press June 21, 2003

Rail Trip to the Skies

The Skeena through B.C. is a journey not to be missed

Saturday, June 21, 2003.

By Paul Pihichyn, Winnipeg Free Press

ABOARD THE SKEENA -- For something completely different, consider that "other" train that makes its way over the Rockies and travels across British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean.


Not as famous -- or as crowded -- as its world-renowned big brother, the Canadian, Via Rail's Skeena offers a rail experience not to be missed by any passenger train enthusiast.


The Skeena follows a 1,160-kilometre route from Jasper to Prince Rupert on the north Pacific coast. It's a two-day trip, but unlike the Canadian, the Skeena runs only during daylight hours, stopping for the night en route at Prince George.



The splendour and majesty of some of best mountain scenery in B.C. is not lost in the darkness, as it is on much of the Canadian's route to and from Vancouver.



With three classes of service -- Economy, Totem and Totem Deluxe -- the Skeena is both a vital public transportation link through remote northern B.C. and a popular tourist excursion for those who just like riding the rails.


It's noon on a Sunday in mid-May and we are standing on the platform of the Via Rail station in Jasper. The last vestiges of winter are still in the air -- it is bright, but nippy; there had been a few snowflakes earlier in the morning.


Our travelling group of nine left Winnipeg on Friday afternoon on the Canadian heading west across the Prairies on an excursion called Spring on the Skeena, arranged by Winnipeg-based train tour specialist Daryl Adair and his company, Rail Travel Tours.



As night falls, we pass through Portage la Prairie and Rivers, Melville, Saskatoon and Biggar, arriving in Edmonton as dawn breaks: Then begins the long, slow climb into the mountains before reaching Jasper mid-afternoon Saturday.


After an overnight hotel stay in Jasper and an early morning ride to top of Whistlers Mountain on the Jasper Tramway, we are waiting for the Skeena to begins the journey west.


Just as it does every Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, the Skeena pulls out of Jasper at 12:45 p.m. and heads for the Yellowhead Pass, the highest point of the trip to Prince Rupert. Alberta meets British Columbia at the crest of the pass, at an elevation of 1,131 metres.


What will be the mighty Fraser River, little more than a trickling stream at this point, flows beside the track as the Skeena rolls along. Soon Mount Robson, the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies at 3,954 metres, looms ahead as we sit in the domed Park Car. It is a clear afternoon and the mountain is "out" as they say, not shrouded in the cover of cloud that often hides its peak from view. Down in the glass-enclosed Panorama car -- a new addition this season to the Skeena -- Totem Deluxe class passengers are served lunch, airplane style, in their comfortable seats. The crisp, fresh salad, generously laced with shrimp or chicken, is a better treat than one can expect on any airline in the skies today.


As passengers slurp down a chilled B.C. chardonnay, the Skeena passes Tete Jaune Cache, a railway construction town that marks the start of the Rocky Mountain Trench, the dividing line between the Rockies and the Cariboo mountain range. It is here that the Fraser actually becomes a navigable river and where sternwheelers once carried passengers and freight nearly 100 years ago before the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway built this line.


Dunster is just a whistle stop on the line now, but as the tiny community flashes by, passengers spot the original train station, built in 1913, still standing; beside it, an old general store and post office of the same vintage continue to operate.


Just west of McBride, about halfway between Jasper and Prince George, the Skeena slows almost to a stop. A silence descends on the passengers and crew. Beside the track, a work crew has just finished a "shoefly" -- railway parlance for an emergency rerouting of the line -- around a deep ravine. In the gorge below, the wreckage of two CN diesels engine lies in a crumpled heap like some mortally wounded behemoth.


Three days earlier, the trestle over the ravine collapsed just as a CN freight began to cross. Two engineers died in the fiery wreck. Ours is the first passenger train to pass the deadly site.


Across the aisle, an elderly gentleman enjoys a brandy and ginger ale. He's on his way to Prince Rupert to visit his children and grandchildren. It's a trip he has taken several times.


He used to be able to take the Cariboo Explorer from Vancouver to Prince George and then transfer to the Skeena to reach Prince Rupert. But, like so many of the passenger trains of Western Canada, the Cariboo Explorer is no more.


Last year, the Liberal government of Premier Gordon Campbell pulled the plug on the money-losing B.C. Rail passenger service: The train made its final run last October. So now, the gentleman across the aisle has taken the Canadian from Vancouver to Jasper and is now riding the Skeena all the way. "It's a long journey but I have a lot of time," he says as he sips his brandy.


As the afternoon wears on, and dinner is served -- a choice of tender steak or fresh salmon -- the mountains give way to a rolling countryside looking more like Saskatchewan than B.C.


Sawmills and lumberyards line the tracks through towns like Loos, Dome Creek and Penny. The line crosses the Fraser at Hansard Bridge on a span it shares with road traffic.


Only a crumbling concrete foundation marks what was once the largest sawmill north of Vancouver, at Giscome.


The Skeena pulls into the station at Prince George right on schedule at 7 p.m. and passengers disembark to waiting taxis and shuttle vans heading for area hotels for the night.


Monday morning they will be back on the Skeena as it continues its journey west. There are still another 750 kilometres of rail ahead, another 12 hours, before it will pull into Prince Rupert.


Before the day is over, the Skeena will pass through Fort Fraser, a fur-trading post built by explorer Simon Fraser in 1809; straddle and cross the Skeena River that gave the trains its name; pass Smithers and Terrace and the giant aluminum smelter at Kitimat; traverse Kitselas Canyon and its four great tunnels; stop at the North Pacific Cannery Village Museum, site of the oldest salmon cannery on the B.C. coast; and skirt Ridley Island, where ocean freighters load cargoes of Canadian grain and coal. The sun is starting to set as the Skeena pulls into Prince Rupert, the end of the line and the beginning of other adventures.


Some will trace the same route back, stopping again in Prince George and two nights in Jasper, waiting to catch up with the next Canadian heading east toward Winnipeg. Other will fly to Vancouver and get back to Winnipeg in a day.


From Prince Rupert, one can catch the Alaska Marine Highway System ferry to Ketchikan or a B.C. Ferries ship to Skidegate in the Queen Charlotte Islands or Port Hardy at the northern tip of Vancouver Island.


On Vancouver Island, Via operates another train from Courtenay to Victoria. Get off at Nanaimo and it's a short ferry crossing to Horseshoe Bay. You can take the Canadian home from Vancouver, or link up with the Amtrak system and ride the rails into the United States.


But that is another story...