I paid my first visit to the Canadian province of British Columbia in 1992. We were exhibitors at an object-oriented programming conference called OOPSLA at Vancouver's convention center. It took me seven years to make a return visit, this time courtesy of Rocky Mountaineer Railtours. The two day journey from Calgary to Vancouver took me over a vital part of Canadian history. A hundred years ago the building of a transcontinental railroad was both a technological challenge and an essential part of Canada's dream of stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
(Those of us to the south had a similar dream. We called ours Manifest Destiny, translated loosely as the God-given right to whack the crap out of anybody who stood between us and the Pacific Ocean. And once we satisfied that particular desire we looked north, pledging that our borders should reach to 54 degrees, 40 minutes of latitude, the source of the slogan "54-40 or fight!" Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed and a compromise was reached at the 49th parallel. Which is the title of a wonderful film about WWII German sailors trying to elude capture in Canada while racing to the border with the still-neutral USA. Highly recommended. But I digress. Again.)
The rail link across the Rockies to Vancouver provided the first real connection between eastern Canada and the West Coast. Today most travelers either fly or drive; both are considerably faster than going by train. Those historic rails exist primarily for freight, supplemented over the past ten years by tourist trains like mine. The trip from Calgary to Vancouver, a distance of roughly six hundred miles, takes two days on the train, stopping overnight at Kamloops in eastern BC. (After all, what's the point of taking a sightseeing trip if all the scenery goes by while you're asleep?)
What follows are pictures from the second half of the journey. Although day one was equally impressive, I've already covered some of that country on the previous page.
Canadian rail routes are divided into subdivisions of about 125
miles in length, that being the distance a steam locomotive could
cover in a day. Our train covered three subdivisions the first day,
finishing up at Kamloops at the intersection of the North and South
Thompson Rivers. It gained a kind of notoriety as the location of the
least successful robbery in the long career of Billy Miner. Miner, an
American stagecoach robber who found himself obsolete with the
disappearance of the stage, moved to Canada and began a career robbing
trains. At Kamloops he netted himself $15 and a bottle of liver
pills, not noticing a further $4000 in bearer bonds in his possession.
A film called
Fox tells Miner's tale; at dinner we were given a more romantic
and slapstick version. The next morning it was back on the train and
the two remaining subdivisions between us and Vancouver.
The country changes several times along the route. At Kamloops it
was desert and low hills. Our route followed the path of the
Thompson River, a view filled with tan earth, sagebrush, dusty
looking plants and some extremely disreputable telegraph lines.
Many of the poles are more horizontal than vertical, with wires
hanging tangled and broken between them. The government figures it
would cost $500 per pole to remove them. So here they sit, waiting
for someone to steal a few more glass insulators to sell in antique
The low hills soon turn into mountains, painted bright colors by the
chemicals in the soil. And then we move into Avalanche Alley, where
strategically placed sheds keep the falling rocks from landing on
the tracks. Rail maintenance has come into the modern age; a
break in the tracks can be detected electronically and crews
dispatched to do repairs. Which can still mean a delay of an hour
or two. But what more beautiful place can there be to sip a glass
of wine and enjoy another high-calorie Canadian repast?
After a while the barren hills give way to green forests. This is
Hell's Gate, the narrowest point on the Fraser River. Water moves
through the gorge at a phenomenal twenty-five miles an hour,
creating quite a challenge for all the salmon heading upstream to
spawn. And to man: in 1882 a Canadian Pacific manager named Andrew
Onderdonk accepted a bet that he could sail a steamship upstream
through Hell's Gate. After a final attempt lasting ten days,
Onderdonk had his workers install ring bolts in the canyon walls and
use ropes to pull his ship, the Skuzzy, through. It remains the
only steamship ever to negotiate the rapids, even if it did have to
supplement its horsepower with a little manpower.
My first visit to Vancouver definitely had its ups and downs. On
the down side was its convention center, pictured at left.
Permanent carpeting in a convention center means no forklifts for
moving all those heavy computers around. Instead everything had to
be moved by hand. And dropped. A lot; we had more equipment
failures at that show than at all the shows I've done since.
Combined. Add to that little problem the tent roof, which made for
a chilly exhibition. (It was October.) Seaplanes added a final
touch: every time one took off from the harbor we'd have to stop our
presentation. Those things are loud!
But there were certainly compensations. Like the short walk to
Gastown, Vancouver's Skid Row, now partially restored into a tourist
area. Named for a 19th century saloon keeper and loudmouth called
Jack, the area is home to restaurants and shops and, when I was
first there, a comedy club where I enjoyed hearing an American
comedian poking fun at Canadian politics and Canadian comedians
doing the same to us. To be fair, the latter had a lot more to
work with. (The picture on the right is the much photographed steam
clock, which sounds off every fifteen minutes with all the warmth of
tone of a circus calliope.)
Vancouver has a different look than any other city I've visited.
Some of it is all the new and very modern architecture that fills
downtown; I'm not used to so many curved highrises. Part of it is
the combination of very tall but not very large buildings surrounded
by open space. My hotel on this second visit was a good example:
the Westin Grand is thirty stories tall but has just ten rooms on
each floor. And just two elevators for those thirty stories. (Just
what is it about Vancouver hotels and elevators? Does the city levy
a special tax if you have enough?)
Of course, it isn't all modern tower blocks. There are some
beautiful old neighborhood within walking distance of downtown.
These two pictures were taken near the edge of Stanley Park at the
northwest corner of downtown. The ivy-coated building at the left
is an old hotel. (I'm now kicking myself for not checking if the
interior is as charming as the exterior.) At right is a view of the
Burrard Inlet from the park's jogging path. The mountains are north
across the inlet in West Vancouver, which is west and a little north
of North Vancouver. So West Vancouver is north of Vancouver, as
well as being north of North Vancouver. Simple, isn't it?
A couple of views of the Inner Harbour that separates Vancouver from
North Vancouver. No, that's not Hurricane Floyd; the two gas
stations at left are supposed to be half submerged like
that. At right is the SeaBus, a regular commuter service between
Vancouver harbor and North Vancouver. This shot was taken from
Lonsdale Quay on the north side; you can see the city skyline and
the convention center. Lonsdale Quay has a market that's very
similar to Pike's Market in
Seattle, full of meat and fish and produce and baked goods, along
with the usual tourist junk. Well worth the ten minute SkyBus
You're looking at the biggest tourist attraction in Vancouver, as
measured by the number of visitors. This is the Capilano Suspension
Bridge in North Vancouver, which has swayed 230 feet above the
Capilano River for more than a hundred years. Actually, this is
the fourth bridge at this site, having replaced its predecessor a
little over forty years ago. But that doesn't matter. What does is
the natural splendor of the site, even on the miserable rainy day I
visited. And the sense of history, of the craftwork of the native
tribes who once had this area to themselves. And finally for its
glimpse into a simpler age, a time when our amusements didn't all
involve high speeds, loud sounds or flashing images on CRTs.
As a child, I remember my surprise at discovering that there was this big chunk of land called New York that wasn't New York City. Later came the shock of learning that the state capital wasn't in Manhattan but in some out of the way place called Albany. Of course, New York State isn't unusual in that regard; for every Boston or Denver or Honolulu there's a Harrisburg or Sacramento or Santa Fe.
So I guess I shouldn't be surprised that British Columbians are no better. Instead of putting their provincial capital in the large and easy to reach Vancouver they chose the distinctly more challenging Victoria at the southern end of three hundred mile long Vancouver Island. It took me three hours to reach the island by a combination of coach and ferry; Victoria itself was still an hour down the road.
Or at least it would have been an hour, had we not made a stop along
Gardens began life as an attempt by the lady of the house to
make up for the eyesore of her husband's cement plant and has grown
into fifty acres of riotous color. There are four major areas in
the gardens. My favorite, the sunken garden at left, is all that
remains of the cement plant's quarry site. There is also a rose
garden (not quite so dramatic in late September), a
Japanese-inspired garden and, at right, a Renaissance Italian garden
on the site of the family's old tennis court.
Victoria itself feels very English. A high point is the
Empress Hotel at left,
another magnificent effort by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, the
folks who gave us Chateau Lake
Louise near Banff. Or at least it would have been a
high point, had an employee strike prevented me from getting a
closer look. At right is the provincial capital building, which
shares the harbor with the Empress. I wonder how the government
workers get anything done with those roaring seaplanes taking off
outside their windows...
It's three hours from Vancouver to Victoria and three hours back.
Unless you take a shortcut: Helijet Airways, claimed to be the
only scheduled helicopter service in North America, runs regular
flights to Victoria, Vancover and Seattle. I'd always
wanted to ride in a helicopter, and here was my chance. (That's my
ride at left, taking off after leaving me at Vancouver Harbor.) And
not only did I save myself a long coach-and-ferry trip, but I also
got some brilliant views of islands and coastline. Like the spot at
right: Point Roberts is a little slice of home, an American
peninsula off the Canadian mainland. Several members of Vancouver's
hockey team have homes here, which frees them of Canadian
regulations and, more importantly, Canadian tax rates. Their fans,
at least the ones in Vancouver, are not amused.
Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California