Thursday, 13 July 2017

Cross-Canada Trip 2017 - DAY 4 (Part 2)

DAY 4: Part 2 – The Far Saskatchewan

Note: A huge thank you to everyone who’s been following along so far – I hope you’ve been enjoying it! Much of the best is yet to come… Unfortunately I’m going to have to leave a bit of a gap in here, as I’ll be off to Ontario for a week (heading out on the train tomorrow, in fact), so there won’t be any more posts until at least the 24th. Now, back to the trip…

With Winnipeg behind us, we made our way across the remainder of Manitoba and into Saskatchewan. Through the journey across the prairies I couldn’t get a particular song out of my head – this one, by Ottawa-based singer-songwriter Tom Lips:

My family had his debut CD (Made of Sky) when I was growing up, and it formed the soundtrack to many a car trip. That particular song was one that I came to appreciate more and more over the years. It’s such a beautiful and moving reflection on an experience that is common to many people, all across the country – of having a home that you love, and having to leave for whatever the reason may be. You go somewhere else, but your heart is always drawn back to that place you came from. Here is a post from Tom Lips, talking about the inspiration for that song:

I find it impossible to look out at the endless expanses of the prairie landscape without that song rolling through my head, even if the first chunk of the trip was really in Manitoba…

In a way, there is another sort of family connection to that song, and it ties us back into where I’ve made it to with this trip so far. My grandmother (Oma, as she was to us) was born in the small prairie town of Justice, Manitoba, to Mennonite immigrants. The youngest of twelve children (and the only one born in Canada), she would ultimately grow up in Leamington ON. Justice was one of those places that I knew of purely for that reason, but didn’t really know anything about. When I set out on this trip, it didn’t even occur to me that the CN mainline actually passed right through Justice; in fact, it is one of many communities along the railway that really only exists because the railway went through there.

I wouldn’t realize it was there until Rich, the map-carrying train-travel-enthusiast, was pointing out where we were on the map as we chatted in the dome. Looking at the towns coming up on my Railway Atlas, I realized that “Justice” was just a few places away! MP 122.7, according to Rich’s more detailed maps.

Before we got there we passed a track gang installing welded rail on the siding, which may explain why we had 3 freight meets at the last siding. We then met another freight at MP106 (CN Harte), an intermodal with 3 EMDs up front.

Track gang. The most railroad-y of all gangs.

Just a short time later we rolled through Justice. There isn’t much there – just an elevator to the south, a single grade crossing, and a few homes to the north surrounded by farmlands. It’s the sort of place you’d hardly even notice if you weren’t looking for it. It’s strange to actually see a place like that; an essential piece of our family story, but one that until now was just a name and a vague idea. Yet there it was. I wish I could tell Oma about this, and show her the pictures. I know she would have been happy to know that I was thinking about her in the midst of this grand adventure – how could I not?

MP 122 on the Rivers Sub - just 0.7 miles from Justice

The grain elevator at Justice, MB

Justice, MB

The single grade crossing in Justice, MB. That appears to be the main road, and pretty much the entire town is visible in this photo. Trains stopped here at one time, but not anymore. 

Just as quickly as it had come, Justice disappeared behind us...

At this point in my journal, I wrote: “I dedicate this section of the trip to her, and to Grandpa too. I remember their stories about taking the train through the mountains to go visit Dad in BC…This will soon be my first taste of that mountain railroad experience. Admittedly, my ideas of what it will be like are in so many ways influenced by those stories. How will reality compare? That’s a question for tomorrow to answer…”

One final note on Justice: why the name? Rich explained that many of the towns along the route were named when the railway was constructed, and at that time the Grand Trunk took to naming some of these sections alphabetically. Shortly before that we had passed Harte, and there was an “I” name after that. When they got to this point, they needed a “J” name, and “Justice” clearly fit the bill.

Ok, moving along! We had another meet at Knox (alphabetically following Justice), a manifest train with lots of tanks, hoppers, boxes and lumber.

Meet at CN Knox

Some prairie scenery. This would be pretty gorgeous in a few months' time.

We were given a heads-up that we would be reaching the Uno trestle at MP 185, something I was really looking forward to.

Our new Park car attendants out of Winnipeg were Walter and Karine. Walter was nice and quite professional, and Karine was absolutely lovely. She’s been working on The Canadian for a long time now, and clearly loves her job. She spent plenty of time in the dome telling us about things that were coming up, and pointing to things of interest.

At MP 137 we overtook a westbound freight, all centrebeams with a GEVO and SD75I leading. Nice to be given priority for a change! Though I suspect that was likely because they would soon have to meet an eastbound freight.

Indeed – at Rivers, we met CN 8806 and 2566 with another manifest train. 4:22pm.

CN meet at Rivers, MB.

There was a huge halo around the sun at this point, which looked quite eerie. One guy in the dome points out an old Air Force base just south of Rivers that was being torn down, or so it appeared.

Next wildlife sighting – a fox! Not as interesting as some things, but it still got everyone pretty excited. Jennifer, who is from Dublin (Ireland) and travelling on the train to see Canada, comments that foxes are all over the place where she lives, much like a lot of us see squirrels or raccoons.

A fox! Well, it's there somewhere - on the move, perhaps racing our train.
We meet another freight (an 88xx leader and yet another 4-window Dash 9) at CN Oakner. While we waited, a pair of muskrats swimming in a pond on the north side provided some welcome entertainment. They were chasing each other around in circles, which was fun to watch but also difficult to photograph! There were lots of black ducks in the marshes as well, and some red-winged blackbirds.
Another one of those grungy looking 2500s at Oakner.

Muskrats! If they would have stopped moving around so much, I could have got a clearer picture. 

I noted many derelict buildings in this area, including an entire farm that appeared to be abandoned, with a house and barns falling apart. Yet there were some metal silos that looked in good shape, so I suspect it was still being used as a storage site at least.

We then headed into the most scenic part of the entire prairie crossing. Most people think of the prairies as flat and boring, and much of that is true – but there are still some rather spectacular areas. The Assiniboine River snakes through the Qu’Appelle Valley, and the train follows along high on the side of the valley. If you look on a map, this stretch of the rail line begins just north of Miniota, MB, and continues up along the winding river to St-Lazare.

This stretch is absolutely stunning, easily the most impressive scenery of the trip so far. Unfortunately it’s dull and brown in the early spring, and a gloomy day – I’m sure in the later spring and summer, this would be spectacular.

Enjoying the view.

Again, this would be spectacular in a few months, but it was still something to look at!

At MP 184.5 we have a yellow over red (clear to stop) signal, and just past that we would enter into a curve towards a bridge that I recognized immediately. It has been widely photographed, and I even have a calendar at home that has a shot from the westbound Canadian, looking forward to the approach to this bridge. It’s a nicer shot than mine, but it was still cool to see!

This is the Uno bridge, an impressive trestle that crosses the Minnewashtack Creek before it joins the Assiniboine River. It’s located near the town of Uno MB, and is a pretty amazing thing to cross!

Far off in the distance, an oncoming freight that we would soon meet.

Approaching the Uno bridge.

Crossing the Uno bridge. That freight is now at the other side, waiting for us to clear.
The view from the bridge. It's hard to appreciate from the photo just how high up we were!

There was a freight waiting for us, and we immediately took the siding after leaving the bridge. The train was mostly lumber centrebeams, with some boxes and a tank-hopper-gons-tank-hopper combo at the end.

Up close and personal with that freight.

Moving away, and looking back at the monster freight as it heads across the bridge. One of the coolest things about this area is being able to see these huge trains in their entirety.
The scenery continued to be breathtaking past this point: rolling slopes, winding rivers, marshes, and so much grass. The sky was somewhat overcast, and very little green vegetation yet. It’s hard to capture this well in photos, so while I took a few, I mostly opted to just relax and take it all in.

The speed through this section is 70/60, but some spring slow orders were in place in marshier areas. All roads that I saw were gravel/dirt, but well kept. I suspect we were following freights on this section, as we hit yellow signal after yellow signal…

The Assiniboine River meanders a LOT. You can see this if you take a look at a map or satellite view. There are plenty of oxbows, where the river meandered so much that it connected back on itself and isolated little lakes.

Across the valley I spotted a massive potash train. It was hard to photograph, but beautiful to watch! It’s amazing to see these huge trains in their entirety. We met another freight (intermodal, 2273 leading, 8884 mid train DPU) at MP 212. The variety in those intermodal trains can be amazing. Sure, they’re largely the same type of car (though plenty of styles within that), but the wide range of colourful containers can be fascinating.
Potash train across the valley, with as much telephoto zoom as I can manage...That's a C40-8M and an SD75I leading.
The first dinner call came at 6pm, and the second was expected for 8pm. As usual, I had opted for the late options.

There was a huge potash mine across the way at MP 216, and now we’re in Saskatchewan. Hi, Saskatchewan!

We were away from the valley at this point and on sold, flat, prairie land. You can see for miles, and miles, and miles…

Now that's a prairie. Welcome to Saskatchewan.

But it's still not all flat.
We reached Welby SK. Based on the naming convention, I was excited to see what weird X, Y  and Z names we might see. Next should be X…aaaaannndddd…it’s Spy Hill. Hmm, that’s a letdown.

Karine told us a bit about potash. The mines extract the potash from the ore that they dig up, and then leave all of the leftovers in a huge pile. These piles will eventually be pushed back into the mines when they are exhausted. It makes for an incredible sight, as the huge mountainous piles dwarf anything else on the landscape. Potash mines build the mountains of Saskatchewan…

Those mountains are the byproducts of potash mining. Gives you an idea of how much this mine has dug up! They will eventually be pushed back into the ground when the mine ends production. On such flat land, they really shape the landscape.

A potash mine.
Karine also told us that the sunrise and sunsets in Saskatchewan can be spectacular, especially in the winter. Sometimes you can see the northern lights faintly. Unfortunately we wouldn’t see either of those on this trip.

We met another intermodal at CN Code, and spotted a ton of hoppers (with some weird ones in the mix) at an adjacent potash plant.

Oh look, another freight train.

Some of the variety of hoppers. Astonishingly, this was not the only Rock Island hopper I saw. There was another in this cut of cars, and I saw at least 2 more later in the trip.
Yarbo – hey, there’s the “Y”! – at 6:55pm. It was getting a bit chilly in the dome, so I decided to retreat downstairs to the lounge. We met another eastbound manifest, at speed (they were in the siding).

With suppertime approaching and a decent cell signal, I checked the VIA app to note that were running about 1.5h behind schedule. At this point I wondered if we would make up the time. I had no worries about being late, but I was a bit concerned about missing mountain scenery in the dark. Of course if that were the case, we’d get more canyon/valley scenery on the last morning – a bit of a trade-off.

Another meet – intermodal, while we wait in the siding. 10 minute call to Melville, SK, where we would make a 10 minute stop and could get off for fresh air. Another meet with an intermodal led by 2 GEVOs, still in the same siding.

More prairie scenery - again, note how the potash mines change the landscape...

Wavy lines in the roof of Glacier Park. Fun fact - these are the result of damage to the car during its Prestige rebuild. Apparently the contractor didn't secure the car properly when lifting it off its trucks, and the stress caused the roof to warp. I believe this happened to a few of the cars, if not all of them. 

Back in my roomette for a bit, staring out at the hazy prairie sun.

At Melville there’s a good sized CN yard with loco servicing facilities. A train was waiting for us to arrive – a BC Rail Dash 9 and CN C40-8M break up the monotony of GEVOs.

Something colourful! Nice to see some BC Rail units still in red white and blue.

CN Melville
A whole lotta hoppers
The stop in Melville was pretty quick, but lots of people got off to walk around. It wasn’t that chilly, and I was okay outside without a sweater on. During the stop, one of the guys on board who I’d only chatted with briefly asked if I could take his photo with a car that was mounted on a pole nearby – he wanted it to look like he was holding up the car. I obliged, and he took a look at the image on my camera and said it looked great. But he never asked for a copy of the photo, nor did I ever get his name or any sort of contact info so I could send it to him. So here it is – I hope he stumbles across this blog!

The Canadian at Melville, SK.

The Canadian at Melville, SK.

Man with car. I never got his name, but I did get this picture for him. I hope he finds it! 

Here's a shot for all of you whose eyes immediately went to the Terra Transport container in that last picture! I swear, these things are everywhere.
The stop would only be about 5 minutes, then we were back on the train. The supper call came just after that, at 8:17pm. Departure at 8:20pm.

Supper continued the trend of excellent meals. I had the tomato bisque to start, which was astonishingly good for a tomato soup (I really don’t usually like tomato soup). Then I had the trout main, and it was absolutely superb. The dessert was a chocolate cake, and it was thoroughly enjoyable.

Dinner menu

Tomato bisque

Lake trout crusted with Canadian hemp and seared on the grill, accompanied by potatoes and string beans. It had never occurred to me that one could crust fish with hemp, but it was delicious.

Blurry, blurry, chocolate cake. It tasted great, but it just wouldn't sit still.
I had great company at this meal, once again. To my left was a VIA engineer who works out of Hearst ON, and runs the Canadian to Sioux Lookout. He was good natured, and quite boisterous; he reminded me of some farmers that I’ve known. Across from me was an assistant professor at the Université de Montréal (she’s originally from France), and next to her was a research associate at Oxford University, in the Transport Studies Unit of the School of Geography and the Environment (he’s originally from Victoria). Everyone was really pleasant to chat with, and we had great conversation that ranged from cities and urban transportation, to fisheries, the environment, and life in northern remote communities. We ended up staying and talking well after we finished supper, and I was sad to have to head our separate ways afterwards.

There was no real sunset, and it had gotten dark. I decided to head back to the Park car for a while, with the thought that I’d spend some time reading in the lounge before heading to bed. I grabbed a Granville Island honey lager from the bar, and sat down with Good Omens (by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman). Jennifer passed by and asked whether I was reading it for Pratchett, or for Gaiman – I explained that I was just dabbling onto both. She had also been reading something of Terry Pratchett’s, and I asked her for any good suggestions. She made a few suggestions on where to go with Discworld, and would later offer some suggestions on Gaiman books to check out.

Of course I never actually got anywhere in Good Omens. I got through about a chapter, but it was getting late and had been such a full day that I decided it was time for bed. Tomorrow would be a big day, as we headed into the mountains! There would be a longer stop in Saskatoon that evening, but by this time we were still running well over an hour late, so there was a ways to go yet. We had been stopped for a while for two more freights over supper.

The time zone would change overnight again, so here was the chance to get a really good sleep. I had been finding my roomette exceptionally comfy and sleeping really well, and this night would continue that trend.

So goodnight from the far Saskatchewan! When day breaks, we’ll be in Alberta, and nearing Edmonton. The Rockies await…
_ _ _ 

As I mentioned at the start of this post, I’ll be away next week so there will be a bit of a wait for the next post - expect it around the 24th or so. The next part is what I’m sure many of you have been waiting for, so stay tuned! 

There are still 6 parts to go - Day 5 (the Mountains), Day 6 (Vancouver), On-board tour of The Canadian, Day 7 (The flight), Day 8 (Toronto to Montreal), and Day 9 (back to Halifax).

It seems wrong to end a post with a blurry chocolate cake, so here's Glacier Park, bringing up the tail end of #1 at Melville, SK. I'd say "bringing up the markers", but they don't have those anymore. "Bringing up the red tail paddle" doesn't have quite the same ring...


  1. Familiar country! I was in Justice briefly, to photograph their grain elevator. There's not a lot there! The I between Harte and Justice was Ingelow.

    Bloom, Caye, Deer, Exira, Firdale, Gregg, Harte, Ingelow, Justice, Knox, Levine, Myra, Norman, Oakner, Pope, Quadra, Rea, Stenberg, Uno, Treat, Victor... why U came before T? I don't know.

    1. Thanks for that list, Steve! It's a neat little quirk of that section of the line, and one I was glad to have pointed out to me. No idea why Uno snuck in there before Treat. Maybe someone involved didn't quite know their alphabet right... :P

  2. Take a break, Tim. It's tiring travelling across the country, both on your transcon trip and your upcoming one! Great to read along and travel along with you. Of course, the 'alphabet towns' are due for an upcoming post on Trackside Treasure - like about 300 other things. They are a neat little Canadian quirk.

    I have a recurring dream about returning to Portage la Prairie, either to railfan there or passing through on the train. It was the site of much railfanning 'back in the day' and your photos illustrate well the current scene there. I think seeing it in person would really freak me out!

    Thanks again for sharing these posts, and I think you've made an excellent choice to integrate the trip account with photos on the Blogger platform!


  3. Are you aware that the grain elevator is a distinctly Canadian piece of architecture. No other ounyry uses/used them. The CPR insisted on them, all very simple, rellying on a archimedes screw and gravity, most could be operated by one employee.

    They are distinct in style and use. The tepee is a tent, the igloo has the same function and shape as the yurt, but the grain elevator is unique.