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Canadian Rockies By Rail

This article was written by CBS News' Jim Gullo

A good rule of thumb on a train trip through the Canadian Rockies is that a grizzly bear waits for no man, but elk will stand still and pose like a Mutual of Omaha ad. Eagles don't really care either way.

I learned this recently when I took the Rocky Mountaineer, a private rail carrier in Canada, on a two-day trip from Jasper, Alberta, in the Rocky mountains to Vancouver, British Columbia, on the coast. Rocky Mountaineer operates the entire trip during daylight hours, with an overnight stop in Kamloops, B.C., in order to maximize the sightseeing opportunities. VIA Rail, the Canadian version of Amtrak, also serves the two cities, but mostly at night.

I booked the premium GoldLeaf service (from $1,439 per person), which puts your reserved seat in the upstairs part of a domed train car, with huge windows to watch the scenery in all directions. Downstairs is the dining car with big windows and hot breakfasts and lunches served on both days (included in the fare). An open bar with wine and spirits was also included and served by a crack staff of four attendants who provided commentary along the way.

The standard service is called RedLeaf (from $639), and consists of a reserved seat in a regular train car, with cold meals delivered to your seat. Each service includes a night in Kamloops at a budget hotel (ours was the Holiday Inn Express, which was clean and comfortable and had a pool and business center) and well-organized baggage handling that delivered bags to the hotel rooms, picked them up in the morning and transferred them to our Vancouver hotels at the conclusion of the train trip.

The trip is billed as one of the most scenic rail journeys in North America (not counting Jersey City to Manhattan, of course), and it didn't take long for that to prove correct. Within 15 minutes of leaving Jasper's handsome, green-roofed train station at 8:15 on a Sunday morning, we were immersed in the wilderness of Jasper National Park, with hundreds of miles of mountain peaks, rivers, lakes and alpine forests ahead of us.

As if on cue, within the first half-hour the train passed two magnificent elk with enormous racks that stood stock-still and watched us from a few feet away from the tracks. The sight of them almost made me put down my morning muffin and coffee, delivered to my seat by genial and efficient cabin attendants named Charity and Iain, but not quite.

For most of the morning, the train ran alongside glacial-blue Moose Lake in Mt. Robson Provincial Park, culminating in a stunning, up-close view of Mount Robson itself, which, at 12,792 feet is the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies.

The upper part was covered in snow, with a craggy, beveled top. Because the train was more about sightseeing and photo ops than on-time performance, we could slow down to a crawl at the most scenic spots and then speed up to a brisk 60 mph or so to make up time later. When a bear was sighted three hours into our journey, the word was sent by intercom throughout the cars and the train crept along the tracks.

Unfortunately, the bear was wise to us and disappeared by the time my car arrived, as did another bear minutes later on the other side of the train. As the train's brochure pointed out, we might not see all of the wildlife, but they would see us. Ah, go tell it to my digital camera, I replied to the train's brochure.

After Mount Robson, we entered a broad valley that was flanked by the Rockies on one side and Canada's towering Premier range on the other. Pyramid Falls cascaded down from Mt. Cheadle and the surrounding woods were packed with Ponderosa Pines, cedars and Trembling Aspens. Later, we passed through narrow, 8.5 mile-long Hell's Gate, a rough part of the North Thompson River canyon that took settlers three days to traverse in the 1860s.

On my car was an international group of travelers from Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Japan, but surprisingly few Americans like myself. The train company is marketed heavily in the Commonwealth, and many of the passengers had booked the trip as part of long itineraries that included cruises to Alaska, tours of Vancouver and Victoria and, in the case of a 74-year old Aussie woman and her daughter, a trip to Disneyland.

Lunch in the dining car was an impressive selection of Alberta beef, thick pork chops or pasta with chicken. I was delighted to see northern pickerel, a trout-like fish, on the menu because I haven't seen a pickerel since my father used to catch them 40 years ago. The fish came in lightly breaded and fried cutlets and were delicious alongside cranberry-studded couscous and a green salad. A dessert sampler was delivered that included a slice of cranberry bread pudding on a puddle of crème anglaise and a wedge of maple-flavored cheesecake that was frozen in places and too sweet all over.

The day had been sunny with passing showers since we'd left Jasper, but an hour outside of Kamloops the sun shone brightly and we left the mountains behind for a landscape of semi-arid, high desert vistas of brown, rolling hills and scrubby, sagebrush vegetation. When we arrived in the provincial city of 85,000, people waved to us from their porches and atop horses. Room keys were handed out on the train and buses were waiting to whisk us to the hotels for the night. The bus driver, swept away by the excitement of our arrival, grandly pointed out the new water-treatment plant in town.

Dinners were optional, with a choice of two dinner-theater shows, including one that promised a spirited, comic competition between two lumberjacks. I've got a rule that I don't bother lumberjacks and they don't bother me, so I stayed in and enjoyed a quiet night in Kamloops.

There was a revolt in the breakfast car the next morning over the eggs Benedict, which the chef had, unfortunately, chosen to serve atop a hard, grainy, herbed scone, with a chipotle Hollandaise sauce. "It's too fussy!" thundered an English man at my table who asked for a poached egg and Canadian bacon and nothing else. My buttermilk pancakes were small and undercooked, with withered berries on the side.

That day, we ran alongside Thompson Lake for the first hour and then followed the Thompson River until it intersected with the mud-colored, roiling Fraser River that runs all the way to the ocean. At 9 a.m., two bald eagles perched in trees had everyone running to the windows. We would see many more eagles and osprey throughout the day, even seeing the birds swoop down to catch fish in the river.

By 11 a.m. the Japanese ladies were hitting the Baileys liqueur hard, and most of the others were getting familiar with both the wildlife and the bloody marys and mimosas that Charity and Iain poured freely. I, of course, stuck strictly to beer and wine. I was working, after all.

The Ponderosa Pines of the Rockies gave way to great forests of Douglas Firs that characterize the coast. At mid-day we met the river at the Cisco Crossings, with an 812-foot bridge that is the longest on the Canadian National line. Just upriver, a Canadian Pacific freight train crossed at the same time on another bridge, providing yet another spectacular photo op.

There were ladders and net placements and drying sheds on the steep walls of the canyon where native tribes (called First Nations in Canada) pulled up migrating salmon. Gray-sand beaches had been formed by the silty river as its flow decreased over the summer months.

Lunch was chicken crusted with a mustard dressing atop a cranberry-citrus glaze (stuffy!) halibut, and slices of roasted bison on a blueberry jus. It was tasty, if unexceptional, and dessert was a nearly inedible mélange of dried chocolate brownie and a little chocolate choo-choo train whose tiny freight car was filled with a dab of some kind of white pudding. Generally, I believe the food shouldn't try to outdo the most scenic railway journey in the world, but I'm sure some would disagree.

At any rate, I was eager to get back upstairs to my panoramic views. By mid-afternoon we had come upon the tall peaks of the Cascades, the spine of mountains that reaches all the way down the west coast, and by four p.m. we were on the outskirts of Vancouver, crossing under the Portman Bridge on our way downtown. The train arrived on time at 5:15 p.m., more buses awaited to transfer guests to hotels, and the staff personally shook hands with every guest.

Which wasn't stuffy at all.

The scorecard? Great scenery, fine service, slightly pretentious and very inconsistent food. Wonderful train trip, even if the bears can see you when you can't see them.

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