The Ocean, service from Montreal to Halifax.
Just about to get started on the train from Montreal to Halifax, six-days-a-week service that will be unceremoniously cut to three at the end of October, a decision by fiat of the dictatorial, supra-parliamentary Stephen Harper conservative government, according to one of our fellow travelers. They’ve branded this service The Ocean, with a logo of a famous lighthouse.
Here in the ViaRail Montreal terminal they're queueing by the down escalator with the Halifax sign. An overweight man in a dirty orange T-shirt drops his Hello Kitty paraphenalia around him and settles in. Very odd. There is a queue of twenty or so, including one nun. We're across the way at a café. Two fat women are enjoying poutine, a dish with French Canadian origins comprising french fries, cheese and gravy.
As poutine has spread across Canada and come into its own, variants have popped up, like Mexican poutine, with jalapenos. These ladies sure were enjoying theirs, and the full-sugar version of Pepsi.
In Halifax there’s a lobster poutine, an egregious use of lobster. For $14, The Hart and Thistle offers Lobster Poutine Nova Scotia: Lobster morsels, cheese curds and lobster bisque topped with bernaise. Over fries.
A couple of days in the capital of Quebec suggest an obesity problem, if not the obesity epidemic in the U.S. Perhaps poutine is related?
By the late date when I set out to reserve a train compartment, the sleepers which included restaurant food were sold out so we've ended up in the most expensive accommodation, a large room with two beds located in the observation car at the back of the train. When I suggested that we'd thrown as much money at ViaRail as we could, the nice lady in the check-in Panorama Lounge (I think anybody who wanted to could use the Panorama Lounge) looked at the ticket and said "Yes you have."
The clerks manning the little booth outside the lounge were also train attendants and started off on their back feet, defensive, since the train was late and, as they told me, "in the shop." They introduced Stefan, the observation car boss, who apologized that the bar was through the wall from our sleeping compartment but promised he'd close it down at 11:00, and in any case the bar almost never had anyone in it, as the windows were higher than the tables so you couldn't see out and this was after all the observation car, so people took their drinks out to the back, with the big windows. Never heard a thing.
"Canada we stand on guard for thee" adorns the station wall, a line from the national anthem. Flags around the periphery – National, provincial, "Cominar" (a real estate investment trust). A counter for Trains de Banlieue, the commuter trains that are the responsibility of the Metropolitan Transportation Agency and not ViaRail. There are intermittent bursts of activity from the suburban trains, people hurrying by, and the PA booms through and it sounds typically cavern-like in here.
One end of the station opens into an underground shopping area, which spread out all across Montreal. A Banque Nationale branch sits on one station wall and down the way there's a liquor store with no way to bring single beers from the cooler to the front except to scoop them up one by one, but which has excellent padded carry-out bags for sale.
This station is clean. Like Canada.
The Canadian newspaper business hangs close to collapse right alongside the American version. The Globe and Mail (a little over 300,000 circulation) is ubiquitous. "Canada's National Newspaper" is Canada's answer to USA Today with a dash more substance, but still heavy on back-to-school advice, “a wonderful story about fathers,” and “tips on how to sculpt your shoulders.” Only once did I spy a stack of Montreal Gazettes. That day's issue had a 22 page first section, fourteen pages of sports and sixteen on "driving."
The big board at Montreal station doesn't show an airport’s exotic destinations. Even a potentially ordinary airport like Winnepeg may host flights to exotic places like (in Winnepeg's case) jet service to Rankin Inlet and Thompson "and the most frequent flights in the Kivalliq region, courtesy of CalmAir.” From Montreal you can travel to Ottawa and Toronto and Halifax. The good news is, it's a big and roomy space, plenty of room to grow. As if there will someday be more exotic locales to get a ride to. But in the end, all the lines end with white people who talk like Minnesotans.
Now time passes. It's boarding time, it's departure time. Nothing moves. Today is Monday and we have until Saturday to get to Halifax, and we're here for the experience of the train, so I'm just asking when I wander over to the little check-in stand and inquire about departure, but the little man who smells like he's just come back from a cigarette break is defensive and has no information.
The Panorama Lounge is jammed up all the way to standing room, and I don’t know why stand in there when restaurants, bars and newsstands wait just outside. There’s a queue even to the men's toilet. The queue at the escalator grows and I wonder why people stand as close as they can to be at the front of the queue, in this case for well over an hour, to get to their little compartment first? But there's good humor in the crowd, except for the defensive round man at the desk, who is now hoping for a 7:15 departure instead of the original 6:30.
And when finally we roll out from underground and into the air just before 8:00, a solid, saturated red sky at night presents behind the CN Canadian National Railroad building and the Marriott and lots of rolling stock that reads "Alberta." We're out over the St. Lawrence, leaving Ile de Montreal with a highway running parallel that has 79 streetlights before I lose count behind a train. There isn't much time to enjoy the view though, because by the time the plastic flute of welcome champagne comes and goes, and the Ocean picks up speed beyond the VW and Kia dealerships on the outskirts and we have our briefing on the three step procedure for opening the train door in an emergency, it’s dark.
This is the back car of twenty on the train, the observation car like they put on for crossing iconic places, like up to Prince Rupert in B.C. or over the Rocky Mountains on the Mountaineer. On that route they may put on five but they attach only one to The Ocean, and it's manned by prematurely graying Stefan.
He's on his fourth career, he says, and explains, "I'm older than I look." He started in photography and enjoyed taking pictures well enough, but didn't enjoy the commercial side of it, so he and his wife chucked that in and taught English as a second language in Istanbul and Seoul, and they loved Istanbul so much they may retire to Turkey.
Then he tried artisanal woodworking for a time, made furniture, and now his wife has settled to teaching language immersion to first graders in Halifax, and he does this. The crew calls him "Steff." He admonishes that we'll work up our appetite on the nearly train-long walk to the dining car.
There are only four compartments in this car and just two are occupied. Contrary to the premature apologies of the check-in staff, the bar is usually empty and it’s really quiet back here.
This cabin is larger than most. There is a fine panoramic picture window, a solid 2-1/2 feet by at least five, like they have in transcontinental Australian trains, and two armchairs yield to two single beds arrayed in an "L" shape while we're at dinner. We'll have to wait for morning to see if there's anything out there to justify their putting on an observation car, because now we slide through suburbs and all we can see are the headlights blocked at level crossings, and it's dark. There'll be plenty of time to sit up top tomorrow, because this train is scheduled to run for about 23 hours.
Linen napkins and plastic water cups in the dining car. There are little lighthouses on the glass panels that separate the tables. Later, we realize these are representations of the Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia lighthouse, and I can't tell if they proudly or ironically call it the most photographed thing in Nova Scotia. Whichever, it fits with "The Ocean," (Canada's longest running train).
On the long walk to this end of the train we pass a wrought conversation between a passenger and a crew member about a missing wallet. The unfortunate Mrs. Ross is quite upset. This has Mirja round-eyed and grabbing my arm, because she thinks Mrs. Ross says it’s a missing woman, not a missing wallet. I can see how Mirja hears it that way, owing to Mrs. Ross's wavering voice.
Sole, pork or chicken. Petty differences between risotto with this, potatoes chateau or Parisienne with that, and seasonal vegetables. All of it overcooked and something you might eat at Piccadilly (I imagine, because I haven't eaten at Piccadilly since I was twelve.)
The attendant sizes us up by whether we want sourdough or multigrain, and I can't tell which he thinks is preferable. Either way, his tie has a pattern of little canaries, he has lots of post cards in his breast pocket, and his belly peeks out under his blue shirt.
I pick multigrain and I'm kind of honored that I think that gets his approval.
Scottsburn beurre from Scottsburn, Nova Scotia.
Here we get a good look at the passengers, one we don't get back in the observation car, which is apparently somewhere not everyone walks the twenty cars back to experience. And it's multicultural and pleasing: Foursomes of all stripes: Asian, Indian, thin, fat. Twosomes, elderly, young, bleached. A single man listening to us surreptitiously who sucks through his straw until it slurps and furtively looks too long, I'm afraid, at me. A Korean man too large for his seat with a diminuti
ve pink lady, older, not interested in anything….
Outside, Tim Horton's and Essos and wet streets and headlights. Tandem trucks.
The train is stopped somewhere between stations for a reason obscure. On the long hike back from the dining car we happen by an open door with three train workers smoking outside it. We pop out and hear about ViaRail's coming decrease in service between Montreal and Halifax.
It turns out there's a near insurrection going on here. The youngest of the three smokers expects to be fired and resents it. The oldest, with 28 years service, "certainly hopes" that will be enough to save his job. Based purely on performance, and his caustic treatment of both passengers and his lot in life, this man might be the best to go.
There is woe that the Maritime provinces haven't the political clout of the plains, provinces rich with energy resources. This service cut is a political decision and I spy widespread resentment of the government of Stephen Harper, PM since 2006, not only among the employees waiting for the ax, but also, it turns out, among a wide swath of the passengers.
The liberal contingent we find ourselves among in the back lounge car castigates Harper as extra-constitutional and dictatorial, trying to explain Harper's use of an opaque parliamentary maneuver known a prorogation to avoid a no confidence vote in 2008, suspending the parliament again the next year and having lost a contempt of parliament vote in March of last year.
The venom of poisoned politics strikes as odd in a land of calm and quiet like Canada. Especially as you pass the daytime up in the bubbletop running among golf courses and quiet woods and bays, and from the back of the observation car you see only blue and gray hair and bald spots before you.
Traveling on a train is narcotizing in a way unlike airplane flight. The rails' rhythm sets up a calm you just don't get flying.
Shortly after 6:00 a.m. I lift the window shade and the first thing I see is a sign, "Welcome to New Brunswick." All night we've run alongside and then east from the St. Lawrence Seaway.
Now in New Brunswick, prim little New England houses with siding and wooden back decks face onto the tracks. I wouldn't feel comfortable sitting out there like we sit outside our house, with people riding by within a few dozen meters. I wonder if they do, or if they just get used to it. Probably no one who rides by will ever come back to visit them, after all.
The Ocean leaves the St. Lawrence River in the night and crosses a stretch of Quebec from Rimouski to Campbellton. Rimouski, the "Land of the Moose," where I imagine there aren't many of them anymore, is the "oceanography capital of Quebec.” From here, the M/V Nordik Express sails cargo up the seaway and calls on the northern shore, at places like Port-Menier, named for a French chocolate-maker settler and Tête-à-la-Baleine, a town of 350 named after an island resembling a whale head.
The M/V Nordik welcomes passengers in 25 cabins, to "Explore the villages while the crew loads and unloads the cargo." It calls in places like Kegaska, where it recommends
• Roads of crushed clamshells
• Fish factory
• Wreck of the Brion
and La Tabatière and Baie-des-Moutons, where you can see
• Fish and scallop factory (sea scallops)
• Robertson family foundry and cemetery
At Campbellton, home to the annual salmon festival, we watch the healthy, fast flowing Restigouche River (not to be confused with the other New Brunswick Rivers Bouctouche or Pokemouche) flow into Chaleur Bay, the largest bay on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Chaleur Bay, "warm" in French, was named by Jacques Cartier when he explored hereabouts in 1534. Pretty much everything between Montreal and here is named either by or for Jacques Cartier.
There's another of many giant metal automobile bridges and one seven-story building that by it's solitariness looks big here in Campbellton.
And the usual stuff, a Sobey's, a bank, two church steeples and by the bridge, a Howard Johnson's. In the center of town, visible from the train, a little man in the town’s radio station sits behind glass, right there on Main Street, playing disc jockey.
When I did that they used to put us in those enclosures, too, so you could never lay on the floor and nap. You always had to present as respectable, and that was pretty funny, looking back.
The sight of this fellow – too far away to tell if he was young or old – was pretty funny, too. Campbellton is small enough that working in that little studio at dawn on a Tuesday morning wouldn't come with enough celebrity to satisfy a nine year old boy's dreams. It would just be Carl sitting in there, at work.
Train engineers' hearing must be right up there with the way 70's heavy metal guitarists's are holding up by now. It must be loud to drive a train, always laying on that blasted horn at every Godforsaken crossing.
And now we're running fast along Chaleur Bay between stands of trees that are finally now in August's last days just beyond full green to an occasional shade of yellow. There are occasional birch trees and that they're not predominant is just about the only difference between this part of New Brunswick and the part of Finland I know.
Yesterday in Montreal Mirja said the light had a more northern, Finnish cast than in Georgia, and it surely does right now, here in New Brunswick. The water out on the Bay is still, the clouds are low, and it feels like we're trying to burn up some track to make up for last night's late start.
Sitting in the bubbletop observation car puts you above the rest of the train. At 6:00 (which became 7:00 at the New Brunswick border) there was no sign of anyone moving on the train, but there was fresh coffee in the urn.
I can sit in the front seats in the bubble because I'm alone with my coffee (and the marteau d'urgence, the emergency hammer, to break glass to make an emergency exit), and the view is fine as the rest of the train spreads up the track ahead and twists and turns, 17 cars and two engines. I'm staring down enough metal train-car roofs for an Indiana Jones action adventure sword fight to play out dead ahead.
The Ocean left Montreal station 1:10 late and this morning is running just :30 behind. Stefan knows this because of an incessant walkie-talkie on his hip that I could have done without. Everybody who works on this train has one and they all yak all the time.
Stefan says look in the bogs and marshes for moose, and that there are usually seals visible just along this part of Chaleur Bay, but I see neither and that holds for the rest of the trip.
It's odd, and I don't understand it – we'll cross a road and then stop. It's a single track, so we're not on a siding to wait for another train to pass, so I'm not sure why we stop, but I've got no responsibility here. The tension is between the train and the cars and trucks we block on either side, for whom it's a weekday morning and time to get to work.
Now the train is awake and people are about and the clouds are broken and scattered. There's no sun and discreet little fog banks scud along close to the ground, in bands of their own. Moncton is the largest metro area in N.B., with a population of 64,128. It's a town of low unemployment, call centers for UPS, Exxon, Fairmont Hotels and others, and Moncton Center, which is the Canadian air traffic control facility that handles flights arriving from over the Atlantic.
There is a small cluster of mid-rises in the center of Moncton, by my count a five storey, a seven, two eights, a ten storey Crown Plaza and one bona-fide twenty floor building with the corporate logo of Assumption Life, a life insurance and financial services company.
There’s a mast with microwave links and near the train station a Sobey’s and a Shopper’s Drug, and an open, weedy field on the other side of the train. There’s time enough to get out and stretch.
From the concrete you can see lots of parking lots. There is one couldn’t-be-anything-else government building with a Canadian flag. Moncton looks to be built inside, in a northern way, walled off from the winter cold – and it looks like it would be bleak in the winter. You can see snow drifting across all these empty parking lots in the afternoon half light.
As we move on we’re invited by billboard to enjoy “K945.CA, Today’s Best Music.” The St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church looks ancient. French Fries Plus does not.
They've done talks in the bubbletop, Steff and a man from Parks Canada who came aboard at Rogerstown and left us at Moncton. Lobsters and lobster traps, the Acadians, and a general piece about Canadian parks during which I learned that the beaver is the Canadian national symbol. Ten pelts used to get you a gallon of whiskey and 35 a shotgun. This came during a stretch of straight-line track, multiple kilometers of marsh and bog and birch with the trees only cut back a couple of meters from the train, all of it moose-free.
And so, Moncton and now we’ll be leaving the north woods of New Brunswick to move across Nova Scotia to the much more maritime Halifax. These woods were calming, welcoming, like you could stroll through them without being sucked and bloodied by leeches, infected by ticks, stung by wasps or hornets or yellow jackets or killed by snakes, all those circumstances that might befall back home.
You also get the idea that you wouldn’t wander forever across the taiga, as you might along the Trans-Siberian railroad. There is a place there called the Baraba Steppe, astride Russia and Kazakhstan, where, to quote a guide book by Bryn Thomas, “It appears as if there is a continuous forest in the distance. However as you walk towards it you will never get there as what you are seeing are clumps of birch and aspen trees that are spaced several kilometers apart.”
It goes on like this for 600 kilometers and according to Ms. Thomas, has claimed hundreds of lives.
There is one area in which the Canadian northwoods can compete with Siberia – mosquitoes.
Mrs. Ross continues to take the missing wallet thing hard. As we end our journey and approach Halifax, she's sitting in the dining car giving an interview to a sympathetic ViaRail employee, going over details, still morose, her voice still wavering.
Click the photos to make them bigger. More photos from Canada here.