Stuart Forster celebrates Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation by taking a trip on a branch of the historic railway
A bald eagle takes off from a rock overlooking the Fraser River and glides above the eddying currents, seeking fish in the mineral-rich water. From my reclining seat on the upper-deck of the Rocky Mountaineer I admire the broad span of the raptor’s outstretched wings.
This is the first of two days I’ll be spending aboard the luxury train. We’re travelling eastward for 375 miles, from Vancouver to Banff, though confusingly the route is known as the First Passage to the West. With Canada celebrating the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the act of union that laid the foundations of the modern nation, this scenic journey also has a sense of history.
Tomorrow we’ll pass a memorial cairn, at Craigellachie, marking the spot where Lord Strathcona drove the last spike into the Canadian Pacific Railway’s track. Completing the line, on 7 November 1885, fulfilled a promise that helped persuade British Columbia to become Canada’s sixth province. It could otherwise have become a part of the United States of America.
Intermittent announcements are made along the way, providing insights into the places and wildlife we see around us. We hear that, back in the 1850s, miners panned for gold in the canyon below us: Jaws of Death Gorge. Despite its dangerous-sounding name, this spot on the Thompson River is popular with whitewater rafters. Earlier we passed Hell’s Gate, a narrow channel through which 200 million gallons of water thunder every minute. The scenery is every bit as dramatic as the place names and the domed windows allow us to stare up at mountain peaks.
This line has been carrying tourists almost since it was completed. William Van Horne, an executive during Canadian Pacific Railway’s formative years, said: “if we can’t export the scenery, we’ll import the tourists.” The discovery of thermal springs on Sulphur Mountain in Banff, by three railway workers in 1883, was central to fulfilling his vision. Canada’s first national park was established in the area just two years later.
I look forward to seeing Banff National Park from the comfort of the train and, in the meantime, head downstairs for a three-course lunch in the dining carriage. The gourmet cuisine served aboard the Rocky Mountaineer showcases produce from western Canada. The salmon on the menu catches my eye, prompting me to wonder: has that bald eagle landed a fish yet?