Photo: Jennifer Bain
Squeezed into the bottom bunk in a minuscule cabin, with my six-year-old son, Charlie, tucked in by my side and my husband, Rick, and 11-year-old daughter, Hazel, in the bunks next door, I would quietly draw the blinds at dawn, marvel at our spellbinding country, make a battle plan and assure myself that someday my kids would thank me for this trip. Those first few uninterrupted moments of each morning gave me the strength to face each long and repetitive day.
For our March Break trip this year, I nabbed a 40 percent off deal on Black Friday for Sleeper Plus cabins on VIA Rail’s flagship route—the Canadian—with real beds and doors. It was still wildly expensive but included meals and unlimited tea, coffee, soft drinks, fruit, pastries and cookies, namely Peek Freans (Cranberry Citrus Oat Crunch cookies for me and Fruit Creme cookies for the kids).
For four long nights and four even longer days, we travelled across 4,466 kilometres of dense Ontario bush, snow-dusted prairies and picture-perfect mountains. The kids didn’t know it, but our great Canadian train trip was going to teach them important life skills.
“Due to rail traffic, train one will be delayed.” Not the kind of thing you want to hear when you’re travelling with kids, but we quickly got used to this.
There was no choice but to cultivate patience. I already knew VIA’s guilty secret: Freight trains take priority over passenger trains, and we were going to be slowing and stopping a lot throughout our journey. Trains take turns, just like people do, I warned Hazel and Charlie. It took a few days before they stopped asking “Why are we going so slow?”
“What are we going to do today?” Charlie wondered aloud each morning. “Breakfast, lunch and dinner,” I would reply.
The breakfast menu never changed, but thankfully “loonie cakes” were a hit (undercooked for my son, who is on the spectrum and will only eat “white” pancakes, with no butter, syrup, hash browns or orange slice on the side). Lunch and dinner offered small thrills, with a short, changing menu of Canadian comfort foods like flawless prime rib. Sometimes Hazel would gamble on the adult menu (pan-seared cod and Canadian lake trout), while other times she would regress to crispy chicken fingers and Charlie would stick with macaroni and cheese (KD, actually).
We worked on table manners, thanked the staff for always giving us tickets for early meal sittings and thought about switching to ironclad mealtimes at home instead of the haphazard ones we now enjoy.
Train trips are like road trips, but parents get to relax instead of drive. Cabin hide-and-seek aside, the kids reluctantly learned to amuse themselves, whiling away the hours by staring out picture windows in our cabins or gazing at the scenery in two domed observation cars.
Our downtown Toronto home isn’t huge, but our train cabins were the size of walk-in closets. Each cabin was four by seven feet, plus two feet squared for the toilet, and had bunks with mattresses that were slightly smaller than single, or twin, beds. With Charlie crawling in with me each night, I was forced to sleep on my side.
We could have asked to replace the bunks with twin armchairs by day, but we loved the spacious lounging. We could have asked to remove the wall between our rooms, but that much closeness would have been dangerous. It was three steps from the toilet to the door, and the showers were down the hall. We had to turn sideways to pass anyone in the hall and, even then, we would still brush butts.
Beyond eating and relaxing, we spent a lot of time working on our photography skills. The kids had a blast using phones and tablet cameras to capture landscape shots through the domed car windows, awkward grinning selfies and random, unflattering shots of each other.
I taught Hazel the fine art of tweaking pictures with a free app called Snapseed and was impressed to learn that she gravitates to the grunge effect, just like her mom.
My kids are urbanites, so it was important for me to show them Canada’s small, remote communities. On a 30-minute stop in Winnipeg, we dashed to The Forks Market for Ring Pops and Fun Dips, books, lattes and my favourite wild rice bannock with Saskatoon berry jam.
After emerging from four days trapped on a train, we truly appreciated our stay in a Vancouver hotel with a king-sized bed, a pullout couch, an air mattress, a kitchen and an indoor pool.
“Want to know my favourite things from our train trip?” Charlie still asks to needle me. “The pool and Boston Pizza.”
Being a Crown corporation, VIA offers a bilingual experience. Every sign, route guide, announcement and rundown on daily soups were in French and English.
Maybe that’s why VIA doesn’t narrate the long journey on this flagship route—it would involve endless translations. Instead, they told us to watch for mileposts on either side of the track to figure out exactly where we were.
When I was a kid, my parents taped a map of Canada on the wall by the dinner table to spark conversation. When I dragged my family on this train trip, I foisted my laminated map of Canada on them.
They didn’t seem to fully register that we were seeing Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia, but someday that knowledge will sink in. For now, I’m glad they saw how boreal forest gives way to prairie fields, then Rocky Mountains and, finally, Pacific Ocean.
Our train adventure started 2½ hours late. By Winnipeg, we were running 10 hours late and had to drastically shorten our explorations. We missed Jasper because it was the middle of the night instead of the afternoon. A few freight trains cut us some slack, so we eventually finished in Vancouver, just 8½ hours late, at 2:30 a.m. instead of 6 p.m.
We experienced boredom, time crawled, and we let our minds wander. We appreciated little things, like a random coyote, a lonely horse, a herd of cows, a starry sky, a red sunset, a pink sunrise, achingly Canadian birch trees, graffiti-splattered freight trains and an on-board violinist who put on daily shows.
Hopefully, those 101 hours we spent crossing half of the country by train, while excruciating at times, taught the kids some important lessons that they’ll thank us for someday. Instead of taking quick flights to Newfoundland and Alberta (like we usually do for vacations) or road-tripping and staying in different hotels each night, we experienced a new, extremely civilized and quintessentially Canadian mode of transportation. Like the (bilingual) slogan on the wooden VIA train whistle says, the train is “a more human way to travel.”