The Skeena Railroad

Through the valleys and the mountains from the ocean flecked with foam, rolling through Canada in a Vista Dome

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VIA Rail’s daylight run across western Canada provides two days’ majestic progress through mountain ranges, forests, valleys, along rivers, and into one of Canada’s premier national parks. The train is small (two travel classes in only three cars), it’s retro-sleek (restored early ’50s cars), and its second season begins this spring.

Moving at a stately pace, the Skeena covers 700-odd miles between Prince Rupert, BC, and Jasper, AB, in roughly 19 hours over two days. It’s a two-purpose train. Transportation is one: Local people tend to use "Coach Class" and ride the train to get where they want to go. Tourism is the other: By adding a first class coach and a dome car, and stopping overnight in Prince George, the Skeena makes the process of getting there the reason for going.We embarked from Prince Rupert, the island town at the line’s western end. Soon the short train of stainless steel cars was rolling through rain forest and by coastal mountains, a cannery or two, and perhaps four dozen waterfalls, including 1,500-foot Emanon Falls.

Following the Skeena River the train passes through several small towns, skirts Seven Sisters Mountain for about fifteen miles (so you get a variety of views of it), passes totem poles, crosses trestles and bridges, and goes through 11 tunnels. We spotted eagles and a bear—quite a cry goes up in a train car when a bear comes into view.

Soon the Bulkley Valley’s farms and meadows replace coastal scenery. Moose are said to roam in considerable numbers here, but remained elusive on our trip. A fox stood watchfully by in the parking lot at Prince George, however, as the train pulled in for its overnight stop.

The geographical center of BC, Prince George is a small city surrounded by considerable opportunity for back country recreation. You’ll see a fair amount of that wilderness from the train, but time for looking around Prince George itself is limited.

The next morning, the Skeena embarks along the Fraser River, through forest and farmland, past several more very small towns. Long about McBride, mountains once again loom up. As we travelled along the Fraser, every now and again a poster-quality mountain view presented itself. It is on such occasions that lounging in a dome car is especially redolent of peel-me-a-grape ambiance.

Mount Robson, highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies and probably the one attracting the most clouds, presents more photo opportunities. It’s in Mount Robson Park, which borders Canada’s biggest national park, Jasper.

For some miles, Skeena follows the Fraser River, reaching its head waters at Yellowhead Lake. This is the Continental Divide: The Fraser flows west; on the lake’s east side, the Miette River flows east.

The train continues to flow east, too, but it’s near the end of its run. Soon after passing Mt. Robson, the Skeena enters Jasper National Park. This huge park is home to lots of moose, bears, mountains, glaciers, celadon lakes, and wilderness. Without disturbing any elk that may be wandering among the tracks, the Skeena glides to a stop in the small town of Jasper.

Sharing The Planet

Wolves, moose, elk, bighorn sheep, and mountain goats are among the larger animals in Jasper NP. We kept having to get out of the way of elk, but our attempt at wolf communication was one-way at best.

Talking with Wolves In Jasper you can arrange to go wolf howling. Wolves often howl at night, and, if in the mood, they answer those they hear. They’ll even answer blatantly inauthentic howls, such as those produced by tourists or train whistles.

On a wolf howl, a guide takes a small group in the dead of night to where wolves are thought to be (which is most places around Jasper), offers advice on howling technique (essentially the overcoming of inhibitions), and leads the group in the call of the wild. It isn’t fool-proof. The rainy night we tried it, the wolves (which, we later learned, are too smart to come out in the rain) probably had a quiet laugh.

Ill-tempered elk Elk get the right of way in the town of Jasper, as they do throughout Jasper National Park. When we arrived, some were standing at the station watching trains. Others walk up and down the main street. In the fall, during mating season, the well-antlered bulls are especially touchy as they gather their harems.

At Jasper Park Lodge, we saw an elk destroy, apropos of nothing, one of the large, highly manicured shrubs on the Lodge lawn. Its harem stood around as though this sort of thing happened every day, which apparently it does in season. Last autumn, four people were treed by "love-stricken bull elk." During our brief visit, one bull singled out a Pontiac caught in Jasper traffic and inflicted C$4,300 damage. The driver was quoted as saying, "Maybe I look like another elk. I don’t know." The Jasper Environmental Association blames tourism for such incidents.

Accommodations

A variety of accommodations is available in Prince Rupert, Prince George, and Jasper. The AAA Western Canada and Alaska TourBook lists several possibilities for each.

In Prince Rupert, we stayed at the Crest Motor Hotel, and considered it a good hotel with an especially nice location on a rise overlooking the water and within walking distance of the train station. In Prince George, we stayed at the Ramada. All its rooms were non-smoking; when one of our fellow passengers asked for a smoking room, the clerk accommodatingly reached under the counter and handed him an ashtray.

Jasper hotels can be expensive, but extremely nice. The Jasper Park Lodge may be the best. It’s on a mountain-backed lake, often sports elk on the lawn and golf course (despite an elk-resistant fence), and, although relatively young (built in the ’50s) is gracious in the elegant-rustic mode of yore.

Prince Rupert
The world’s third deepest and Canada’s northernmost Pacific port, Prince Rupert also is "Halibut Capital of Canada." The capital to which all those many halibut are drawn is a small city of some 16,000 people at the edge of endlessly mountainous country 40 miles south of Alaska. Although, as the VIA Rail people concede, "it rains often and heavily" there, Prince Rupert is a popular tourist stop, with about 660,000 people arriving annually.

Despite all the visitors, Prince Rupert still is a real, as opposed to touristy, place. If you have time, you might want to add a few days in Prince Rupert to your Skeena train trip. At least take a walk along the waterfront and visit the fine Museum of Northern BC. If there’s more time, enjoy the nearby North Pacific Cannery Village Museum or take a float plane ride to see the coastal mountains.

The biggest attraction is ecotourism. Float planes and helicopters are available for sightseeing trips or heli-fishing. Sea kayaking attracts many, as does whale watching (especially in July and August). Mountain goats and grizzly bears live among the stretches of raw, whitecapped peaks that form the coast. Wilderness starts at the edge of town.

Even so, for most tourists who alight in Prince Rupert, the town is more a connecting point than a destination. Alaska cruise ships stop; there is ferry boat access to Vancouver Island, Alaska, and the Queen Charlotte Islands; and VIA Rail trains depart from the station on the waterfront.

Jasper

In Alberta, two huge national parks protect the Rockies: Banff to the south and Jasper to the north. The train stops in Jasper National Park at the small town of Jasper. The two parks are connected by the Icefields Parkway, a road lined by pale green lakes, raw-rock crags, and glaciers.

Banff is closer to population centers; the town of Banff, considerably less small than Jasper, often tends to bustle in a way Jasper seldom does. Jasper NP’s 4,200 square miles of mountains, lakes, valleys, and the occasional glacier is open all year, although not all facilities are open year around—nor is the entire park accessible in the cold white of winter.

In Jasper NP you can generally do all the hiking, climbing, and scenery ogling one expects in the Rockies while encountering far fewer people than you might in other parks. Among the many things you can do in a relatively brief time reasonably near the town of Jasper are getting right up to a small glacier at Mt. Edith Cavell, visiting the hottest hot springs in the Canadian Rockies at Miette Hotsprings, and riding the Jasper Tramway up Whistlers Mountain.

This cable tramway, about 5 miles south of town, makes a 7-minute climb most of the way up the 7,946-foot mountain for what guidebooks accurately term "stunning vistas" of the Miette and Athabasca rivers, lakes, and (on a clear day) six mountain ranges. If the tram terminal isn’t high enough, take the rocky but good trail to the peak.

This article was first published in May 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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Although there are but three cars on most runs of the Skeena, the two classes of passengers don’t mix. The dome car is exclusively for first class passengers (at press time, VIA Rail PR people were still pondering what officially to call "first class" service). The cars are of early 1950s vintage, but relatively recently rejuvenated.

On our run, they were comfortable and clean. Food is served at your seat, airline style. Quality was above airline but below what it might be. Service was excellent. Freight trains have the right of way, and since much of the route has but a single track, Skeena occasionally goes on to a siding to let a freight train through; delays are few and short; bringing a stopwatch mentality on a ramble through BC would be counterproductive anyway.

Tourist season on the Skeena (when there are two classes with the dome car open only to those in first class), runs from May 16 to October 15. Eastbound schedule calls for departure from Prince Rupert at 8 a.m. Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday, with Jasper arrival at 4:15 p.m. the following day. Westbound, departures from Jasper are Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday at 1 p.m., reaching Prince Rupert at 8 p.m. the following day. Each way, the train stops at Prince George overnight. One-way fare is C$275, not including the hotel stay in Prince George.

Information sources:

  • Your AAA Travel Agency can help you ride the Skeena with a variety of travel/accommodation packages.
  • AAA Western Canada and Alaska TourBook.

    Prince Rupert Information Centre, 100 First Avenue West, P.O. Box 669, Prince Rupert, BC, Canada V8J 3S1. (250) 624-5637.
  • Jasper Tourism and Commerce, 632 Connaught Drive, P.O. Box 98, Jasper, AB, Canada T0E 1E0.(403) 852-3858.
  • Tourism BC, 802, 865 Hornby St., Vancouver, BC, Canada V6Z 2G3. Attn: Distribution. (800) 663-6000.
  • Alberta Tourism, Third Floor, Commerce Place, 10155 - 102 Street, Edmonton, AB, Canada T5J 4L6. (800) 661-8888.
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