JULY 21ST 2002 - THE NORTH SHORE NEWS
RIDING THE WHISTLER NORTHWIND - SOUTH!
My childhood affair with trains was born from pure avarice. Cunning. Greed. Call it what you will. Growing up in the UK, on each and every Friday, my father would rummage through his pocket ‘til he found a silver sixpence. “Don’t spend it all at once” he chided. Within minutes I had converted my hoard into 12 ha’pennies, or halfpennies, and was off to the railway line. I arranged my coins to resemble a perfect row of copper rivets and withdrew behind long grass to await the whistle of an oncoming train. When the final carriage passed over, my ha’pennies had reached the size of pennies, which, from experience, would fool any candy machine. I’d doubled my money! From this obscure beginning, grew a lifelong love of trains!
“They’re still doin’ it” says Ron Walker, the last man in Prince George to hold a steam-ticket. “Trying to turn nickels into quarters I reckon, and they think I don’t notice.” Fifty, of his 72 years have been spent on the railway; the first 7 with steam. On weekends he drives a miniature train filled with kids and wannabes around the park outside The Fraser Fort George Museum. On weekdays he gathers firewood for the boiler! In 1912, the little “construction” steam engine transported line and ties, shipped down the Fraser River in scows, to the railhead. What happens when he goes? Sadness. A magical half-hour riverside walk and I become the only visitor at the Railway Museum. Yes, I admit it. I pull levers inside the giant 1903 snowplow and make imaginary whistling noises observed only by a contemptuous cat! I’m becoming conditioned!
“Champagne and orange juice?” Why not, it’s 9am. The sun must be over the yardarm in Tokyo or London or or or Kathmandu? “Welcome aboard the Whistler Northwind ladies and gentlemen” announces our smartly uniformed host who once served on The Orient Express. (The bus driver with a strong North of England accent will follow on with the luggage. In a past life, he drove a tram in Blackpool – they all have pedigree!). We are sitting in one of two dome cars in comfortable, widely spaced airplane-style seats. “Breakfast will be served in the dining car in ten minutes.”
“I came up on the train you know” announces the widow from Surrey with the confidence of a person who has remained to see a movie for the second time around. “They’ll slow down at the Cottonwood river trestle, you can take your photos from there.” Three deer graze nearby, barely acknowledging the train. The couple from Texas, celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary, exchange relieved grins; their choice of Canada over Hawaii had been vindicated. Maybe Hawaii next year?
Frittata, smoked salmon on a bagel or salad nicoise? Choices. Stress already! An alert orange Gerber dominates the flower arrangement at our table in the vintage car. “I can’t eat any of that” states the widow “It’s my stomach, they’ll bring me a special plate – you’ll see.” A pair of loons drifts lazily on a piece of flooded pastureland. We glide along. 30 – 35 kms an hour. No wine bottle is endangered. No glass will be spilt. No harrowing moments.
Quesnel. Belching pulp mills. Saw mills. Perfect rectangular stacks of cut timber awaiting delivery under white plastic wrap. Criss-cross fencing. Weather-beaten red barns. Horses grazing peacefully. The perfect Canadian postcard. We’re passing through Williams Lake. “Cowboy country” explains the well-informed young hostess with a knowing glint. “You should be here for the stampede – wild – crazy!
”Duck breast for lunch arranged with an artistic flair that almost defies violation. The grinning Scottish doctor tosses a coin for a bottle of pinot-gris. “Heads” – “Heads it is” he smirks – “You lose” confirming the reputation of his countrymen! “We’re skiing,” he adds. I’m on the defensive having been caught once! “Don’t you get it? - Spending the Kids Inheritance!”
100 Mile House. Our faithful bus driver waits. We are dispersed to 4 different hotels but will meet up for a BBQ at Hills Health Ranch. A nice taste of basic Western living. Lessons in horse whispering? Riding? A facial with acupuncture? A hayride perhaps? There’ll be time in the morning. Most opt for the nature walk or send a postcard.
Catching the spirit, jeans are now the dress code. A family atmosphere developes from sharing something special. We’re all “insiders”. Our grinning hostess explains the potency value of ginseng as we pass vast acreages covered in black plastic. A few smirks! We’re entering the Fraser canyon, a gaping chasm cut by millions of years of winter runoff. Sagebrush. Desert. The odd hardy tree defies nature by clinging to near perpendicular arid walls of shale. A perfect setting for a western movie. Where is Geronimo?
The track eventually descends to the river’s edge. Groups of drying racks await the opening of the First Nations fishery. The same families will return year after year, generation after generation, we are told, to fulfill a custom, now a right. Whole trees race downstream, swept by muddy rushing water; a stark reminder of the courageous journey faced by a salmon returning to spawn.
We cross the river, then through an endless tunnel cut by Chinese migrant workers in the early 1900’s. Lillooet is a pretty goldrush town steeped in colourful history. “Hanging judge” Begbie meted out stiff justice to 27 hapless victims and received a knighthood from Queen Victoria for his troubles. Our guide points gleefully.“That dead tree was used for the noose!” Outspoken Ma Murray, a transplant from Kansas, founded The Bridge River and Lillooet News in 1933 and boasted “This week’s circulation is 1769 and every bloody one of them paid for!”
We lose the Fraser, and creep along a narrow track set in a half-pipe of rock hewn from the cliff-face. Above, the outcrop provides a jagged roof for our dome car whilst the turquoise ripples of Seton and Anderson lakes almost lap at our feet. We’re heading through the snowcapped coastal mountains, bound for Whistler village.
“I told them I don’t like heights,” said the widow from Surrey. “They’ll put me on a lower floor this time – you’ll see.” Our bus pulls into The Whistler Westin Hotel, a mile or two from the station. Mountain biking? Whitewater rafting? The driving range to improve that swing? Perhaps a trip up the gondola with a group of summer keeners still skiing the glacier? “No, we’ll probably spend a lot of money buying things we don’t need,” said the Scottish doctor ruefully eyeing his wife.
We are on the last leg. A sumptuous lunch. A visit from the talented young chef. Well deserved applause. The river of Golden Dreams. Eagles hover overhead. Huge nests of precariously balanced twigs filled with hungry offspring. Business card exchanging. “You must visit us when you’re in ……?” Advice for those travelling on, from those who live here. A fashion parade. Buy a memento – A jacket? – A shirt? A trainman’s hat? A teddybear for your grandchild? Nervous shuffling from the Scottish doctor! Free prints by the muralist responsible for the dining car décor. A nice touch.
We turn from Howe Sound, a subject for many an artist. Suddenly houses. Waving children. “That one sold for 2 million bucks” – suitable “wows!” – The Lions Gate bridge is in sight. “So what did you think Doctor?” I venture nervously. “It was like a 3 day first class adventure without any risk – excellent – seamless” he replied decisively. General nods of agreement from the beaming faces with perhaps a hint of melancholy. A couple of sharp whistles. We ease into the station at North Vancouver after 460 miles - give or take. “My son is meeting me at the airport. He says it’s more convenient,” said the widow from Surrey.“They’ll get me there – you’ll see!” – and they did!