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Journey to Vancouver Island

by Chris Guenzler

I planned my Spring Break getaway trip to cover one of the last two Via routes that I had not yet ridden, the Malahat from Victoria to Courtenay on Vancouver Island. I used my Alaska Airline Miles for a room for two on the Starlight to Seattle and coach on the Talgo to Vancouver. I called Via for a ticket for their train and they sent it in the mail. I choose Pacific Coach Lines to get me to Victoria since they leave from the Pacific Central Station where the Talgo arrives. I picked the Swan's Inn in Victoria which just happens to overlook both the Via station and the harbor in Victoria. With all that set, I looked for someone to travel with me. I asked Marilyn Myers, Anna Mandalin, Jeff Hartmann and then Bill Beale, my one-armed friend from the San Diegans. With a couple of planning dinners with Bill, it was only days before this trip would begin.

San Diegan 769 4/14/2000

The train of California Cars pulled into Santa Ana right on time but the smell of sticking brake shoes on the cab car took twenty minutes to repair. I was thinking "Let us hope this is the only delay for this trip!" We headed to Fullerton where Bill joined me and made the quick run to Los Angeles. Arriving in LA, I saw the Southwest Chief but no Sunset Limited which I learned was over four hours late. No coastal views for those unfortunate passengers, just a bus ride and a train ride down the scenic San Joaquin Valley to Martinez for those unlucky souls to connect to our train.

The Coast Starlight 14 4/14/2000

I led Bill to the sleeper "Tennessee" and upstairs to Room 5. Bill was blown away by the room and when he had his first look at the Pacific Parlor Car he was even more amazed, just like my first time I saw it on that trip to Eugene with Bob. The Starlight left on time and after Oxnard, we sat down to lunch with a couple from Alaska sharing conversation as the Pacific Coast rolled by outside the train. I was glad that I had packed my umbrella as at Santa Barbara, it was pouring down rain. During the smoking stop, I checked out the remodeled Santa Barbara station.

North of Santa Barbara we sat in the big plush chairs of the Parlor Car as far as Jalama Beach where we went downstairs to the theater to see Robin Williams in "Bicentennial Man". San Luis Obispo was a fresh air stop for me and a picture of the train. It was another enjoyable trip over Cuesta Grade with racing tanks at Camp Roberts when we flew by. For dinner I had my usual steak with a turtle for dessert and Bill had the equally good salmon. At the fresh air stop at Salinas I explored the depot followed by more parlor car views until Gilroy where it was back to the theater for the Bond film "The World is not Enough!" I took more fresh air at Oakland before calling it a night at Martinez.

4/15/2000 The next morning I got up at Black Butte and had breakfast on the north flank of Mt Shasta. The peak was hidden by the many clouds but the clouds only added to the beauty looking northwest from the train. I was asked if anyone lives out there with my answer being "Population Zero!" unlike the thousands per square mile back home in Santa Ana. The Starlight lost an hour during the night but when we arrived in Klamath Falls we were only forty minutes down. I know that by Portland that we should be back on time. Stepping off the train, the cold air always feels good and I knew that on this trip this should be as cold as gets.

Upper Klamath Lake passed by much too quickly and we made the quick run to Chemult. I was hoping for snow over Cascade Summit and by Odell Lake, my wish had come true as the summit area was still covered with snow and a few new flakes were falling. I enjoyed the descent down the west slope as far as the Salt Creek Bridge where I napped to almost Springfield. At Eugene, we left someone behind who had been on the train and had to be bussed to Portland, where they took the Talgo to their final destination. From Eugene to Seattle I enjoyed the Pacific Parlor Car with the exception of a walk in Portland and another wonderful dinner. We passed the remains of the exploded Kingdome just before an early arrival in Seattle. It had been an excellent Starlight trip and we took the first taxi out of King Street Station to the King's Inn for a well deserved night's rest.

Mount Baker International 760 4/16/2000

The train manager assigned us to seats on the waterside of the Talgo so he thought. They were not so we enjoyed the inland side view. Bill was just as blown away by the Talgo as he was the Starlight and he enjoyed an excellent breakfast in the dining car. I watched "Citizen Kane" for the first time and now realized why it won an Oscar. The movie ended right before New Westminster where the drawbridge was open. Water traffic always has the right of way and once the bridge was closed, we finished our trip with a near on-time arrival in Vancouver.

Off to the Vancouver Island 4/16/2000

Following customs, I had my usual magic touch with the instant teller machine at the Vancouver Station. Bill, on the other hand did not, so he had to run across the street to another ATM. While Bill was doing that I picked up my Via tickets for this summer's trip and had to pay for the Bras d'Or segment. We bought our bus tickets for the 12:45 PM bus to Victoria and minutes later we boarded the bus. This is the easiest way to get to downtown Victoria from the train station. The Pacific Coach Lines bus made some local stops along the way before it boarded the BC Ferry at Tsawwassen to Swartz Bay where the bus would continue its journey by highway to Victoria. Taking the bus does not bother me anymore and this is good practice for my Quebec City-Sept Iles trip this summer. The ferry crossing was nice. We had lunch when we first got off the bus, then I worked on my suntan and just enjoyed the view. Once across the Straits along Saltspring Island, I saw a sea otter and two bald eagles. Once back on the bus and off the ferry, it was a quick trip to the Victoria bus depot and a short cab ride to Swan's Inn.

Swan's Inn overlooks both the Via Station and the harbor. Our room had a downstairs living room with a kitchen and bathroom while upstairs there was the bedroom with a sunroof. This is definitely the place to stay in Victoria. I took a long walk along the tracks to the roundhouse where I found the cars and engines of the future Pacific Wilderness Railway before I returned to the room to watch Walking with Dinosaurs. Bill had ordered room service so a bit later I did the same thing and had a Portuguese Pepper Steak. Following an evening walk and post card writing, I called it a night. The next morning as I was enjoying breakfast the Malahat pulled into the station for its morning run to Courtenay. I would take the train and Bill would spend his day in Victoria sightseeing.

The Malahat Via 199 4/17/2000

I boarded the RDC (Rail Diesel Car) Via 6135 and took a right-hand window seat just past the exhaust vents for my ride on beautiful Vancouver Island. The Malahat left Victoria on time and immediately crossed an arm of Victoria Harbor on a drawbridge. We passed the roundhouse and the RDC wound its way through Victoria West. The train began to start the climb by the time we had reached Esquimalt with its harbor and Naval dry docks. It was so clear on this trip that the snow-covered Olympic Range in the state of Washington stood out across the waters of the Straits of Juan de Fuca to the south. Off to the right is the Portage Inlet which is part of the same body of water that we had crossed leaving Victoria at the drawbridge. We next passed Langford Lake on the right and following that, the grade got stiffer toward the summit. The train wound its way up the grade, crossing the 529 foot Niagara Trestle. I have read that people bungee jump off this bridge. The next bridge is the 462 foot Arbutus Canyon Bridge. Looking way down at water level is the Finlayson Arm of Swartz Bay, part of the same bay where our ferry landed. It was quite a view. The Malahat next plunged into a 145 foot tunnel, the only one on the route before it topped the summit at Malahat at 1300 feet above sea level.

At Malahat the RDC started its seven mile downgrade to Shawnigan with the best view of the lake right after the station stop. Just before Shawnigan, at MP 25 at Cliffside, there is a stone monument where the last spike of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway was driven on August 13, 1886. The train entered a valley where dairy farming is the main interest. Near Cowichan, an over one-hundred-year-old church is seen and later to the east Mount Richards is viewed. A few minutes later Somenos Lake is passed on the east and further up the line at Chemainus, a historic train is on display with MacMillan Boedal 2-6-2T 1044 steam locomotive at the main gate of their plant. At Ladysmith another steam locomotive, Comox Railway 2-8-2 11 can be seen on the right hand side going north. Of course, there are the almost constant views of the Coast Range on the mainland, the waters of the Straits of Georgia and the Gulf Islands of Thetis or Kuper to the east. The train passed above Ladysmith Harbor before crossing over the watershed divide to the Nanaimo River, which flows into the harbor on which that namesake town is located on. We pulled into the station for a crew change and a visit to the snack truck that comes to the station when the Malahat arrives to provide food service for the passengers.

The Malahat left Nanaimo passing beautiful Long Lake before running along Nanoose Bay at water level. The train climbed over another ridge with the mainland Coast Range as an eastern backdrop before we bridged the Englishman River and we stopped at Parksville where the freight line for Port Alberni on the west side of Vancouver Island leaves the mainline. This was originally called McBridge Junction. They run a daily scheduled freight train over that line with all cars from the mainland arriving by rail ferries at Nanaimo. When Via's RDCs need to be changed out for maintenance, they must be taken to Nainamo to reach the shop in Vancouver via the same ferry system.

The Malahat next crossed the 1,045 foot bridge over French Creek and I got a grand view of Mount Arrowsmith to the west. At Qualicum Beach there is a large group of people who meet every train. More peaks of the Beaufort Range came into view to the west but all the trees made my photography bids a lost cause except for the one clear shot I managed between a break in the trees. Off to the east Hornby Island followed shortly later by Denman Island with that ever-present Coast Range as a backdrop. The Malahat passed Mud, Buckley and Union Bays before the train ran above the final bay of the trip, Comox Bay, just prior to arriving in Courtenay, finishing off another new Via route for me. That just leaves me Sudbury to White River on the Lake Superior and that new Bras d'Or to do this summer.

Courtney 4/17/2000

My power-walking came in handy for the trip to the store for snacks during my twenty-five minute layover in Courtenay. At the store a bicyclist was being arrested for drunk cycling. That was my reminder for this day about the fact that I lead a sober life and it seems that wherever and whenever I travel, God gives me a reminder of my previous drunken life style. It was my 1,619th day of sobriety with me alive and happy riding on the Malahat on Vancouver Island.

The Malahat Via 198 4/17/2000

The ride back was relaxing as I wrote the northbound trip, looked out at the great Vancouver Island scenery and listened to Rod Stewart as well as Deep Purple. Time flies when you're having fun and it seems like in no time the Malahat is back in Nanaimo, where there are two snack trucks with everyone flocking to one. After a few pictures of the train I walked up to the truck where there was no wait and bought a Coca-Cola. I learned there that the two truck drivers are friends and that one would not fully open up so not to take away from her friend's business. It was a wonderful, sunny and warm April day and I almost did not want to get back on the train because the sun felt so good on my skin. My good sense kicked in and the Malahat with me on it was off for Victoria.

At Duncan the Malahat surprised a couple who were making out in the grass across from the station. I gave a brief wave, a thumbs up and with the train's departure, they went back at it. Probably the last thing on their minds was that an RDC full of people would stop right where they had chosen to go at it. Guess they just got caught up in the mood on this clear and beautiful warm April day.

The rest of this beautiful trip I spent in the rear control area taking pictures before being joined by other passengers for the high bridges of Malahat Pass. As the train passed Esquimalt Harbor, the Olympic Range still stood tall as a backdrop to a most wonderful scene. We pulled into Victoria twenty minutes late. In my haste to get some more pictures of the train as it left for the roundhouse, I left my new McFadden jacket aboard. I retrieved it the next morning when I went to shoot the train's departure. My jacket made its first solo round trip without me. I hope my jacket has made its only solo journey. The Malahat is a very enjoyable and beautiful day train trip that should be taken by anyone who likes trains. This RDC trip is the easiest to take from a hotel. I mean it is right across the street from Swan's Inn. You can not do any better than that!

Back to the Mainland 4/18/2000

Bill had a wonderful day of looking around Victoria so after a relaxing evening, saving my jacket and another great breakfast at Swan's Inn, we taxied to the bus station early so we could have the front seat so Bill could videotape our return trip. It was a quick bus trip to the ferry and once on board I went to the top deck, found a bench and sunned myself for over thirty minutes. I then enjoyed our crossing, had a White Spot burger for lunch and tried the massaging chair which was a wonderful relaxing experience. I returned to the bus in time to watch the huge doors open and for our landing followed by the quick trip to the Pacific Central Station. Bill bought his ticket to go down to Seattle today so he could visit some relatives and I upgraded my Talgo ticket to Business Class for my return on Thursday. We would meet at King Street Station in Seattle Friday morning. We said our goodbyes only to run into each other again at the store underneath the Skytrain station. We bid our adieus once more and I boarded the Skytrain for Waterfront station.

The West Coast Express E1 4/8/2000

My other new mileage of this trip would be a ride on Vancouver's commuter rail service. The train leaves from below the restored Canadian Pacific station and is located at the junction of the Skytrain and the Seabus. I bought a ticket from the ticket machine and even received credit for my Skytrain ticket before I boarded the colorful painted cars, identical to the Metrolink cars back home with the exception of more comfortable seats and that each train has a Cappuccino Car with a vending area located where the restroom in the car should be located. The car filled up with every single seat full before departure.

Train E1 left Waterfront station on time to start its 41.7 mile trek to Mission City. This is the route the Canadian took into Vancouver when it was a CP Rail train so I have now ridden from its old starting points in both Vancouver and Montreal. The train followed the south side of the Burrard Inlet as far as Port Moody. The train ran along the industrial waterfront until it reached the shoreline for its quick run. The train then ducked under the Upper Narrows Bridge. To the north the beautiful mountains are almost always in view. It was an absolutely spectacular trip with me being the only one noticing it since everyone else was either sleeping or reading. I guess that people just get used to their natural environment and take it for granted. At least I was enjoying the view.

The train made its brief stops at Port Moody and Coquitlam Central before I regained the formerly-ridden Canadian Pacific which we would follow as far as Mission Jct. The train slowed for the drawbridge at Pitt River right before stopping at Pitt Meadows followed by Maple Meadows and Port Haney. The Fraser River joins the train for some north shore running. To the north are the ever-present mountains and to the east, the Cascades with Mt. Baker down in Washington State in view. At Mission Jct., the route of the Canadian heads across the Fraser River to the Canadian National mainline for the rest of its trip to Toronto, while I enjoyed a mile of brand new trackage to our final stop at Mission City. I detrained and took a few pictures before I walked the mile to the Mission City Lodge and had a great view from my third story window of the valley, the Fraser River, the Cascades and Mt. Baker. I enjoyed the rest of my evening and started my night of sleep.

The Unplanned Return to Vancouver 4/19/2000

My plan was to take one of the morning West Coast Express trains back into Vancouver before I spent a night in the city at the Day's Inn. The only part of that plan to work was where I stayed that night. My day started with waking up at 4:30 A.M. with a bad feeling knowing that something had happened. I went back to sleep and when I woke up at 6:30 A.M. I turned on the TV and my feelings proved true. A CP Rail freight train derailed at Maple Meadows spilling sulpher all over the ground. With all the tracks blocked there would be no West Coast Express service and I would be on my own to find a way back into Vancouver.

When my taxi arrived to take me to the train station, he suggested that he would take me to Abbotsford to catch a bus from there to Vancouver. As we crossed the Fraser River I suggested the Skytrain Station in Surrey which would be quicker and at least I would know where I was going. He said that for $60 Canadian he would take me anywhere that I wanted to go. The good news was that I got to see some areas of British Columbia that I would not had seen from the train on the way to Surrey. He did a good job of driving and dropped me off at the Skytrain station a mere forty minutes later. I bought an all day Skytrain pass and headed east to King George to be able to put my bags in the front door of the car for the view into the city without having to fight for it if as I would I had gotten on at Surrey heading west. As I made a quick trip to the Waterfront I thought how stupid Orange County is for not building a system like this. I detrained at the Waterfront and walked the five blocks to the Day's Inn where I was able to check in even though it was before 8:30 A.M.

Vancouver 4/19/2000

Having dumped the bags off in my room I was now free to explore. I took the Skytrain out to King George to make up for the mileage lost this morning due to the taxi cab ride in. When I returned to the Science World station, I walked east on Terminal Street to photograph the morning Talgo arrival. As I waited, I was rewarded with two CN GMD1u which I had only shot from passing trains before. The Talgo arrived and I returned to the hotel to relax for the afternoon. I went to the Keg Restaurant two blocks from the hotel and had a Filet Mignon with a Keg Sundae for dessert. I walked over to the Canada Place and at the Imax Theater saw Fantasia 2000. I made another trip on the Skytrain to see the lights of Vancouver as I returned westbound after dark. It was really quite a sight. Walking back to the hotel in a light rain, I felt very satisfied with my whole day before I returned to my room and called it a night.

Vancouver 4/20/2000

Sleeping in late I watched some old time television programs before checking out. I headed to the Skytrain with my first stop at the Via Depot to buy a Canadian shirt that they were out of last summer and to store my bags for the day. Back on Skytrain I took it east to the Columbia stop then walked a mile to shoot the Talgo crossing the Fraser River. Following a nice walk back to the Skytrain Station I continued east to King George before going to the Waterfront. I ventured to the Gas Lamp District for a look around before I went to the food court across from the CP Station for lunch at the A&W. I Skytrained back to Science World for a repeat of Mysteries of Egypt and a new program on Dolphins on that giant I-Max screen. I stopped by the Rocky Mountaineer Office prior to my wait to board the Talgo.

Mount Baker International 763 4/20/2000

Having upgraded to Business Class made for getting on the train so much easier. I was first in line at 4:30 P.M. to check in, first through pre customs and first to board the Talgo. I had a pre-departure dinner from the Bistro Car, read today's news and just relaxed before the Talgo left Vancouver eight minutes late. My seat was 1A, a single seat on the right (Sound) side of the train. The train lost more time passing through the Skytrain construction zone for its extension set to open in late 2001. We crossed the Fraser River over the same bridge that I photographed this train on earlier in the day. We were delayed further by following a coal train to Colebrook on its way to Roberts Bank to be loaded onto a ship there.

The views were stunning with Mt. Baker to the east and the sound and islands to the west. The Coast Mountains to the north, the Cascades to the east, Vancouver Island to the west and the Olympic Range to the southwest, all added up to a most beautiful view from the windows of the Talgo. Passing through White Rock everyone was waving at the train and once past the Peace Arch at the border, US Customs agents board. This time I was not asked a single question. I must say that the agents do an excellent job at this border crossing. The movie was "Anywhere but Here" starring Natalie Portman who was the Queen in the Phantom Menace Star Wars Movie. It was entertaining as far as Everett where I enjoyed the views of the Puget Sound back to Seattle. I took the first taxi out of King Street Station to the King's Inn for a well-deserved night's rest.

Seattle 4/21/2000

I woke up at the King's Inn and after a McDonald's breakfast, I taxied back to King Street Station to wait for the train toward home where I met Bill for the trip home.

Coast Starlight 11 4/21/2000

Boarding the Coast Starlight in a sleeper for the first time is so much easier and stress-free than boarding coach. We had Room 4 which was on the same side that we had coming up so Bill went to our attendant and upon departure, we were switched to Room 9. I was enjoying tea and cinnamon rolls in the Parlor Car while all that was taking place. The Starlight left Seattle eight minutes late and about South Seattle I returned to the room for a view of Mt. Rainier. Bill and I talked about his accident and recovery from the loss of his arm which was a fascinating story then I shared my story of my recovery during my stay at Tustin Hospital for my alcoholism. We are two very lucky people. Near Olympia I headed to the dining car where I was met by the wonderful Patty Martinez, a friend and dining car steward who was working this trip. I ordered the Mt. Shasta Steak Sandwich and with dessert came a view of Mt. St. Helens. After lunch it was Led Zeppelin Live that carried me to Portland.

Portland was very interesting on this trip. I detrained and checked out the First Class Lounge and bought Friday's edition of USA Today. As I was walking back onboard to the Parlor Car, I spotted a man carrying a bottle of Coast Starlight wine and his pockets stuffed with miniature liquor bottles. I went into the Parlor Car and saw the spot where the bottle had been. I found the attendant and told him of what I had seen. The two of us and two other passengers went in search of that man. He was found and cornered in the transition sleeper and we led him off the train to the conductor who called security to have him arrested. It is never boring on the train. Later I learned that the thief was on parole and this felony will send him back to the big house.

The afternoon was spent in 7-UP tasting while the rest of the sleeping car passengers did wine tasting. I took a walk of the train and returned to good conversation in the Parlor Car. At Eugene I detrained for a quick phone call to Carol Palmer a woman I met on the Starlight back in my drinking days and whom I visited in Cottage Grove on my first Pacific Parlor Car trip I ever took. I had dinner along Lookout Point Reservoir. On this evening I ate a Willamette Valley Beef Tenderloin along with a turtle for dessert. I next played tour guide for the climb over Cascade Summit where there was less snow than seven days ago. Because of the cloud cover, it was light enough to see all the way down to Chemult. It was trying to rain leaving Chemult making me think how blessed I had been on this trip in regard to the weather. The Starlight headed south into the night and at Klamath Falls I enjoyed a nice long walk as we were early. I went to bed wondering what tomorrow would bring.

4/22/2000 I awoke prior to Sacramento and that gave me a chance to run in and see my brother Bruce, the former service manager of the California Corridor. He was back as a ticket agent because he had the good sense to keep on paying his union dues while he was in management so he got to go back to his former trade. It was really good to see him back working behind a ticket counter. He is one of the best ticket agents that I know. I am not saying that because he is my brother but because it is the truth!

The Starlight left Sacramento fifteen minutes late and lost more time due to a signal malfunction. It took enough time that I ate my breakfast between West Sacramento and Davis. The trip along the Carquinez Straits was enjoyable but by Richmond, the train entered the clouds and mists. The California Lifesaver Engine, 231, was added at the Oakland Coach Yards so we would have additional power for the rest of our trip south. I learned that we left a passenger in Emeryville who had to taxi to Oakland to catch the train. For a ten minute ride I wondered how much it cost?

The Starlight was an hour late as we arrived in Salinas following another steak sandwich lunch. I took a relaxing nap as far as Paso Robles and while all the other sleeping car passengers were having their Champagne Reception in the Parlor Car, I had a Ginger Ale Reception of my own. The pace of today's Starlight was very relaxing. The descent down Cuesta Grade was made more interesting with my four-night-a-week train riding buddy Christina on Train 14 and when we passed each other I was downstairs for a wave out the vestibule window followed by a picture of our train on the horseshoe curve. We arrived in San Luis Obispo only twenty minutes down and it was time for a fresh air break.

I had a nice dinner with a mother and two kids from Whittier as the Coast Starlight crossed Vandenberg Air Force Base and rounded Point Conception to head east along the Santa Barbara Channel with the islands and offshore oil wells keeping guard. From the right angle those rigs look like aircraft carriers. Must be what the Persian Gulf looked like during that war. The last fresh air break was in Santa Barbara and the Starlight left there on time. Oxnard came next followed by Simi Valley and after passing through the three tunnels, we gained the San Fernando Valley. We crossed the valley to Glendale before we ran the last six miles to Los Angeles Union Station on time. Who says the Coast Starlight never runs on time? On this trip it did it both ways.

San Diegan 786 4/22/2000

Bill and I were greeted by Richard and Mishi of the train crew while we all waited for the train to pull in from Goleta. Once on board, Mishi took our final tickets as the train made the fast trip to Anaheim where Bill detrained and we said our final goodbyes. Minutes later Mishi said goodbye to me as I detrained at Santa Ana, completing an excellent and never to be forgotten Journey to Vancouver Island trip.