Strange Cargo

Lessons from the Jack London Finishing School

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

7146 – Along the mighty Skeena

British Columbia

Yesterday after getting on the grainer I fell asleep pretty soon after. Walking for miles in the rain with a pack on your back will do that I suppose. Hearing the air go up I’m thinking here we go, but I’m too tired to get up and have a look at the yard left behind. Back to sleep for me…. But not for long. The beginning of a ride is always the most exciting because you never know what's in store for you. Once those big wheels start turning there is nothing rational you can do to stop them, nor is there any way to get off the train until it slows back down. Sometimes I think that riding trains is a bit like catching a ride on a giant steel animal and hiding between its metal scales amid the creaks and groans of its rusty hide.

After a while the train turns away from the coast and up the north bank of the Skeena. The river is huge, perhaps a mile across the muddy turquoise water. Looking out across the river I can see power lines that span the river with several of the red and white masts actually sitting in the river itself. I think it's around here somewhere that my relatives settled in Port Essington. It's sort of strange to think that when I got the idea to go to Prince Rupert to ride the Canadian hi-line I had no connection whatsoever to this place. Now, being able to see what it looks like, I can definitely feel an attraction and an affinity to the land. It's funny how some places feel like home right away and other places never feel like home. Even after 14 years.

Waking up hours later, the rain has started back up and the porch of the grainer is a torrent of rain water running down off the roof, and off the back. The backend of a grainer has a 4’x8’ platform you can stand upon and look out at the passing scenery on both sides. Now the train is moving at about 30 MPH and this seems to be the speed that this leg of the journey is to commence at. I’m a bit fearful of getting out of my bag at this point because I have managed to warm up quite nicely and my trousers are starting to dry out. Instead I maneuver around inside the cubby hole so that I can see out the entrance while sitting in my bag. The train is creeping along the banks of the Skeena still, which at this point is almost a quarter mile wide.

For most of the day I stay in the cubby hole and out of the rain. I’m reading “The Jungle” by Upton Sinclar, which is turning out to be a spectacular piece of social realism. Eventually the rain lets up and I move on out on the platform for some sightseeing. I’m getting higher into the coastal range now and the river has gotten a lot smaller, by now it is running crystal clear and the color of it is a vibrant turquoise. As far as I know we have not stopped even once thus far to let other trains by, so it has been pretty steady travelling. Soon enough rain drops are falling and I retreat to my hideout once more. Before I do though I look up to see three bald eagles flying right above, maybe 30’ up. They are quite large and it is an impressive sight. Dusk is coming and it’s nappy time.

Six hours later….

Sunshine is streaming in through the trees and I notice that we are not moving. Pulling the earplugs out I can hear the crackle of some brakie’s radio from behind another string of cars to my right. It sounds like he is parked right next to me as I hear the door of his truck slamming shut. I have to go pee very badly but don’t necessarily want to attract the attention of this guy. To my left there are a couple sets of tracks and then some gigantic piles of old ties. I make my way off the grainer and run behind the tie pile for relief.

Soon we are back on the road and at this point we are really starting the climb up into the mountains. After a while the wye which signifies the cutoff to Vancouver comes into view and fortunately we take the hi-line over Red Pass which will take me to Jasper. The ride over the pass is pretty spectacular, over the summit there are a bunch of wooden snowsheds to protect the line from avalanches. This is the same as up on Donner Pass in California except that on Donner they are made of concrete. After a while we’re coasting down the other side and I’m hanging off the side of the grainer thru the ladder. Oh sweet joy!

While coming around a curve a group of workers appear on the access road ahead, I get off the ladder in a hurry and bail into the cubby hole, sure that they have seen me. This is kind of a bummer some times, but all part of the game nonetheless. If they actually call me in, somebody will be rolling the train at the next stop looking for me but we’re so close to Jasper that I’m not particularly worried about this. When I abandon this graintrain in Jasper it will be relatively easy to disappear into the bush….

An hour later we’re rolling into Jasper and the first thing I do see after jumping off is not a CN truck, but a group of Hutterites curiously looking me up and down. These folks are dressed a lot like the Amish with skirts, bonnets and braids for the women and blue chambray shirts and dark pants with suspenders for the menfolk. I tip my hat on the way by and a dozen hats are tipped in return. No one says a word, but I see a few smiles.
Jasper is a major tourist destination, and walking the streets you can hear about four of five different languages just walking down one block. By now my rations are long gone and I go in search of something to eat.


  • At 10:41 AM, Blogger Hobo Stew said…

    be safe, my friend

  • At 4:37 AM, Blogger ard said…

    "Sometimes I think that riding trains is a bit like catching a ride on a giant steel animal and hiding between its metal scales amid the creaks and groans of its rusty hide."

    Nice. I'm enjoying your story. I did a Vancouver to Halifax freight trip last summer, this puts me back there.


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