JASPER, Alta. - It's been said that the Jasper-Mount Robson region is a taste of heaven - and that travelling through the Canadian Rockies is like living inside a Group of Seven Painting. If that's true, then surely the Group of Seven artist in question must be Lawren Harris. And a short railway journey across the Great Divide - from Jasper to the Robson Valley - must surely be like entering into Harris' famous painting of Mount Robson.
So, like characters from a Narnia story, we are about to be drawn in by the magic of Robson's striking colours and bold form.
Today we will be travelling through the Yellowhead Pass on Via Rail's Skeena tour train. Normally, this involves a two-day journey from Jasper to Prince Rupert, B.C. But thanks to the folks at Jasper Adventure Centre, we can cross, see the other side of the mountain and still get back to Jasper in time for dinner.
Our journey begins at the Jasper Heritage Railway station - a building from the early days of Canadian National Railways that stands as a testament to the role of the railway in Canada's great story. Our service manager for today is Gilbert, a lifer who's been working for Via ever since the Crown corporation took over Canadian passenger rail service in 1978. Gilbert's travelled on some of Canada's storied trains, including the original Canadian that scaled the heights of Rogers Pass. But, he says, the Skeena offers some of the best scenery on any railway journey anywhere.
To the surprise of everyone except Gilbert, the horn blows and the train pulls out of the station on time. The magical history tour has begun.
At the first opportunity, most of the passengers head to the back of the train to sit in the vintage observation car. Most head to the upper level to view the scenery through the domed roof. They are rewarded with panoramic views of spectacular scenery - snow-capped peaks towering over the half-frozen rivers.
A buzz of excitement runs through the car when we spot some Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep clinging to the cliffs precariously close to the tracks. And even seasoned travellers are elated when we spot a mama bear and her two cubs scurrying across a meadow.
As if she senses the excitement, mama bear stops in her tracks, turns and looks back at the train in apparent bewilderment as if to say, "What's all the fuss about?"
Digital cameras buzz and whir, then the moment is gone. But everyone feels as if they got what they came for.
Some passengers sit in the lower level of the dome car, in what looks like an old smoking lounge, complete with panoramic windows and art deco ashtrays.
Gilbert is serving drinks in what looks like a small kitchen. But the art deco stylings tell you this is no ordinary kitchen. As it turns out, this is no ordinary passenger car, either - and Gilbert is no ordinary conductor. Like some latter-day Ancient Mariner, Gilbert is eager to tell its tale.
Volumes have been written about the Canadian Pacific Railway and The Canadian, the legendary transcontinental train in which a ride was regarded as one of the 10 greatest railway journeys in the world. Gilbert shows us a book about the great trains from the Golden Age of passenger rail travel. The most famous of these was The Canadian. Gilbert explains that when the Canadian Pacific Railway launched its famous train in the 1950s, it commissioned a fleet of first-class passengers cars - stainless-steel beauties with sleek modern lines and art deco appointments.
They were known as the "park cars" because each one was named after one of the great provincial or national parks in Canada - especially those on the CPR line. Among this fine fleet were the Assiniboine Park (named after the provincial park in B.C.) and even the Riding Mountain Park (named after the national park in western Manitoba).
But the very first car commissioned was named after Canada's very first national park - the Banff Park. This flagship car was part of the very first Canadian to cross the country in 1958. And it was the very last car when The Canadian made its legendary last voyage across Canada (through Brandon and Winnipeg) in 1990. It's the car we are sitting in now - a poignant reminder of how Canada's story is intertwined with the story of the railways.
We get off the train at a Dunster, a small village in British Columbia that seems a perfect portal for our time-travelling back to Jasper.
Nestled in the Robson Valley between the Cariboo and Rocky Mountain ranges, it's a town whose fortunes rose and fell with the fortunes of passenger rail service in Canada.
The small railway station is typical of many built by the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway in the days of heady competition between the Grand Trunk and the Canadian Northern Railway. The station was constructed in 1913 and named Dunster by a Grand Trunk Pacific Railway inspector after his hometown in England. The railway line came through in 1914. The first post office, built across the street from the railway station, was built in 1915.
The current General Store and Post office is still operating, though the railway station was abandoned with the demise of passenger service. The residents have saved the railway station from a fate worse than death, and still hope to restore it to its former glory. Feeling a bit like we've walked onto the set of a TV western, we half expect to see Maverick or Kwai Chang Caine walk out of the General Store. Instead, we are met by our guide from Jasper Adventure Centre.
We've been fortunate to twice take this half-day trip to heaven and back. Our first guide was Chuck Cantlie, a 15-year veteran guide with an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the history, geography and ecology of this region. He has an almost missionary zeal and enthusiasm to share with the world the wonders of the Rockies.
In contrast, our second guide was Dieter Regett, an almost comic counterpoint to Cantlie who admits that he's still learning - even after years of guiding.
Both Cantlie and Regett clearly enjoy their jobs and sharing their love of this region made famous by fur traders, the gold rush and the railway. At times, we half expect an old fur-trapper to jump out of the woods and ask for a ride back to the trading post. Or perhaps catch a glimpse of a navvy laying down tracks and tearing up trail.
As we drive back to Jasper on the Yellowhead Highway, following the spectacular Fraser River, we learn about the layers of history that have literally paved the way for our journey. The mountain pass we're travelling through was named for Pierre Bostonais (alias Pierre Hastination), an Iroquois-Metis trapper who worked for the Hudson Bay Company in the 1820s. Because Bostonais had yellow streaks through his mostly dark hair, he earned the nickname Tete Jaune (Yellowhead). So the mountain pass he traversed became known as the Yellowhead - a name eventually given to the highway that runs through this pass all the way from Winnipeg to the West Coast.
Nine decades after Bostonais, when the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway and Canadian Northern Railways were rushing to build their competing transcontinental railways to the coast, they came through this pass. When the two railway companies were nationalized and merged, two sets of tracks were considered redundant by the new Canadian National Railways. CN chose the best rail beds and best tracks for its main line. The other set of rails was torn up and the rail bed abandoned. Still, when the highway was built through here, much of it followed the abandoned railway bed. Our way in the wilderness was prepared by the navvies who worked upon the railroad.
About an hour after leaving Dunster, we catch our first glimpse of the great mountain rising before us. Our guide explains that Mount Robson is so high that weather systems moving eastward from the coast have trouble making it over the mountain.
That's why it is usually veiled in clouds and is fully visible for only about 12 days each year. But, our guide says, even though Mount Robson (3,954 metres) is the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, it is not the tallest mountain in Canada - that honour belongs to Mount Logan (5,956 m) in the Yukon. Nor is Robson the highest mountain in the Rockies - that would be Mount McKinley (6,187 m) in Alaska.
But with its striking form and a vertical rise of nearly 3,000 metres above the valley floor, Mount Robson has to be the most spectacular and the most imposing. Certainly there are other regal peaks in this Rocky Mountain range. We have already seen Mount Terry Fox, named for Canada's most famous cross-country runner. Yet to come is the jagged spearhead and unusual colours of Mount Fitzwilliam.
But in this Valley of the Kings, Robson is an emperor - regarded by artists like Lawren Harris as the most splendid, most perfect of Canada's many majestic mountains. Harris, an unconventionally spiritual man, always said that his mission was not merely to give a photographic representation of the mountains he painted, but to capture and share the emotional and spiritual experience of encountering the mountain.
That was something, he said, that could be experienced only by the awakened soul. Even on a less than perfect day, we have entered into Harris' world. The artist's mission has been accomplished.
Stephen A. Nelson is a former Brandon Sun writer and editor who now lives in Jasper, Alta. He also spent eight years in Asia, where he hosted a travel program for Radio Taiwan International.
If You Go ...
Summer activities in Jasper generally run from the beginning of May till the middle of October, depending on weather.
The half-day train rides run year-round, three times a week. Railway journey to B.C. Interior is with the Via Rail Skeena. For more information, call 1-888-842-7245 or visit www.viarail.ca.
The return journey to Jasper with guided tour is by van with Jasper Adventure Centre, 1-800-565-7547 or www.jasperadventurecentre.com.
Sun Dog Tours runs daily shuttle service to Jasper from Edmonton and Edmonton airport. In winter, it also runs a connector service: Calgary-Banff-Lake Louise-Jasper. Call 780-852-4056 or email email@example.com.
Via Rail runs trains to Jasper three times a week from Toronto, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Kamloops, and Vancouver and places in between.
In summer, Brewster Inc. runs daily buses to Jasper from Calgary, Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise. Call 1-866-606-6700 or visit www.brewster.ca.