The wonders of Canada by rail
Each sleeper carriage is overseen by an attendant, and mine is Graham Gunhouse. ‘I guess they built these things to last,’ he says, showing me to my compartment. ‘I’ve been working on this train for 28 years and it never seems to look any older.’ A genuine love of rail transport seems compulsory for those who work on Canada’s trains, and Graham is no exception. ‘All my holidays are trainbased. I just don’t get bored of them. I guess they bring out the little boy in me.’ It certainly brings out mine, and he is soon gleefully playing with all the pockets, lockers and drawers in my overnight den.
For an hour out of Jasper, we rattle and sway past the Rockies’ imperious outposts. The distances between stops are prodigious and, because of that, the train halts almost anywhere on request. In the lakelands east of Winnipeg, it’s quite usual to see a lone adventurer hop from the luggage van and drag a kayak off into the wilderness.
Mile by verdant mile, the view settles into undulating forest and farmland, sunset adding an autumnal tint to the ever-flattening prairies. I survey it from the tremendous observation car, all sleekly sculpted acrylic glass and shiny metal, like it’s been made out of old Cadillacs. Nearby, a woman is discussing the journey ahead with her partner. ‘Five days watching Canada go by,’ she says. ‘It’s the only way to make sense of this huge country of ours.’
The clattering racket of progress proves a surprisingly effective lullaby and, nesting down in my little compartment, I drift towards sleep. Somewhere out there, Alberta gives way to Saskatchewan, and prairie to still more prairie. Peering out at the misty sunrise the following morning, it dimly registers that, by the time I get off at Saskatoon, 17 hours of locomotion will have moved us roughly three inches along the very large map of the Canadian rail network on the corridor wall outside.
Saskatoon to Kyle: Drive a hire car 125 miles deep into the prairies
The hypnotic enormity of the prairies soon exerts itself when driving south out of Saskatoon. This is a two-dimensional, dun-coloured world that’s more geometry than geography, an abstract arable flatness laid out in mile-by-two-mile oblongs. We’re deep into the virgin wheatlands, snappily pitched by the CPR to turn-of-the-century immigrants as ‘the last best west’.
By 1914, the railway had attracted some three million foreigners to these empty prairies: from the likes of Britain, Ireland, Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. These vacant grasslands had been transformed into Canada’s breadbasket, an eternity of farms and ranches that came to embody the new country’s heroic pioneering spirit.
The railways gave struggling American stockmen access to millions of cheap and unexploited acres, and the means of transporting their herds to it and from it, to markets as far away as Britain. By 1906, southern Saskatchewan had been almost entirely annexed by the huge cattle ranches that still define its culture.
It’s a challenge to find the ranch I’m looking for on these featureless, plumb-straight roads. When I stop at Kyle, I’m told by a petrol-station attendant to turn right at the bend. Which bend? ‘The only bend. It’s eight miles up the road.’ After that, and a further 15 miles spent trailing plumes of gravelly dust along a supine horizon, La Reata Ranch’s wooden cookshack wobbles up out of the heat-haze. On a parched, ochre day like this, southern Saskatchewan looks like prime cowboy country, missing only the cactuses.