Canada: Beer necessities for bear sighting (+photos)

By Jim Eagles

Buy a beer and see a bear," said Rickyroo, the wisecracking steward on the Skeena, as the train rolled down the beautiful Robson Valley in the Canadian Rockies.

I dashed up to the servery and asked for whichever beer carried the bear sighting guarantee. "Ah," he said, "that would be the world-famous Canadian lager."

It was good beer. And, better still, I was just sipping the last drops when I spotted the dark shape of a young bear behind a clump of golden aspen trees.

Moments later the train's public address system advised, "The engineer tells me there's a bear on the right. And there he is in the middle of the field looking at us."

Sure enough, there was a big black bear, staring over its shoulder at the trainload of passengers rolling by.

When Rickyroo next came by crying, "Bar service. Anything from the bar. Bar service. So cheap it's almost free," I quickly bought another bear beer. At C$4.75 ($6) it was a bargain.

This time I hadn't even opened the can when the announcement came, "Bear on the left.

Bear on the left."

We dashed to the left-hand windows but there was no sign of a bear. The commentator was unconcerned. "No bear? Well it's actually a bad piece of track and we needed your weight on the left side of the train."

Still, I figured I had got two bears for the first can, so I shouldn't complain.

Plus we also saw a herd of bison grazing in a paddock, several beaver dams and one swimming beaver, soaring golden eagles, iridescent blue jays and a magnificent bald eagle which glided above our carriage for several minutes.

What's more, on the evening of that first day on the Skeena there were some bonus bears, three of them, right beside the track on the other side of the train. I missed seeing the furry trio but a French passenger produced a picture on her digital camera to prove they had been there.

By way of consolation, I think I was the only passenger to spot a bear on the second day, loping across a paddock, having apparently been startled by our train's whistle. I bought another can of beer to pay for the sighting.

The Skeena isn't as well known or as luxurious as Canada's best known tourist train, the Rocky Mountaineer, but the scenery it travels through is every bit as spectacular, there's plenty of wildlife and I loved the deadpan humour of the crew.

It takes a day-and-a-half to make the 1169km journey from the Rocky Mountains tourist town of Jasper to the fishing port of Prince Rupert with an overnight stop at the timber city of Prince George.

Travel totem class and they provide three meals a day every bit as good as you'll get on most airlines - a tasty chunk of salmon accompanied by a reasonable white wine and a slice of a very nice pecan pie - and you can't complain about cans of beer which carry with them a free bear sighting.

Along the way the Skeena passes through several ranges of snow-capped mountains - including 3954m Mt Robson, the highest in the Canadian Rockies - past non-stop views over lakes and rivers, forests and plains.

It would be a spectacular journey at any time but because it was autumn there was the added bonus of the glorious golds, oranges and reds of the Canadian fall shining amid the dark greens of the pines.

I had brought a book to occupy the long hours but instead I found myself gazing entranced out of the panoramic windows at the lines of golden aspen and larch trees, set in a bed of red berries and grasses, which parted occasionally to reveal snowy peaks, turquoise rivers and reflective lakes of classic beauty.

From time to time, there were farms, sometimes with fields of rye, occasionally a few horses or cattle enjoying a last breath of fresh air before the onset of winter, the houses and barns with those distinctive steep roofs designed to shed the heavy winter snowfall.

And boy does it snow. "Around here you might see a lot of trees bowing to the train," said the public address system, answering my unspoken question about why there were so many trees leaning over. "Last winter, they had a very heavy snow storm with four feet of snow in just a couple hours."

Most of the towns were tiny. Like Dunster, which our commentator celebrated as having "one of only two general stores left in this valley - the longest valley in North America - where you can buy anything from a can of soup to a pound of nails".

Or Endako, base for a huge molybdenum mine, which as far as I could see had just two stores: a pub and a taxidermist (I guess the town is stuffed).

Or Penny, once a thriving sawmilling town with a population of over 500, but today "only seven people and as many dogs. And why are we stopping here? Because, since the telegraph line came down a couple years back if we didn't drop their mail three times a week they'd be pretty much cut off from the world."

Another stopping place was "beautiful downtown Tete Jeune Cache" - named for a blond trapper the Indians called Yellowhead - where there were no houses at all and the train just pulled up at a level crossing, the steps were placed on the road and a group of passengers disembarked to join a waiting van.

This route isn't just scenic but also historic. Much of it retraces the route of explorer and fur trader Simon Fraser who in 1806 established the first fur-trading post at what is now the town of Fort Fraser and also gave his name to Fraser Lake and the Fraser River. "Get here early," opined our laconic commentator, "and they name a lot of things after you."

On the other hand you evidently didn't have to turn up that early to get your name recorded. Mt Rider, which provided a classically beautiful vista, its 2513m snow-caped pyramid looming across a river lined with golden aspen, having been "named after the English writer Sir Henry Rider Haggard who rode the train here in 1916".

Or there is Rose Lake, named after one Rose Prince, whose principal claim to fame was even more recent and seems to have arisen after her death.

"They had to move the local graveyard to make way for a mill and when they opened her coffin there was old Rose looking exactly the same as the day she died.

"Now there's a memorial to her, which you'll see on the left-hand side of the train right along here, and they're looking to make her a saint, so if you see anything miraculous in the next couple miles give the Pope a ring and you might be able to speed up the beatification process."

Every few kilometres, there was something interesting to look at.

In the town of Houston, we spied the unusual combination of the largest flyfishing rod - 90ft long - and the biggest sawmill in the world.

In the middle of Burns Lake, our commentator pointed out Deadman's Island. "Some years back they were doing some blasting there using gelignite and one morning the gelignite was frozen so a few of the boys decided to warm it up in the frying pan ... a decision which 11 or 12 of them came to regret. Now they've made it into a park."

There are numerous Indian - or First Nation - settlements en route including Gitwangak, famous for its totem poles, one of which is right beside the track, and for the big sacks of gold ore from a nearby mine loaded at its station. "They put it in bags to stop the pickpockets."

We passed several huge freight trains, mostly carrying wood products or gas, and two spectacular derailments, underlining the continuing risk of travelling through such rugged country.

There is even a New Zealand connection in Doreen, named after the railway surveyor E. J. Doreen who was a Kiwi, which today has a resident population of one. I'm not sure he'd be flattered.

Unfortunately, it being late in the year, the final approach along the coast to Prince Rupert was in darkness so we missed the spectacular seascapes and the chance to see seals.

But as a consolation there were more jokes from Rickyroo and his colleagues. "The engineer tells me there are several black bears on the left-hand side ... Oops. Someone forgot to turn the lights on."

In Travel next week, Jim Eagles takes the ferry down Canada's famous Inside Passage to Port Hardy at the tip of Vancouver Island.

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand flies non-stop Auckland to Vancouver. There are now three flights a week, reducing to two a week in April, May, June, September and October. Pacific Economy class fares start at $2389 return, including all pre-payable airport and government costs. See airnewzealand.co.nz, call 0800 737 000 or visit an Air New Zealand Holidays Store.

PACKAGES
House of Travel has 12-night packages around Canada's Scenic Circle from $8449 per person, including twin-share accommodation and most meals, valid for travel June 15 to September 23. The package includes return economy class Air New Zealand airfares to Vancouver, airport transfers in Vancouver and three nights' accommodation at Sandman Hotel and Suites, plus the 10-day Spirit of the West independent tour.

The Spirit of the West tour includes the Rocky Mountaineer two-day train trip from Vancouver to Banff in redleaf class (upgrade to goldleaf class for $1219); coach travel from Banff to Lake Louise and Jasper, including Banff Sulphur Mountain gondola pass, Banff Upper Hot Springs swim pass, evening wildlife tour in Banff and visits to Emerald Lake, Yoho National Park and Takkakaw Falls, Lake Louise, Jasper Icefield Parkway tour, Ice Explorer ride on to the Athabasca Glacier and Jasper Tramway pass; two-day rail trip on the Skeena from Jasper to Prince Rupert travelling totem class; BC Ferry ride from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy via the Inside Passage; coach tour Port Hardy to Victoria; coach and ferry trip Victoria to Vancouver.

MORE INFORMATION
Contact House of Travel on 0800 838 747 or houseoftravel.co.nz. For general information on British Columbia see hellobc.com.

Jim Eagles travelled Canada's Scenic Circle with Air New Zealand, House of Travel and Tourism British Columbia.

- NZ Herald

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