Chapter 1 : On the Road Again.
The train is pulling out of the station as I man handle my luggage onto the main rack. It looks like a post office sorting room at Christmas in there! Bags are all helter-skelter but mine, for the moment, is in the prized position… on top! The train wobbles over the Division St. trestle headed west out of Cobourg, Ontario as I arrive at an empty seat. Unfortunately, it is facing where I have been and not where I am going.
I’m headed for Ottawa and the Chateau Laurier… not cheap, but a great hotel in the heart of the city. It really is the place to start a Canadian adventure. Huddled on the bank of the Rideau Canal, a stone throw from the mighty Ottawa River and Parliament Hill, it is iconic. The room next to the lobby of this castle like structure is decorated with Karsh portraits of Stephen Leacock, Winston Churchill and others. Off this reading room, a gallery displays Inuit art, mostly soapstone carvings. Well, what can I say, the place is just very Canadian!
Tomorrow an early start will see me boarding a bus for the airport and a charter flight to Iqaluit on Baffin Island. From there, a short Zodiac trip to the Orlova and I will be headed to the Ghost Coast of Labrador and the fabled Torngat Mountains.
As I settle in, I note my failure to condense the amount of camera equipment that I need for this trip into my smaller backpack. It is all I can do to sling my larger waterproof bag over my shoulder. I hope I don’t have to walk far. Really, I have to consider getting a lighter hobby. Even if I were not a camera fanatic, northern travel does not equate to light travel even without a tripod, a computer and a multiplicity of lens. There are essentials like wellies, long underwear, hats, mitts, and rain gear in various amounts depending on the time of the year. Be warm, be comfortable and don’t worry about being fashionable. That’s my mantra for northern travel.
Trees and telephone poles stream by backwards as we head towards Belleville. This is a double train. At Brockville, half continues on to Montreal while the other section heads to the Nation’s capital. I hope I am on the right half.
People begin to nod off as the motion of the train mimics a cradle. Periodically, the clickety-click of metal against metal is interrupted by the ring of a cell phone. I find this not too hard to ignore and nod off myself. Train travel is very civilized and the convenience of a 10:43 am start cannot be underestimated. My tolerance for, or interest in, early morning jack rabbit starts to make it to an airport in time to sit for three hours, is getting smaller and smaller.
As the countryside whishes by, the blur is tinged with gold and greens with a splash of orange here and there. The leaves are just beginning to turn and fields are still full of corn and soybeans, waiting to be harvested.
It strikes me as we pass through Brighton, Trenton and Belleville that I am receding from my present and journeying towards my past that has many links to these small Ontario towns. I guess I should turn around and face the future square on. Maybe someone will move or leave at the next stop and an opportunity will present itself.
As we pull into Belleville, the nice lady from Ireland who chatted with me before boarding in Cobourg, prepares to disembark. I smile nicely and wish her well and then make a dive for her forward facing seat. Truthfully, it is still warm.
We pull out, passing graffiti stained tanker cars and the clackety – clack once again becomes a low rumble.
A white haired lady has ensconced herself in the seat across from me. She wears a pin from Newfoundland and I wonder whether she is coming or going. She seems confused and is looking back and forth searching for a steward. Turns out she is in the wrong section of the car, and is obliged to collect her assorted belongings and her self esteem, disembark at Cornwall and go to another section of the train…There but for the love of God, go I!
We continue east through golden fields. This has to be the breadbasket for this half of the country. Long white plastic “worms” slither through the fields where once stoops and bales reigned. I can’t help but think that this harvest method is missing the esthetics of the past.
Ten minutes out of Kingston, we move through the swampland and pass over the Rideau River/Canal before feeling the train veer slowly towards the north. Jones Falls comes into view and it’s a blast from the past, as I remember my husband Doug, Winston the wonder dog, and the good ship Haida making their way towards Ottawa at the beginning of a year long adventure down the inter-coastal waterway.
The landscape changes. The great Canadian shield punctuates the scene with its rocky outcroppings. As the countryside pans by, a forest of miniature cedars, fields with violet hue, rocky ponds and sky blue reflections are turned to ribbons of maroon and gold.
We slow as we pass through small towns, whose names escape me. It’s clear that , Monday morning is still laundry day despite what Ontario Hydro tells us about high rate periods versus low ones. Clotheslines tell the tale of how energy conservation is being carried out in this part of the province.
There is a flash of silver as a westbound spins by revealing grassy laneways twisted and grooved, leading to old homesteads. Meandering paths of new mown hay stretch to the distant fence lines. Fields sport buzz cuts. A second westbound train passes with such speed that it leaves my eyes trying to refocus. It’s a world of silver, yellow, black, red, and brown all superimposed with trees and shrubs.
It’s 12:44 when everything goes still. There are no sounds from the air conditioner or the wheels connecting with the tracks. We are stopped west of Brockville. Then the staccato clangs and bangs of decoupling fill the air. The front engine and cars are headed for Ottawa. The second is bound for Montreal.
I sip my coffee as yardmen walk the track ears to phones. Bright orange safety vests with fluorescent X’s on the back make them hard to miss. The tracks paralleling ours are rusted. The spikes are long worn. But a ribbon of silver marks where the wheels of countless trains have travelled this route wearing the track itself. Gord Lightfoot’s “Railroad Trilogy” runs non-stop in my head.
Graffiti marked car 405181 sits on a siding. I wonder what it would say if it could talk. Why is it over there in its own space? Why isn’t it beside the cars marked ”caustic acid”? Has a train ever been stopped by the turned up rails that mark the end of the line? Who cares? I will my head to stop asking these things.
We pull into Brockville. The Kiss and Drive folks take to the parking lot. A person standing on the station platform, digs for her car keys. An airedale-come-boxer, several small children and a bicycle cart come aboard the train. We move out leaving the station looking like an abandoned farmhouse. Graffiti on a billboard says goodbye.
We move past neat back yards, free standing garages, swimming pools behind small white houses and more clothes drying on lines in the noonday sun. Youth at the local high school fill the football field. Up the aisle of the train totters a two year old who spots the luggage compartment and just knows it is really a big playpen with a personal entrance through the netting right at his level. No one seems to be watching him. I’m watching him. (Once a Children’s Aid worker, always a Children’s Aid worker.)
The woods fly by and my mind goes back in time to my first trip to Ottawa to participate in an Adventure Canada trip to the Canadian north. It was my first journey on my own. My body was still unstable from a serious car accident and my soul even more wobbly. Now, I am more confident, more resigned, more hopeful, sad, happy, a mixture.
A heron glides over the marsh parallel to my window and then gracefully rests. It knows when to stop. Will I?
It’s after one o’clock when I feel the train slowing to pass over the Rideau at Smith Falls. The river is all oranges and golds as its waters reflect the overhanging trees. My eye catches the façade of the “Derailed”, a pub across the street from the track.
We advance slowly, with the effect of a jaunty swagger. The Via train from Ottawa is on the siding. We pass and head out of town past dilapidated row housing that heard the shouts and laughter of children at some point but that is now nothing but boarded up warehousing. As the train accelerates, we enter the land of the old- fashioned square hay bale; sheep stand in fields; and rail fences are interspersed by stunted cedars.
The train picks up speed for the run into Ottawa. Coffee cups slip–slide away on a left hand curve. “Junior” has returned to the luggage compartment. There is little traffic on the country roads that are punctuated by level crossings, safety bars and flashing red lights as we pass. Fields of pumpkins stretch out to the far fence-lines.
The first signs of the city are monster homes in rural subdivisions. Fallowfield, a recent subdivision, rates its own new station and commuter parking lot. I’m lost in my own province. I feel the need for a map.
From somewhere, the essence of an orange fills the coach. We slow and pass scrap yards and township sheds. The train slides into the Ottawa station right on time.