Riding BC Rail’s Cariboo Prospector

T-Minus 7 days

Five-thirty is an unfair time of the morning. Especially if your alarm clock wakes you in the middle of a really good dream.

This morning, I took a taxi to the BC Rail station and boarded the Cariboo Prospector. It’s a three-car Rail Diesel Car (RDC) passenger train that runs between Prince George and North Vancouver.

(An RDC, in case you’re wondering, is a self-propelled passenger car. They were developed in the 50s by the Budd Car Company as a means for simple passenger operation without the need for an extra locomotive. For a while, RDCs were a common site in North America. Now they are a dying breed. In Canada, only BC Rail and VIA still run RDCs, and only in three places: Victoria-Courteney on Vancouver Island (VIA), Sudbury-White River in Ontario (VIA), and Prince George-North Vancouver.)

This will be an important trip for me. Due to budget cuts at BC Rail, the Prospector will cease operations at the end of October. This is also true for BC Rail’s other services, the Pacific Starlight and the Whistler Northwind. The Royal Hudson service already met with an ignominious end when both 2860 and 3716 steam locomotives required maintenance. Their end came in 1999. (2860 is now on display at the West Coast Railway Association in Squamish. 3716 is stored unserviceable at BC Rail.)

It is truly a shame that a service such as this would befall such a fate. While perhaps not the speediest form of transportation, it is very comfortable, and you simply can’t see this country any other way. And that’s not to count the necessity. There’s a native tribe just south of Lillooet that needs the service to get from Lillooet to their home. With the service ending, they needed to contract a shuttle with BC Rail.

It’s a 15 hour trip from Prince George to North Vancouver. It’s not only a trip through some of the most beautiful country in Canada, but it’s also a test of endurance. If you can’t survive 15 hours on one day, how would you survive 33 days?

This was one day I was happy to endure. The weather wasn’t the most ideal, admittedly. That didn’t take away from the majesty of our natural ecosystems or of the sculpted terrain. Though the cloudy skies did bring an early night.

The trip is run as a partial tourist train. It was initially started to serve the countless little communities between the Lower Mainland and Prince George (most of them remnants from the Gold Rush). Either through evolution or through need, it soon became a partial tourist train. As the train rolls along, one of the train crew points out sights and tells some of the local history. The fact that you’re fed breakfast, lunch, and dinner as you ride is an added bonus.

The only real down side of the trip is that you’re confined to your car for the duration of the journey. You aren’t allowed between cars, and most of the stops are too brief to let people off. Between Lillooet and North Vancouver, there was only one stop of sufficient length for people to stretch their legs.

By the time we reached Whistler, it was darkening fast. Not far past the resort, you could barely make out silhouettes, let alone the colours or objects. The remainder of the ride to North Vancouver was quiet and uneventful. Once we entered sight of the Lions Gate Bridge, however, the lights of the night city were spectacular.

My friend Joel and his wife Michelle greeted me at the station. They had offered me refuge for a few days before I started with the CBC. Though they lived nearly an hour out of downtown, the need for rest and quiet were more than appealing enough. Fifteen hours of travel isn’t physically tiring, but it is draining.

Flying from Calgary to Prince George

T-Minus 8 days

There’s nothing like trying to plan one and a half months of a chaotic life in excruciating detail. It’s a little easier when someone else does all the dirty work, but ultimately, it’s you that will make it flow smoothly.

In my case, it was extracting myself from my life. Really, it was the only way to make any kind of a clean break. But in a fashion typical of myself, I still managed to be running around for the last 45 minutes of being at the office. It seems no amount of preparation can prevent that.

Of course, it didn’t help that Purolator missorted my advance cheque from the CBC. That caused me to call the courier and see if I could divert it to Vancouver. I won’t know if I was successful until 4 September.

On of the things I left too late was booking a hotel room. Why I left it so late is anybody’s guess (‘cuz I don’t know). But it meant that I still needed to clear it up before I boarded my plane.

My flight to Vancouver was its usual uneventful passage. Although I had booked a window seat, I offered it to a young girl who was flying alone and would have sat between two men. The seat was cramped, and not leather (see [[Cathy and Craig’s Wedding]]). For such a short flight, it wasn’t necessary. But it would still have been nice.

My stop in Vancouver was short. I almost walked out of one terminal gate and right into the adjacent gate. All that prevented me was a 25-minute wait until the next flight started its boarding call.

I was off to Prince George, “Gateway to the North” and the geographical centre of British Columbia. I had exactly the same seat booked that I would have had in the previous flight (had I not given up my window view). But this time, I wanted to see the landscape. We left early (how often that happen?). The flight was short, and soon we arrived at the smallest airport I think I’ve ever been to. Not many airports require planes to turn around on the runway to get to the terminal.

The terminal building was even smaller than Hamilton’s. There’s one baggage carousel, which opens directly to the outside. There’s one gate. Now that’s small.

Grabbing an airporter, I found my way to the Downtown Motel. It was, I think, the last available room in Prince George. It wasn’t the Fairmont Palliser, but it had a comfy bed at a reasonable price. (Even if the room was permeated with a deodourizer that smelled almost worse than the cigarette smoke it was supposed to cover up.)

So why the shortage of rooms? After dinner at the Shogun at the Coast of the North hotel, I wandered around to take pictures. In the process, I ran into three wonderfully chatty elderly women competing in the BC Senior Games. The games are running this weekend in Prince George. Hence, no rooms.

We talked a fairly long time – they were quite puzzled why I would be running around at night taking pictures. Prince George has some great vistas, including the new art gallery just west of city hall. The lighting at night really brings out the gallery’s unique construction.

While I was there talking, we were approached by two of the volunteers who were helping at the games. They were wondering what we were talking about. Over the course of a shorter conversation, I found that Prince George has 26 sawmills. While an impressive-sounding number, the reality is much less impressive. Of those, only 11 or 12 are still open.

Bed soon beckoned. I had a very early morning to come, and sleep was a necessity.

Riding a VIA Train Coast to Coast with the CBC

There are times that I’m almost envious of myself. Well, okay, one time that I’m envious of myself. Hey, it’s better than being jealous of others…

I’m going on a train trip. But not any train trip. In fact, this falls into the “Once an Orbit of Pluto” category. And it all started when I read the following in a reply from my friend Brenda:

“hey if the cbc sent a train from coast to coast for 38 days of travel and events in september/october for its 50th anniversary celebrations, would you like to go to document the trip/take pictures/take video/set up (take down) kiosks at events/chat with the public/hang out with cbc celebrities?”

I actually fell back in my chair, staring at what I’d just read. I looked all around for any sign of Allen Funt’s descendants. I pinched, splashed cold water, and tried to wake up, just to be safe. My reply was something along the lines of:

“How many limbs and first-born children do you want?”

Brenda, if you haven’t already guessed, works at the CBC. She got handed this project, and was in the process of trying to get it back on track. (Yes, it’s a pun. Deal with it.) This spun off a long string of emails of questions, more than should be asked of a single person. But in short order, we’d determined what was going to happen.

Well, almost. First I had one minor detail to contend with: Getting time off work.

Over the last two years, I’ve managed to weasel my way into a position/role of far too much responsibility and pseudo-authority. My first initial thought was that I would have to go back to Brenda and regretfully decline. But it never hurts to ask.

So the day my boss returned from his honeymoon, I pulled him into a meeting room, and delivered the following speech.

Me: First off, I’m not quitting.
Him: (Either not caring, or not showing the huge sigh of relief) Okay.
Me: Here’s the deal. This is the 50th anniversary of the CBC, and they want to make a big thing of it. So they’re sending a train across Canada for about two months, making stops and doing presentations, and they need someone to do computer work, take pictures, document the trip, shoot video, and probably a billion other things. She wants me to go. I want to go. I need two months off.
Him: (Without barely a pause) Okay.

I love this company.

Over the next few weeks, having to shoot video dropped from the radar, and the time shortened to just under a month and a half. But I had the green light, and it was full steam ahead.

Until yesterday, I couldn’t really talk about it (see [[Working at CBC Headquarters in Toronto]]). Okay, I had talked about it to a few people, but that was before I found out I wasn’t supposed to. But yesterday was the official first notice to the world of the CBC’s intentions. So I’m free to talk.

On 3 September, I’ll be in Vancouver, getting the train ready, finishing my training (no pun intended) and preparing for the Big Event. 7 September is our first public event, in Vancouver. From there, we visit Kamloops, Jasper, Edmonton, Biggar, Saskatoon, Melville, Winnipeg, Sioux Lookout, Capreol, Sudbury, Windsor, London, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, Quebec City, Campbellton, Moncton, and finishing in Halifax on 5 October.

To say I’m excited is … well, let’s just say that concentrating at work as been a little difficult as of late.

So what’s my part in all this? I’ll be the New Media Representative. My job will be to keep the New Media side of things running. This includes 6-9 kiosks (depending on who you ask), taking pictures, handing out free stuff, setting up displays (and taking them down), and writing about it in journal entries. Starting in September, you’ll be able to keep track of (almost) my every move on CBC’s website.

And I’m gonna be on a train for 33 glorious days. (If you can’t see the dopey grin on my face right now, your monitor must be broken.) The only bad part of this is that I have to wait three weeks for all this to start. I don’t know if I can hold out that long.

I’m gonna be working on the railroad, all the live long month and a half!

Cathy and Craig’s Wedding

Somewhere, in a long-forgotten book in some dusty corner of a decrepit building in a burned out city, there is a sentence that says vacations are supposed to be restful. And someone is going to a lot of trouble to make sure I can’t find that sentence.

Last week, starting very early on 3 August, I flew to Ontario. As luck would have it, I was on the same red-eye flight with my cousin Pam and her beau, Sean. Normally, this would be reason for celebration, but flying red-eye basically means you sleep the whole way. And believe me, sleeping is far easier with leather seats.

Yes, leather. I don’t know what’s gotten into WestJet, but at least one of their planes has leather seats. Not just one. Not just a few. All of the seats. The only downer: The ones backing onto the emergency exit rows don’t recline. (I found out the hard way.)

You’re probably wondering what I was doing on a red-eye flight given my dislike for them (see [[Christmas with my Family in Oakville, Cathy Gets Engaged]]), but it came down to an issue of price. Red-eyes are cheap. And with leather seats, I might be doing more red-eyes in the future.

This was the first time I flew into Pearson on WestJet, and I reminded myself yet again why I hate that airport. It’s too slow. Cathy was circling for over 20 minutes before hearing from me. I told her to park — I was going to be a while longer.

Bags in hand, Cathy and I headed to Oakville. Pam and Sean disappeared to Stratford. We wouldn’t see them again until the following Friday. Arriving home, my mother welcomed me at the door, and I made a beeline for the bed.

Leather seats or not, I didn’t get enough sleep.

The Saturday, Sunday, and Monday were filled with various wedding-related tasks, not the least of which was picking things up, dropping things off, and getting things organized. (Yeah, real vague, I know, but I’d be writing an entire log entry just on that stuff alone.)

Oh, whose wedding, you ask? I’ll give you a hint: Not mine.

After a long wait, my sister’s beau, Craig, finally proposed to her on Christmas morning (see [[Christmas with my Family in Oakville, Cathy Gets Engaged]]), making not only Cathy very happy, but the rest of my family as well. And after almost eight long months of waiting, it was time for the happy day to arrive.

I had originally come out to Ontario a week in advance to help out with all the little last-minute details that I expected would crop up. But unbeknownst to me, events would transpire that would change the course of my week.

Details on that in a following log, of course.

Suffice to say, come Tuesday, I was no longer in Oakville. Instead, I spent a lot of time at the CBC head office on Front Street (see [[Working at CBC Headquarters in Toronto]]), working for my friend Brenda. That sucked up pretty much every spare second I had for four days, although I did manage to leave at a somewhat “respectable” hour on Thursday to return home for dinner (the family invasion formally began that evening) and early on Friday (for obvious reasons).

But even on Saturday morning, we didn’t get a chance to slow down. It was go-go-go from the moment my alarm went off at 8:00am. The first task for me was to get Craig and Dave (Craig’s best man) over to the barber so we could get our haircut. (Mine was looking something like a floor mop.)

Craig and Dave were the first ones up, disposing of their excess locks. Completed, they disappeared off to Craig and Cathy’s house to await orders. My turn. So in addition to looking respectable again (yeah, tough as that might sound), I also had a shave. A real one. With a straight razor. Luckily, Sandy is one of the best barbers in Ontario; certainly the best I’ve ever had. I had complete faith in him not to slice something off.

I should point out that I’ve never had a shave with anything but an electric razor. So my skin is quite sensitive. Sandy had to shave me twice to prevent slicing me open. But he did a good job — even by 11pm, I hadn’t grown much of a beard back, and I grow fast.

Following the shave was some chores around the house — mostly moving things. (Aunt Ruth was madly preparing flowers, which needed placing; Aunt Karen brought a light trellis that needed assembling; and flowers all over the place needed watering.) And somewhere in all that, I ran to the grocery store to stock up on almost $80 in Clamato and orange juice.

After a quick bolt through the shower, I rode over to pick up Craig and Dave. They were dressed in their finest, ready for the show. I piled them into the minivan, and hauled them back to the Sowrey homestead. People had started to arrive, though it was mostly family. But you could hear the Great Engine beginning to turn over…

Inside, people were officially going crazy. Mom was getting dressed, Cathy was talking with everyone, the caterers were running around … I almost felt like I was in a Keystone Cops short. But it was time for myself to get dressed. Unlike Craig and Dave, though, I would not be wearing a tux. Cathy had made one request: Wear Dad’s kilt.

When Dad had been diagnosed with brain cancer, he had been told he had a year to live. All he wanted to know was if he would live to see his daughter’s wedding. When he passed away in March, there was a hole that needed filling.

Instead of Dad, it would be I who would walk Cathy down the aisle. And she was only walking down it if there was someone next to her wearing Dad’s kilt. Luckily for me, it fit, albeit a little tight and very warm in that mid-August heat.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I did not wear it regimental style. (That means sans undergarments.) Why? Well, originally I was, but then I remembered all the troublemakers C&C had invited to the party, and suddenly I wasn’t really filled with a great deal of confidence about their abilities to remain mature. (I was right, too. Cathy’s boss shoved one of the disposable cameras under my kilt while we were engaged in group photos.)

The minister arrived and gave the “pep” talks with Craig and Cathy (independently — Cathy forbade Craig to see her prior to the ceremony). There was no practice ceremony — C&C (as we in the family refer to them) like flying by the seat of their pants.

After running around for about 20 minutes, Cathy finally pronounced she was ready. The minister pronounced he was ready. (I don’t think Craig had a choice.) It was time. The music was cued, and Cathy went out the front door.

The guests waited in the backyard. Cathy, Julie, and I walked to the side. Julie took a deep breath, and then walked through the gate to the snapping of shutters. We’d been told to give Julie lots of room before coming in. Dramatic pause, dawdling, psychological torture, call it what you will. Right up until we started walking in, arm in arm, Cathy had been cool and collected. The second we rounded that corner, she couldn’t stop shaking.

I felt a little guilty. This was Cathy’s big day, and I was sharing the limelight with her. At first, I was just walking my sister. But after a few moments, it suddenly became real. Like someone had wiped the fog from the bathroom mirror. To say the feeling was overwhelming is like suggesting a hurricane is a light breeze. It took everything I had not to cry.

Once Cathy was next to Craig, the ceremony started to take shape, and things went quickly. True to their word, it lasted only 20 minutes before the legalities were over, and the new Mr. and Mrs. were presented to the assembly. Many pictures ensued.

After they ceremoniously walked out as husband and wife (returning after a few photos on the front lawn), came the toast to the couple. Huntsville Dave would be the speaker, a neighbour of C&C at their cottage. He, like the rest of the ceremony, spoke without a script, and without a clue about what he was going to say before it was said.

(A note on Daves. C&C seem to know a lot of them. Too many, as a matter of fact. So many, that they all have qualifiers, usually denoting where they live: Huntsville, Scarborough, Ainsville, Oakville, and so forth.)

As the speech finished, I quickly ducked inside to take off the jacket to the kilt. Although I would later learn that it is customary to keep your jacket on until the groom removes his, I was wearing something designed for winter conditions. With all due deference to my new brother-in-law, I was dying in that thing.

Shortly after, we gathered the families, and went for the photographs. Cameras were everywhere. We were lucky that it was bright enough that most didn’t use flashes. I can only imagine the bright spots I would have seen.

While this was going on, the catering staff had opened the bar, and people not taking pictures (or being in them) had started to mingle. Hors d’oeurves were shortly followed, and quickly eaten. There was laughter, music, food, and drink. No-one, as far as I can tell, had a bad time.

The finger foods soon gave way to more “formal” foods: seafood (raw oysters, lox, shrimp), sushi, and roast beef on a bun. Yeah, doesn’t sound too fancy, but then the food should fit the couple. (I’m not saying C&C aren’t fancy, but they’re not pretentious.) And for the record, I’ve never had buffet-style roast beef that good before.

After a while, the speeches started. Cathy had hit upon the idea of using an old family gong to get people’s attention when words were to be said, and people to expect a kiss from the bride and groom. The first few were tame (even with a rather emotional speech from Cathy’s boss), but they got more interesting as the evening wore on.

The one that really surprised us was Julie’s husband, Dave. He’s a great guy, just not usually talkative. We were floored when he got up in front of 90-odd people to extol the virtues of his friends. (We were even more floored with his impassioned interpretation of the Village People’s “YMCA” later on.)

And somewhere in there, was my speech. But this wasn’t to C&C, it was on behalf of the family to everyone else. It was thanks for the effort and trouble people had to go through to come, some from as far as Anguilla and Vancouver. (Even Gerry and Sam dropped in for a while, who live in Bermuda. Although they were in the area for other reasons.) When it came time to end my speech, I needed a something interesting, funny, and appropriate. So naturally, I drew a blank.

I think that’s when Dad stepped in. Before I knew it, this is what I’d said:

“And if you should find that something is missing here tonight, please do not hesitate to let us know. We’ll make sure that you get so drunk that you won’t remember.”

Dad had definitely made it to the wedding.

It wasn’t long before it was time for the first dance. Craig used to teach dance at Arthur Murray, so we all expected quite a show. Unfortunately, he hadn’t had a chance to teach Cathy yet. But it was still something out of a fairy tale to watch.

Following the dance, it was time to dance with the parents. I was to fill in for Dad. However, we had a slight change in plans, when Don stepped instead. Don is virtually a surrogate father for Cathy and I — we’ve known him that long. I think Cathy was a little concerned that I felt pushed out in favour of Don, but I think there was no better person for the job.

Besides, I can’t dance.

Admittedly, the rest of the evening gets a little hazy from there. About 11:00 or so, I made the mistake of switching from beer to wine, although I don’t know why. So come about 2:00am, I was apparently incapable of independent vertical alignment, nor could annunciate baby gibberish, let alone a coherent sentence. And I would pay dearly for it the next morning.

Which began at about 10:00am. We had to get ready for the lunch with family, as many of them would be taking off for home again. This also gave C&C time to unwrap the presents they received the night before.

The barbecue billowed smoke from all the hamburgers, the pot boiled corn, and we ate to our hearts’ content. It was a good day, following a great night. And the hilarity around the presents made it even better.

The single best one, in my opinion, was from the Navis family, an old family friend. They gave C&C a poem, on which was a series of instructions on how to build a fence. Each step corresponded to a numbered envelope, which contained a series of gift certificates representative of that step (e.g. coffee, wood, beer, and dinner). And to top it off, his and her hammers and pint beer mugs.

That night, we sat in the back yard, and listened to the crickets, the wind through the trees, and the complete lack of any semblance of traffic or other noises. As Don, another old family friend remarked, it was the end of an era. His era was the end of comfortable backyards. Mine was different. It was the end of the neighbourhood as I knew it. It would be the last night for me next to the pool. The last meal was Chinese. The last swim had been with my cousin, Jen. It would be the last night I slept in the house that I was raised in.

But no amount of sombreness would diminish the happiness of the previous days’ events. The wedding had been more than Cathy could have dreamed for. She and Craig were now readying for a week at their cottage to spend some much needed time relaxing. We would all be happy with the way things went, and with the way things would go.

Even with the killer hangover that I think I’ve still got.

Working at CBC Headquarters in Toronto

This is my second day here at the CBC head office in Toronto. This is a weird place.

You’re probably asking: What is Geoff doing at the CBC head office in Toronto? That’s a question I can’t answer just yet — you’ll have to wait until next Tuesday. (The irony is that this won’t be posted until after I can say what I’m doing at the CBC. So I could tell you why I’m here. But hey, it’s all about telling a story.)

I came in yesterday, taking the GO Train from Clarkson, in the very west of Mississauga. The trip out was quite pleasant (the joys of express trains), and relaxing … so I thought. The train arrived smoothly and without urgency. I was expecting a leisurely walk to the CBC building (I was a half hour early). Wrong expectation.

As soon as the doors opened, I was overwhelmed with a panic, similar to that of stampeding animals. I felt the urge to move very quickly, and stay with the herd, er, crowd.

Now I remember why I like living in Calgary — less pressure.

Wandering down Front Street, I quite quickly found myself at the main doors. Not only was I very early, but I was remarking at how HUGE this place is. The building is the size of a city block, no question. It’s 10 stories tall, not counting the basements. It’s so big it has at least four sets of elevators — probably six or more. They’re colour-coded so you can find them easily.

That’s assuming, of course, that you can find anything in this building. King Minos’ labyrinth wasn’t this confusing. (Nor was the 6th floor of the Math and Computer building at the University of Waterloo, despite its near-legendary lack of structure.)

It’s a bit of a surreal experience. It’s a true media outlet. (The only thing the CBC doesn’t touch is print — but give them the chance, and I’d bet they would.) You’d almost expect to run into one of a large number of semi-famous people (I reserve “famous” for those instantly recognizable) roaming the halls.

I have yet to see Peter Mansbridge, though.

It took me most of yesterday to get the gist of how this place works. Luckily for me, Brenda returned this morning to really get things moving. While I have a vague idea of what I need to do, Brenda had a lot of the details I didn’t.

The building offers some interesting services, aside from the media aspects, of course. There’s the Glenn Gould Studio, a concert hall cum recording studio; robotic mail delivery; an in-house credit union (almost every employee here is unionized); a very in-depth intranet; a beautiful atrium (big bucks in construction, no doubt) that includes a sushi bar; a museum (or three); and probably a lot of stuff I just haven’t found yet.

And I’ve only been here two days. I’ll be here for a couple of days more, though. Then it’s my sister’s wedding, and back home.

Three weeks later, I’m off on another adventure of a lifetime.

Which I can’t tell you about.

Yet.