10th Anniversary of the CBC 50th Anniversary VIA Rail Train

Ten years ago today, I boarded a shuttle bus from a hotel in Vancouver, and met some of the most amazing people I’ve ever had the pleasure — nay, honour — to know and work with. (Believe me, I’ve worked with a lot of people over the years. This does not come lightly.)

It was a chance of a lifetime — something I knew then, and greatly appreciate now. A chance to connect with thousands of fellow Canadians, and experience our nation in a now-unique way. The memories were fond when it ended, and they’re stronger and more wonderful with every new day.

I’ve had people ask: Would I do it again? Damn right, I would!

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I’ve been logging on the railroad

[This entry written by Geoff Sowrey, ©2006 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Text used with permission of CBC. The opinions expressed within do not necessarily reflect those of the CBC, employees, affiliates, or subsidiaries.]

Sometimes, you get those strange little burps in life that turn into the greatest of experiences. Ones that you don’t pass up for anything — not for all the challenges you might face or things you might lose.

In late summer of 2002, the CBC needed an unusual person. They needed a computer geek. They needed a writing geek. They needed a photography geek. And they needed a true rarity, a train geek: Someone who knew the difference between a U-1-f or a F40PH2 rolling down the tracks; someone who could determine where he or she is in the Prairies by reading railway mileposts, someone who’d love being on a train for a month.

I was that geek.

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CBC TV 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train: Reunion

This weekend, I visited southern Ontario. Even though I’ve only just left, it almost feels like I was never even there.

A few weeks back, Critical Mass announced (to the employees) that it was in the process of pitching a very large client (see [[Friends: Visiting and moving away]]). And no, I still can’t tell you who it is.

Anyway, at the time, there was the great expectation that I’d be coming out to Toronto to help interview people and (ultimately) help set up the team in the Toronto office — assuming that we won the work.

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CBC TV 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train: Anniversary!

It’s hard to believe that it’s only been a year since the day the CBC Television 50th Anniversary VIA Rail Train departed Vancouver on its epic 33-day trip across Canada. It seems like it’s been a lot longer.

I suppose part of that is because I live in Calgary, isolated from nearly everyone else on the trip. (Enza’s very close to me, living in Banff, but I don’t have the luxury of working in the same building, as most of the Toronto folk do.) I’ve been lucky enough to see a couple of people — Angela and Tracy when they stopped through on a documentary tour (see [[CBC documentaries at the Glenbow Museum]]), and Julie and Enza when Julie came out on a conference (we met in Banff). Beyond that, the only contact I’ve had is through email.

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CBC TV 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train, Bay of Fundy

[This entry written by Geoff Sowrey, ©2002 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Text used with permission of CBC. The opinions expressed within do not necessarily reflect those of the CBC, employees, affiliates, or subsidiaries.]

Day 30

This is an entry I dreaded writing from the beginning. It’s the last one. It’s the last day. Today, people begin their trips home. Some are staying around for a little tourism, but they are few.

I joined up with Duffy, Gerry, the Bills, the Robs, and Trish for a little excursion to the Bay of Fundy. Loading up into the crew’s two rented minivans, we took off out of the city for parts unknown. Gerry drove the first van, Trish navigating. Duffy followed in the second van.

I sat next to Bill C. and behind Rob N. Bill, the crossword king, scribbled on his newspaper for most of the trip out. Our van was quiet, unlike Gerry’s. But it gave me time to think about how lucky I was. A small handful of people were given the chance to make this trip. Sure, it was hard and at times very frustrating, but in the end it was all worth it. This is an experience that I cannot imagine having passed up.

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CBC TV 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train, Halifax finale

[This entry written by Geoff Sowrey, ©2002 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Text used with permission of CBC. The opinions expressed within do not necessarily reflect those of the CBC, employees, affiliates, or subsidiaries.]

Day 29

Early morning call. The last one. Breakfast, grab things for the day, taxi to the station, and begin final set-up. New Media didn’t change from the day before, but others were moving around in the station to better locations. Luckily, it wasn’t too much work, and fairly expeditiously handled. When the CBC Halifax staff event began (it was our first of the day), we were all ready.

So began a day that, at least for me, was little more than a blurry dream. It was pockmarked with little things, like each of us getting our chance at Be An Anchor, or exchanging addresses. The production was slowly running out of steam. One more event would have been too much.

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CBC TV 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train, Halifax VIP

[This entry written by Geoff Sowrey, ©2002 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Text used with permission of CBC. The opinions expressed within do not necessarily reflect those of the CBC, employees, affiliates, or subsidiaries.]

Day 28

A maternity ward of babies didn’t sleep as well as I did last night. I stirred only once, when the cleaning staff tried to come in the room. I woke late, but feeling more awake and alert than I have since this trip started.

We arrived at the Halifax station to find it a hive of activity. It seemed that there would almost be no room for us to set up. Tonight was a VIP event, signifying the end of our odyssey.

It was our last time unloading the train. But despite the finality, we had no lack of drive. The train was dutifully unpacked, and items drawn into the station. The fit was a little tight with some items, such as the centre triangle for New Media and “The Beast” from the Boutique.

During set-up, I had yet another partial run-in with fame. Julie pulled me aside to tell me of a woman who had been following our journey through my daily journal. What blew me away was that she’d tried to catch up with us in Melville. Over half the country away. She had flown from Indian Head, Saskatchewan to see us here in Halifax. Both Julie and I were beside ourselves.

By 2:00, everything was almost ready. That’s when we were told of touch-ups. This is our second-to-last event. We’ve spent 27 days on the road, and our equipment isn’t exactly looking new. (The fact that it looks good at all is amazing.) For our final events, the tables received a new coat of paint.

We literally ended up watching paint dry. The Halifax station is quite active — VIA’s Ocean train departs and arrives every day. Busses are also a constant source of traffic. The last thing you want is for things to go missing. We don’t expect theft, we just don’t want to encourage it.

One of our group activities was a group photograph. We’ve taken two already, one in Jasper and another in Winnipeg. We now have our final crew, and it should be immortalized. However, due to some rather odd scheduling, not everyone was around when we got to taking the picture. We’ll shoot another picture tomorrow, but we’ll already be short one person.

Today, Angela left us for home. She is the first of the original crew arriving in Halifax to leave. It was a sad occasion, though for most people it will only be a short time until they see her in Toronto. I will be lucky if I see Angela again. On Sunday, many others will take their leave. Today was but a hint of what is to come.

The VIPs started arriving just after 5:00. For the next four hours, we wandered about, handing out giveaways, and trying to be helpful. It’s not our favourite kind of event. It requires a lot of work, and doesn’t produce benefit. Most of the visitors are here to see other visitors, not us. We’re window dressing. We’d rather add extra hours onto the public events.

Barely a month ago (see [[CBC 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train, Opening Event Pacific Central Station|5 September 2002]]), I thought VIP events were pretty neat. I guess it doesn’t take long to get jaded.

Speeches were a key focus. It gave time for CBC to bring up the Executive Vice-President, Harold Redekopp for a chance to talk about what the 50th Anniversary meant, and what part the train played. I personally preferred the speech by the Honourable Myra Freeman, the Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia.

The single best speech was a rant by Rick Mercer, shown on video (Rick himself was present). It echoed another shorter rant he had done for the 50th anniversary, but with a more political slant. It was extremely funny, especially when he illustrated just how Canadians view the CBC. I would repeat examples, but they would likely be edited for content.

Back in the hotel following the event, I would see Rick again on “Tuning In”, one of the 50th anniversary shows. I caught the very end of the show, and saw little. But what I did see were the credits. For the first time, I knew the names that went by on the screen. I didn’t just know who they were, I had worked with them. They were friends and comrades. The credits had meaning.

After a month on the road with the CBC, I now understand the appeal of working in television.

CBC TV 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train, Peggy’s Cove

[This entry written by Geoff Sowrey, ©2002 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Text used with permission of CBC. The opinions expressed within do not necessarily reflect those of the CBC, employees, affiliates, or subsidiaries.]

Day 27

The trip portion of this journey is officially over. The train rolled into Halifax early this morning while we slept. We awoke slowly, and moved sluggishly. While many are looking forward to going home, most of us are sad that we’ve come to the end of the line. Appropriately, it was raining.

Packing up our train lives was no easy task. We’ve accumulated a surprising amount of stuff over the last month — bags were literally bursting. We had about two and a half hours to clean our stuff out, which seemed ample enough to find everything. I wandered about the train a bit, sometimes tripping over others in the midst of finding all their clothes.

It almost felt like I was moving out of a favourite apartment and moving away from old friends. There was a certain sombre sadness of leaving the train after being on it for so long. We’ll only be using the train in coming days as a place to take meals. From here on, we’ll be staying in a hotel. We’re done riding trains. Not counting public transit, I don’t figure on taking a train until next year.

The time came, and VIA came around with a tractor to collect our bags. They’d arrive with the vans at the hotel later on. We gathered in the station in anticipation of our shuttles. Roger and Trish vanished to rent a car, as did Duffy and Gerry. While waiting, one of the VIA crew from our train (I think his name is Carl) handed me an envelope. He told me not to tell anyone, and not to open it until I got to the hotel.

We loaded our shuttle bus for our last hotel, a bare block from the CBC Halifax office. The driver lost me in the maze of turns. And I don’t get lost easily. The hotel is a fair distance from downtown, but it’s actually not too bad. We can feasibly walk the distance. The hotel is quite large, which is nice. It even has a small lounge. Something I’m sure the crew will make repeated use of.

We were unable to check into our rooms right away. Some managed to get rooms, but the majority of us stuffed our baggage into an unused conference room. Some simply crashed and relaxed for the afternoon. Some of us were more interested in adventure.

Roger, Trish, Amy, Stefani, Analisa, and myself piled into Roger’s rented Lincoln Navigator (upgraded thanks to several nearly-expired upgrade coupons) and bolted for Peggy’s Cove. The Bills, the Robs, Gerry, Duffy, Emma, and Lisa followed in two minivans. We arrived quite a bit ahead of them, no doubt in part to Roger’s ability to traverse distances in safe haste. Although we took the “long” route, we arrived in under 45 minutes.

It’s been about 22 years since I last set foot in Nova Scotia. Yet I remembered the area as we approached Peggy’s Cove. I wondered if I would, considering how young I had been at the time. As we exited the forest for the coastal spaces, I started to recognize a few things. Then a faint memory came to me … one I hadn’t thought of in years. A little over two decades ago, I got carsick into one of the many little bays. I dreaded a repeat show — my sister would never let me live it down.

Peggy’s Cove was, unsurprisingly, crowded with tourists. The streets were full of them, making driving a little treacherous. We finally arrived at the parking lot at the edge of the coast, next to the famous Peggy’s Cove Lighthouse and Post Office. It’s something to have postcards with a Peggy’s Cove cancellation.

Exiting from our safe, warm vehicle, we found the he wind was biting. Perhaps not as bad as the previous night’s mosquitoes, but it was still breath taking. Especially when, like myself, you’re wearing shorts. (Actually, I wasn’t that cold, but hopping from a warm car to the chilly air was pause for thought. Amy and I were a little cool, but didn’t suffer as much as Roger, Stefani, and Trish. Analisa played it smart and stayed in the gift shop most of the time we were there.)

We hopped over the rocks like mountain goats. Some hid behind them periodically, due to the cold. I marvelled at the water-rounded rocks, the cracks, the seaweed, the sky, the waves, and the undeniable smell of fresh saltwater. A month ago, I marvelled at a similar scene on the west coast. This was simultaneously similar, yet completely different. (And despite that the two massive oceans are connected, the Atlantic has a decidedly different smell than the Pacific. I’d love to know why.)

The two other vans appeared about 20 minutes after we arrived. Soon the rocks were swarming with CBC train staff. We would congregate in small groups, filter out across the rolling waves of stone, and regroup in other places. At a distance, we probably looked no different than seagulls as they ride the ocean.

We left about an hour after arriving. The goal was also to see Lunenburg during our tour of the province. As we left town, we started to look for the Flight 111 Memorial. On the night of 2 September 1998, Swissair Flight 111 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Peggy’s Cove. All 229 passengers and crew were lost. The tragedy put the small town of Peggy’s Cove on the world map for a time, and has left a mark ever since. Only a few short kilometres away, visible from Peggy’s Cove, is a simple memorial to those who lost their lives, and those who were first on the scene: the fishers of Peggy’s Cove.

You can’t see the memorial from the road. It requires a bit of a walk down a gravel path until you reach a stone platform upon which are two stone discs, mounted perpendicular to the platform, at an angle to each other. One side of the discs is rounded, the inside flat. The inside faces out to the ocean, the surfaces engraved. One of the discs has three notches out of the top — 111. Supposedly, the notches look towards where the plane went down. You can’t see it from shore. The crash site is just over the horizon. Over three years have passed since the tragic events, but flowers still arrive here.

The two vans did finally arrive in Lunenburg — we did not. Although we had been headed in that direction, we hadn’t gone out to the highway (the fastest method), and were in no real hurry. In fact, we were sidetracked by an overwhelming need to eat. Luckily for us, you often find the best meals when you’re on the verge of getting totally lost.

Lost was exactly was I was beginning to feel like. With Trish navigating, Roger was bombing up and down hills in search of … well, probably not really in search of anything. That’s half the fun of exploring — knowing you really don’t need to find anything. That’s how we ended up in the middle of nowhere (actually, it was somewhere around Upper Tantallon, wherever that is). We stopped at a general store, where we got directions to the nearest good restaurant. Luckily, it was just around the next bend.

The Pilot House Cafe is definitely off the beaten path. So far off, in fact, that it was empty save for the sole waitress. The inside was cottagey, looking (somewhat) recently renovated. Apparently, the cafe is primarily for the lodgers of the adjoining cabins. When the tourist flow is slow, rogue travellers are eagerly welcomed. The first question was “who wants chowder?”.

The chef, Billy, knows his food. Seafood chowder so thick you could spackle a house (and came in the most darling bowls); calamari so fresh, soft, and tangy as to almost pierce the soul; and if you’d told me that you could put scallops on a pizza, I’d have called you crazy. The taste is otherworldly. I won’t mention dessert. Trust me, you’ll only drool over your keyboard, and that just doesn’t look attractive.

Packed to the rim, we rolled out of the restaurant and found our way back to Halifax. The trip took barely 20 minutes — we took the highway. We didn’t make a beeline back to the hotel, though. Tonight was our last (planned) full team dinner, at a restaurant called Soho Kitchen downtown. Analisa wanted to acquire a new pair of shoes for the event. This led to almost everyone thinking they could use something. Everyone except me. My bag are already too full — I simply can’t pack anything else in. If I buy any souvenirs in this city, it’s going to have to be small.

We sidled into one of the local malls, and we ducked into a Sears Outlet store. I hadn’t been in an outlet store for a while. I remembered why. Nothing to be found in sight. At least for Roger and I. Amy, Trish, and Analisa hunted around. Stefani didn’t seem all that enthralled, admittedly. Finding the store a bit of a washout, we returned to the car and pulled around front to the rest of the mall complex. This time, I stayed in the car. I was tired from all the activity (and the food). I slept for a few minutes while the others shopped.

We were a little slow recongregating. Roger and Trish were back early. Stefani was maybe a minute or two late. Analisa took considerably longer. But we could not find Amy. She’d vanished. We patrolled the mall, at first with our eyes, and then with the car. No sign of her anywhere. We checked the stores she’d said she was going to check. Nothing. We were getting a little worried. We thought that perhaps we had somehow managed to miss each other, and Amy had taken a cab back to the hotel. As we were making our last pass to make sure we hadn’t missed something, Amy walked out of the mall’s entrance. Relieved that we’d found her, we returned to the hotel. Tonight was our wrap party.

In theatre, you’d normally wait until the end of the production to hold the festivities. Our last show is Saturday, 5 October. But starting tomorrow, we start losing our staff. Lives need to be lived, and almost all of us have taken a month’s leave of absence from them. With our time together rapidly closing, it’s our last chance for a full team dinner.

We went to Soho Kitchen, on a recommendation from Daryl, a former and still-periodic Halifax resident. It’s a more local haunt, and definitely not a tourist trap. Crammed into a side room that barely fit us all, we outnumbered the remaining patrons. We easily overpowered them with volume. The menu items were so tantalising that it was extremely difficult to choose. Lisa took it upon herself to choose for me (I didn’t offer a lot of resistance). Thai scallops. Quite tasty.

Speeches that weren’t meant to be speeches followed dinner. Neil wanted to thank a few people who had made the trip happen, and memorable. Unfortunately, he went down the slippery slope of inclusion, and found himself having to thank everyone. It’s a dicey problem any of us could have walked into. If you don’t make just the right speech, you run the risk of offending someone — either by understating something they think was more important, or perhaps forgetting them all together. Still, I have to give Neil credit for at least trying to say something about everyone. No-one else had tried by that point, and I doubt ever will. It was a more emotional event than I think any of us really realized.

Following our repast, we adjourned to the Seahorse Pub, a local legend since 1948. The interior was … in transition. Renovations in the corner seemed to indicate that the bar had some work planned. It was almost impossible to tell when the last time the renovations had even been touched.

We toasted our success, and the people who would soon leave. Emma convinced me to join her in a game of darts. That was her first mistake. She suggested a game called “cricket”. That was her second mistake. I must laud Emma’s patience as she repeatedly taught me the rules, which seemed so complicated at the time. (In all honestly, speaking becomes complicated after enough pints of beer.) We never finished the game — neither of us could hit the bullseye after a while — but I still lost.

It was then back to the hotel. I don’t really remember the walk back, other than I felt a draining urge to get to my room as quickly as possible. We don’t have an early morning tomorrow, but sleep is still a wonderful thing.

Oh, what was in the envelope you ask? Hmm… I forgot to mention that, didn’t I? Well, Carl and I had talked a bit on the train on our way from Montreal. He, like the other regional managers for VIA, could spot a railfan around the next corner. He could also tell that I was far from worn out from our little jaunt across the country. He had asked if I would be interested in riding the Bras D’or, VIA’s rail cruise from Halifax to Sydney, on Cape Breton island. I had replied at the time that I would love to go, but simply couldn’t afford it. Carl said he would see what he could do. In the envelope was a round-trip pass on the Bras D’or.

Who said there’s no such thing as a free lunch?

CBC TV 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train, Moncton

[This entry written by Geoff Sowrey, ©2002 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Text used with permission of CBC. The opinions expressed within do not necessarily reflect those of the CBC, employees, affiliates, or subsidiaries.]

Day 26

There was apparently a bit of activity last night. Early in the morning, Julie came up to me and asked if I’d heard anything during the night. Aside from the train itself, I heard little. Julie seemed … undecided, and then walked away. That, my friends, is a mystery just screaming to be solved. I had to know what happened last night. I checked with Emma, my guaranteed source for information. She didn’t know. The both of us were now insatiably curious. The investigation would continue most of the day.

One of the things we were told early on, long before we left Vancouver, was that we were never, ever to drink on board. This was explained away as insurance reasons. I don’t know if that’s the truth or the story, but the fact was that we were not to drink. Officially, the rule was followed. Unofficially, we broke every single rule we were given within the first two days of the trip. Both VIA and the CBC turned a blind eye to almost everything. At least until last night.

While breaking the rule (for the umpteenth time) of not staying in the baggage car while the train is in motion, several people (whose names I shall not divulge) indulged in another forbidden activity: alcoholic consumption. All of this was known, common, and though not accepted, tolerated. However, being the second-to-last night on the train, a couple of people got … happy. And perhaps a little sloppy. One of them, staying in a room in my Chateau car, accidentally went into Julie’s room, which was on the following Chateau car. I can’t really imagine what took place at that exact moment. When I finally heard the story, I couldn’t stop laughing.

Today was almost a repeat of yesterday, just with a shorter event. And a different city. And different event layout. And different performers. And no rain, with lots of wind. And it was hot. Okay, today has no semblance to yesterday, except the province, arrive, set-up, event, tear-down, pack-up, and leave.

Today was Moncton. Most of us had never been here before (like any of us had been to Campbellton — except Marc).

We had no Internet access. Quel surprise. A little miffed since I could see a huge NBTel tower about a kilometre away. I can only assume that either NBTel doesn’t have a 1x network, or doesn’t have a deal with Bell Canada to rebroadcast users onto Bell’s network. It didn’t change the fact that I had to find an Internet Cafe. I wandered east through town on directions from local VIA staff. Up and down streets I went, but no Internet to be found. Not even a hint of Internet. For all I could tell, Moncton was digitally isolated from the rest of the world. The only thing I found of note were three churches sitting kiddie-corner to each other, at the corner of Church and Queen: United, United Baptist, and Anglican. Connectivity, yes, but with the wrong deity.

Deprived of Internet, I returned to the train to begin our set-up. The weather was windy, but promised little chance of rain. We went for the entire New Media configuration. Some of the other tents skipped some of their items: Sports dropped the cut-outs, and the Boutique opted not to use “The Beast”. All the tents were heavily staked down, and remaining signage weighted down with sandbags and tied up. Our loose items (such as the bookmarks) had to sit carefully on the tables so a strong gust wouldn’t blow them off into oblivion. Sports, at least, had a small mountain of fridge magnets to hold their pages in place.

Although we didn’t officially open until 15:00, people were already arriving by 14:30. Early arrivals weren’t a problem — we were all ready to go live with the show. Our friend Murphy, mostly silent throughout the trip, decided we’d become too smug in our preparations. That’s probably why the power went out at 14:58. Apparently the entire neighbourhood lost power, not just us. Most of the tents, half of the VIA station, most of the mobile, and the entire train went without power. At first I was confused, since we normally run off our generator, and our cars off the locomotive’s HEP generator. It would figure that the first time we run everything off shore power that there’s a blackout.

Somehow, the New Media tent — the one with the largest power requirements of any tent — was unaffected. News, Sports, half of the mobile, the museum, and half the train station were completely in the dark. Within twenty minutes, the engine was switched to HEP, and power ran back through the train. The museum came back to life, and visitors finally started to walk through. News and Sports would be without power until much later in the afternoon, when the power company finally fixed the problem.

The lack of electricity didn’t dampen any spirits, however. Visitors created a near two-hour line to see the museum. Every tent had a swarm of visitors. Koceila and I were on our toes most of the time. Koceila talked mostly about the Archives site — I talked to people who have been reading my journals online. It’s still really bizarre being a virtual pseudo-celebrity. I’m truly amazed at the number of people who read these things. I’d always thought it would be kind of neat to do. That people would not only read it, but try and find me was something I honestly hadn’t expected.

Later in the afternoon, we had to temporarily close the museum. This time, it wasn’t due to errant electricity. It was due to the scheduled arrival of VIA’s Ocean train. The Ocean runs from Halifax to Montreal, and is the oldest scheduled train in Canada. It will have run for 100 years of service in 2004 — a trip I might have to make for myself. As it is scheduled (runs every day except Tuesday), we had to temporarily shut down for about 40 minutes while the Ocean did its thing. Then it was off to Montreal, and we got back to entertaining.

Speaking of entertaining, there were a few live acts floating around. But not on a stage outside. Due to problems with the site layout and the potential weather, the stage was inside. That’s where you could find Anthony McLean, a couple of bands, and the Moncton Ballet. Yes, the ballet. Believe me, we scratched our heads at that one, too. They were good, even crammed into the wee spaces of the station.

About a half hour before we began tear-down, I had a woman approach me. I haven’t seen a smile that large since we’d started. Her first words were “thank you for coming”. She then detailed almost everything in our museum, and how wonderful it was to see it all. “You should be proud of the work you’ve all done here. The team must be so amazing to make this all work. You should congratulate yourselves on a job well done!” Just as calmly as she appeared, she vanished into the crowd.

It’s people like her that kept us going after our longest, hardest days. They’re the people we want to reach out to. Not because we want the congratulations, but because they’ve supported the CBC over the years. Public company or not, without loyal viewers (and listeners), the CBC would not exist.

As the sun went down, we started to strike our sets. For the tents, it would be the last time — we won’t be using them in Halifax. Things went back in boxes, tables were collapsed, monitors packed away, and things carted back to the train. When it finally got dark, we noticed something. Mosquitoes. The last time we’d seen insects was Melville. We’d had to close early due to marauding hoardes of the bloodsuckers. There weren’t as many in Moncton. Probably because the air traffic controllers had to line the beasts up in order to get near us. And unlike their Melvillian cousins, these little buggers actually hurt!

Our strike was faster than previous ones, probably the fastest we’ll ever do. Whether or not it was due to experience, or due to the overwhelming flood of giant mutant mosquitoes is up for debate. Either way, our second-to-last pack job was done in record time, which was fine for us — the faster we could lock the doors, the less painful the bites would be.

On [[CBC 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train, Opening Event Pacific Central Station|5 September]], we had our first full-scale strike of our sets. It took us over three and a half hours. We joked that we would have it down to an hour and a half when we got to Halifax. We broke the time tonight, our last item loaded into the baggage cars barely an hour and a half after starting. It was reason to celebrate.

But it’s a bittersweet celebration. Our time together is rapidly ending. Tonight will be our last on the train. As I write this, we are rolling steadily closer to Halifax. Tomorrow we leave our home of the last month for the last time. We take with us the strange stories that can only be created when living in the conditions as those on our train. We will miss it dearly.

I spent some time in the Banff Park’s dome, watching the train weave its way through the canyon of trees. The only light came from the lead locomotive’s headlamps, and from the odd light buried in the forests. I will only be hearing the mournful blats of the horn for a little while longer. I’m still debating on whether I want to go to sleep tonight.

On [[CBC TV 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train, Vancouver|7 September]], I said I would have a difficult time leaving this train. I’m not the only one.

CBC TV 50th Anniversary VIA Rail train, Campbellton

[This entry written by Geoff Sowrey, ©2002 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). Text used with permission of CBC. The opinions expressed within do not necessarily reflect those of the CBC, employees, affiliates, or subsidiaries.]

Day 25

No-one slept well last night. It was too hot, too bouncy, too loud. I think it was also because the last night we slept on the train was 18 September. Since then, we’ve slept in large beds in hotels, or at home. Our first night on the train was exciting, so we didn’t notice the change. After over a week in controlled conditions, the erratic environment of the train is a little unsettling. Today, we get back into the groove we had when we started almost a month ago.

Today is what used to be a typical day for us: arrive in the early morning (usually in the wee hours), set up the displays, entertain and inform the local populous, pack up, leave late in the evening. We’re all looking forward to the regularity for the next couple of days. Most of us seem to like this pattern. We’ve officially become the Cirque du CBC.

I awoke to an announcement suggesting we eat breakfast and get ready to unload the train. For only the second time since the trip started, and the first on the train, I’d overslept. As I walked down the length of our Chateau cars, I could see the river, or the Gulf of St. Lawrence (a significant body of water, regardless). Admittedly, I’d never been to Campbellton before, so I wasn’t sure what it was, and I never did find out. [Ed. Note: It was neither. Campbellton sits on the south shore of the Restigouche River, west of the river mouth, south of the Gaspé Peninsula.]

Gulping down breakfast in record time, I ran outside to catch up with the rest of the team already beginning to unpack the baggage car. Set-up was almost too easy. We’ve done these so many times that the problems are reduced to predicting the weather. (No wireless connection in Campbellton — no surprise, there — so we couldn’t check the online weather forecast.)Koceila had little trouble, learning the ropes extrememly fast. As usual, crowds were forming long before the doors were officially open. We’ve never turned people away, just so long as we can accommodate them. Our official start was 12:00, but we were entertaining long before then.

Roger was running around with the Polaroid camera while everyone assembled their sets. I think Roger either got too much sleep last night, or has gone certifiably insane. Either way, his smile and laughter is becoming infectious. (Hmm… maybe we’re all going insane…) His jovial condition proved advantageous when a car drove right into the barricaded parking lot we were using for our show. Roger looked a little ticked at first. He went to talk to the driver, an elderly woman, and pointed the direction out of the lot. Then he took a picture of the passenger. He came over and told me, giggling the whole time, that the passenger was Hazel McCallion, the mayor of Mississauga, ON. Apparently, she was visiting her sister — the driver.

As usually, we received our volunteers a few minutes into the game. Normally, we’re given students or local CBC employees. I can only assume that students of sufficient age were hard to come by. This time, we received two of the oldest and kindest ladies in Campbellton. Neither really knew how to use a computer. I stood there and laughed to myself at the idea, but I knew by this point that I really didn’t matter. It’s about servicing people, not computers. So long as they reached out to those who came around, we would be successful. And since these women knew almost everyone in town (it seemed), success came easily. (The volunteers would change partway through the afternoon, and we’d get late-teenaged volunteers.)

The weather had been iffy from the moment we started — cold, damp, and threatening rain — but we risked a full New Media set-up. It was the small towns that we loved all through our trip. We were hoping Campbellton would be as much a success. I kept one eye on the sky at all times.

Just after noon, we already had a large crowd. We were off to a strong start. We were feeling very positive about the event (the previous two hadn’t really done anything for our self esteem). Then came a sound that we hadn’t been expecting, and initially worried us tremendously. Protesters. A large group of them marched up the street, whistling, chanting, and waving signs. I think everyone in our group froze, wondering what kind of trouble we were going to get ourselves into. At first, we thought they were protesting something we had done, or that CBC didn’t resign Ron MacLean. (Hey, some hockey fans are that devoted.)

It turned out to be the local CUPE union, striking due to a lack of a contract. Some of their signs showed slogans, while others wished CBC and Radio-Canada a happy 50th birthday. In both languages! (We can only assume they did that so they would be “accepted” at the event, rather than politely asked to leave. As they caused no trouble, we didn’t see a need to have them removed. They stayed for about an hour, mingling with the crowd, seeing our displays, cheering for whomever was on stage. Eventually, they gathered back together and returned to their march.

Rain came again, as dreaded. There were the odd deluges, but nothing as serious as Montreal, and all fairly brief. Also, we were on a parking lot, so we didn’t have to worry about mud. Except for Children’s, that is — they were in the low part of the parking lot. Lake CBC formed under their tent after a while, and the tent ended up having to shut down (the Mural was moved inside the VIA station to remain available). The Boutique also had to close early due to rain falling on their spare supplies.

Throughout the day, we had people of all ages, all walks of life, and speaking both languages, come out to see our displays. All of them, regardless of language, loved everything. Not a single disparaging word. Even the weather didn’t seem to stop anyone from coming out.

One woman in particular was one of our volunteers, Irene. She was perhaps the single most energetic person I’ve seen since leaving Vancouver. Although as part of her volunteering she made an effort to promote us, I think there was a lot of self-interest. Even when Irene’s time helping out was over, she hung around. She saw the museum, even did a stint at Be An Anchor, where she entertained the crowd by adding on the first verse of “Are You Lonely Tonight (for Seniors)” … after a lot of goading from me and several of her friends.

During a lull in the activities, I made an effort to wander around Campbellton. Having never been there before, and not having been particularly on the ball (Marc’s father is from Campbellton, so assumedly, Marc knows something), I didn’t really know what too look for. The only real thing I could find was the bridge linking Campbellton with the opposite shore of the river. That, and a small, rusty narrow-gauge railway whose lineage I couldn’t figure out. (It’s not in my Trackside Guide.) Things I need to remember to research when I get home…

In other places, we’ve had little trouble closing down at the end of an event. Campbellton was just such an example, until Koceila and I started turning off computers. First, all our volunteers suddenly vanished, leaving Koceila and I to tackle it alone. Also, Koceila can’t see well in the dark. And having a the local CBC station doing a broadcast next to our tent introduced issues of ownership. I think we lost a powerbar or two tonight.

Even with our difficulties, we were headed for a new record for packing the train. Although the Boutique was already well away, packing up in less than two hours was still something to celebrate. Then the most stunning show of the Northern Lights sidetracked us. (The technical crew says that the lights in Biggar were better.) We stopped our heaving and shoving, and for the next half hour watched the celestial curtains flow back and forth across the sky. I know how the Northern Lights are formed, but that doesn’t take away one speck of wonder while watching them.

Our train was to leave at 22:30. That left us over an hour to visit Dooley’s next door. (Literally next door — the rear entrance of the bar comes out onto the station platform.) We talked about the fun we’ve had, the show’s we’ve done, and the people we’ve met. We didn’t talk about the three remaining shows. A lot of us want the shows to be over, but a few of us don’t want this to end. This train is about to reach the light at the end of the tunnel.

Three of the VIA staff were in Dooley’s with us, assumedly against rules. (I get the feeling the Service Manager didn’t know they were in the bar.) They signalled us a few minutes before 22:30, and suggested we settle the tab and get back on board. There were a few people who seemed to think we weren’t leaving on time. The train left at 10:30, as planned.

After weeks of negotiation and agreements, Daryl finally got the change to climb into the cab of #6403 to film our progress as we headed east. The whole process has been ridiculous, bordering on insanity. Daryl’s filmed in the cockpits of fighter jets while in flight — something far more dangerous that sitting in the cab of a locomotive. But VIA has their rules. It wasn’t until Montreal that wheels really started turning, apparently. Only now did things finally pay off. We climbed into the Skyline dome to watch “Lord of the Rings” on DVD. Several of the others climbed into their rooms, roomettes, and berths to sleep.

When I finally turned in, I rolled up my window blind to watch the passing vista. Like when we left Vancouver, it was pitch dark outside. But the sky was on fire — the Northern Lights made the heavens look like they were being ripped apart. The waves of light undulated rapidly, weaving in and out of each other, appearing suddenly and disappearing just as fast.

I fell asleep watching the celestial ballet.