BC Rail Royal Hudson 2860, West Coast Railway Association, Comox Airshow, and Skyhawks

Another birthday has come and gone, and save for a minor panic attack when I realised I wasn’t 21 anymore (yes, that actually happened, believe it or not), I’m doing okay.

Things got off to a start on Friday, when Pure3D (my group at the office) went out to celebrate two birthdays — mine (obviously), and Neall, who is exactly one day older than me. (Although Neall’s birthday was the day before, we really didn’t get our act in gear to go out for lunch that day; we rolled two birthdays into one.)

I was supposed to go to a softball game that night, but I opted not to go, rather wanting to spend some time with Allison doing something other than sitting at home, working on the computer or watching a movie. (No, we haven’t been out a lot as of late.)

After making a quick trip to Burnaby to pick up Allison, we came downtown to go to our favourite Greek restaurant, Olympia, on Denman St. (Yes, Allison could have come downtown and saved me the trip, but I didn’t make up my mind until I got home.) Tyler joined us towards the end of our evening meal (having already had his dinner).

The three of us wandered about the Denman Street area for a while, before ending up at Death By Chocolate for dessert. (It’s actually kiddie-corner to Olympia, but we didn’t want to stuff ourselves any fuller at the time.) Following dessert, we adjourned to Tyler’s place to continue with our in-depth conversation. Unfortunately, we strayed back onto the dreaded Theory of Relativity issue.

The next morning, we headed out on our adventure of the day. For my birthday, Allison was taking me on the Royal Hudson. The Royal Hudson is a train of vintage cars driven by a steam-powered locomotive built in 1940. The locomotive is a 4-6-4 Hudson, number 2860. King George VI was very impressed by the locomotive’s performance when he and Queen Elizabeth (aka the Queen Mother) travelled across Canada by train in 1939. He bestowed the designation of “Royal” on the engine.

Well, that’s what they tell tourists. In reality, CP applied for permission to use the royal crowns and the “Royal” moniker to increase revenues by promoting a “royal” train. In fact, the entire 2860 class (numbers 2860-2864) all had the designation “Royal”.

Despite its Royal lineage, the locomotive was taken out of service in the 50s, and put on freight service until the mid-60s. At that point, she was destined for museums. In the early 70s, enthusiasts convinced BC Rail that they should resurrect the Royal Hudson, and put it into regular service as a tourist train. The Royal Hudson now runs between May and October, running a short length of BC Rail’s track (BC Rail is the third largest Canadian railway after CP and CN) between North Vancouver and Squamish.

We arrived about 15 minutes before departure, and hastily took our place on board in the end car, where we would have brunch. A few minutes later, the train softly lurched forward, and we were off.

This part of the trip I had been on before — Allison had taken me on the Pacific Starlight last year (see [[My first birthday in Vancouver, Trip on the Pacific Starlight, Porteau Cove]]). Unlike the Starlight, however, this was a day-time excursion, and the trip ended in Squamish, not in Porteau Cove.

Brunch began with a fruit cup, made of chunks of watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, and pineapple. We finished the cup just before entering West Vancouver. Apparently, we weren’t supposed to eat while waving to all the onlookers.

The Royal Hudson, like most steam trains, attracts a lot of attention, even if the train makes two trips through West Van every day. It’s the only train allowed to blow its whistle. Another bizarre bylaw makes everyone wave at the train as it goes by, which forces everyone on the train to wave back.

As we approached Horseshoe Bay, we were treated to the entrée: A large piece of freshly broiled salmon (it was about 1.5″ x 2.5″ x 5″ in size). It rested on a thin slice of fresh focaccia bread, over a baby green salad with basalmic vinaigrette. The salmon was very good. Allison debated over whether it was better than last year’s salmon. It was certainly different — Allison thought it was better, whereas I thought it was on par; I thought last year’s fish was excellent.

Dessert arrived around Porteau Cove — trifle. Unlike my father’s, which has a bottle of brandy (or sherry — I can’t remember which is it) at the bottom, this was cake, fruit, and custard. It was very tasty. This isn’t to say that my father’s trifle isn’t tasty — goodness knows he loves it — but this one was alcohol-free.

Arriving in Squamish, we had several options. BC Rail makes a point of flogging the tourism on the Royal Hudson as much as possible. They even go so far as to hire tour operators to come on board and convince people to go on tours around Squamish, including a trip to Shannon Falls, a river-rafting tour, or flights over the nearby glacier. All of them are designed to fit into the two hours you have before the train departs.

ex-CP 2860 Royal Hudson, Squamish, British Columbia, 17 July 1999 Me and ex-CP 2860 Royal Hudson, Squamish, British Columbia, 17 July 1999

We opted for the tour that came with the price of the ticket — a visit to the West Coast Railway Heritage Museum, operated by the West Coast Railway Association. To get there, we piled into a vintage 1950s bus, which had scarcely put on 170,000 miles, and were whisked away to a train-lover’s paradise.

The WCRHM is a 12 acre park, not far from the downtown terminus for Squamish. It sits just to the side of the main north-south BC Rail lines, facilitating easy delivery of new acquisitions.

The park has many examples of old rolling stock (rail cars, passenger cars) and locomotives. It has the only remaining PGE steam train (the other two are lying at the bottom of lakes), one of the original diesel locomotives used to haul CP’s Canadian transcontinental train, and even a vintage 1890 business car (the equivalent of today’s LearJets).

Trains aren’t Allison’s cup of tea, that much I’m certain of. But she let me have my day, even allowing me the joy of riding on a miniature railway (which cost a mere dollar per person). I enjoyed the whole day so much, I’m seriously considering joining the WCRA as a volunteer. Railways are a huge part of our modern society’s past, and I want to help them have a future.

Filing back onto another bus, we returned to the Royal Hudson at about 1:15. As we couldn’t board until 1:30, I took the opportunity to take some pictures of the engine and the train. In fact, I took an entire roll of film that day. (Those of you who don’t know me that well should know that this isn’t an unusual thing for me — I tend to be a bit shutter-happy.)

The return trip was almost as good as the trip up. This time, we were one car behind the engine. The whole way back, I could hear the chugging of the engine. Several times I went to the vestibules (the “doors” to enter the cars from the platform) to stick my head out and listen. I’m still washing out bits of sand and carbon from my hair…

I was almost disappointed when we arrived back in North Vancouver, the trip over. Those trips always seem to go too quickly. We climbed down from the train, and make our way towards our car. The next stop was Horseshoe Bay, and off to the Island.

Arriving at the Bay, I quickly noticed a problem — there was very little parking. In fact, after dropping off Allison and driving around a bit, I realised that there was no parking at all. Impark (the parking Nazis in the Lower Mainland) had even gone so far as to deny ferry passengers parking rights at one of the major lots.

At first, I didn’t think we would make that ferry. Parking was limited. Luckily for us, at the time I didn’t think we’d make it, the ferry traffic was beginning to clear out. In other words, parking spots. Unluckily for us, it was in the most expensive lot: $10 a day.

Arriving in Nanaimo, we were picked up by the Collins (as usual) and taken home. Allison and I then stepped out for a while for dinner, allowing me to develop the pictures I’d taken earlier in the day.

Returning home, I was ambushed by the Collins with a steam locomotive-shaped chocolate cake. Yes, I was a very happy camper that night. I had everything I wanted for my birthday … except my own family and friends, that is. Luckily for me, most of them sent me cards (both the traditional and the newer electronic variety).

The next day was the day we had come to the Island for: The Comox Air Show. No, this is not a regular Collins (or Vailmont) family event. The only reason we were going (in fact, the only reason I knew there was a Comox Air Show) was Allison’s uncle Sean.

Sgt. Sean Moran is one of an elite skydiving team called the “Skyhawks”. They’re the parachuting equivalent to the Snowbirds. Sean was one of eight people selected for a year’s service with the squad. Since May, he’s been jumping all over North America, including a drop in Oakville on 22 June.

Piling into the Collins’ Honda, we hit the road for the 1.5 hour trip to Comox. Upon arriving, we had another 1.5 hour wait until we got in. Unfortunately, we had taken the “front” door route — the one that was clearly marked. This was the “opposite” route to how Gerry and I had gone two years ago — the “back” route.

So, along with about 10,000 other cars, we waited our turn to get into CFB Comox’ field. At one point, we sat for a long time without moving. At first, I thought it was because there were complete idiots who didn’t know how to organise traffic. I would later find out it was because Allison’s Aunt Valerie’s friend Peter’s car broke down. He would later drive by us on his way home to get it fixed.

Around 12:15, we finally reached the fence surrounding the field. A Buffalo (aircraft, not a mammal) circled above us. As we approached the gate, it dumped three streamers, which fell slowly to the ground. I suspected that it was to test the wind conditions for the Skyhawks. I was right — little did we know at the time, but Sean and crew were all in the Buffalo, waiting to jump.

Before I progress any further, I should clear something up. Sean is younger than you think he is. He is married to Allison’s aunt Linda, who is only five years older than Allison — Sean’s only about five years older than me. Just in case some of you thought he’s some old geezer leaping from planes for a kick…

Finally arriving in the base, we took a few minutes to stroll about. We went past some F-16s, some A-10s (which, last I heard, had been decommissioned), gliders, a C5 Galaxy, a couple of helicopters, and a small city worth of people.

On our way to the field to sit and watch, the show started with one of the Skyhawks floating into the field, carrying an American flag underneath him. (Don’t worry, there’s good reason for this — it was an “international” air show, which means the US Air Force had supplied a few planes for show.) He was quickly followed by another Skyhawk carrying a Canadian flag. This was kind of redundant, since all the Skyhawks have Canadian flag parachutes.

Aside: For those of you who watch “Due South”, you may remember a series of Mounties who parachuted into the frozen north in the final episode, all with Canadian flag parachutes. I’ll give you two guesses who did the actual jumps. And no, Sean wasn’t with them at the time.

No sooner had we taken our position that the next few Skyhawks came down, from a distance of 10,000 feet. The first few came in a stacked tower formation (one on top of the other). Another came down carrying smoke canisters under him. He flew into a spiral (on purpose) to create a “candy cane” swirling effect.

Four more skydivers formed a diamond with their parachutes, at which point we heard Sean’s name come over the PA system. Although we cheered, we didn’t hear anyone else — I’d hoped we’d be able to hear the others cheer. As it turns out, finding them wasn’t a problem. I just followed Sean to where he landed — the rest of the family was there, waiting.

Most of the family (at least from what I gather) was nervous — after all, he was jumping out of plane. How many people do that in the right minds? I, however, wasn’t the least bit worried. Now, this could partly be because I’d only seen Sean twice, and really don’t know him that well. However, I also knew that these were consummate professionals, who didn’t like taking risks. The odds of something going wrong were reasonably slim.

After Sean collected his parachute, he and the rest of the team bounded over the fence (as well as someone carrying 30lbs of parachute can bound) and held an impromptu demonstration of how to pack a parachute back up. It was rather fascinating. We basically ignored the rest of the air show until Sean left, to go see the sponsors.

Sean would return later in the show, taking Allison’s grandfather to the area reserved for base personnel and their family for a surprise presentation. I tagged along to take pictures.

Sean had the Skyhawks sign a special poster, and place a sticker that said “Happy 80th Ernest”. In a quick ceremony, the captain of the team presented the poster to Allison’s grandfather, who was quite touched by the gesture.

Skyhawks are brutally nice. Of course, they have to be — their ambassadors for the Canadian Armed Forces. They are effectively in media relations. Sean’s quite good at it, too. He rather likes it, so he told me. They were so nice as to sign brochures for us. Sean goes down as the first person I’d ever asked for an autograph.

The Snowbirds were the last event of the show. In typical Snowbird-style, they put on a great show. We didn’t stay around for the whole event, however, as we had to catch a ferry home. We ducked out while they were still flying about. It almost felt like the Snowbirds were running cover for us as we drove out the exit.

We returned to Nanaimo and prepared to leave for the ferry. We lucked out with another Ferry Classic, which meant we’d have good seating. Our trip was even complete with celebrities. Rather, celebrity.

As I returned from the galley with empty hands (they had no frozen yoghurt on that trip), I caught the face of an elderly Asian man walking in my direction. It took me only a moment to realise that it was David Suzuki. The David Suzuki. Mr. Nature of Things. Allison was looking at me, her eyes bugged open, nodding vigorously, as if in agreement with the question I was apparently supposed to be asking, namely: “Is that who I think it is?”

Upon reaching Horseshoe Bay, we exited the ferry, found the car, and dragged ourselves home.

It’s been a busy few weeks, and we haven’t had a chance to slow down. Both Allison and I were exhausted when we got home. Although we had been planning to see the Nanaimo Bathtub Races this weekend, we’re probably not going to go, opting for some rest.

Besides, it’s my turn to clean the apartment this weekend…