Gerry and Sam's Wedding in Ottawa, VIA Train to Toronto

I knew something was up a few months ago, when Chris told me he was going to Ontario for “a friend’s wedding”. Chris is rarely that vague. More often than not, he’ll include a name, even if it’s someone I don’t know.
A month or two later, I got the call. It was Gerry, phoning long distance from Bermuda, with “big” news. Seeing as Sam (Gerry’s girlfriend) had given birth to their son Alex on March 2nd, it was doubtful the news was “Sam’s pregnant”. This was something different … they were getting married.
The early secrecy was because Gerry wasn’t sure of who was going to be invited, and who wasn’t. Not wanting to hurt feelings, no-one was originally to know, unless they’d been invited. Chris and Gerry have been close friends for years (having once shared an apartment for a year), which is why he was invited early on.
Chris and I were to fly out to Ottawa for the wedding. Stuart and Therese were also invited, but were conveniently already in Ontario due to another wedding. Chris was then invited to a second wedding (although it would come before Gerry’s) — Gerry’s brother Andre, who was getting married the day before.
Confused? Good, most people were. (Originally, the primary wedding was Andre’s. Gerry and Sam were holding a “christening” the following day for their son. Little did most people know that the christening would be closely followed by a wedding.)
Chris caught the red eye from Calgary on the 13th, arriving early Saturday morning in Ottawa. I would follow seven hours later — I didn’t feel the need to get to Ottawa so quickly. My flight was mostly uneventful, seated next to a young couple and their eight month old son. We chatted on and off throughout the flight. The meal was unremarkable, though not terrible. The movie was “Josie and the Pussycats”; although I would have normally watched it, it’s not the sort of movie I want to watch at that hour of the morning.
Pearson was a little quieter than the previous few times I’d flown through it, though being the middle of July probably was a contributing factor. I was to switch to a Rapidair flight to Ottawa, although someone had neglected to give me a gate at which to find my flight. Luckily, I figured out that if you followed the signs that read “Ottawa / Montreal”, they led to where I had to go.
The Ottawa flight was equally uneventful. At barely an hour, it was just long enough for the flight attendants to quickly hand out “snacks” (which was a half turkey and Swiss cheese sandwich on focaccia, a cup of some strange (albeit very tasty) pasta salad, and a pair of cookies). I found it ironic that the “snack” was far better than the breakfast.
Arriving in Ottawa, I found myself searching for familiar landmarks. It had been five and a half years since I’d last been to our nation’s capital, and I was anxious to see how much it had changed. The only landmark I could see under the partly cloudy skies was the NSC’s wind tunnel.
Whipping through the terminal, I soon found myself in the baggage claim area, looking for my friend Rebecca. However, we managed to miss each other in the tremendous sea of people that had formed around the door. It took us nearly ten minutes to meet up, but only when I spotted a young woman who looked vaguely familiar.
The last time I’d seen Rebecca had been 3 May 1996, the day that she, Stefan, Dhar, and I had returned from a break-neck tour of the United States. (Stefan and Dhar I saw a couple months later when they were passing through Oakville.) She looked only a little older (most likely due to the students she had been teaching) and her hair was much shorter with a few blonde streaks, but she looked otherwise the same.
We quickly exited the terminal and headed for her car. After calling Stefan to let him know we were headed back to their home, we resumed our “how are you doing?” conversation. It was a little awkward at first. The one thing I’ve found is that when you communicate with someone through email over an extended period of time, face-to-face conversation is always a little troublesome, much like a beginner with a manual transmission.
Rebecca drove us deep into the heart of Ottawa. Once upon a time, it had been much closer to the south of Ottawa. But in the last five-odd years, Ottawa’s population has exploded, and houses were in places where I only remembered farmland and forest. It was, to say the least, odd.
Stefan and Rebecca are in the midst of a massive renovation (one that will be ongoing for some time). After we got resettled, Rebecca gave me the grand tour of the their home. It’s a ’50s tract home built for the returning soldiers of WWII. Like most of the homes in the area, it’s undergoing a few changes. (Though none quite so drastic as the tear-down/rebuilds a couple blocks away.) When complete, I’m sure their home will be a showpiece in the area.
The conversation eased up, and soon we were bantering like we’d only seen each other a month ago. As we talked, I found pictures of their children, Eric and Thea. I hadn’t seen either of them in years — I hadn’t seen Thea since she was about six months old. Eric was only about six at the time.
When Eric entered the house (at his mother’s request), he didn’t recognize me. I didn’t think he would. But after a moment, when he was told that I’d since shaven and cut my hair, there was a sudden “oh yeah!” as the light came on. Then he said “hello” and ran back out the door.
*Sigh* To be (much) younger again…
Stefan arrived home shortly thereafter, having spent the morning in a business meeting. It looked for a moment like Stefan and Rebecca had swapped hair — his was now much longer and (seemingly) more brown than I remembered.
Conversation veered more into the technical from there, as Stefan and I caught up. This gave Rebecca a chance to start on dinner. (We had been rather indecisive with what we were going to do about dinner, so we ended up staying in.)
Dinner at Stefan and Rebecca’s is … interesting. The food is delectable, and the entertainment is well worth the price of admission. Eric is a natural comedian. Even though he’s not even a teenager yet, he’s well on his way to driving his parents nuts … add two spectators (Rebecca’s friend Marnie and yours truly), and the comedy just keeps rolling (especially since Marnie eggs Eric on, inadvertently or otherwise). Even Thea gets into it — most likely through influence from her brother.
Following dinner, we adults decided to make a run for the bars, so we could ditch the kids for a while. Thea went to a sleepover at a friends, and Eric guarded the house. This left the four of us to find some corner of Ottawa to curl up into. But first, I was awarded a quick tour of the new and improved Ottawa.
Since I last lived in Ottawa (summer 1994), much has changed. More companies have moved in, most notably JDS, a very large fibre optic company that seems to be edging out Nortel as the largest company in the area. The main facility they have there is immense, and it’s only one of several buildings JDS has in the Ottawa area.
And then there are the houses. Endless tracts of houses. In places where you used to have to drive for long period of time before hitting a landmark, there are houses. Lots of houses. I don’t know what Ottawa’s population is up to now, but it was just shy of a million (Ottawa-Hull, to be precise) in 1994 — it’s gotta be pushing two million by now.
After driving around for about 45 minutes, we ended up downtown along Elgin Street. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been on Elgin, although it had been a very long time ago. Many of the stores I had known were gone. New ones had sprung up in their places, some were still vacant.
Finding my hotel, I took a moment to drop off my things, so I could proceed gadget-free for the remainder of the evening. (Admittedly, a bit of a naked feeling, not having something with you for wireless communication or telling time.) Returning to the car, we turned onto MacLeod and drove over to Kent. My last apartment in Ottawa still stands on the corner of MacLeod and Kent. It’s still ugly, it’s still scummy, but surprisingly enough, hasn’t changed a bit since I last saw it.
Much of downtown Ottawa has changed. More condos, less stores. The movie theatres are almost all gone — only the ones in the World Exchange Centre and Rideau Centre are left. Many familiar sites are gone, replaced with something newer. Even the Parliament Buildings have a fresh sheeting of copper — the distinctive green colour won’t be back for a decade.
The Market, surprisingly, hasn’t changed that much. Aside from CHUM/City now occupying space in Market Mall for their radio and TV stations, the Market is almost the same as when I was last there. Some of the bars and restaurants have changed, but the atmosphere is the same, and some bars (most notably the Laff and the Dom) probably haven’t been cleaned, either.
Parking in the Market, we ended up bar hopping a while, running from the Dom (where we found Dave, one of Rebecca and Stefan’s many friends, and dragged him around with us), to Darcy McGee’s, to the Heart and Crown before running out of steam. I couldn’t help but remark at how much I missed being in Ottawa in the summer. It had been a lot of fun the two summers I was there — even when I had been trapped in Kanata that first year — and a part of me wanted to move back there to relive it all again.
But I can’t dwell in the past.
So it was with a twinge of sadness that I had to bid Stefan and Rebecca farewell when they dropped me off at the hotel later that night. I didn’t know when exactly I’d see them again — it had been over five years since the last time, which I don’t hope to repeat.
I awoke a little later the following morning than I’d planned, but not enough to make us late. I showered, shaved, donned my best Hawaiian attire, and Chris and I grabbed a cab for east Nepean, and Gerry’s wedding.
We arrived a little early to the house Andre rented with a few friends (at least, I assume it was a rental), but not before anyone else. Some strange people I didn’t recognize were already there. The rest were all busy getting ready for the afternoon. Gerry was one of them.
He was under the crab apple tree at the back of the yard, apparently giving instructions. Being busy, there was only time for a quick “hello” before he ran off to finish whatever he was working on. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed — I hadn’t seen Gerry in two and a half years, so I expected a bigger “hello”. But considering that this was his day in the limelight, I wasn’t about to say anything.
Chris and I milled around for a while until others we knew began to show up. First, it was Marek and Brenda (who, along with Gerry and I, are ex-employees of Arkipelago in Toronto, where we all met), followed soon by Stuart and Therese. Before I knew it, Kathryn had arrived, with Dan in tow.
The theme of the day was Hawaii. Why Hawaii? Probably because it’s an easier fashion to track down than “Bermudan”. Aside from black knee-high socks and longish shorts, I’m not really sure what Bermudan fashion entails. Either way, it meant that no-one had to wear anything truly uncomfortable.
The first order of the afternoon was Alex’ christening. Although born three-and-a-half months earlier, it’s a little more convenient to bring the baby to the family if the family is concentrated in a small area. Andre’s wedding happened to provide the perfect set-up for just such an occasion.
I’d never seen Alex before. This was my first meeting with the young lad, but I suspect it’ll be a few years before he knows who I am. It was also my first time seeing Gerry with his son, a bit of a creepy thing too, I might add.
Don’t get me wrong — Gerry’s gonna be a great dad. It’s just that … well … he’s a friend of mine who has a kid. It’s a little unnerving at times. A scant five years ago, most of my friends were unmarried. Now there are but a small number who aren’t either married or common-law. Soon, it’ll be only a small number who don’t have kids. You never seem to notice how old you are until an old roommate introduces you to their five year-old whom you haven’t met before.
Gerry and Sam walked out with their son, quite proud to present him to a group of people, most of whom had not seen Alex outside of emailed photographs. He was bundled up in a (small) white gown, and clinging to his father. The ceremony was short — it was my first christening (not counting my own, which admittedly I don’t quite recall anymore), so I’m not entirely sure what was supposed to happen.
The christening over, Sam and Alex disappeared into the house while Gerry mingled. (Gerry mingles well. Perhaps too well.) A moments later, Alex reappeared, dressed in his new Hawaiian shirt. I didn’t know they even made baby sizes, but I guess that makes sense. Denise cued some music, and to the tune of Hot Chocolate’s “You Sexy Thing”, Sam was led out by her bridesmaid across the deck, down the stairs, and up the aisle, taking a momentary pause to get into the groove of the song.
The wedding itself was simple and sweet. No singing (which was beneficial, ‘cuz no-one really wants to hear me sing), no kneeling (which would have made taking pictures of the event a bit tricky), and there was a lot of laughter. Basically, the way a happy event should be…
Gerry cried. A lot. He’s been waiting for this for years — I remember talking with him about it a few months ago, and how much he wanted to marry Sam. I guess it was his dream come true. Can’t say I blame him for being a bit teary-eyed … most people were, too.
The wedding over, everyone clapped and cheered and cried, and then watched as Gerry and Sam made everything nice and legal. Almost as soon as the newly wedded (and christened) family was presented, Gerry asked Jamie to come forward for his announcement. Jamie asked Denise (Gerry’s sister) to come up to the front, where he promptly proposed.
Kleenex would have made a killing.
The mug shots came shortly thereafter, with various members of the now much larger family taking turns with the newlyweds and newly-engaged. I took this opportunity to introduce myself to Sam, whom I never met before. Strangely enough, my parents have — during a stopover in Bermuda while on a cruise, they met Sam when they called up Gerry. (My father had originally wanted to crash Gerry’s wedding as a surprise.) Sam seemed somewhat disinterested, but more than likely had no clue who the heck I was anyway. Besides, she probably had to meet several people that day.
People started to break up into groups, where we all sat, chatted, ate, drank, and were merry. Some of us doubly so, since Gerry had made sure that the food included a whopping amount of Montreal smoked meat from Schwartz’s deli. Many of us revelled in a much-missed taste of great deli meats.
As the afternoon drew into evening, the number of people slowly dwindled. Soon, there were but a few left — most of the family was now gone, leaving mostly friends. Sam and Gerry took the opportunity to start unwrapping the plethora of gifts they (and Alex) had received. I can only imagine what the crate they pack everything into will look like…
After helping to clean up, word travelled around that dinner might be in order. A quick survey of the people who actually live in Ottawa (primarily Denise and Jamie) suggested that we go to Mama Grazzi’s, an Italian restaurant down in the Market. We planned to meet at 8:30, with some of us going a little earlier to obtain seats. There would be 14 of us, and Mama didn’t take reservations…
Pulling teeth couldn’t be that hard. Even with six of us standing at the door of the restaurant, they wouldn’t even consider starting to move tables around for us. (Once I saw much room they had available, I was a little curious as to their initial unwillingness to help out what would inevitably be a large tip.) After about an hour of cajoling, pestering, extreme patience and a lot of “thank yous”, we managed to get enough tables to seat 14.
Mama Grazzi’s isn’t the fastest restaurant in Ottawa … but the food is certainly worth waiting for. It’s almost enough to make me want to take a longer vacation there the next time I go back. Besides, it gave us a sufficiently long time to sit and chat.
You wouldn’t have known that it was a wedding party. The only ones still in Hawaiian garb were those of us who came direct — Stuart, Therese, Kathryn, Dan, Chris, and myself. The rest all went back and changed. Otherwise, we looked like any other large group of people out for a good time.
Dinner having ended, we all broke our separate ways. Therese and Stuart headed back to Therese’s parents place in Carp. Kathryn and Dan went back to their hotel room. The rest of us walked to the Travelodge where the majority were staying the night. There Chris and I bade farewell to Gerry, Sam, Brenda, and Marek. That pang of departure hit me again — I hoped it wouldn’t be another three years before I saw Gerry (and Sam and Alex) again. I also hope that next time I saw Brenda and Marek, it wouldn’t be at a wedding…
I woke a little earlier the next morning, wanting to get a quick tour of Ottawa before catching my train. I wandered up O’Connor, and then over to Elgin before arriving at the War Memorial. I hadn’t really taken pictures of it before, and my attempts to catch the lighting of it the night before were dismal at best. It shone in the morning sun, the blue sky contrasting nicely on the cream granite.
As I took pictures, I started to hear a strange sound — a marching band. At first, I thought I was just hearing things. But it kept getting louder. I looked down Elgin, only to see a full-blown regimental marching band coming up the street. At first I couldn’t figure out why — it wasn’t a holiday, it wasn’t a weekend — but after a moment, it hit me: The changing of the guard.
I hadn’t seen the changing of the guard since I was a little kid, and my parents first took my sister and I to Ottawa. At the time, I thought Ottawa really dull. But unless it’s filled with cartoonish mascots and rollercoasters, I suspect a lot of kids would find Ottawa pretty dull. Heck, I know a lot of adults who find Ottawa really dull…
As I walked down to see the parade go by, I heard a noise behind me that sounded vaguely like someone falling over. Normally, I would turn around. Normally, I would see if that person needed help. For some stupid reason, I didn’t at first. A moment later, I did, and saw it was an old man who was having trouble getting up. Suddenly, I felt like there was a giant neon sign above my head that read: “Here stands a callous, self-centred jerk.”
The man was okay, he was quickly rescued by his middle-aged son. Didn’t make me feel any better, though. Made me a lot more aware of things around me for the rest of the day, though.
I ended up racing the parade up to Parliament Hill, where the Changing of the Guard takes place. (For those of you interested, the parade enters Parliament Hill at 10:00am sharp — the bells in the Peace Tower ring almost right on cue.) Despite it being a Monday, there were people ringed all around the drill area. I stayed and watched as long as I dared, but before long (and before the ceremony was complete), I had to leave.
Chris and I checked out of the hotel at roughly 11:30, right on time for me to catch a taxi to the train station. I was going home — to Oakville, that is. I was going to visit with my family for a couple of days before going back to Calgary. Normally, I would have taken a plane, and covered the distance in an hour. But I felt like I needed to continue a burgeoning tradition in my life.
For two of the previous three years, I had taken a train trip on my birthday. Last year, I was so busy with work that I didn’t get to do anything interesting. So when I decided to make a side trip to Oakville on my birthday, I figured I’d do it with a little more style — I took the VIA train.
The last time I’d taken VIA was when my father was living in London, selling Ford tractors and construction equipment. This was in the mid-to-late 70s. All I remember of it was the really bad TV dinner I had in my father’s apartment (the cold french fries still seem to haunt me after all these years). I don’t remember much else, except that we’d taken VIA to get there.
Passenger trains in Canada aren’t what they used to be. Except in and around Toronto, where the GO Trains run on a tight schedule, you’d be lucky if your train runs right on time. But generally, if you’re going to take the train, time isn’t a big concern for you.
The trip runs diagonally through Ottawa, down through several towns I don’t know the name of, through Smith Falls (where my family used to travel through on the way to a cottage on Charleston Lake), to Kingston, Gananoque, Belleville, and then into the Toronto area. It’s about a four-hour trip, provided you don’t get held up by other trains. Which, of course, we did.
We got into Toronto at 5:20, about 35 minutes after we were scheduled to. After hopping off the train, I hustled into the GO lounge, got a ticket, ran onto a westbound GO Train, and continued my journey. I was in the Toronto city limits for all of about 30 minutes. My father picked me up in Clarkson and took me home.
There are probably a few of you who are wondering why I didn’t call you. If I was in Toronto, it doesn’t take much to pick up the phone and call, right? That is true, but I had something else in mind, or more specifically, someone else.
A couple of months ago, my family learned that my father had developed non-small cell lung cancer. A lifetime of smoking had finally done what I’d been expecting for two decades. Although I had gone home to see my family, my primary thoughts were with my father.
It’s not easy living 3,000 kilometres away when you learn of something like this, even if you are expecting it. You want to be there. You want to help. You want to be the one who can make everything all right, and make the sickness go away. It’s not an easy thing to come to terms with, knowing that you’re isolated, and have to rely on others for information, and hope that everyone else knows that you’re there, even if your body isn’t.
Needless to say, the family dynamic has changed a little. Instead of toddling along on our merry little way, we’re keeping an eye on things. As for dad, well, he’s in treatment, something I’m immensely proud of. Some people don’t go this route — they prefer to live as they did. But my father’s not going to take this sitting down — he’s going to do what seems to run in my family: be really, really, really stubborn.
I even went with him for one of his treatments at Credit Valley Hospital. I’d heard it was more like a country club than a hospital. It’s certainly nicer than most of the hospitals I’ve been in over the past three years. And the oncology room is comfortable. It could be nicer, that’s for sure, but over all it’s not that bad. I have to credit dad for putting up with the needles, too. He’s been a human pincushion for the past few weeks. I can’t even stand getting a booster shot.
The funny thing was everyone warning me about what he looked like. Frankly, I couldn’t see any real change. Maybe a little older (stress tends to do that), but otherwise none the worse for wear. He looked every bit as strong as the last time I’d seen him. And I’ve never seen him eat as much as he currently does — he eats more than I do!
I spent three days in Oakville with my family. Aside from close family friends who dropped by, I saw no-one else, and I talked with no-one else. It’s nothing personal, folks, but I have my priorities, and my family comes first.
Because of everything I’d heard before I came home, I was a little apprehensive. But upon leaving, I knew that things would be alright. I was able to board my plane, knowing without a doubt that he’ll be in great shape the next time I see him, in early September (I’m going to Toronto for another wedding).
So just to let you know, Dad, my thoughts are with you, as always. I don’t need to tell you to be strong, because you already are. I don’t need to tell you to have no fear, because you never have. Just keep following your heart and your head, and you’ll do no wrong.
Some say that everything they know in life they learned in Kindergarten. I learned it from my father.
Thanks, dad.

Reunion with Steam Locomotive CN 6060

Once upon a time, you couldn’t go very far out here without running into a railway. Tracks criss-crossed the land like a bad hair weave. If you had to get somewhere, you went by train. There were no highways, except for two ribbons of steel. Wherever the steel went, towns sprang up. The building of the CPR and CNR gave way to cities like Winnipeg, Regina, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver. For over half a century, the railroads were king.
Today, the lines are mostly abandoned. The main lines still run, but the short tracks are mostly gone. The plethora of grain elevators throughout the west have given way to grasslands, the old railroad beds weeded over and forgotten. The warm chuffing of Mikado, Hudson, Consolidation, and Mountain steam locomotives has fallen to the droning roar of AC4400s, SD40, and FP7 diesels. The romance is mostly gone.
But not forgotten.
Humanity, in a sense, is a little strange. We choose to hold onto our pasts, no matter how trivial they may seem, for we think they might be of use to the future. It is because of that sentiment that we have traditions, we keep the old buildings standing, and preserve the things we hold dear.
That sentiment brought me on a sunny Monday morning to the eastern side of Warden, a small settlement about 10 kilometres south of Stettler, Alberta. Though barely a blip on the map, it is the temporary home of an aging Canadian National Railway Mountain 4-8-2 steam locomotive, number 6060.
This might not seem like much, but for me it’s a trip back to my childhood. My father turned me into a rail fan when I was very young. He built me a train set one year for Christmas, which I happily played with for many years. I loved taking the GO Train into Toronto whenever possible, and enjoy riding railed vehicles of all kinds. My father was also the one who introduced me to steam locomotives, specifically CN 6060.
Built in October 1944, CN 6060 was the pinnacle of Canadian steam locomotive engineering. Based on the Northern 4-8-4 design, the Mountain 4-8-2 was lighter and more versatile, but still packed all the punch of its predecessor. Still, it meant weighing in at an awesome 687,540 lbs. (today’s modern freight diesels, by comparison, are a paltry 440,000 lbs.), stretching to 93 feet in length, and rising to 15 feet and 1.5 inches in height. Today, she is Canada’s largest operating steam locomotive.
CN 6060 ran from late 1944 until 1959, when diesel finally supplanted steam in Canada. Although diesel electric locomotives had been around since 1918, it wasn’t until the ’50s that diesel had enough power to outweigh steam locomotives, and their high operating costs. Steam locomotives were expensive to operate, and the maintenance on them was intense — each locomotive had to be stripped down and rebuilt every five years. CN 6060’s days had been numbered since the day she rolled out of the Montreal Locomotive Works.
This is when the battle to save CN 6060 from the scrap heap began. Her engineer, Harry, wasn’t about to let her fade away like so many others. With the help of CN, 6060 came out to Alberta, where she went on static display in Jasper National Park. There she remained until 1972, when CN restored 6060 to run steam excursions from Toronto to Fort Erie. This is how I came to know the engine.
I cannot tell you the first time I saw 6060 roar through Oakville. My father would take us up to the CN line, along with many other families, to watch the train whip through on its way west. It was always such a rush to see a huge column of smoke suddenly erupt from under the Royal Windsor overpass — it meant the train was almost here. Dad would always put pennies on the track to flatten them — something 3/5 of a million pounds does quite nicely.
One day, when I was eight years old, my father took us up to the line to watch 6060 go by. He said it was the last time that we’d ever see her — she was going west to Alberta. For an eight-year old, that’s the other side of the planet. Donated to the Province of Alberta at the celebration of its centennial, she was to return to Jasper, where she would sit idle, known as “The Spirit of Alberta”. I never thought I’d see her again.
The memories of that train stuck with me, and with the popularization of the Internet, I gained a way to find out what happened to my favourite engine that could. In the summer of 1997, I tracked CN 6060 down to the Alberta Railway Museum, who in turn pointed me to Alberta Prairie Railway Excursions. Although they used CN 6060 on some of their runs, they said the best people to talk to were at the Rocky Mountain Rail Society, owners and preservers of CN 6060. It took me nearly four years, but I finally got myself in gear, and made the trip out to see an old friend.
Using directions supplied by my RMRS contact Al, I found myself barrelling through parts of Alberta I’d only ever heard of. Soon I was a mere 12 km south of Stettler, running north on Highway 56. Before long, I saw a line of box cars sitting off in the distance — something Al had told me to watch for. A sign soon appeared with the name “Warden”, and an arrow pointing west. Less than a kilometre down the gravel road, I crossed a nearly-abandoned railway line. Adjacent was a dirt road, running parallel to the box cars. Although there was no sign, it seemed the logical place to go.
I drove slowly, not sure if I was in fact in the right place. But as I passed an old passenger car that bore the name “Alberta Prairie Railway”, I knew I was in the right place. Then I saw a tender, the kind used by 6060 — it even bore 6060’s number. And just behind a large red engine barn sat a machine I hadn’t seen in 21 years. Her outer jacket was off, her nose cone removed, but it was hard to miss the large brass numbers on her running boards that read “6060”.
Three older men met me as I walked over, the first being the man who had directed me there, Al. The other two, Mitch and Larry, were looking up under the running boards at something I couldn’t make out. Al began to tell me about the locomotive, much of which I already knew. But I was more than happy to listen — this was a man who had worked with it.
Being roughly noon, it was break time. I was led around to the other side, down to a retired CN caboose, which now doubled as the yard office. It had the one thing these men really wanted: the coffee maker. I sat and quietly listen as these men told me their days on the rails. There were all ex-CN, mostly retired though Larry had a day job with the petroleum industry. They told me about the caboose, the engine, and about Harry, the man who had spent the last 42 years trying to save 6060 from decay.
As I listened, I constantly looked behind me to 6060. I almost couldn’t believe that I had “found” her again. I couldn’t stop smiling — not only out of plain happiness, but also from the stories Larry, Mitch, and Al told. I was informed that these stories were nothing — were I to stick around for dinner, I really get an earful.
Break over, work resumed. But first, I was permitted to wander around. Gathering up my trusty camera, I took pictures of the locomotive from many angles. Al then let me into the cab, to look at the controls and where Harry had driven 6060 for over 30 years. After taking a moment to myself, I finished taking pictures, climbed out of the cab, and returned to my car.
But my day was far from over. Donning an old pair of jeans, a ratty shirt, and my shoes, I returned to CN 6060. To help work on her.
The past few months has seen the outer jackets removed, lines and insulation replaced. Although the engine is scheduled to make a run on 20 July, there is still a lot of work done. And from what Al had told me through email, every hand counted.
It took a very short period of time for me to realise that for all the documentaries I’d watched and the books I read, I knew nothing when it came to steam engines. I felt like a five year-old asking his daddy “why?” — I must have driven Mitch crazy with all my questions. But he, and the others, were always willing to answer the questions without hesitation.
My first job was to help replace one of the lines that runs from the cab up to the front of the boiler. Although I didn’t know exactly what the line did, it wasn’t too hard to do — it was mostly lifting and holding. (Well, it wasn’t hard in the sense that it didn’t take too much brain — but it took a lot of brawn, nothing is light on those locomotives.)
I was soon called around for other little jobs: Grinding away painted “X”s that would make the boiler inspector wonder what was going on, scrubbing away rust at a new weld for the whistle assembly (and painting it), helping Larry and Mitch sort out what the heck they did wrong with a set of pipes and brackets, and all the while learning a little bit more about how it all works together.
Maintaining a steam locomotive requires a lot of problem solving. It’s the ultimate in 3D puzzles — it only goes together one way, and if you’ve got it wrong, you have to figure out why on your own — the manuals no longer exist for these machines. This is how Mitch, Larry, and I ended up spending most of an hour trying to figure out where a set of lines were supposed to run. The logic was easy enough, but there was always something critical we were missing. Ultimately, Larry figured out that we’d mounted the pipes on the wrong site of the bracket. Thirty minutes later, the pipes were connecting properly once again.
Harry arrived an hour or so after we started working. It was an honour to meet him at last. Although in excellent shape, Harry must be well into his 70s. This was a man who knew the 6060. The others often commented that their wives called the 6060 the “Iron Mistress”, with all the time she demanded. It was clear that Harry was quite willing to let the time be taken.
As the afternoon wore on, I found myself almost every where on the locomotive, pulling this, hauling that, pushing something I didn’t know I was supposed to push, lifting insanely heavy dome lids, and running errands into the shed. But by far the weirdest experience was when Harry asked me to give him a hand with the firebox.
There are two essential parts to a steam locomotive: The firebox and the boiler. Like its name suggests, the firebox is where the fire exists. In steam locomotives of this size, it’s big enough for several people — certainly large enough for the two of us.
Donning a painter’s suit, we climbed inside the 6060’s firebox, Harry leading the way to show me how it’s done. I’m pretty much certain I wouldn’t do very well on a submarine. Although I was only in the firebox for about 10-15 minutes, it was enough to give me the creeps. Still, it was fascinating. I could see where the oil sprayed into the brick-lined pit (it used to be coal, before the 6060 was switched over to fuel oil), the blower grate at the bottom for air, and the huge superheater pipes that led out to the stack.
Harry was inspecting the inside so he’d know what to say when the inspector arrived the following day. It’s not easy running a steam locomotive, and you really need to know what you’re doing. Luckily, Harry does.
This mostly concluded the work day. While Larry and I were to head off for home. Harry, Mitch, and Al would return to Stettler to their motel room. It was another long, hard day to come. I only wished I could stay to help. But I had to return from the past and prepare again for the present. My real life called.
But the dream is far from over. Engineers like Harry are a dying breed. New blood is needed to keep these machines running. People need to show others how we grew as a country — on highways made of steel. That is why I’ll be back again, to help work on the 6060, to bring her back to life and do what she does best — run full steam ahead.
So why am I doing all this? Well, if you’ve read enough of my journals, you probably already know. The future is nothing without the past as its foundation. Or, as Harry likes to say: “We serve the future by preserving the past.”
With luck, and a little bit of effort, the Spirit of Alberta will live forever.
For more information on CN 6060, check out:

Visiting Bragg Creek and Elbow Falls, Canada Day in Banff (Bamf!)

Everyone needs a break from time to time, and Critical Mass was more than willing to give us a little time to breathe. So in addition to the statutory holiday on Monday, they decided to give us Friday off as well.
So of course, I had to come into work.
This is the joy of having a large client, to whom I’m currently tied, and I sit in a position of far too much responsibility to shirk. End result, I was here at 8:00am, when visions of sugarplums were still dancing in others heads.
Luckily for me, that only lasted half of the day — I was out of here by about 1:30. That left the rest of my day to wander around, see what was up … and catch a matinee. I haven’t been to a matinee since I got my job — one of the many things I miss about working at Radical. But hey, getting the things you can’t normally have makes them all the better.
Following my matinee, I wandered around Chinook Centre for a while, doing a little bit of window shopping, buying some magazines, and generally wasting time. I wanted to see the 8:15pm showing of AI, which the Famous Players had showing on their IMAX screen. Go big, or go home, I say.
As the time neared to the show, I checked my cell phone, only to discover that I had a voice mail message — Stuart and Therese, who had suggested catching dinner and a movie. Thinking it would be neat if they could make it down to Chinook in time, I called to see where they were.
Pulling into Chinook’s parking lot. [Insert “Twilight Zone” theme here.]
Weird things happen right out of the blue.
Saturday, I slept in. I really needed to sleep in. The week can be quite draining, especially if you’re under the gun. The question was: What to do with the day? There were many things we could do, but with part of the day already gone, going too far out of the city wasn’t really an option. There was, however, Bragg Creek.
Bragg Creek is an itty-bitty little hamlet (it’s not even a village) about 30 minutes west of Calgary. You can miss it, quite easily — although there is a sign for it on the highway (darned if I know why). It takes less than 30 seconds to pass by the “downtown” core, a group of buildings mostly there to attract tourists, though why tourists go to Bragg Creek is a bit of a mystery … those buildings are pretty much all that’s there.
Chris, Tamara (one of our co-workers), and I braved the trip to spend an hour and a half wandering in and out of the stores. Admittedly, the shops there are (kinda) unique, and do have some things that are appealing. To someone, anyway. The cowboy shop was amusing to say the least, especially when the family of Japanese tourists came whipping in. There’s something about hearing a Japanese family squabble interspersed with the country and western playing over the store’s sound system.
The candy store was probably being run by the guy who founded Bragg Creek. He manned the ice cream side of the store, while others (his grandson, perhaps) ran the candy side. We were finding candy that none of us had seen since we were kids … stuff that had been *made* when we were kids, for all we knew. I settled on peanut brittle and Oreo cookie fudge. Although the brittle’s gone, I’m a little apprehensive to try the fudge…
Chris offered to buy us an ice cream. It’s amazing how fast you can feel like a kid just by having someone buy you an ice cream. It always reminds me of the times when my father suddenly got into an ice cream mood, announced we were going out, and would take the family down to the Baskin & Robbins just west of the harbour. We’d get our favourite flavours, and whip down to the piers on the lake to eat and watch the boats come in and out.
Simple pleasures are by far the best.
Departing Bragg Creek, we headed southeast, a direction Tamara said would ultimately take us back into the city, via a slightly longer, but much more scenic route. When we found ourselves at the junction, we could either go east to Calgary, or west to the Elbow Falls.
Detours are a simple pleasure.
The Elbow Falls are nothing overly spectacular, especially if you’ve ever seen Niagara Falls or something that falls a few hundred metres. This drops about ten metres in total, and the water volume isn’t really all that impressive. But the scenery in which it lies is certainly worth the diversion. It was for the wedding party having video and the pictures snapped overlooking the falls.
The Elbow River supplies 1/3 of Alberta’s population with water (Calgary’s Glenmore Reservoir dams up the river as it enters the city), so it’s an important river to us. In many ways, probably more important than the Bow River, which although larger, supplies no water. The really interesting thing is that (keeping the size of the population using the water) the Elbow River watershed occupies only 0.2% of Alberta’s landmass, and is barely twice the size of Calgary itself.
The trip back to Calgary took us through the rolling hills and plains that make up our part of Alberta. It’s really nice to see something other than asphalt and concrete. But before long the ever-expanding city broke the horizon and we found ourselves nestled back in civilization.
We stopped at Smuggler’s Inn for dinner. This is one of those quasi-landmark restaurants that most towns and cities have managed to dispose of. It’s … uh … well … the decor is … odd. No, “odd” isn’t the word. It’s sort of like a kick-back to the joys of (bad) 70s styling, only much darker. 13 Coins in Seattle was not quite this cheesy. But at least the food at Smuggler’s Inn was better. (In retrospect, I can think of several places I would have preferred to go…)
Conversation was … interesting. It mostly revolved around Chris and I defending ourselves from Tamara. She’s got a quick wit and sometimes a vicious sense of humour, but is always willing to take a fun poke when it’s well-delivered. By the time we left, Chris and I had been classified as “undateable” and “not dating material”, at least by/with Tamara.
Now I know how Pintos felt when they got rear-ended.
I dropped Chris and Tamara off at Chinook so they could see the 8:15 showing of AI. I would have liked to have stayed … but there was nothing playing at the right time. So I went home.
To watch a movie.
I picked Chris, Tamara, and Tamara’s friend Jensenne (who met Chris and Tamara at the theatre) and we all went downtown. Although originally under the guise of going home (Tamara seems to have this odd habit of going to bed early), we ended up at the Ship and Anchor, one of the less interesting (and nice) bars in town.
The next morning, I rose a little earlier than the previous day. It was Canada Day, and we were going to Banff. Or at least we were going to Banff, until Chris said he was going to stick around for the skate and punk show in Calgary. Yes, there was a punk and skate show here in Calgary. A big one. Quite good too, so I understand, and Chris has been to a few in Toronto.
(Take that all you people who think Calgary is nothing but cowboys! That doesn’t start until this Friday… [shudder])
Therese, Stuart, and I were going to make the most of it — by going to Banff! (Bamf!), Canada’s first national park. Leaving my “movil de la muerte” at their apartment, we headed off in their Jetta for the sort-of-great outdoors. (Hey, we were going to Banff (Bamf) — it’s not exactly the middle of Algonquin Park.)
One of the many great things about Canada Day (aside from being Canadian, that is) — it’s free to go into the National Parks! That also meant, however, that there would likely be a “few” people there ahead of us. Still, we got a spot in the free lot, and proceeded to experience Canada Day in Banff (Bamf).
Our first order of business was dim sum. We were going to go to the Silver Dragon, sister restaurant to the Silver Dragon in Calgary. However, much to our extreme dismay, they didn’t serve dim sum. In fact, the place was nearly empty. Disappointment reigned for a short while.
Unabashed by the general lack of tasty bite-sized Chinese food, we set out to experience the day, and walked our way to the Banff Springs Hotel. We found our way to the Terrace, where we partook of a very tasty lunch. It was food we would need for the activity of the afternoon: Climbing Sulphur Mountain.
Sulphur Mountain overlooks Banff (Bamf), and is the source of the hot springs that made Banff (Bamf) famous (and indeed, made Banff (Bamf) itself). We had to hike up trails between the hotel and the upper hot springs, where the trail up Sulphur mountain began. Although only 1.7kms, it was still a steep hike. It wasn’t easy for Therese, either — her shoes had inadvertently been forgotten in the car. (A constant source of conversation during our hike.)
Arriving at the foot of the main path, we looked wantonly at the gondola, which would whisk us to the top in about eight minutes. The path we were about to start was about two hours. But nothing was every accomplished by taking the easy route. So with overshirt and bottle of water in hand (and a backpack on Stuart’s back), the three of us (along with a number of other brave/insane souls) started up the mountain.
From the foot of the trail, it’s a 698 metre vertical, 5 km climb. Few parts of it are even remotely flat (when they came, it was a point for cheering), the majority of it is steep. But the hike is certainly worth the effort — the views from the side are amazing. One day, I will go back with a camera and make a proper record of what you can see.
We had to stop a few times, more frequently as we got closer to the top (I convinced myself it was a lack of oxygen, rather than my poorly-maintained body crying out in agony). But 1 hour and 50 minutes later (beating the average by 10 minutes) we arrived at the observation deck. We made an immediate run for the snack bar, where we purchased litre bottles of Powerade to ward of the killer thirst we’d developed.
But the climb wasn’t entirely done. We continued along the top of the mountain, finally arriving at Sanson’s Peak, the top of the Sulphur Mountain. Needless to say, we were quite happy that the rest of the trip was all downhill from there…
We took the gondola back (after waiting in line nearly 45 minutes), and then walked the road all the way back downtown, arriving there around 6:15 in the evening. We were exhausted. Our legs were screaming at us, our feet throbbed (Therese’s little toes had blisters from her sandals), and we were dying for something to help us relax. So we found a patio, ordered some beer, and kicked back.
Not quite simple, perhaps, but nevertheless rewarding.
The drive home was a little quieter than the drive out. We were wiped. We were tired. (I was wired on sugar, but that only kept me awake.) But it was a good tired, one we could feel good about.
I woke a little earlier the next day … but that’s a story for another entry…