The Great Jasper Run, CN 6060 Stettler, Red Deer, Edmonton, Hinton, Jasper

637,540 pounds of hot iron
100,000 gallons of water
17,760 gallons of fuel oil
3,000 kilometres
566 digital photographs
400 pounds of food
250 litres of gasoline
30 mugs of beer
16 hard-working people
8 days
6 hotels
3.25 hours of video
2 plane trips
-12 degree weather
1 Great Vacation
What many people everyday call work, I call relaxation.
While I would love to sit here and type out every single little excrutiating detail, I’m going to spare you the agony and cover only the highlights.
1) Vancouver
I went to Vancouver on 18 October for, of all things, a party. Radical held it’s 10th Anniversary celebrating its success over the years. As a former employee, I was invited along to partake in the festivities.
In addition to seeing friends I hadn’t seen in a few years, and making a few new acquaintances, I tried to remember why I’d left Radical two years ago. I still haven’t been able to give myself a suitable answer.
2) The Great Train Trip
Returning to Calgary on the Friday (19 October) — I flew — I proceeded to pack and prepare for Phase II of my vacation: Helping run 6060 on its biggest excursion in years. We were going to run it all the way to Jasper.
This has been Harry’s dream for many years, taking 6060 back to his home town in celebration — and bring it in under it’s own power. This was something we’d been preparing for most of the summer, and we (there were up to 16 of us helping to run the train) were anxious.
It started with a quick run to Stettler from Warden. There we found our mechanical glitch for the trip, which was quickly fixed. Then on to Red Deer, where we turned around and headed north to Edmonton. A stopover to pick up rail cars, we were off to Edson, Hinton, and ultimately, Jasper.
I drove the entire way, chasing the train, taking pictures and shooting video footage. It was a wild ride, and my poor car had to endure the worst punishment any K-car should ever be subjected to.
I’m going to bronze that car when it finally dies.
The trip ended, for me anyway, in Jasper. Although there’s still the return leg and the winterizing of 6060, I’ll be trapped here in the office. The season is now officially over. Work won’t start again until January, which is fine with me. It’ll take that long to edit the movie.
Why the shortness of detail? Simply put, I’m writing this one out in detail, and it’s going to take a while. When it’s up, you’ll know…

The Inaugural Run of the Steam Locomotive CPR Empress, CP 2816

Most of you know how hard it is sometimes to catch a train. Sometimes you’re running late, or the train’s early, or your watch stopped and you’re not really sure what time it is — any number of a dozen reasons why you’d be running your heart out trying to get there before you hear: “Stand clear of the doors, please.”
Imagine trying to catch a train for two days. That’s what I did this weekend…
Okay, so I wasn’t trying to ride it, but keeping pace with it was something else, I’ll tell you.
Continue reading “The Inaugural Run of the Steam Locomotive CPR Empress, CP 2816”

Steam Train with CN 6060, Stettler to Big Valley

I have a new girlfriend.
She’s a little temperamental, though. She gets hot really fast, she’s always blowing steam, and at the moment has a nasty tendency to run around mostly naked.
That, and she weighs 637,540 pounds.
Yes, I too have succumbed to the wiles of the Iron Mistress. I suppose it was only a matter of time. Hanging around the 6060 work crew probably doesn’t help matters, either.
Saturday was yet another trip for me out to the middle of Nowhere, Alberta (also known as Stettler). You’d think that with only a few measly hours of sleep that I’d have an awfully hard time trying to pull my butt out of bed early Saturday morning.
You’d think.
It’s amazing sometimes what willpower can do. That and a good bout of adrenaline. I was in a hurry. I had to be in Stettler by around 9am, and I was already 30 minutes late (I’d slept through my first alarm).
The trip up was nothing out of the ordinary. Drive Highway 2 to south Red Deer, fill tank with gas, take route 595 east to Highway 11, and then to Highway 12, which takes me right into Stettler, and right to the Stettler train station. I’ve done that route a couple times — it’s quite nice — and aside from a bit of traffic (road construction) it went pretty quick.
On 20 July, CN 6060 was supposed to do a run from Stettler to Big Valley (and back). Although it had been ready to do the run, the safety coordinator for the rail line had forbid 6060 from running on the line — the ballast (what holds the tracks in place and defines the rail bed) was too light in some places.
So when I arrived at the station, all I found was #41 — Alberta Prairie’s 1920 Baldwin Consolidation 2-8-0. It’s a small steam engine — a scant 62 feet long (6060 is one and a half times longer) and a piddily 244,000 pounds (6060 is over two and a half times heavier). It’s a nice little engine than can, but it’s not the one I was looking for. I found 6060 still in Warden, having been denied the run.
On Saturday morning, I was not disappointed. As I drove along (having to take a detour due to road construction), I caught a glimpse of a now very-familiar huge black and green locomotive sitting next to the Stettler station. Already, Harry, Ernie, and Don were hard at work.
This was the second day in a row that 6060 would run, having run also on the Friday. Like most days 6060 runs, the train had been packed — over 400 passengers. The anticipation of a large crowd was high. So there was extra pressure to make the train look (and run) as well as possible.
Donning my now very grubby jeans, I leapt at the chance to do whatever I could. So I got handed the jobs of helping Don grease the tender’s bearings (managing to get quite a bit of grease on myself in the process), and wiping down all the trucks (the non-powered wheels) and the drivers (powered wheels) on the engine. My hands were literally soaking in Varsol for about two hours. Ouch.
Barely a half hour after I arrived, it was time to get 6060 fired up. Because the insulation and jacket are still not back on (barely the first quarter of the boiler is covered), it cools off very quickly — there was barely one pound of pressure in the boiler that morning (6060 operates at 250 pounds of pressure).
I’d always wondered how you start a steam engine. It’s not like starting a car — there’s no key, there’s no electricity, and there’s no motor. In fact, starting a steam engine cold is quite a challenge, and not easily done.
The primary problem is draft. Like all fires, you need a draft to keep the fire burning. The problem with steam engines, particularly ones as long as 6060, is getting the draft started. For that, you need an air compressor. A big one.
The air compressor does two things: It charges the blower air tank, and it’s used to create the draft in the stack. The blower atomizes the Bunker C crude oil we use for fuel, spraying it into the firebox. This allows the oil to burn more cleanly, efficiently, and creates far more heat than just pouring it in. At the opposite end of the engine, jets of compressed air shoot up the smoke stack, drawing the burned gases from the firebox, through the heater pipes, and into the stack.
It sound complicated, but it really isn’t. Provided you have a source of compressed air, anyway. If you don’t, well, you’re not going anywhere. You can’t start 6060 without this handy little feature. So of course, the question is how did they start 6060 when she was operating with CN Rail…
A boiler. A big freaking boiler. Every roundhouse had a boiler room, whose sole purpose was generating steam for starting up steam engines. That’s all it did. If your engine ran out of water in the middle of nowhere, you were screwed. Even if you could refill your water, by the time you got it your engine was cold. After that, you had to be towed back to a roundhouse to be restarted. And you got in trouble.
Heating something the size of 6060 would take hours, or so I thought. But you’d be surprised how quickly something the size of 6060 can get hot. I noticed this the hard way, when Mitch (who showed up for a while to help fix a split steam line) called me out to the engineer’s side running board to help splice a line back together. Next to what little insulation we had on, the engine seemed cool. But once I’d passed the jacket, it felt like I was standing next to an industrial-sized waffle iron.
It didn’t help that I was on the sunny side of the engine, either.
Within two hours, steam started to trickle out of some of the various vents, ports, and exhausts. At first, it was just drops of hot water. But soon, little clouds were blowing out. The previously cold, calm engine was beginning to feel a little more dangerous. Of course, this was when I was rubbing very flammable Varsol all over the wheels right next to many of these steaming vents, under a now very hot boiler. I kept expecting one of the vents to suddenly blast open and peel my skin off.
But Harry and Ernie were well aware of where I was at all times. That’s why they’re engineers. They don’t open anything until they’re sure no-one’s around.
By 12:00, 6060 was approaching operating pressure. Passengers for the 14:30 trip were already arriving, mostly just to watch 6060 go through its paces. While Harry, Ernie, Tom (Alberta Prairie Rail Excursion’s engineer, who was on a “training” run — no pun intended) worked in the cab, Don and I finished off work on the outside.
My hands tingling from the Varsol, but otherwise done my tasks, I joined the engineers in the cab to hopefully absorb a few things about running a steam locomotive. I listened to what Harry and Tom discussed, periodically asking Ernie for explanations on things I didn’t understand. Don was learning as well — he’s a few steps ahead of the game compared to me, but he’s also been with the RMRS for 15 years.
One of the most fascinating things was watching the fire in the firebox. Only a month earlier, I had stood inside it, wondering what it would be like when lit up. Now I could barely see the features, they were obscured by the orangey-red flames that swirled around. The heat was intense, but nothing 6060 wasn’t used to.
By 13:00, we were ready to start the engine in motion. Grabbing my camera, I took up position and waited. For a while, nothing happened. But then 6060’s forward bell started to ring, warning all around that a very hot 313 metric-tonne hunk of iron was about to start moving. A sudden (and very loud) blast of steam shot out from the cylinder cocks, and slowly, almost imperceptibly at first, the huge engine started to move forward.
I felt a tingle in the back of my next. 21 years rushed by like a summer breeze. For a split moment, I was eight again, hiding behind my father as this giant black beast came tearing down the rails in Oakville. I remembered that it had scared me, but also deeply intrigued me. It was good to feel so young again. Now I know why those who work on 6060 are always smiling, and are so young at heart.
In front of 6060 was the caboose, and most of the day’s train. The rest was waiting down the yard — the train had been “broken” the night before, because a road bisects the rail yard. The train rolled down and softly linked up with the remaining cars. The linesmen hooked up the steam and brake lines, and a few minutes later, the entire train started back to switch onto the main line.
The Stettler station sits on a portion of barely-used track owned by the East Central Heritage Society. It used to be a CN short line, until the Government allowed CN (and CP) to start giving up their unprofitable lines. Now Alberta Prairie Rail Excursions is the primary user of the line. So we didn’t have to worry about tying anyone else up.
Because there aren’t any turntables or switch arounds, 6060 had to run in reverse for the trip down to Big Valley. For a steam train, it’s a little awkward, but almost no different than running forward. Besides, at the speeds we would be running, it was hardly an issue.
Finished my current round of picture taking, I returned to the cab, to see what was going on. Harry spotted me and called me up for an impromptu “meeting”. Being the youngest, I was the designated gopher. My job was to go for ice creams — Harry was buying. Being a hot day, it also meant I had to run.
There are times I don’t like the dryness of Alberta. But when you can run in jeans in 32 degree weather and know that your sweat will just evaporate, you really can’t complain too much.
Soon, it was 10 minutes until departure. Although we weren’t with a real rail line, everyone was running like they were — the conductors, Harry and Ernie, even Don read off in railroad time (military time) and were synchronizing watches. Old habits die hard, I guess. With 10 minutes remaining, it was time to sound the whistle. It should have brought back so many memories of watching 6060 roar past when I was a child.
Unfortunately, I was standing next to the whistle at the time, so it only succeeded in scaring the hell out of me.
It’s a powerful whistle too — none of these pipsqueak little tin whistles. This is fed by 250 pounds of steam. It’s loud. Loud enough to shake you to your bones. (Don wears ear plugs when riding 6060 because the whistle’s so loud.) You can hear it for miles. Out in the open prairie, it’s a beautiful sound. Standing right next to it … well, let’s just say my ears rang for a little while.
At 14:30 on the nose, Harry sounded the high ball (three short blasts of the whistle) to indicate that we were off. Don and I took position in the caboose’s cupola, right behind 6060. We faced the front of the engine the whole trip down. It was wonderful to see it running again.
It was so good, in fact, that I felt an urge to share the experience with the man who got me hooked on all this in the first place — my father. Through the miracles of modern technology, I called up my parents and let him listen to the chugging of the engine and the blast of the whistle.
Just as we started to pull into Big Valley, the train lurched to a stop. We were nowhere near the station, but our forward progress had been retarded … by train robbers.
Yes, train robbers.
This is part of the whole act. The robbers come, stir up trouble, get some money, and are promptly stopped by the local sheriff. It’s a prairie thing. Of course, the sheriff, late to arrive, has no clue who lost money to the thieves, so in a kind-hearted gesture, donates the loot to children’s charities.
Robbery completed, we finished the last 500 metres into Big Valley. While passengers disembarked and headed up to the hall for dinner (part of the price of admission), 6060 switched ends of the train so it could make the run back later. After she was hooked back up, Harry and Ernie did a quick inspection, and shut her down for a couple of hours, so we could go eat.
You never leave a running steam engine unattended.
Dinner is part of the package. It’s quite good, too, prepared by local Big Valley folks in their town hall. It’s typical fare — mashed potatoes, vegetables, roast beef (albeit a little overdone), and even has pork cutlets and shrimp. My sweat equity bought me a free trip on the train and a free dinner. Can’t argue with that.
Harry, Ernie, and the two conductors (Ed and Warren) told war stories of their days on the rails. One day, I’d love to write a book about some of these — most are unbelievable (Harry can actually say he drove a locomotive through a house), the rest stop at merely hilarious. Makes me wish sometimes I was 50 years older, and an ex-railwayman.
Following our dinner, we returned to get 6060 back in gear again. During the hour we were gone, she’d lost almost 60 pounds of pressure (another reason why we need to get the insulation and jacket back on — so that won’t happen), so firing her up was of big importance. A large number of people came out to look at the engine while this was going on. Don ran interference for Harry and Ernie, answering questions about 6060 and her history.
Soon, 19:00 rolled around, and we started back for Stettler. This time, Don and I were at the end of the train. It was much quieter (no hulking locomotive to rattle the windows), and we could clearly hear the clickety-clack of the wheels and the barking of the engine.
Yes, “barking”. This is another term I’ve learned. When a steam locomotive starts up a grade, or is hauling a lot of weight, it will chug loudly and distinctly — this is called “barking”. I’m not sure where that term comes from. I have to remember to ask. (I did ask what “hogheads” were and what that etymology was.)
We arrived back in Stettler around 20:30. I was exhausted, and I hadn’t really done much. There was still work to do — 6060 had to switch cars once they were emptied, the train broken, and then 6060 had to go back to Warden so we can continue working on her.
But I had to get home. I had plans for Sunday, and being in Warden, unfortunately, wasn’t part of them.
So for the first time in 21 years, I saw 6060 in action right in front of me. Not as impressive, unfortunately, as when I had seen her run through the Oakville sub as a child, but no less awe-inspiring.
I left the Spirit of Alberta behind, but only for a few days. I’ll be back on the weekend. There’s still a lot of work to do, and a lot for me to learn. We’ll be running again on 21 September, with the jacket back in place, and hopefully with a fresh coat of paint.
Hope you can all make it.

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:

1999, A Year In Review

T minus 206 days until W-Day.
And so the new year begins — the last of the second millennium, Ado Domini (or Common Era, if you prefer). It’s been a rough year for us, with many events having rocked our little world time and time again. Here’s the brief synopsis of the past year:
Continue reading “1999, A Year In Review”

Visit to Ontario, Touring Downtown Toronto

The alarm went off at 6:45am. I was up almost immediately, Allison begged for “five more minutes”. I took the opportunity to quickly have some orange juice. Allison was in the shower moments later.
We had to be at Yonge and Sheppard by 10:00am, and the trip would take about an hour. Allison wanted to get there in plenty of time, which meant we were catching the 8:03 GO Train from Clarkson.
My dad delivered us to Clarkson station at 8:00. I jogged ahead of Allison and purchased tickets. After riding the GO Train for a year, I had a kind of sixth-sense that told me we had to hurry — and the time wasn’t my only tip-off. No sooner than we had our tickets in hand and were walking up the stairs to the platform did the train arrive. Like clockwork.
The train went express at Clarkson, which meant we were downtown in about 20 minutes — a feat that is virtually impossible in a car at that time of day. (Of course, now that I’ve said that, one of you will probably try to prove me wrong.) Arriving at Union Station, we followed the other lemmings into the GO Concourse and into the subway.
The furthest north on the Yonge line I had been was York Mills, where I got off during my tenure at Digital Equipment. That was nearly six years ago. (Six years? Oh boy, I can feel them gray hairs just popping out of my head … and the other hairs falling off.) We were heading to Sheppard, two more stops beyond that. Allison had no idea just how far north we were going.
We were starving by the time we arrived. Luckily, there was a friendly neighbourhood McDonald’s on the McCorner. We indulged ourselves with a bit of McBreakfast (which is known to bring on period bouts of McNausea). The McPlace was not even half-full of people, but still took a while to get our McMeal. At first, I thought my McServer’s name was “Ebola” — imagine getting stuck with that name! As it turned out, her name was “Errola”. Dunno if that’s any better…
About 9:30, we headed to the building where Allison was to have her meeting. During her departure, I was going to make a few phone calls to obtain information and make a general nuisance of myself.
Allison was up there for two hours. It took me only 45 minutes to complete my tasks. (I also ran out of quarters for the payphone.) During that time, I got a tonne of information about setting up a webserver over an ASDL line, made arrangements for lunch and dinner, made an appointment for Allison at Arkipelago (my old Toronto haunt), and dropped a line to a few friends … none of whom were at their desks.
That left me with a hour and 15 minutes to be bored out of my mind. I watched elevator load after elevator load walk by, none of them being Allison. After a while, I felt like a dog that watches all the cars go down the road, hoping one of them is its master. (No allusion drawing, please.)
Following her seemingly-successful meeting, we headed downtown to meet with my cousin, Lauren. We went to one of her favourite restaurants, a tiny Thai bistro about a block south from Bloor. We had to wait a few minutes, but the wait was worth it — the food was good, and not too expensive (for a business-style Toronto eatery, that is).
After lunch, we hopped the subway back down to Queen Street to walk to Arkipelago. It was strange walking down streets I hadn’t been on in two years. Things were at the same time familiar, but not. It was like someone had taken a picture of my old world, changed a few things, and then shown me the picture without telling me what they had changed.
The familiar smell of Arkipelago was weaker than I remembered … but it had been two years since I last smelled the aroma of the wood and varnish that permeated the air. The space seemed a bit more cramped, especially with the additional people. When I had left Arkipelago, there were about 15 people. Over 30 people occupy its spaces. The people scattered everyone reminded me of what Arkipelago looked like when I started there.
The meeting was with Diedre, one of Arkipelago’s newer acquisitions. We had hoped to meet with Tim or Todd, but they were both in Europe. Be that as it may, the meeting went very well, or at least so we thought. Following the discussion (which I was mostly a silent witness), I quickly visited with the Arkipelago veterans who were still there.
We walked down to St. Lawrence Market, so I could show Allison Toronto’s idea of the Granville Island Market. Then it was off to meet Brenda and Marek at the Movenpick in BCE Place. We enjoyed an interesting dinner and a good discussion. Then we had to split ways and go home.

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 (see [[Canada Day in Kelowna, Winery Tours, and Penticton]]).
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 entrĂ©e: 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.
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…

1998, A Year In Review

I’m two days late in writing this (okay, only one day, but holistically speaking, it’s two), so I apologise if anyone had been expecting me to say something. (Like anyone actually reads these things … I’m kidding, of course, some you *do* care about what I’m doing, although I really don’t know why…
Continue reading “1998, A Year In Review”

My first birthday in Vancouver, Trip on the Pacific Starlight, Porteau Cove

Today, for those of you who know me, is my birthday. For those of you who don’t, you’re excused. (Just keep in mind that you now know, and I expect to hear from you next year.)
Today was also day from hell.
Aside from the fact that it was uncharacteristically hot and muggy, it was also the second-to-last day to complete the work I had for the H-Spline group prior to their trip to Siggraph in Orlando. In other words, I hit the floor running at 07:05 this morning, and I haven’t stopped since. I am in a wee bit of pain, and I’m really tired.
Upon getting to work, I quickly started writing the remaining parts of the documentation (beta release, we’re still a ways from finishing the thing) before I was brought before the Almighty Dave (Forsey, the brain behind the H-Splines). Then I shifted work to working on the copy for the Rodin (the name of our 3D Studio MAX plugin) brochure.
Just before 16:00, I bolted out the front door, trying to get to the Skytrain as quickly as possible. Allison had told me not to be any later than 16:50, when she was going to pick me up. I don’t know what it was that she had in mind, but whatever it was, I expected it to be interesting, to say the least.
I got home, doused myself with cold water (in a vain attempt to cool myself off enough to put on some nicer (and inherently warmer) clothes. I shaved, dressed, and bolted downstairs to meet Allison.
Then she took me to North Vancouver, and still not telling me where we were going, pulled into the BC Rail passenger parking lot. This was my present. No, not the parking lot … and evening on the Pacific Starlight.
Several years ago, BC Rail started purchasing vintage railcars (I think the most recently built car was from the 50’s), and overhauled them to function as dining cars. Then they pack a few hundred people on, and take you for a ride up the line to Porteau Cove. The train reverses direction, and goes back down the line.
After a quick sprint to a Shell station to get some money, we boarded the train and took our seats. Allison impressed me highly by firmly believing that if your going to spend money, spend it well — she got the best seats on the train.
The train departed from the station about 18:30, and slowly moved westward through BC Rail’s yard. Allison thought it a little strange that the yard was considered one of the features of the trip, but for rail buffs (such as I consider myself), this is as good a feature as any.
We passed by the building that houses the Royal Hudson and the 3716, which are two steam engines BC Rail uses for hauling passengers and tourists to Squamish and back. It’s a trip I’d like to take some day. (I have a thing for steam trains, ever since riding my first as a little kid … the CN 6060, which ran between Toronto and Niagara Falls. It now rests at the Alberta Pioneer Railway in Edmonton.)
We passed under the Lions Gate Bridge, and entered West Vancouver. Many people on the train probably thought it very strange that so many homes (especially expensive ones — West Vancouver is noted for its very high property prices) boardered on the rails. Apparently, when the PGR was bought up by BC Rail, they had let the line go into disrepair. During that time, many homeowners were told (usually by real estate agents) that they could use the land on the rails. In the mid-70’s, however, BC Rail employees came along and told them otherwise. Many were not pleased.
Today, that’s an entirely different issue. The number of people who waved at us as we passed was very surprising … I had to actually wonder what these people did with their time — waiting for trains to pass by?
We wound our way along the line towards Horseshoe Bay, moving at a relatively slow pace. There were three reasons for which I thought of for the slow speed, but only two seem really appropriate: reducing the motion of the cars so people could eat, and so people can see the view.
And what a view. Wow. I mean that. Wow. It was amazing. It was such a relaxing trip, that I almost didn’t notice the lack of foot room under the table.
We sat at a table with a slightly older couple, Ian and Yvonne, who were celebrating their first wedding anniversary together. We talked a little (mostly on the way back) about everything, including the trip Allison and I are going on tomorrow.
The dinner was absolutely sumptuous. Allison had conned me earlier in the month into telling her what I would like to eat. In fact, the entire present was one big charade (I have to give Allison full credit for being completely devious), but I haven’t the least bit of a grudge for it. We both had a salmon dinner, which to date is the best fish I have ever had in my life.
When we arrived at Porteau Cove, we found (much to our surprise) that the jazz band that had sent us off in North Vancouver had beaten us there (which in all reality wasn’t that hard — the train moved that slow) and was still playing when we arrived. Very classy, non?
We had a 45 minute layover (for us to stretch our legs, and so the nicotine addicts could get their fix), so we wandered about a bit, looked at Porteau Cove Provincial Park (it’s a lot smaller than it sounds), and then wandered back to the train.
The trip back has us facing backwards (passengers are guaranteed to face forward during one half of the trip), but it was no less spectacular. We had dessert, which was a chocolate mousse-like (albeit much denser) quasi-cake, the name of which I completely forget.
Upon arrival back in North Vancouver, we returned to Allison’s car, and headed for home to finish packing and get ready to leave on our next great journey.