A good rule of thumb on a train trip through the Canadian Rockies is that a grizzly bear waits for no man, but elk will stand still and pose like a Mutual of Omaha ad. Eagles don't really care either way.
I learned this recently when I took the Rocky Mountaineer, a private rail carrier in Canada, on a two-day trip from Jasper, Alberta, in the Rocky mountains to Vancouver, British Columbia, on the coast. Rocky Mountaineer operates the entire trip during daylight hours, with an overnight stop in Kamloops, B.C., in order to maximize the sightseeing opportunities. VIA Rail, the Canadian version of Amtrak, also serves the two cities, but mostly at night.
I booked the premium GoldLeaf service (from $1,439 per person), which puts your reserved seat in the upstairs part of a domed train car, with huge windows to watch the scenery in all directions. Downstairs is the dining car with big windows and hot breakfasts and lunches served on both days (included in the fare). An open bar with wine and spirits was also included and served by a crack staff of four attendants who provided commentary along the way.
The standard service is called RedLeaf (from $639), and consists of a reserved seat in a regular train car, with cold meals delivered to your seat. Each service includes a night in Kamloops at a budget hotel (ours was the Holiday Inn Express, which was clean and comfortable and had a pool and business center) and well-organized baggage handling that delivered bags to the hotel rooms, picked them up in the morning and transferred them to our Vancouver hotels at the conclusion of the train trip.
The trip is billed as one of the most scenic rail journeys in North America (not counting Jersey City to Manhattan, of course), and it didn't take long for that to prove correct. Within 15 minutes of leaving Jasper's handsome, green-roofed train station at 8:15 on a Sunday morning, we were immersed in the wilderness of Jasper National Park, with hundreds of miles of mountain peaks, rivers, lakes and alpine forests ahead of us.
As if on cue, within the first half-hour the train passed two magnificent elk with enormous racks that stood stock-still and watched us from a few feet away from the tracks. The sight of them almost made me put down my morning muffin and coffee, delivered to my seat by genial and efficient cabin attendants named Charity and Iain, but not quite.
For most of the morning, the train ran alongside glacial-blue Moose Lake in Mt. Robson Provincial Park, culminating in a stunning, up-close view of Mount Robson itself, which, at 12,792 feet is the tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies.
The upper part was covered in snow, with a craggy, beveled top. Because the train was more about sightseeing and photo ops than on-time performance, we could slow down to a crawl at the most scenic spots and then speed up to a brisk 60 mph or so to make up time later. When a bear was sighted three hours into our journey, the word was sent by intercom throughout the cars and the train crept along the tracks.
Unfortunately, the bear was wise to us and disappeared by the time my car arrived, as did another bear minutes later on the other side of the train. As the train's brochure pointed out, we might not see all of the wildlife, but they would see us. Ah, go tell it to my digital camera, I replied to the train's brochure.
After Mount Robson, we entered a broad valley that was flanked by the Rockies on one side and Canada's towering Premier range on the other. Pyramid Falls cascaded down from Mt. Cheadle and the surrounding woods were packed with Ponderosa Pines, cedars and Trembling Aspens. Later, we passed through narrow, 8.5 mile-long Hell's Gate, a rough part of the North Thompson River canyon that took settlers three days to traverse in the 1860s.
On my car was an international group of travelers from Great Britain, New Zealand, Australia and Japan, but surprisingly few Americans like myself. The train company is marketed heavily in the Commonwealth, and many of the passengers had booked the trip as part of long itineraries that included cruises to Alaska, tours of Vancouver and Victoria and, in the case of a 74-year old Aussie woman and her daughter, a trip to Disneyland.