A new view of Canada unfurls by road and rail

Awesome prairies, primeval forests - and hordes of insects

I KNEW, intellectually, that Canada was a vast place. But it didn't really sink in until I stopped amid the wheat fields of Saskatchewan to gaze down a set of railroad tracks that seemed to bend over the horizon.

A friend had told me this prairie province is so flat that in some places you can see the curvature of the earth. And there it was: Freshly plowed black soil laid out on a Titanic scale, running over the edge of the planet.

It was only a small personal revelation, but one that made me wonder what would be next as I worked my way west from Winnipeg, Manitoba, on a three-week trip across Western Canada's four huge provinces: Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia. The assignment was to explore the environmental, political, and social challenges emerging in western Canada - and find out how westerners are coping with change.

I had planned to cross Canada on Via Rail, Canada's government- subsidized passenger train service. I made hotel and rental-car reservations and drew lines on a big map. All nicely laid out - in theory.

But as a Monitor photographer and I discovered, trains run late, rental-car tires go flat, detours delay, and speed traps await those who venture into western Canada. There are also a few natural hazards - such as Saskatchewan's mosquitoes and late-spring snow storms on the Trans Canada highway's 9,000-foot passes.

Denizens of the late train

Our plan was to travel by train to Saskatoon and Edmonton, and then drive the rest of the way to Vancouver. We pulled out of the Winnipeg station after 9 p.m. As we rode across the prairies at night in the rain, there was nothing to see but all kinds of people to talk with. I spent the night and all morning prowling the dining and dome car, chatting with night owls.

There was Ernest (Ernie) Appler, the gregarious chief conductor whose 43 years working for the railroad began before steam locomotives had retired.

There was Elizabeth Rutchinski, a figure-skating coach from Capreol, Ontario, and Heather Cessford, a young woman from Quebec visiting friends in Houston, British Columbia.

Part fish bowl, part soap opera, part card-party, part twilight zone, the night train to Saskatoon stopped five times in the wet darkness before finally pulling into the station at 5 a.m. three hours late. But that leg of the trip is its own story, to be told later.

The most dangerous beasts

South of Saskatoon, I discovered that the most dangerous indigenous beasts in Saskatchewan are the mosquitoes, which lie in wait in the grass by the roadside. Every time we stopped the rental car to take a picture, they attacked in force. Locals reassured us that 30 bites per minute is about tops. The insects kept us moving as the endless fields unwound from the Mennonite farming community of Warman, down through Regina, Truax, Avonlea, and Moose Jaw.

South of Regina, the horizon is punctuated with grain elevators every few miles, standing like cathedrals against the setting sun. The fields are tinged with a green patina of tender wheat shoots.

Eventually, we looped back to Saskatoon to catch the train.

From my coach seat, the sun rose on the gently undulating fields of Saskatchewan, slowly giving way to the elephant-skin foothill folds of Alberta's eastern slopes, where cattle ranching and oil are king.

We pulled into Edmonton at 11 a.m., dragging ourselves to a hotel. In Edmonton I spoke for several hours with people on the street about government cuts in Canada's beloved social-safety programs. Then I decided it was time to visit the world's largest mall.

At the West Edmonton Mall (yes, it is slightly bigger than the Mall of America in Minneapolis), dolphins performed, waves crashed on the ``beach,'' and I was drawn to a store that sold nothing but refrigerator magnets. Weak from hunger and the train trip, I staggered off the indoor roller coaster.

A lesson for $70

Awakening rejuvenated the next day, we quickly headed off to Calgary in a rental car. A tad too quickly, it seems: Outside Red Deer, we were nailed by a speed trap. When I mention our ticket to people in Calgary, they say: ``Oh, was that up near Red Deer?'' It was the best-known speed trap in Alberta - and now we knew about it, too. For a price: $96 (Canadian; US$70).

Our hotel in downtown Calgary also was temporary residence to actor Graham Green of ``Dances With Wolves'' fame. I happened to hold the door for Mr. Green at one point, recognizing him despite his hair being tucked under his baseball cap.

Still a bit giddy from my brush with celebrity, I headed south an hour where ranching country begins. We were on our way to a gas-drilling site on the Eastern slopes. But on Highway 22X, we spotted horses, a crowd of people, and about 100 calves by the roadside. It was a spring branding. We stopped to see this Western ritual: mooing, mud, smoke, whistling, and the smell of seared hide. This was no Hollywood set: It was real. So was the surreal rocky moonscape atop 8,000-foot Plateau Mountain, an ecological reserve with a gleaming silver hut-like structure that sits right in the middle of the mountaintop: a gas well that was drilled decades before.

Scenery hampers driving

Everywhere in Alberta was evidence of the conflict and compromise between humans and nature. Along the beautiful Bow River Valley that leads to Canada's crown jewel - Banff National Park - a huge concrete plant has nearly gnawed its way through a limestone mountain. In Canmore, subdivision tentacles splay out, home sites gobbling trees and landscape to within a couple of miles of the park boundaries.

Within the park, much of the wildlife - elk and bighorn sheep in particular - seem unconcerned by cars and cameras. Driving becomes difficult as the park's narrow valleys and sheer mountain cliffs make it necessary to pull off the road every few miles to take a picture.

Snaking upward through the Bow River Valley, the highway vaults to Rogers Pass, where a late-May snow storm forced us to pull off. Beyond the national parks (Yoho and Kootenay abut Banff), the mountainsides quickly began to reveal their ``multi-use'' designation. Huge clear-cuts have scraped large gashes in the thickly forested mountainsides. If this was the view from Canada's transcontinental highway, I wondered about the condition of regions with less tourist value.

An hour west of Kamloops, B.C., the highway begins to dive toward the ocean along the Thompson River Valley. The land there is not so heavily treed. We descended from the lush high mountain forest where moisture is plentiful to a more arid clime, where pines stand apart from one another instead of being densely packed on the green-gray hillside.

On the outskirts of Vancouver, the traffic jams begin, a strange feeling after days on empty prairie highways and mountain roads. Vancouver's downtown glass spires sit in a natural bowl like the fabled city of Oz, bounded on all sides by snow-capped mountains.

The deep-water channel of the Burrard Inlet swings miles inland, so that freighters from the Orient seem to dock on the doorstep of tidy neighborhoods. Many homes have fences in front, lush with roses and peonies and dripping with dense greenery that gives them a tropical look.

Walk in a primeval forest

Out on the peninsula of the city's landmark Stanley Park are the rocky overlooks where hordes of tourists gaze at ships and at seaplanes that drone up from the water and over the Lions Gate suspension Bridge.

But within the park's border road is the real draw - a few acres of uncut primeval forest. I strolled in off the road, the air suddenly moist and cool. Large ferns and thick, heavy moss lay everywhere beneath giant fir trees and cedars the size of which I had never seen before.

It dawned on me that this was the way everything used to be. Canada had never seemed so big to me as it did then.

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