Sunday, September 15, 2019

O, Canada!

Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia

As of the date of this post (September 2019), I am 68 years old.  I turn 69 in November 2019.  I have been taking railroad photographs for 48 years.  I took my first railroad photographs in Canada in June and July of 2019.  The results are contained in this post.

You may wonder why I took so long to visit the Great White North, and I have no good answer.  I live in Oklahoma, and the Canadian border is over 1000 miles away.  But I have taken photographs all across Montana and Idaho, some within about 30 miles of British Columbia and Alberta, so distance from home is no excuse.

Various people told me over the years that the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia are often cloudy and rainy, and I suffer from TCD (Traumatic Cloud Disorder).  However, I have ventured into the clouds and fog of Oregon and Washington more than once, so clouds are no excuse.

I do not like visiting countries where I don't speak the language, but Okie and Canuck are close enough that we can understand each other, so another potential excuse down the drain.  (It did take me a while to realize that every sentence in British Columbia is actually a question that ends in the long vowel "A," as in:  "Nice weather, eh?")

Not only do I have no excuse; I do not even have an explanation.  Sometimes we intend to do things, but never get around to them.  I always wanted to play the organ but never tried.  I always wanted to be a stand-up comedian but never tried. I always wanted to sing the national anthem at a football game but never tried.

I always wanted to take railroad photographs in the mountains of Canada but, until 2019, never tried.  But now I have.  I suspect the organ, comedy and singing careers will stay on hold.

On the CP's Windermere Subdivision, a loaded northbound coal train approaches Columbia Lake.

A northbound way freight on the passing siding at Canal Flats.

On the Canada trip, my wife and I were celebrating our 40th wedding anniversary, so railroad photography took a definite back seat to domestic tranquility.  However, we spent a month in south central British Columbia, and our son visited for one week and my mother for another, leaving me some time to explore the railroads.  Of the four weeks, three were spent in the valley of the Columbia River along Canadian Pacific's Windermere Subdivision -- one of the most scenic lines in North America.  Traffic on the subdivision is sparse (10-12 trains per day), about evenly split between coal and way freights.  The line is dark, dispatched by track warrant, so finding the few trains with a scanner is easy, although sometimes you wait for hours before seeing anything.  But the wait is compensated for by the surroundings.

License plates in that part of the world say, "Beautiful British Columbia," which is absolutely true, but does not begin to do the country justice.  I think they should say something like "Unbelievably Spectacularly Breathtakingly Beautiful British Columbia."  That would, no doubt, be difficult to fit onto a license plate, but it would be closer to experience.

Columbia Lake

A southbound way freight skirts the western edge of Columbia Lake.

We begin at Columbia Lake, headwaters of the mighty Columbia River, and a true geologic oddity.  About a mile south of the lake is the Kootenay River which flows south into Montana.  Between lake and river is the tiny settlement of Canal Flats.  As the name implies, the land here is board flat, as flat as New Orleans.  Yet the water from Columbia Lake does not flow south like the Kootenay River.  Instead the water from Columbia Lake flows north.

Near the village are the remains of a canal constructed in 1889, connecting lake and river -- hence the name.  Only two ships passed through the canal before it was abandoned.  In 1895, the sternwheeler Gwendoline passed north from the Kootenay River to the Columbia River, followed by the North Star in 1902.

An empty southbound coal train at Columbia Lake.
A pusher on a loaded, northbound coal train is crossing the causeway at Columbia Lake.

From Canal Flats, the Kootenay River flows south to Montana, then turns west into the Idaho Panhandle.  At Bonner's Ferry, the river turns north and runs back into British Columbia.

At the same time, the Columbia River flows northwest from Canal Flats about 175 miles, then abruptly turns south and flows over 200 miles back into the United States west of Spokane, Washington.  In far south central British Columbia, the Kootenay River actually flows into the Columbia, even though both rivers pass within a mile of each other at Canal Flats.

This aerial image shows Canal Flats wedged tightly between Columbia Lake and the Kootenay River.  Though the distance from river to lake is only about one mile, the tiny village sits on a divide such that the lake flows north, the river south.

This map shows the Kootenay River in dark blue and the Columbia River in light blue.  Though the headwaters of the Columbia lie within a mile of the Kootenay, one runs north, the other south.  Eventually, the Kootenay turns back north, the Columbia south, and the Kootenay flows into the Columbia at Castlegar, British Columbia.  The Columbia continues flowing south in the United States, then turns west and enters the Pacific Ocean at Astoria, Oregon.

A southbound empty coal train is leaving Columbia Lake at Canal Flats, British Columbia.

Another southbound way freight at Columbia Lake.

The pusher on an empty southbound coal train is crossing the causeway at Columbia Lake.  The overpass in the background belongs to Canada 93/95, the main highway through the Columbia River Valley.

Another southbound at Columbia Lake.

As the above images demonstrate by the vegetation growing through the water, Columbia Lake is extremely shallow; the deepest portion is no more than 20 feet.  One morning while waiting by water's edge for a southbound coal train, I met a fellow who lived in Canal Flats.  He had driven up to the boat dock where I was standing with my tripod and my dog -- Bear the Mighty Dog.  He was preparing to back his small boat into the water.  He was short, with a scruffy beard that looked as though it might harbor any number of unusual critters.  He loved to talk.

"Nice dog, eh!" he said.

"Well, he's old," I replied.

"Me, too," he laughed.

"Probably not as old as me."

"I'm from Canal Flats.  You know Canal Flats, eh?"  

I asked if he had lived his entire life in Canal Flats, and he said no, he had moved there from Calgary about 20 years ago.

"Calgary was a nice place when I first moved there," he said.  "Know what I mean, eh?"

I said I did.

"Now it's overrun with people, eh?  That why I moved to Canal Flats.  Know what I mean, eh?"

Just then the southbound appeared from around a bend in the lake, and he could tell I was focused on taking a photograph.  He moved back to his boat and soon was floating into the blue water, waving as he slowly headed north.

A northbound grainer at Columbia Lake.  Across the water are the western slopes of the Rocky Mountains.  Canal Flats lies to the center right of the image.
A southbound way freight at Columbia Lake

Columbia Lake extends north/south about nine miles in the Rocky Mountain Trench and is surrounded by Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir and Golden Western Larch.  David Thompson, the famous explorer of western North America, and particularly the Pacific Northwest, wrote in his journal:  "I could never pass this singular place without admiring its situation and romantic bold scenery."

Now you may be wondering, what is the Rocky Mountain Trench?  Well, I'll tell you.  It extends north-northwest from western Montana (south of Flathead Lake) through British Columbia to the headwaters of the Yukon River -- about 900 miles overall -- paralleling the western slope of the Rocky Mountains, separating that range from older mountains to the west.  Its floor ranges from two to ten miles wide, 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level, and forms a natural travel route (south to north) through British Columbia, one followed by Canadian Pacific's Windermere Subdivision.

The Rocky Mountain Trench Fault extends only as far north as Skookumchuck, a passing siding on the railroad about 20 miles south of Columbia Lake on the Kootenay River.  A "Major Normal Fault," this geologic formation was created when the floor of the trench dropped several miles over millions of years when the landscape was pulled apart, similar to what has been happening for the past several million years in the Basin and Range country east of the Sierra Nevada.  The trench floor was subsequently covered by glacial outwash till during the last Ice Age, creating at Dutch Creek what are locally referred to as "The HooDoos."  (More on Hoodoos later.)

Unlike the trench, the Rocky Mountains themselves were created by a "Thrust Fault," which occurs when land is pushed together, much the same as when two edges of a piece of paper are pushed toward each other.  The middle rises, or is "thrust" into the air.  Thrust faults push older rock up over younger rock, where in a normal fault, younger rock slides down next to older rock.

Some of the images herein show that, in places, the western face of the Rocky Mountains is almost vertical above Columbia Lake.  This was caused during the last Ice Age, when glaciers moving down the trench sheered off the side of the mountains, like a knife through cheese.

Northbound coal beneath sheer mountain face carved by glaciers.

Middle unit of same train.

Pusher on a loaded northbound coal train.

Southbound coal in a thunderstorm.

During my stay in the Columbia River Valley, almost every coal train I saw -- both loads and empties -- was powered by three units -- one on the point, one in the middle and one on the rear.  Twice in one month I saw coal trains with two units on the point, but these were, I think, the exceptions that prove the rule.  In Golden, British Columbia, where the Windermere Subdivision meets Canadian Pacific's transcontinental mainline, multiple sets of coal trains sit in a huge classification yard, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, like rows of automobiles fresh off the assembly line.

Loaded coal trains run north on this subdivision; empties run south.  As nearly as I can tell, Canadian Pacific has been running coal loads to Golden since the early 1970's.  Most (all?) are bound on the mainline for Vancouver, where the coal is placed on ships for transport to the Far East.  Because the tracks through the Columbia River Valley are virtually level, and because the relatively new General Electric units are so powerful, the trains operate with only three engines.

Southbound empties at Columbia Lake.

Here is the one of the two coal trains I saw with two units on the point.

Radium Hot Springs

North of Columbia Lake, the Windermere Subdivision is mostly inaccessible, except for a small area where Canada 93/95 crosses the tracks at Fairmont Hot Springs.  This location, however, is not particularly photogenic, so I did not bother with it.  North of Fairmont, the highway and civilization are located east of the Columbia River, while the railroad and wilderness are on the west.  Westside Road sort of follows the tracks but is located well up the mountainside in thick forest.

One afternoon, my wife and I decided to hike on the west side of the river.  In our Jeep Wrangler, we followed Westside Road, dodging mud holes of various size and depth.  My wife does not enjoy driving through mud.  I do.

Eventually, we located a trail on a private nature preserve open to the public.  We parked by the roadside with the wheels of the Wrangler straddling another mud hole.  Then, with Bear the Mighty Dog in tow, we began walking east toward the river.  The sign at the beginning of the trail indicated that it would be a short walk to a dramatic view of the Columbia River Valley.  After an hour, we were still searching for the dramatic view.

Eventually, we came to the crest of a hill, and the river valley unrolled before us like a carpet.  The flood plain was several miles wide.  The river had carved numerous shallow channels through it, like the varicose veins in my ankles.  I had hoped to see the tracks, but they were obscured in the thick forest of Ponderosa Pine and Douglas Fir that stretched down the embankment below us nearly to water's edge.

Wife and dog sat down on a bench to enjoy the view, while I followed a side trail to the south in hopes that I might glimpse the railroad.  I walked another mile or so and saw nothing.  I was just about to turn around when the trail made a sharp turn east and abruptly ceased on the edge of a shallow hill.  Below me to the south was a small opening in the forest where I could see the tracks.  Not only that, but I heard a southbound train approaching, though I could not see the headlights through the foliage.  Puffing heavily -- after all, I am on Medicare -- I steadied myself and took the following image of the pusher on an empty coal train.

Image at end of trail.

Just then my cell phone rang.  I had not realized that there was coverage in this remote location, but there it was:  ringing.  I answered.  It was my wife.

"I'm hot and tired," she said.

Thus ended railfanning for the day.

But there would be other days, especially at Radium Hot Springs, a beautiful town on the eastern bluffs above the Columbia River, as can be seen in the image below.

Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia

Here southbound empties are passing between the river and the glacial till upon which the town is built.  Eroded glacial till south of Radium has created what the local population calls the "Dutch Creek Hoodoos."  "Hoodoo"was a mixture of various African religious practices created by slaves in the New World, but that is not the reference that concerns us.  In the United States, "hoodoos" are tall spires, a little like organ pipes, that protrude from the bottom of arid drainage basins, forming over millions of years of erosion where a thick layer of soft rock is covered by a thin layer of hard rock.  Some of the most famous hoodoos can be found in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.

In southern British Columbia, hoodoos similar in shape to those in Bryce Canyon have formed from an entirely different geological process -- the erosion of glacial till along Dutch Creek, about a mile from its confluence with the Columbia River.

Dutch Creek Hoodoos

During the last Ice Age, the Rocky Mountains were buried under miles of ice, and slow moving glaciers carved jagged peaks and deep valleys, eroding the underlying rocks into layers of gravel, sand and salt -- glacial till.   When the glaciers began to melt about 10,000 years ago, the Rocky Mountain Trench was filled with large lakes, and glacial till collected on the bottoms. The Dutch Creek Hoodoos were formed out of the remnants of a glacial lake bottom.

Over time, rain, wind and frost have worn away the cliffs, creating the ridges and turrets that catch the sun and create giant organ pipes.  At least, that is what they look like to me; although, as I said earlier, I always wanted to be a concert organist.  Can you imagine the feeling while playing the organ in Notre Dame in Paris or Grace Cathedral in San Francisco?  

Another southbound empty at Radium Hot Springs, running beside the same glacial till that created the Dutch Creek Hoodoos.  But here the glacial till has been blasted away by the construction of the railroad.  Perhaps many millions of years from now, the glacial till in this image will present the same organ pipes as at Dutch Creek.

The current at Radium Hot Springs is almost motionless; the river reflects the empty coal train and glacial till like a water-streaked window.  Images in this location can be taken from a scenic turnout on the highway or from a hiking trail closer to the water.

North of Radium Hot Springs for about fifteen miles, the tracks follow the river closely, while the main highway climbs the ridge high above the water, where dense foliage blocks any view of the railroad.  It is possible to follow a primitive logging road on the west side of the river for those fifteen miles, where here and there the trees part to reveal the broad green river valley, as flat as a parking lot and as wet as a Florida swamp.  The following image was taken from that road on one of several overcast days when the sky was dark purple, preparing to rain.  The locals said that the past two summers had been filled with forest fires and smoke.  In the summer of 2019, rain had returned to British Columbia.

A Canadian Pacific way freight passes beneath glacial till north of Radium Hot Springs, British Columbia.  Note the depth of the till and the ranch built on top of it.  Even in a wet summer, pastures were still being irrigated.

Here is an image of the same train at the same location, taken with a shorter lens that shows the relation of the worm-like train to the river valley and surrounding mountains.  The image also shows the extent to which the glacial till climbs the mountains.  To this day I still have trouble conceiving that this valley was once filled with ice.

The mid-train unit on a northbound coal train.

North of Columbia Lake, Canadian Pacific's line runs through the Columbia River Valley; south it runs through the valley of the Kootenay River.  In 1901, the Canadian government granted a charter to the Kootenay Central Railway to build south from the CP's transcontinental mainline at Golden to a connection with the CP's Crow's Nest Pass line at Colville.  In 1903, the government granted the railroad a subsidy of $6,400c per completed mile, but it soon became apparent that the company was more interested in obtaining the subsidy than completing the line, so the Canadian Pacific stepped in.  In 1911, the CP leased the KCR's charter for 999 years and began operations as far south as Spillimacheen, which the tracks reached in 1913, with boats taking passengers and freight south from there to Columbia Lake.  The line to Colville was completed in 1915.

It was the connection to the Crow's Nest Pass line that eventually provided the support necessary to ensure the line's survival, because there are several gigantic coal mines in the valley of the Elk River, all of which ship steelmaking coal on the CP line through the Columbia River valley north to Golden, then west on the transcontinental mainline to Vancouver and ultimately across the Pacific to steel mills in Japan.  Based on my limited observations, I doubt that the Windermere Subdivision would generate enough traffic to stay in business without the constant coal traffic.

Spillimacheen Northwest

Northbound Coal Load Just South of Spillamacheen, British Columbia.

About 15 miles northwest of Radium Hot Springs, the main highway (Canada 95 at this point) comes down off the glacial till and begins running virtually side-by-side with the Windermere Sub.  The tracks first appear about a mile south of the passing siding at Spillimacheen.  (See the image immediately above.)  From this point northwest for about another 15 miles, highway and tracks are almost inseparable.

For my money, from a photographer's standpoint, this is the prime portion of the Windermere Subdivision, the filet mignon; this melts in your mouth.  Because the line is dark, and also because the tracks are constantly curving left and right, then left and right again, like a snake scurrying across grass, both coal trains and way freights never run much above 40 miles per hour.  (I know that Canada has adopted the metric system.  40 mph would be about 64 kilometers per hour.  However, the Canadian Pacific still refers to points on the railroad in terms of miles.  Thus, when the dispatcher asks for a train's location, the conductor will respond in terms of miles.  For example:  "Canadian Pacific 8657 North has cleared Mile Post 77.5.")  Chasing trains along this section of the subdivision is both easy and rewarding.  Another bonus is that road traffic along this section of the highway is not heavy.  You will not endanger yourself by pulling to the side to jump out and take a quick photograph of a loaded coal train bound for Golden.

I have to mention one additional story about the image immediately above.  I had chased this train northwest from Radium Hot Springs when I saw this small pool of motionless water reflecting the peaks of the Columbia Mountains to the west.  The train was close behind, so I did not have much time to park.  Unfortunately, there were deep bar ditches on both sides of the highway -- five to ten feet.  Although traffic was light on the road, I did not feel comfortable stopping in the middle of the traffic way.  Then I saw a narrow path across the ditch to the east, leading to a field with grazing cattle, a perfect location to park my Jeep while taking photographs.  I decided to back onto the narrow embankment, but in my haste, I miscalculated and felt miserable as my Jeep slid rapidly down into the ditch.  The front end was pointed up at about a sixty degrees angle.  And the coal train was coming.

I jumped out of the vehicle with the motor running and snapped the image above.  I got the shot!  I got the shot!  Then I returned to the Jeep.  You must believe me when I say that the portion of British Columbia around Spillimacheen is mostly devoid of civilization.  I checked my cell phone, and to my surprise found that I was obtaining a signal.  I felt like a 19th century explorer whose supply wagon has just plummeted 900 feet to the river below.

I uttered an expletive.  Then another.  For several days, the Columbia River Valley had been covered with clouds, like the lid on a pot, but this morning the sun was out.  Sunshine!  And now my Jeep was stuck in a ditch while the coal train continued northwest.  From the scanner, I knew that a southbound empty would meet the northbound about 15 miles up the line, but I would miss all those shots, because I had gotten myself stuck again!  Had I possessed a heart monitor, I would have noted that mine was beating about 160 times per minute.  I began to hyperventilate.

Since I had cell coverage, I could always find a wrecker service in Radium Hot Springs.  Someone could come and pull me out.  But what an idiot!  What a duffuss!  The first sunny morning in a week, and I was stuck in a ditch.
"Calm down," I said to myself.  "Deep breaths.  You're driving a Jeep Wrangler.  It's built for deep ditches and mud.  More deep breaths.  Try to drive yourself out of this mess."

I put the transmission case into four-wheel-drive low and turned on the front and rear axle lockers, then pressed lightly on the accelerator.  I made it about half-way out of the ditch, but then all four wheels began to spin.  I uttered another expletive.  Then I remembered something I had read about driving off-road.  When you are stuck on a steep slope, sometimes the best approach is to back down until your entire vehicle is on level ground, then attempt to climb out.  The momentum you obtain on the level may be enough to power you up the hill to freedom.

So I backed down until the entire Jeep was in the ditch.  The road was about ten feet above me.  If I did not make it out, I might die there.  At least I could call my wife and tell her I loved her.  If she did not answer, I could leave voice mail.

I was still in four-wheel-drive low.  I pressed the accelerator, and the Jeep began climbing out of the ditch.  I expected that at some point I would stall and begin sliding back down, but that did not happen.  Instead, I popped out onto the highway like a puppy emerging from its mother's womb.

"Praise the Lord!" I shouted, although I doubt that God had taken sympathy on me.  I have gotten myself stuck so many times that God has almost certainly lost interest.

A southbound empty just south of Spillimacheenm where my life almost ended in a bar ditch.

A northbound load at same location.

A loaded, northbound coal train at Spillimacheen, British Columbia.

Mid-train at Spillimacheen.

Another mid-train at Spillimacheen.

Pusher at Spillimacheen.

Southbound way freight at Spillimacheen.

This relief map shows the terrain from Spillimacheen to Parsons, where the Windermere Sub and highway run side-by-side most of the way.  This is my favorite portion of the line and a wonderful location for photography.  As shown, the Columbia River runs hard to the northwest between mountain ridges that rise out of the ground like fences.  The river valley is filled with ponds, back washes and eddies, creating delightful photographic opportunities.

A southbound coal train runs beside the Columbia River north of Spillimacheen.

According to the sources I have found, the name "Spillimacheen" is derived from "Spallemcheen," the name of a town along Canada 97A, about 50 miles north of Kelowna in British Columbia's Lake District, home to the majority of the province's wineries.  During our month-long trip, my wife and I traveled to the Lake District, and the scenery, as in all of British Columbia, is spectacular.  "Spallemcheen" is derived from a Shuswap language word, either "spil-a-mi-shine" meaning "flat mouth," or "spal-lum-shin" meaning "meadow flat," both of which are applicable to the geography around the passing siding at Spillimacheen. 

Middle unit on a northbound coal load.

Pusher on same train further downriver.  I found three mornings with enough sunlight to allow photography north of Spillimacheen, though as this image shows, clouds were omnipresent and would build rapidly as the day advanced.

This area of British Columbia is schizophrenic.  The tracks and highway are surrounded on all sides by towering peaks.  Because the latitude is so far north, the timber line is low.  Thus, the pines and firs stop well below the summits.  Sheer rock faces stare down in solemnity like a row of appellate court judges -- old, tired, not particularly interested in anything you have to do or say.

Yet the river bottom is like a Louisiana swamp, with huge stagnant pools of water and very little current in the main channel.  Railroad construction here was mostly an exercise in keeping the tracks out of the water.  But as deep and ubiquitous as was the river when the railroad was constructed, it became worse.

In the mid-20th century, Canada and the United States reached agreement on damming the Columbia River to create hydroelectric power and to supply water to arid areas of British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.  All the dams are significantly downstream from Spillimacheen, but their effect can be witnessed this far upstream in the relative lack of current.  Salmon once swam upstream far into Canada to spawn.  Since the creation of the dams -- 13 in all -- salmon cannot swim upstream anywhere near the Canadian-American border. 

I am not suggesting that the construction of the dams was a mistake.  It opened southern British Columbia and eastern Washington and Oregon to settlement.  But it also forever changed the nature of the mighty river.  What amazes me is that the effects of the dams can be seen as far upstream as Spillimacheen.  The stagnant water pools create some wonderful opportunities for railroad photography.  I do not think the dam builders had that in mind.

A southbound way freight along the Columbia River north of Spillimacheen.  The lead unit is an SD30C-ECO,  a 3,000 horsepower road switcher.  Similar to the EMD SD32C-ECO,  the SD30C-ECO follows CP's request for crashworthiness and compliance with EPA emission standards, with the "C" denoting crashworthiness.  This three unit set worked up and down the Columbia River during my one month stay.

Southbound empties are approaching Spillimacheen.

While railfanning along the Columbia River, I met some of the friendliest people in the world.  One morning, while chasing a coal load northwest toward Golden, I noticed that my Jeep was running low on fuel, so I pulled into an isolated country store with a single gas pump, which did not take a credit card.  I walked inside to find a middle-aged woman -- significantly younger than my 68 years -- who appeared to live in the small quarters behind the store.  Short and stocky, with a weathered face like a park bench, she smiled as I paid for my gasoline with Canadian dollars and coins.  She could tell I was American, because I had trouble recognizing the one dollar and two dollars Canadian coins.

"What brings you up this way," she said, smiling.

I told her I was photographing the railroad.

"Well, we get a few trains through here, eh?"

"Beautiful country," I replied.  "Does it snow much in winter?"

"If you don't like snow," she said, "you shouldn't live here."

"I'm from Oklahoma.  If you don't like heat, you shouldn't live there."

We both laughed.

Mid-train at Spillimacheen.

Southbound empties passing one of the stagnant pools of water beside the main channel.

Northbound coal load approaches Golden, British Columbia.

Notch Hill

Canadian Pacific began hauling unit coal trains up the Windermere Subdivision in the 1970's.  The run to Golden presented no serious problems, because the grade was almost perfectly level, and loaded trains were running with the direction of the Columbia River.  The coal was destined for steel mills in Japan, which meant that the loaded trains headed west from Golden on the transcontinental mainline and crossed two major westbound grades at Rogers Pass and Notch Hill.  

Both proved significant hurdles to daily operations, so the railroad constructed new, second, westbound tracks to keep maximum ruling grades to one percent.  When my wife and I drove across Rogers Pass in late June, it was half-raining, half-snowing; the dark clouds looked low enough to touch.  Near the top of the grade, we did drive into one cloud, reducing visibility to almost zero.  My wife was cold and did not want to stop, so I have no photographs.  I am not sure what they would have looked like, anyway, because I could barely see my hand in front of my face.  When the fog lifted, we saw glaciers above us.

We spent two nights in a small cabin near Notch Hill, and the weather cooperated enough so that I went out in the morning while the spouse slept in.  That far north in late June, the sun rises way too early for an old man and sets way too late.  Heroically, or so it seemed to me, I struggled out of bed while my wife lay in blissful slumber and, before the clouds rolled in, I took some images near the tiny hamlet of Notch Hill.

A westbound potash train has come off the Notch Hill Loop (about three railroad miles east) and is preparing to crest the summit.

Here is the mid-train unit on the same load, passing the hamlet of Notch Hill.  I do not know if the church is used today, but it appeared well-maintained.  If the church is used, services must be seriously disrupted when a train comes through.

Pusher on same train.  The dead trees on the ridge are the work of Pine Bark Beetles, which have ravaged forests throughout the Rocky Mountains.  For a more complete discussion of this phenomenon, see my post at

Westbound stacks approach Notch Hill.  Large portions of CP's transcontinental mainline are surrounded by forest, inaccessible to photography.  At Notch Hill, however, trees have been cleared in several places; the clearings are used for farming and grazing.  There is even a winery nearby that claims to be the "northernmost winery in the world."  I do not know if that is true, but grapes apparently exist in the northern latitudes.  The growing season must be incredibly short, although the exceedingly long days in summer may compensate.

A meet between a travel trailer.

Eastbound stacks with a single unit on the point.

Before construction of the Notch Hill Loop, the ruling westbound grade was 1.8 percent, making this a helper district in the days of steam.  Dieselization (is that a word?) eliminated westbound helpers until the advent of loaded coal trains.  Canadian Pacific decided to reduce the Notch Hill grade for westbounds, rather than recreate the old helper district.  The new track  followed a huge cut north of the original line, then curved 180 degrees back to the south before joining the old grade slightly below Notch Hill.  Today, the loop passes a corn field.  (I was surprised to find that corn can produce this far north, but if there is a winery, why not corn?)

As this aerial image demonstrates, the Trans-Canada highway runs within a half-mile of the loop.  The road, however, is well below the level of the loop.  One cannot see the tracks from the road, nor the road from the tracks.

One of the advantages of photography at Notch Hill is that one is not required to fight traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway.  The tracks unroll through peacefully rural countryside, while the highway is consumed with commercial trucks, mini-vans, SUV's, sedans, pick-ups, Jeeps, motorcycles and any other motorized vehicle you can imagine -- and a few that appear beyond imagination.  To someone like me, only a little older than the American Interstate Highway System, it seems odd that Canada's national highway system is not under federal control.  Prior to my recent visit, I held a naive vision that Canadian provinces were much more centralized than American states.  Then I discovered that route numbering on the Trans-Canada Highway differs from province to province.  The four western provinces have agreed that the main Trans-Canada route shall be designated "Highway 1," but east of Manitoba, highway numbers change at the provincial boundary.  This from a country that has adopted the metric system!

Another interesting fact of the Trans-Canada Highway -- to me, at least -- is that it was not designed and constructed as a uniform whole.  Unlike the Interstate System, the TCH was assembled out of many pre-existing roads, plus some new construction, especially in the mountains of Alberta and British Columbia.  Today, in British Columbia at least, large sections of Highway 1 are two-lane.  Some sections of the mountain roads, especially east of Golden, are so narrow and winding that commercial truck traffic can back up other vehicles for miles and slow overall progress to 10 mph.  Really.  None of the highway that I drove was controlled access, meaning that access was not limited to specific on and off ramps.  Even the newest sections allowed vehicles to turn off onto and to enter from side roads.  You can even make left turns across traffic.  Sometimes there are left turn lanes, sometimes not.  Life on Highway 1 in British Columbia is a free-for-all. 

But not on Notch Hill.  Although Highway 1 is close, its influence is virtually non-existent.  Life along the railroad is isolated and uncomplicated.  The small cabin my wife and I inhabited for two nights had no television, internet or cell phone reception.  The sound of the highway was blocked by a mountain ridge.  Sitting on the small front porch in the evening, we drank wine and listened to insects chirping and birds calling each other through the pines.  Every so often, we would hear a westbound circling the loop, attacking the grade, but the sound was mellifluous, to my ears at least, not frenetic like the endless vehicles on Highway 1.  Even my wife seemed not to mind, and she is no train fan.  The sound of a freight's whistling at a grade crossing, the three notes of the air horn echoing back and forth among mountain ridges, was as close to tranquility as I will ever experience.

In this and succeeding images, we will travel up Notch Hill through the loop constructed in the 1970's to reduce the westbound grade.  Here is a loaded grain train at the bottom of the hill, at the point where the tracks diverge.

Pusher on the same train.

A westbound mineral train is climbing the grade on the newer second track.  The original grade lies at the top of the cut.

The same train is preparing to cross under the rural road that runs through the middle of the loop.  A small portion of the tracks coming out of the loop can be seen on the embankment in the right-center.

Mid-train and head-end power are in the loop.  Even though the grade is about one percent, the train is moving about 10 mph.

Same train.

Pusher and mid-train circling.  In June/July 2019, I saw a fair number of BNSF and UP units on CP's transcontinental mainline.

A westbound grainer is about to exit the loop.

Pusher on same grainer has exited the loop and is returning to the original grade.

We end the visit to Notch Hill with an image of the Rocky Mountainer, a luxury train that runs multiple routes through the spectacular Canadian scenery.  My wife and I thought about taking this train to Vancouver and back, but then we saw the prices.

Kicking Horse Pass

Up front, I have to get something off my chest, even though it is heretical to say it.  Kicking Horse Pass in the year 2019 was very difficult to photograph because (1) almost everything worth photographing is covered with trees, (2) Canadian Pacific polices the place like the Gestapo, (3) traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway is a non-stop   madhouse and (4) the Rocky Mountains at this latitude generate as many clouds as cows generate methane.  There, I said it.  I feel better.

1.  Almost Everything Worth Photographing is Covered with Trees.  The gemstones of Kicking Horse Pass are the spiral tunnels, but no one can see them anymore.  There is a scenic turnout on Highway 1 that draws tourist buses galore and probably thousands of automobiles daily, but today (2019) all you can see are several placards explaining why and how the tunnels were built.  The lower tunnel which once was visible is now hidden by pine trees, as are the tracks.  When I stopped to have a look, I watched the faces of the tourists as they searched in vain to find the Canadian Pacific.  I heard more than one person mutter, "What's the big deal?"

If you scour the internet, you will discover that all images showing significant portions of either tunnel were taken, for the most part, 40 years ago or more.  A few images from the early 21st century show portions of a train through trees, but now those trees are so thick that you can barely see a train at all.  More recent images showing the mouths of the tunnels were taken by intrepid photographers who braved the wrath of the CP.  I was planning to hike to the mouth of the lower tunnel until a run-in with a Canadian Pacific employee, which I will describe shortly.

Here is a diagram, courtesy of the Canadian Government, showing the layout of the spiral tunnels, which you cannot see from the Trans-Continental Highway.  Westbound trains come down from the summit at Lake Waptak, which is only slightly above 5,000 feet, with no tunnel.  The Rockies here are not as tall as in Colorado and Wyoming, but because the timberline is so low, they are more spectacular, to my eyes at least, because there is much more exposed rock.  Westbounds enter the upper spiral tunnel below Cathedral Mountain, then head almost due north under Highway 1, where is located the scenic turnout from which you can see nothing in 2019.  Then the tracks turn due west and enter the lower spiral tunnel, which turns 270 degrees before depositing trains in a due south direction for the slow run in dynamic breaks down the mountain to Field, British Columbia.

Even Morant's Curve is beginning to disappear behind trees.  I visited this famous location twice.  Both times it was raining, but the inclement weather could not hide the young trees beginning to obscure the view.  Since the Canadian government has created a turnout so that tourists can view the curve, my hope is that someone in the bureaucracy will have enough intelligence to cut down the trees.  If the famous curve were in the United States, I would be less hopeful. 

Morant's Curve in a light rain beside the Bow River.  You can see how the small trees are beginning to encroach on the right-of-way.

2.  Canadian Pacific polices the place like the Gestapo.  One of the advantages of being an old man is that I now look harmless.  Forty years ago I was stronger, more agile, with a reasonably decent memory, so when I took photographs around railroad facilities, I would sometimes draw the attention of those with too much time on their hands, who would occasionally run me off the premises.  That has not happened in years.  Now when someone sees me beside railroad tracks, he wonders if I need assistance.  Perhaps I am senile and disoriented.  Or maybe I am sitting down because I have lost the ability to walk.  

One afternoon the sun came out for a few hours while I was exploring the Bow Valley Parkway, a scenic road that runs north of the Bow River (Highway 1 runs to the south) roughly from Lake Louise to Castle Junction in Alberta.  The Canadian Pacific tracks lie between parkway and river, but the foliage is so thick that you scarcely know of the railroad's existence.  One exception is Morant's Curve, where river, tracks and parkway run side-by-side for a short distance.  Also, the railroad has cut narrow roads through the forest every few miles to allow access to the tracks.  Most were gated and locked, but one was open, so I drove in with my Jeep and Bear the Mighty Dog, hoping to find a good location for photography.  While there I took the following image:

Pusher on westbound oil train climbing to Kicking Horse Pass.
Shortly after I pushed the shutter release, a Canadian Pacific truck appeared through the trees, coming slowly down the rutted road.  An employee parked beside my Jeep and climbed out.  I waived, but he did not waive back.  He walked over slowly, eyeing my camera, tripod and dog.

"How'd you get in here?" he said.  His tone was officious, like an assistant principal at a small high school.

I looked at him quizically.  "Well, I drove in.  Same as you."  Did he think that I walked in with the dog, and that the Jeep just dropped out of the sky?  He was short and squat, with dark hair and complexion, and he breathed heavily between each sentence, as though talking caused physical distress.  

"How'd you get the gate open?"

"It was already open."

"No, they keep them locked.  How'd you unlock it?"

"Do you think I have a key that unlocks gates on the Canadian Pacific?"

"Well, you're not supposed to be here.  You've got a dog."

I wondered if I could stay if the dog left, but I said nothing.  

"You're gonna have to leave," he said, shrugging.  "Look; I'm just doing my job."

"Do you spend all day looking for people like me?"

"Not all day."

"How many employees do the same thing?"

"More than one," he said.  "We get a lot of dogs."

"See you around," I said.  I got my camera gear and Bear into the Jeep and drove away.


After being run off the right-of-way, I found one other turn-out on the Bow Valley Parkway offering a view of the mainline.  I was standing on public property when the above image was taken, but there was one gentleman in the distance who appeared to be watching to make certain that no one climbed down the hill to the tracks.  Perhaps I was paranoid.  Perhaps not.  

Mid-train with stacks at same location.

3.  Traffic on the Trans-Canada Highway is a non-stop madhouse.  The highway here is the only route across the mountains for over a hundred miles either north or south.  The route to the north (through Jasper) eventually turns south and connects with Highway 1 at Kamloops, so there is no advantage to traveling north.  The southern route (through Crows Nest), is circuitous and narrow, like an ant trail in rocks, not friendly to commercial trucks.  So almost everybody takes the Trans-Canadian Highway, meaning that the road through the mountains is like a California freeway at rush hour.  At Kicking Horse Pass, the TCH is mostly, though not all, four-lane, with wide shoulders, but left turns are permitted across traffic -- for example, to exit at Field, British Columba, where I saw vehicles backed up for at least half a mile.  It's even worse on the other side of the pass at Lake Louise.  Don't even try to drive into town.

There are several potential photographs of the Canadian Pacific that can be taken from the highway, but I attempted only one.  (Maybe if it had not rained so much, I might have been bolder.  Who knows?)  The speed limit through the pass is 100 kph, which is about 60 mph.  If you drive that slow, you will not survive.  Even in heavy rain, Canadians cross the mountains as though fleeing the Wehrmacht.

The only shot I attempted along the highway.  CP stacks (in the clouds) are preparing to cross under the Trans-Canada Highway, which is three lanes at this location (two upgrade, one down).  On the other side of the road is the scenic turnout for the Spiral Tunnels which no one can see.  This location can also be reached by a hiking trail that runs under the highway and across the tracks.  To access the trail, you must park in a nearby campground.  Every time I tried to park, the lot was full.  So I pulled my Jeep off the highway at this location for a quick shot.

  Also, the trail above this location, which apparently leads close to the upper spiral tunnel, was closed due to a recent CP derailment.  Given my experience with railroad employees, I decided to leave the upper trail alone.

4.  The Rocky Mountains at this latitude generate as many clouds as cows generate methane.  There were lots of clouds at Kicking Horse Pass.  Because of what I had earlier read and heard, this was not surprising.  Nonetheless, I was disappointed, because the scenery is absolutely spectacular.  My few images do not do the area justice.  You'll have to see it for yourself.

In spite of the clouds, every now and then the sun would peak through as a train approached.  I was fortunately in position to take a few of those images.

Eastbound autos climbing the grade to Lake Louise.

A westbound manifest arrives at Field, British Columbia.

An empty coal train on the east side of the pass.

A westbound potash train is grinding downgrade in dynamic brakes beneath Cathedral Mountain.  The railroad constructed the tunnel after a fairly recent landslide, which swept away the pines and firs, exposing the tracks.

The same location in the clouds.

Post Script

Kicking Horse is like Cajon and Tehachapi.  So much has been written about it that there is not much left to say.  Writing about Kicking Horse Pass is like writing about the Roman Empire or the War Between the States or the Second World War.  Still, at the risk of embarrassing myself, I offer a few observations.

I suspect that weather at this location will often be problematic.  So if one intends to photograph the pass, one should be in it for the long haul.  One should not expect to spend a day or two at Kicking Horse and obtain beautiful, sunny images.  If one seeks sun, one should be prepared to return over and over.  Because the pass and surroundings are so spectacular, returning over and over will not be a sacrifice.

I suspect that winter weather can be dangerous.  A scoop, right?  I talked to a fellow railfan in Field, British Columbia, who told me that west winds can howl down through the pass in winter and drop the temperature to minus 50-60 degrees Fahrenheit.  Such temperatures are life threatening.  Small wonder that Field is a tiny settlement that appears to flourish only in the summer.  There are railroad crew quarters in town that look like bunkers constructed by Germans at Normandy.  I can't imagine taking a train into or out of Field in January.

I suspect that I will be returning to Kicking Horse Pass.  The portions of British Columbia and Alberta that my wife and I visited were truly spectacular.  Now that rail traffic in Colorado has diminished to almost nothing, British Columbia seems like the best bet for old men like me.  I hope to see you there soon.

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1 comment:

  1. Mr Walters, your work is fantastic; I came across it by accident trying to track down what an SD32C is and am so happy I did. I am currently 67 and related to all the reasons you talked about to not get out into the world. Let's say I'm getting motivated. And as for the "eh" ending everything, well my wife's family are all Yoopers (Upper Peninsula of Michigan)and it runs wild up there too. Actually I find it rather quaint and somehow it just fits. Well, I am looking forward to going through all your content and links to see if I can continue the motivation.
    All the best and Merry Christmas,
    Bob Flemings