Friday, 20 July 2018

We took a 2-week train trip across Canada! How we got the most out of it

Jasper National Park

In July, my son Kyle and I rode the train from Winnipeg to Vancouver. It was 68 hrs on the train in total, about 2,500 km of track.

We took a 2-day sightseeing visit in Saskatoon and a 3 day visit in Jasper. At the end, we met my husband in Vancouver for 4 days and then traveled home by plane.

It was totally amazing!! The views out the train (especially the observation car) were like a real-life, real time IMAX of the Prairies and the Canadian Rockies. We met cool people, learned about how the trains work (and the people who work on them) and had a great time being unplugged, having fun and connecting as a family.

Here are the key planning elements that helped to make it such a great trip, some photography tips, lesson plans and sensory considerations. (For lesson plans, skip down to the bottom).

Train Travel Tip – Plan for delays
Patience and planning are key for train travel in the Prairies of Canada. Trains are often very late and there can be significant delays on the tracks. Like, major.

Because we knew delays could happen and planned for them, we could just enjoy the ride without worry. Here’s how:
  • For our layover stops, we booked our hotel rooms for an extra night at the initial time of booking. That way when our trains were late, we already had a secured place to stay (at high season, booking ahead is important). We did have to stay the extra night due to delays at both stops turning our evening departures into morning departures.
  • Downloaded the train GPS so we could track the train in real time. (It can be found on the ViaRail website).
  • When the late trains were scheduled to arrive in the night, we called the station and asked them for a wake-up call when the train was 1 hour outside the station. Because we did this, we were able to sleep soundly and not worry about missing the train.
  • Booked a sleeping seat, rather than coach. You can either book 2 coach-style seats that turn into bunk beds with curtains (using a shared washroom) or you can book a private cabin with 2 seats, walls and its own washroom. You really ought to do one of these for at least 1-2 legs of the journey because when the trains are delayed, your daytime trip might be a night-time trip, or even an extra 6-8 hrs on the road.
  • Prepared for long stretches of time where the train was stopped in the middle of nowhere and there was no WiFi. The first time it happened, it felt a little eerie. But we were able to roll with it. We headed off to the dining or observation car, played chess, talked to other passengers and just generally stayed in the zone about it.
You have to say to yourself: what’s the hurry? This is a special time for hanging out and connecting with my family! This is really important. If you think you don’t have the ability to go with the flow, consider another form of transit.

Train Travel Tips – Photography
We had a standard camera and an iPad. 
  • The iPad worked great because it could be set directly against the window glass, helping to avoid any reflections in our shots.
  • For my standard camera, I shot out the window at a forward or backward angle rather than straight into the pane, which cut down on reflections.
  • The best time to have quiet and a good seat in the observation cars is mealtime, when most everyone else is eating and drinking in the dining car.
  • Note for sitting in the observation car, Jasper to Vancouver: The Kamloops Lake is on the left side of the train. The Frazer River is mostly on the right of the train.
  • Don’t try to take pictures of the natural wonders such as waterfalls that the crew points out. The train goes by them very fast and you will get a blurry photo and miss actually looking at them.
  • Mountains, rivers, prairies and objects taken while the train is stopped, turn out best. The train runs alongside many rivers and up close to tons of mountains, which gives ample opportunity to get the right shot. 
Don’t let your photography get in the way of the experience. We chose specific times to photograph (our visits to the viewing cars) and tried to keep the cameras put away at other times so we could just look and enjoy. This was harder for me than for Kyle and he had to keep reminding me!

Train Travel Tips: Sensory and comfort
Comfort was key, and I’m happy to say it was doable. Here are some tips:

  • Note that ViaRail has taps in each car for refilling water bottles so save space in your bags: you don’t need to bring it along! They also have juice for sale a la carte all day. But the snacks are limited so pack your own.
  • If you are in a sleeper, the attending conductors will make your space into beds of chairs for you anytime. We kept ours in bed mode the whole time, which was way comfy.
  • ViaRail is not as clean as a plane. If you like kind of old things, this is awesome. If you don’t like kind of old things, the train may not be for you.
  • There is a small shower in each rail car, which is a lot of fun! It even has hot water.
  • Co-sleeping is possible in the berths. It’s a little close, but doable. With the bunks, you could fit 2 adults and 2 kids.
  • There is a lot of squeaking and squealing when going through the mountains, plus a lot of rushing sounds when trains pass, whistles and the sound of RR x’ing bells throughout the night. It didn’t bother us, it felt soothing. But ear defenders would be useful if you don’t like those sounds.
  • If you need something, you can push the attendant call button. But be prepared that they don’t come right away. They may be several cars away, working on something else. This took getting used to, the waiting.
Everything is like a little miniature world inside the train. Even looking out, because the landscape is so expansive, the front cars look like a model train rumbling down the tracks. It’s really cool!

Lesson Plans for Homeschoolers
I wanted to leverage this trip to teach about geography and Canadian history, so I brought along a bunch of geography workbook thingies …and boy was that a waste of space in my carry-on.

There was the moment when I just had to let go of my plans for leveraging the trip to “learn”. I had been pushing it and getting resistance, then I took a breath and realized that what motivated his resistance was a very good impulse: to let go and be in the moment.

I recycled the workbooks at Saskatoon station (Kept the maps though). It lightened our load, physically and emotionally. I let go of my teacherly expectations and realize that the experience itself was the learning opportunity. The world of the train, thw world outside the windows, the people we encountered, the sights we saw and challenges we faced throughout our travels – that was the learning experience.

One project Kyle worked on was a video about the trip. Now that we’re home, he is arranging it on an iMovie timeline and writing voiceovers. I had thought he might work on editing on the train but again, it was all about being in the moment.

In fact, we never watched any of the downloaded movies we brought and only read one book! With lots of time free to stare out the window, we also got to talking about all sorts of things, which was an awesome opportunity for the kinds of conversations –idle and important – I appreciate the most as a parent.

Letting go was my lesson, overall. Like one day – on our way to some geographical wonder, we happened to drive past a splash pad. It was a split second decision to stop and do something we could do any old day in Toronto, because it was what was needed that day. Kyle spent all afternoon there and was re-energized!

Geological wonder missed – fun had.

A few more planning notes
  • Before we left for the trip, we looked at all the options of what to do and everyone got to choose what they wanted, then we planned our days and prioritized. This worked out great in terms of expectations.
  • We bought tickets for all we could in advance, to avoid ticket lines. I highly recommend this. Things such as boat cruises can also sell out, another reason to buy in advance.
  • For Canadian national parks, we arrived at opening time, when it was least busy (and least hot).
  • When the train was late, we called our hotels and car rentals to ensure they didn’t give our reservations to someone else. This is especially crucial for car rentals.
  • All our hotels had pools. After a long train ride, it is really great to get into a pool.
  • We mostly cooked and ate in our hotel. After an active day, we didn’t need to be waiting in line at restaurants. I got this pro tip from my mom, who would drive across the US solo with all 5 of us. “Kids don’t care about restaurants. Go have fun.” Truth.
If you have neurodivergence in your family, you choose every day. You choose whether to value and honour everyone in your family, whether to be inclusive and understanding, whether to enjoy each other. You can choose to find accommodation, plan well, be flexible, appreciate things and be proud. It’s your choice whether you want to be a grown up, take awesome trips and have fun. Choose well!

If you are interested in reading more about travel and homeschool, google Roadschooling for more tips and inspiration. Have fun out there J

Note: The track delays are not the fault of ViaRail: it is because the Tory government sold our national tracks to a transit freight company and their trains now get to go ahead of ours. It’s a big problem and some MPs are trying to change things, notably from the NDP.