A New View of Canada Unfurls by Road and Rail Awesome Prairies, Primeval Forests - and Hordes of Insects Series: At Banff National Park, a Grazing Bighorn Sheep Let a Photographer Get within 15 Feet or So. 3-5) ALONG THE WAY: Freighters and Tankers (Top) Lie at Anchor in English Bay as Strollers Roam Stanley Park at the End of the Journey in Vancouver, British Columbia. off Highway 22X in High River, Alberta, (Left) Cowboys at the Hays Ranch Brand Calves in a Spring Ritual of Mooing, Mud, Whistling, and Smoke. Early Morning View of Vast Farmland from the Dome Car (above) on Via Rail, Canada's Government-Subsidized Passenger Service. the Train Is about 20 Miles East of Edmonton, Alberta., PHOTOS BY BILL GRANT, STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER OF THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR. ILLUSTRATION BY STAFF

Article excerpt

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. …


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