Bald eagle, and oh, a wolf at 10 o’clock, I cry. Heads swivel; gasps of pleasure; clicks of cameras. The laconic Aussie opposite looks up from his perusal of the souvenir brochure. “Coyote,” he corrects. Ah well, I’m from South Wales, not New South Wales and can be forgiven the error. We watch as the creature lopes along the edge of the lake, almost hidden against the bleached rust of surrounding land, indifferent to the gaze of eagle and humans alike.
We’re on the second leg of a two-day train journey aboard the Rocky Mountaineer, just outside Kamloops, headed for Vancouver. The dazzling turquoises, sapphires and whites of the Columbia Icefields Parkway, traversed by coach, have gradually given way to the impenetrable green forests of yesterday’s train ride, allowing us a brief period of fasting from the visual feast that is the Canadian Rockies and a chance to listen to the fascinating but brutal history of the building of the trans-Canadian railroad. Its existence is due mainly to Chinese immigrants, too late for the gold rush, who haemorrhaged lives in constructing this vital artery between east and west Canada, with one worker lost for every mile of track laid.
Today, though, eyes return hungrily to the windows. Soon, there’s no need to signal the wildlife. We watch a succession of ospreys, swooping with graceful precision for fish, their movements mirrored by a convoy of small floatplanes, scooping up “saddle-bags” of water to try to quench the myriad forest fires that are reportedly burning across British Columbia.
The palette is different here: muted russets, greys and dun; trees sparse, rocks and lake shimmering in the parched heat as we cross the Badlands. We are joined by a phalanx of seven Blue Herons, flying in perfect formation above the glass roof of our upper-deck observation car. Our Aussie friend is busily completing his souvenir order form and seems oblivious to the beauty of their silent symmetry.
Now the train is snaking along the clear waters of the Thompson River. Birds are not the only fishermen here. Brightly coloured, rickety shacks and platforms cling to the precipitous rocks, evidence of First Nations peoples who have caught and preserved salmon here for hundreds of generations. Reaching the confluence of the Thompson and the now silty Fraser rivers, the silt wins out and suddenly there are no more birds: it’s simple – their dinner is no longer visible. We, however, feast in the dining car as we swap highlights of the trip.
Where to begin? It is almost impossible to select a favourite in this unspoilt vastness of western Canada, where every day of our holiday so far has brought new delights. Perhaps it was the helicopter ride from the edge of Banff National Park, taking us over Mount Assiniboine, enabling us to look with an eagle’s perspective over the craggy mountains, hidden ravines and impossibly turquoise waters of the aptly named Lake Marvel. Standing on the Athabasca Glacier (as deep as the Eiffel Tower is high) was another opportunity to sense, at close quarters, the power and grandeur of nature. We were dwarfed by the rubble of the moraines, deposited on the slow, inexorable journey of the glacier during the last ice age, but could see all too clearly the effects of global warming when the guides pointed out the huge shrinkage over the past hundred years.
But then again, the breathtakingly beautiful boat ride to Spirit Island on the most inaptly named Maligne Lake, near Jasper, surely deserves that accolade? In all these expeditions, our enjoyment has been enhanced by the knowledge, enthusiasm and obvious love of their country of our guides, eager to share its varied riches with us.
Little do we realise, at this stage, the experiences that still await us, all vying for the title: we shall savour the delights of the gourmet food market on Granville Island in Vancouver and enjoy the antics of the street performers there, crossing back and forth to our hotel on little ferries that look like illustrations from a child’s storybook.
We shall sail through the shimmering Gulf Islands to Vancouver Island where, one unforgettable morning, we go whale-watching and see two pods of Orcas, who cavort apparently for our particular delight, mere metres from the boat. Magical. But this is still to come and, for the moment, we relish the pampering of being Gold Leaf passengers on this wonderful train.
As we reach the outskirts of Vancouver city, pristine wilderness gradually gives way to rusting cars in overgrown backyards. The attendant approaches, laden with assorted key-rings, mugs and T-shirts for the armchair shopper. He reminds us of the pyrotechnic display that is being staged offshore in Vancouver tonight: “Fireworks at 10 o’clock.”