Saskatoon, Saskatchewan

IMG_0891 “We say there are two seasons in Saskatoon: winter and ‘construction’,” said my prairie friend Steph. The idea, of course, being that all the building and roadwork that accumulates during the long winter must be completed in the brief burst of summer. When I arrived in Saskatoon, construction season had begun. The skies were clear and the bright sun was smiling down at the flat, dusty landscape. There was reason to celebrate. In winter, temperatures colder than -30 celcius are commonplace. My mother was born in Saskatchewan and has relayed stories of locals tying a rope between their front door and their front gate in order to find their way through the yard in a blizzard. My grandfather has told me that a person ‘snowed in’ in their car would probably die – if the car was off, then of cold; and if the car was on, then of carbon monoxide poisoning.

But enough of that misery. Saskatoon in the sun was a delight and it was showing on everyone’s faces. I could only imagine the whole place covered in ice, but it showed few signs of that on the day that we walked along the South Saskatchewan River. IMG_0866 IMG_0867 IMG_0873 IMG_0874 IMG_0875 IMG_0882 IMG_0877   There is a sculpture park close to the banks. IMG_0883 IMG_0884 IMG_0888IMG_0886 The Bessborough is one of the oldest buildings in the area. Very stately. IMG_0892A beer, liquor and food festival called Top of the Hops attracted a whole lot of locals and was pretty raucous fun. As it turns out, the province has plenty of breweries and distilleries – and people who love to have a good time. Little glimpses of old-world prairie life are there, too – like the “two-step” that everybody started dancing at the end of a Friday night. I might be returning in August – the summer festivals and parties will be mostly over, but the open space and friendly spirit will surely be the same. IMG_0891

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Go By Train: The Canadian

The Canadian, from Via Rail, is a train that traverses the entire Canadian expanse.

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It was to be the longest train trip I’d ever done, and I actually couldn’t wait. 35 hours, from downtown Vancouver to the outskirts of Saskatoon. 35 hours of gazing and lazing.

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I boarded in the evening but the days are getting longer, so I had a few hours of landscape-watching until I had to revert to downloaded entertainment. It was hours and hours before the first stop, in the town of Kamloops. I find the steady movement of a train so relaxing. I was even able to get a few hours of sleep, crumpled up on my two seats and covered by my coat. IMG_0766

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In the late morning we began our climb through the Canadian Rockies. There were occasional announcements from train staff of landmarks to look out for. There was the occasional flurry of excitement when a passenger thought they had seen a bear.

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I wasn’t tired at all, despite being sleep-deprived. In the viewing car passengers could see the mountains in all their postcard glory.

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It was one of the most calming experiences I’ve had. A slow plod through eternal natural wonders – the mountains high above us, oblivious to all the commotion.

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I think this is Mt Robson, the highest peak of all. (Head in the clouds.)

Our next stop was the little town of Jasper, a favourite base for skiers and climbers. I was able to get out and stretch my legs, and gulp some fresh mountain air.

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From there, it was straight on to the city of Edmonton, which we reached in the dead of night, when I was snoozing under my coat again. In the meantime the land flattened out slowly.

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And I enjoyed some on-board services.

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As the first full day on the train faded away, the passengers started getting chatty. There was a musical couple who performed country love songs live in the lounge, and received advice from an old blues singer on his way to Winnipeg. A baby-boomer couple on holiday told a story about a girl who, many years ago, fell off the train when she was having a cigarette between carriages – she had to be rescued from the wilderness in the middle of the night. Two young English women told me all about their travels, and a pair of Quebecois chaps helped me pay for my dinner (delicious, by the way), when I realised with horror that the staff would not accept debit cards. An elderly woman sitting across from me told me of her time living in Australia and New Zealand.

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This is my new country, at least for a short while, and its vastness, its stillness, the unblinking wonder of it – all of this was on display from the windows of the train.

We were all nowhere in particular, until I arrived at my destination – seemingly nothing more than a concrete slab in the middle of a huge yard.

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I had reached Saskatoon, in the prairies, having travelled for two nights and one day. I had drunk many litres of coffee and eaten a whole stack of bagels – and exhausted my supply of podcasts. Some of my new friends would stay on The Canadian for two more days, all the way east to Toronto. I wished them all the best.

Some snaps from Vancouver

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View from the Seabus

Vancouver is the loveliest of cities. Framed by the mountains and the sea; diverse, energetic and friendly even in the seedier streets. As usual I decided to explore a bit on a bike and I rode around the Stanley Park peninsula, beginning and ending at English Bay.

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Then in the afternoon I crossed over to the south side and saw a bit of Kitsilano.

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Totem poles tell a story if read from the bottom up.

Totem poles tell a story if read from the bottom up.

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Aside from gazing into the distance, there are plenty of nice things to do, like eating magnificent sushi.

When you’re not being a glutton, though, you can visit some national parks, Lynn Canyon being one example.

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It’s in the north-west and easily reachable with public transport.

Here are some cute photos from the Vancouver Aquarium, for good measure.

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Go By Train: The Amtrak Cascades

My second train ride of my trip was one that I nearly missed. By “nearly” I mean that Amtrak staff had locked up the train and were ready to go, and I practically had to beg to be allowed on.

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The Cascades goes from Seattle to Vancouver, so it brought me into Canada. It must have been a newer train than the Coast Starlight because the seats were even more comfortable and the wifi was functional. It was only a four-hour trip – my next one will be 30. More to write about then perhaps.

One I had calmed down I was able to enjoy the view.

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The Emerald City

That’s what “they” call it.

After a rainy hiccup in Portland, my run of sunny days picked up again in Seattle. IMG_0543

These are photos that I took from the ferry to Bainbridge. The sky was so blue and clear that I could see the mountain ranges clearly, and even get a surreal glimpse of Mount Rainier.

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It was really stunning, and shortly after I came back to shore I was able to see a pink sunset over the horizon – unfortunately my camera had died at that point. Considering I had expected nothing but drizzle, I felt very blessed.

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While less colourful and diverse than California, the Pacific Northwest definitely has its charms. Seattle was a real delight. Bike-friendly, an important business centre (a lot of suits), a beautiful waterfront and plenty of cultural history to explore.

The EMP Museum was one of the more quirky museums I have been to. Instead of having a whole lot of objects on display, it seemed to have mastered the art of the “experience”. What was on display, though, were a lot of smashed guitars, mostly from Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.

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remnants of guitar smashed by Jimi Hendrix, a Seattle native

There were many guitars that were not smashed, too.

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Somebody recreated tall buildings of the world with Lego, and they were on display too.

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Along the waterfront is the Olympic Sculpture Park.

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Jaume Plensa’s ‘Echo’, just getting installed

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Because the weather stayed fine, and because I could, I went on a bike tour organised by my hostel.

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from Green Tortoise Hostel’s facebook page

We rode around the coastline to the little haven of Alki Beach, where there were more blue skies and more views of the mountains.

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And so I learned to love the Pacific Northwest.