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Seeing Beauty of Canada via Steam Train

May 17, 1987|WILLIAM J. THOMAS | Thomas is a Port Colborne, Canada, free-lance writer.

NORTH VANCOUVER, Canada — A half-day trip up to Squamish and back from North Vancouver's railway station gives you only a taste of the wild, staggering beauty that is British Columbia.

British Columbia is Canada's third largest province, a sprawling, raucous area of 366,355 square miles that hugs the Pacific coastline from Washington to the Yukon Territory. It nearly quadruples the size of Great Britain, and is bigger than Washington, Oregon and California. With only 2.5 million residents and almost half of them living in Vancouver and Victoria, there's a lot of room to move in B.C.

The majesty of the tough terrain and its easy, becalmed inlets can best be viewed from the huffing, puffing passenger cars of the Royal Hudson Steam Train. Forty years ago the workhorse of the Canadian transcontinental railway, Old 2860 now lugs its 12 spacious and comfortable cars along the British Columbia coast on a slow and scenic trek to Squamish at the head of Howe Sound.

Span to 'West Van'

Just out of the station, the Royal Hudson passes Lions Gate Bridge, a 5,000-foot span of steel and concrete, compliments of the beer-brewing Guinness family in their quest to rescue a village now known as "West Van" from isolation and extinction.

Soon the churning wheels of the Hudson rattle over the trestle of the Capilano River, source of several types of B.C. salmon in their hatcheries. Under the bridge and over the river, and you're suddenly in the bedroom of Vancouver.

"West Van" is the wealthiest community in Canada, a tribute to eccentric architects. The poshness of this suburb forbids the blowing of whistles except for the nostalgic noise rendered by the Royal Hudson. And the whistle causes people to lean out of car windows and bend over balconies to wave at the steaming intruder.

From the overalled tenders of the co-op gardens to the house-coated women with coffee in hand--they all salute the Royal Hudson passing through their expensive little enclave.

Jogging paths and cycle trails follow the Hudson's tracks for a while, then the whole train leans to the left a little as the tour guide points out the University of British Columbia's nude beach area just across Burrard Inlet.

The pace of the train is wonderfully slow, the mood of its passengers lively and alert. A dog chases the train for a few hundred yards and looks proud, as though he's graduated from autos. The wheels groan and squeal as they corner, and buck and skid as they come up over bridges.

Without warning, the entire train is swallowed by a black hole, a mile-long tunnel above Fisherman's Cove. Just as suddenly we are thrust into the dazzling sunlight a few minutes later, looking down at the Ferry Terminal on the shore of Horseshoe Bay.

The horseshoe-shaped inlet is a major part of the B.C. Ferry System that links Vancouver Island, Prince Rupert, the Sunshine Coast and the Gulf Islands. From here we hug the 30-mile Howe Sound all the way up to Squamish.

Like an old warrior on his last crusade, the Royal Hudson bursts forth from the blackness, shimmering and shining, the last son of a noble breed of locomotives that pioneered the Canadian West and hauled the Royal Train of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (now the Queen Mother) on their cross-country tour in 1939.

Even the crackling tape on the sound system seems oddly appropriate as it wanders from stalwart patriotism to a barbershop quartet rendition of the Royal Hudson's theme song.

To the right, steep rocky ravines drop to within a few feet of the track ties, occasionally in the form of waterfalls. To the left is Bowen Island, a Howe Sound sanctuary for doctors and lawyers who live and play there, then work and earn wages in Vancouver on a six-month rotating basis.

Farther up the sound we pass Lion's Bay; Brunswick Beach with its nude sunbathers; Gambien Island, named for Lord Gambien, and Anvil Island, shaped like the blacksmith's tool. Then there's Goat Island, heavily wooded and inhabited by herds of wild goats who roam freely, unthreatened by predators. Goat Island was the hideaway for a band of Spanish mutineers; their source of food survived and flourishes.

We pass the jetty of Porteau, a popular haven for scuba divers where an underwater marine park of sunken ships and a man-made reef of rubber tires attracts the sea's fauna and flora. High and to the right, the Squamish Highway runs alongside, linking two of North America's finest ski mountains, Whistler and Blackcomb.

Accessible by highway, the Britannia Beach mines offer visitors a tour and a chance to pan for gold; its shafts rise high into the mountains and plunge well below sea level.

Standing guard at the head of Howe Sound is 8,787-foot Mt. Garibaldi, a hunk of pure granite second only in size to the Rock of Gibraltar. Pointed and snowcapped, Garibaldi is a favorite of professional climbers; one slip and you're at Squamish the hard way.

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