I’ve eaten on trains before. Even if the experience is billed "fine"
dining. Or so I thought. Moments later gazing out of the modern dining
car with a crisp, Chardonnay in hand, I choked on my snotty obsolete thoughts.
For there, borne on the impeccably white gloves of APR’s Bob Willis,
was a flute of lemony shrimp cocktail followed by creamy peppery asparagus
soup, an orange and crunchy water chestnut salad and then the superb entree.
Served on fine china and linen-laced tables, the fine dining experience
that runs during APR’s off-season (Sept.-April) was full of twists. Not
only was the food excellent, especially the marinated pork medallions –
but the roadside attractions were an enchanting roll back in time.
Crooked, long-abandoned barns, white picket-fenced farm yards, hand-scribbled
"eggs for sale" signs, oil wells that danced up and down at flat horizon,
a coyote, an owl on a fence post – all viewed from comfy seats in a 90
minute ride from Stettler to Big Valley.
Sometimes it takes a visitor and a certain degree of desperation to
make you play tourist in your own backyard but it can be a hoot, especially
if you choose a direction that’s new to you too.
NUMBERS ON RISE
Precisely the impetus behind many of the 21,000 passengers APR moved across
the prairies last summer, up substantially from the 9,600 they saw in 1990,
the year the operation began.
Alberta Prairie Railway is the six year old brainchild of businessman
Don Gillespie and a pool of shareholders who envisioned pumping new life
into a handful of central Alberta communities as well as two old locomotives.
The dining car I was on is their latest acquisition – a 1950s CN passenger
coach which operated out of Montreal until 1995.
Recently gutted and jazzed up with new oak tables, chairs and siding,
its mandate is to run in the off-season, catering to smaller crowds (80
a run as opposed to the summer numbers of 400).
In the summer APR runs steam and diesel operated cars three times a
week out of Stettler. When meals are included in the themed packages they’re
not on board but at community halls, in pokey whistle-stops like Rowley,
Big Valley, Donalda and Morrin.
Hissing and whining our way into Big
an hour lay-over, we chat to locomotive engineer, Gus Annas who shyly tells us how he’s plied these tracks
for decades witnessing the transformation of steam to oil to diesel.
Gazing out over the maze of now rusted track in Big Valley he says:
"Steam is still a challenge…and running an engine for a movie is certainly
romantic but a stressful job."
With only four qualified steam engineers in the area, they all land
work when a movie crew rolls into town.
"Heck", says Annas, warming up, "I’ve even worked with Anthony Hopkins,
who’s as nice as nice can be."
Yes, check out those credits in Legends of the Fall, Why Shoot the Teacher
or the TV serial The Marshall Series and you’ll spy names like Gus Annas,
Red Robinson and Don Millar.
A stroll through Big Valley, once a thriving coal mining operation in
the ‘20s which 5,000 people then called home, is another lonely echo of
more affluent times.
With a current population of 340, the old-time proprietor at the ice
cream parlor wipes her cracked hands on her apron, leans over the gleaming
chrome counter and wows city-slickers with tales of three-storey heritage
homes with triple garages being flogged this summer for $55,000.
CHATTY FARM FOLK
Besides chatty farm folk, grateful for APR’s infusion of cash into their
community (last year’s figure was close to $60,000), there’s a cute museum
at the restored 1912 station jammed with old black and white photos, blueprints
of the coal mine and a fully loaded station master’s office.
Out across the tracks are the ruins of a roundhouse where once locomotives
and cars were serviced – their story now told by well-illustrated signs.
Then it seemed the whistle blew, the second seating began and it was
our turn to play hearts in the bar car.
But we never did finish that game.
When Loose Change started wailin’, we started rockin’ and quit when
the sun slid down over the grainaries of Stettler.
IF YOU GO
Hop aboard Alberta Prairie this summer for a chug back in time. Running
every weekend from now until late October are specialized excursions from
APST Limited Specials to murder mysteries and a Hallowe’en Ball that
roll passengers from Stettler to various historic stops through the heart
of Alberta. The following list is nowhere complete, it’s just meant to
wet your whistle, so to speak.