Why I Unapologetically Decided to Travel (Safely) During the Pandemic
In these days of COVID-19, I found myself wondering what to do to satisfy my wanderlust. Everywhere I looked there were mixed messages being conveyed by well meaning, opposite ends of the debate.
On one hand, there is the be safe/do not spread the virus, limit social interaction, stay a two-meter distance, and do not leave your bubble group. This camp provides well thought out guidance to stay put and prevent the spread of the virus. On the other hand, there is the ‘stimulate the local economy’ camp, telling you to eat out at a distance, travel responsibly, wear a mask in public, sanitize regularly, and providing you have no symptoms live your life, as it’s better for the economy, your psych and overall well being.
Unapologetically, I fall into this second camp.
Unapologetically, I fall into this second camp. Every October for the last ten years I have returned to my country of birth, England, for a few weeks to visit my aging mother, reconnect with high school and undergraduate friends, buy Marks and Spencer’s underwear, see London theatre, pay extortionate prices for very bad food, spend a long time in traffic, and reconfirm emigrating to Canada over thirty years ago was the best decision I ever made. But with the prospect of this transatlantic trip this year involving fourteen days quarantine on both sides of the pond, and with a strong urge to leave my husband, restricted COVID regime, and home for my established autumn break, alternatives had to be explored.
I live in Vancouver Canada, adore road trips, and over the course of the last thirty years explored every corner of British Columbia. I have taken the train across The Rockies twice, and was aware the famous “Rocky Mountaineer” option, which along with two other routes Via Rail (Canada’s rail travel provider), described as their ‘adventure route’ was now closed.
I found the second ‘adventure route’, from Winnipeg to Churchill was operating. How exciting it would be to go and see polar bears, experience the Northern Lights and freeze in a community I knew nothing of, other than Peter Mansbridge, the former sexy newsreader from CBC Television, once worked there. My enthusiasm soon subsided as I found this trip took over forty hours and the option of securing a sleeper in COVID-19 times was no longer available. So there would be a real possibility of not sleeping during the trip. My polar bear viewing dreams would have to be put on hold.
My polar bear viewing dreams would have to be put on hold.
The third and final “adventure route” Via Rail promoted was from Prince Rupert to Jasper, with an overnight stop in Prince George. The two-day route followed the banks of the Skeena and Fraser River, passed glaciers, numerous lakes, and mountain ranges, and at $300.00 return was affordable. This was the trip for me. It would help the economy as I would stay in hotels and eat in restaurants, and assist with the flagging Via Rail balance sheet. My destiny was set.
I arrived at the station in Prince Rupert at 7.30am in early October, enthusiastic for my departure. The smartly dressed Via Rail representative was keenly awaiting my presence, she knew my name, greeting me as if we had been best friends for years, and seemed genuinely delighted we would be together for the next two days. I quickly learned this was because there were going to be only two passengers travelling on this trip.
She immediately informed me that although we were due to arrive in Prince George at 8.30pm that evening, this train is frequently late by several hours. A few minutes later her colleague repeated this information. After a COVID briefing, given by our friendly, enthusiastic conductor, who again stressed the possibility of delays, hand sanitation was issued, and we departed Prince Rupert at 8.30am.
My fellow passenger and I were both allocated eight seats each, both sides of the carriage, with two picture windows. We moved slowly out of Prince Rupert, and after about three kilometers along the tracks stopped and remained in the same position for over an hour awaiting huge freight trains to pass. Our conductor then informed us it was not unusual to be four hours late arriving in Prince George, adding on one occasion, a month ago, the train arrived at 5.00am, nine hours behind schedule. She then distributed the food menu and I wondered if there would be enough sustenance to cover these delays.
Never had I imagined this journey would be like this.
When moving, the scenery was stunning. We skirted the huge Skeena River, travelled through the Buckley Valley, saw snow capped mountains, glaciers, abandoned settlements, small villages, and lush farmland. Despite being October we were lucky there were clear skies, awesome views, and complete silence as I and my compatriot starred out of the picture windows in our own private carriage, (decorated with miniature trains in glass viewing cases), at the vast nothingness which is Northern British Columbia.
The conductor delivered coffee and snacks from a limited menu, and a glossy leaflet informing us of the points of interest en route. She also ensured we were always wearing our masks. Never had I imagined this journey would be like this. Almost my own private train, there were more Via Rail staff than passengers. The best staycation ever. I had chosen the right COVID camp.
We stopped frequently, waiting for the huge freight trains, which I learned could be as long three kilometers (two miles) in length, and weighing as much as 18,000 tons, to slowly pass. Our arrival in Jasper was only an hour late. Following three nights in Jasper I undertook the return journey, with a one-hour late arrival in Prince George finally arriving at Prince Rupert a mere one hour behind schedule. This return train was busy, during the peak there were probably ten passengers, most did not take the entire trip. It was entertaining observing where Via Rails customers got on and off. One man, probably in his seventies, had secured a pair of rubber boots to a tree so the driver knew this was his “stop”. I watched in fascination as he alighted, having visited a nearby community to purchase provisions, and walked off into the evening as it was getting dark.
There were no lights from any community. There were no buildings I could see. He headed by himself down a dirt track into wilderness, an image I will never forget.
He headed by himself down a dirt track into wilderness, an image I will never forget.
From the train I saw moose, black bear, countless elk, beaver, and bald eagles. Wi-Fi was advertised but not available. That did not matter; it was far better to stare at the forested landscape, lakes, and rivers where it was impossible to imagine a world upturned by the COVID virus.
The 1,160-kilometee route, completed in 1914, only operates once a week during the fall/winter season and while well known by those who live near to its tracks, seems to be a secret to most Canadians. I doubt I would have discovered it had it not been out of necessity caused by the pandemic and my desire to travel. I chose the right camp. I was correct ‘to go’.
Photo credits for Why I Unapologetically Decided to Travel (Safely) Despite the Pandemic by Dr. Jayne Seagrave.