Calgary – The Rocky Mountaineer (aka National Disgrace) & ‘The Stampede’

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July 21st 2014
Published: July 21st 2014
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The Rocky Mountaineer – Vancouver to Calgary

We get up at 5am to ensure that we are ready and make the trip to the Rocky Mountaineer Railway station which is a 20 min walk from the Pacific Central Station we arrived at a week ago. We leave the Hotel at 6am and get the Sky Train to Main Street station. As we are preparing to walk to the RM train station we notice a RM Van pull up & go to the guy to ask directions and he kindly offers to drop us there for free – awesome!

We are met at the station by a host of attendants with luggage trolleys. The deal is that we have baggage allowances of 66lbs each to put in the hold but you don’t get access to this till journeys end. So we have a rucksack each for stuff we need access to. The trip takes 2 days and we stop off overnight at a hotel (part of the package) at Kamloops.

The station is exclusive to the RM enterprise. There’s a guy playing a grand piano – very good and enjoyable. There’s juice, coffee etc. freely available. Checking in was a breeze and we have about an hour to kill, so we enjoy the atmosphere. It’s a lovely sunny & warm day and soon the station is nearly full when coach loads of folk arrive and a cavalcade of taxis as well.

Suddenly it’s time to board and this heralded by a guy playing a few tunes on Scottish Bagpipes kitted out with kilt and all. We board and are soon on our way, cheered on by the staff and Bagpipe guys waving us goodbye. We have a coach attendant, Chan, who provides not only the trolley dolly service but also information about the places we pass through en route. He’s very good.

Our fellow travellers are mainly Australians, Irish & Scottish – The First Class folk are probably Americans and Canadians going to The Stampede.

It’s slow going out of Vancouver at first, and we go through various neighbourhoods including Surrey which apparently is a Punjabi enclave. There’s a lot of heavy industry around and we go under the new Portman Bridge which is 10 lanes wide and considered the widest bridge in the world (a title it took from the Sydney Harbour Bridge). It looks pretty impressive, an engineering achievement. It’s uses electronic toll cameras to manage the flow of traffic and recoup the billions it cost.

The landscape past Vancouver is really lovely countryside. We travel through the agricultural heartland of British Columbia, called the Fraser Lowlands – apparently the fertile soil is a mile thick.

As we meander alongside the Fraser River we notice many logging stations and learn that the Lumber trade is the 2nd largest industry in the state after tourism. Canada has a history of trading in timber. The logs are kept in the water as there is no cost for this ‘storage’; they will keep in the water for 2 years without any problems and transporting them down river is the cheapest option.

The landscape starts to get hilly and mountainous and we go through Hope where there was a mini Gold rush that was fool’s gold. So it’s a sort of ghost town and tourist attraction.

We pass an area where First Nations people fish using gill nets (a skill handed down through generations). They subsist on this throughout the year. They are the only people allowed to fish in the Fraser Valley where a good year would see 47million salmon run through the Hells Gate on the Fraser River. The last time was 4 years ago and salmon prices came down to $1 per lb. Wow! And they expect the same this year.

As we go slowly (very slowly) past Hells Gate – a red bridge that spans the river at a point where there are strong rapids, we see some Gondolas crossing – they have a glass bottom for effect. It’s an interesting point as the rapids are pretty fierce. The Thompson River that we are now following is blue/green in appearance, noticeably different to the Fraser River which is a murky brown as we leave it behind.

The wildlife we see are a Black Bear by a lake scampering away, some Ospreys, Bald Eagles , Bighorn sheep, the odd one initially then too many of them. They had become extinct in the area and were reintroduced from California. They have thrived so well, the Canadians actually send some back to California. They have also established a rattle snake breeding park, which was apparently used in a scene in the X men film – not that we saw this.

Progress by train, at times is painfully slow. So slow that one could walk faster than the train! We can’t help but feel that the train has too many carriages to pull (the company trying to make a killing from folks who want to visit The Stampede, like us in Calgary) or the engines are inadequate to pull the train through the journey.

About 45 mins from our destination for the day we are side-lined and are held up for over an hour while 5 freight trains go past us. Who’s the freight now? Passengers are pretty pissed off big time by now and to keep us sweet, Chan our attendant decides he should reopen the bar for some relief and to avoid a revolt.

We are supposed to arrive in Kamloops at 6pm but make it only at 8 pm ish and get to the hotel (by coach) by 8.30 pm. This meant that we could not go to the free evening concert in The Park by the riverside which started at 7 pm and finished at 8.30 pm.

We are staying at the Riverland Inn & Suites for the night. It’s a nice enough Motel about 10 mins from the station, but time is getting on and we really can’t go downtown for food. So the only option is the place next door -Storms on the River Restaurant. They say that they close at 9 pm and we are lucky to get a table on the patio overlooking the river.

We surprisingly have a great meal - awesome shrimp flatbread and seafood linguine washed down with 3 pints of Stanley Park Amber – nice. It’s a busy place full of locals, some come over by boat to the restaurant jetty. Nice if you can do it. There’s also a few Boy Racers on the river with flash boats driving up and down stream making a racket.

We get up at 5.15am to be picked up at 6.15am and bussed onto the train, to depart at 6.45am. We are given a light breakfast and M is pretty tired so sleeps for a while. The scenery from the carriage is not as riveting as expected at first. Kamloops as a place we haven’t an opinion on as we didn’t see much. Though what we did see wasn’t that impressive. However, we will be back for a night passing through on our way to Penticton from Jasper in 2 weeks so will reserve judgement till then.

The next thing worth of note is Shuswap Lake. It’s by far the best thing we see in the morning. It’s a very large lake and a sort of holiday resort on water. It has houseboats which sleep about 10 to 16 people and many young folks come here for weekend booze parties. There’s apparently, a floating store that visits the houseboats for stocking up on food and booze.

We see more lumber mills along the way, some more wildlife - mainly eagles and ospreys, but also a couple of bears (or at least the backside of them), some beautiful valleys and clear blue rivers, a couple of spiral tunnels so long that you can see the end of the train going in as the front of the train comes out, and lots of trees! (Actually, much of the scenery we go through is masked by the trees. The First Class customers have a double decker train and sit on the top level so perhaps aren’t as affected by this as we lowly folk are, but it does mean you don’t really see much for long stretches of the journey).

We get served lunch at 2pm which isn’t brilliant as everyone is starving by then. The food is essentially a large turkey roll (mostly roll with hardly any turkey and a limp lettuce inside). Pretty pathetic given what we paid for the trip especially as this is supposed to be the main meal of a very long day. We are not due to arrive in Calgary until 9-30pm. We are not impressed.

Again, the train seems to be going incredibly slowly. Add to this stops to let freight pass, a quick repair job and soon we are once again running well behind schedule.

The journey is getting a bit boring and we are not near the Rocky Mountains at all and it’s getting late in the day. It’s not clear what we will do for dinner as technically it’s not included but we get hints that the staff will do something. This is madness as we are not going to arrive at least till 10pm. Later the arrival time becomes 11 pm, then midnight so we call the hostel to alert them to the problem.

We eventually get to the edge of the Rockies and the day is drawing in. So we’re not really sure why they promote the trip as a tour through the Rockies as you don’t get to see them. All we can see is the sun tipped tops of the mountains as the sun goes down. We don’t fully appreciate how late we are and the staff seem to be giving out mixed message about what is happening and how late we are. Chan is good at providing updates but really, this is pathetic.

At 6-00 (only 4 hours after lunch?) they announce that they will provide dinner as we are running late, which is ‘unplanned’ allegedly, almost as if they are doing us a favour! We get what seems to be leftovers from the First Class carriage – a couple of prawns, and some (4) canapes. Honestly! This is dinner. Seems to us to be the scam of the century – we are not impressed.

In the end they terminate the journey at Banff at 11.30pm, something that Chan had warned us might happen. Had we carried on by train the ETA at Clagary would be 2 am in the morning. It’s pretty obvious that RM is a total shambles and incapable of managing this operation or meeting the expectations that they create by their advertising. Many of these folk have saved a lot of money to pay for this trip, including backpackers from Australia and New Zealand and are pretty pissed off like we are at this ridiculous situation. Those getting off at Banff are grateful, however, those who paid to go to Calgary (which is most of us) are bussed into the city on a 1.5 hour journey in the dark & arrive 12.30am.

On the bus as a sweetener they give each passenger a goodie bag of crisps & sweets, a freebee programme of Stampede which we could pick up in town and a RM scrapbook bound as a diary with a pen. Bribery will not stop the complaints . We get to the Canadian Pacific Railway Station in Calgary & they offer to pay everyone’s cab fare to their hotel. The staff are clearly embarrassed by this fiasco. We eventually get a cab for the 5 min ride to Wicked Hostel where we are booked and having called them ahead twice they are expecting us at this ridiculous hour – its 1 am and we look forward to a long and peaceful sleep.

We will definitely complain and seek compensation. This is not the introduction we wanted to Canada and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. It really is a Canadian Disgrace as the trip is branded as encapsulating everything wonderful about a Canadian journey from the West Coast to the Rockies! It leaves us feeling like Canada is pretty inefficient and inept - at least the railways and the RM company are a bloody National disgrace! We may have to make their papers and politicians aware of this.

Calgary & The Stampede

Wicked Hostel is, what you would call ‘wicked’ in present day speak. It is a pretty cool place with lots of freebees inc; laundry which they do for you (a first for us in hostel living), free breakfast & free calls anywhere inc. abroad - another first), free Wi-Fi and internet. The kitchen is good and the rooms smallish but adequate. But it’s pretty costly for our stay as its Stampede week. It’s £100 per night which is quite expensive by any standards. The guests are mainly people from Oz, NZ and Europe (Germany, Switzerland & Holland), and quite a few folk from Eastern Canada as well. Good mix all in all.

After a good night and morning lie in we manage to get ready and out about midday. As the Hostel is literally opposite the Entrance to The Stampede ground and a 10 min walk into Downtown one could safely say that the location was Ace! We walk into town to the Visitor Centre, which is located at the entrance to the Calgary Tower. It’s a tall tower which has a restaurant on top from where you can get good views of the City.

A woman who gave us directions, recommended we go to the Bank & Baron pub for lunch which is on Stephen Ave, the main drag. After some advice from the VC, we make our way there, have some beers and a burger to share and watch the first half of the Dutch vs Argentina game (incidentally which Holland lost on penalties). Unfortunately our waitress is one of the most indifferent & surly looking people we have the misfortunate to encounter unlike the rest in full Stampede ‘uniform’, looking lively and polite. So she gets no tip. It’s about 30 degrees outside so we wander along via the Eau Clair Shopping Centre to Prince’s Park just across the river, which is the city “beach” equivalent apparently. The Park has an open air theatre which performs Shakespeare plays every evening in summer for free at 7pm. We had hoped to go but eventually did not quite make it, which is a shame.

The City itself reminds us of a mini Houston (Texas). The sky scape is largely high rise offices downtown. Perhaps they have modelled themselves on the place as Calgary has made its fortune in Oil and Gas. (Apparently the biggest supplier to the US of oil is Canada, not Saudi/Iraq etc.)

Our next two days are largely spent at the Stampede. We have tickets for the evening chuck wagon racing and show one day, plus the afternoon rodeo the following day. Most folk are in uniform for the 2 weeks – men in jeans and cowboy hats, women in hats, shorts & T shirts. All wear cowboy boots.

It’s like a big theme park with fairground rides and side shows, Grandstand, eating areas, food trucks and local fare - chips, Poutine (chips and gravy with additions) of various types, BBQ joints, Corn dog stands (a Canadian special we are informed). There’s also an Indian Village, complete with Tipi’s that the First Nation people’s are staying in – though you can go inside some of them. There are 5 tribes here who signed a Treaty with the Government. We go to The Pow Wow and watch competition dancing in full traditional outfits accompanied by drumming and traditional singing. It’s excellent.

The Evening show is Chuck Wagon racing – carts with 4 horses and driver plus 2 outriders per team, who have to manoeuvre around barrels at the start then race round the track at full pelt. It’s fast and furious and good fun to watch for a while but it’s probably something you have to grow up with to really appreciate. After an interval there’s an entertainment show with local acts singing, doing acrobatics etc and then the grand finale is the fireworks show at 11-30ish. We leave before the fireworks but see it from the window of our room – it’s quite a good display.

As we have booked a car from Calgary via Canadian Affairs (based in London) back to Vancouver (including our time in Vancouver Island), we leave early from the hostel and catch the local Metro train to a stop near where we have to go to a local Hertz depot. We get there easy enough and meet Jaye, a Kiwi who’s the manager and as we are about to sign the contract we realise that someone has made a mistake. They have a car booked for us to the 21st July when in fact it should be the 21st August, which is what we have paid for. Thankfully, our travel voucher shows the correct dates so it should be simple to fix, you’d think!

Unfortunately to unravel this mess, we have to speak the guys in London – who can’t understand why there is a problem as we have a voucher for the whole period. Unfortunately the Hertz booking system is controlled centrally and any changes made locally will attract an extra charge on our credit card. The only way forward is for Canadian Affairs to issue a new reservation to Hertz central and they will then amend the local system.

Anyway, Jaye is a star and agrees that we take the car initially for the time allocated till she and CA sort matters out. Note: again to her credit she keeps us informed of progress which is more that CA does.

So after about 1 & ½ hours we leave with a nice saloon car – a Hyundai Sentra. Space enough for our needs and economical to boot unlike a SUV etc. So it’s off to Walmart to stock up for our camping trip & the local liquor store. Note: All alcohol purchases attract a refundable deposit on the bottles (circa 10cents each on beers or 25cents for a bottle of Canadian Club). Walmart definitely provides goods at the cheapest price but we have been less than impressed with the quality of some of their goods. We buy some basic camping stuff – chairs and cool box to keep us going as we aren’t sure what to expect in Banff by way of Supermarkets and how expensive it may be.

We are running somewhat late after the trials of getting the car as we have tickets for the 1.15pm Rodeo show at The Stampede. We get back to the Hostel just in time – put the perishables in the fridge & rush to the Rodeo to get some lunch – Mac & Cheese from a truck (not much good) and Belly Pork wrapped in bacon – nice, from the BBQ boys. Unfortunately we miss out on the free pancake breakfast provided by a few stands each days for anyone which is supposed to be really good.

We make it just in time for the show start. We are treated to some awesome skills by the professional cowboys, women & kids. First the Bucking broncos – amazing how these guys can keep on for at least 8 seconds on a horse hell bent on throwing them off by fair means of foul. The prize money is pretty good – it’s a Million Dollars this year. Each event champion on the last day (Sunday) gets a $10,000 prize. We also see some young kids on bronco’s who have to hold on for 5 seconds and the guy who wins is pretty impressive. He’s only 14 and a lot shorter than the horse he rides.

This is followed by ‘roping the calf’, which involves a young calf rushing out in front of a rider with a lasso who has to get it caught in the lasso, jump off his horse, get the calf down and tie 3 of its feet together. Fastest man wins. The quickest guy does it in about 7 seconds – many professionals actually miss lassoing the calf all together. As a ‘sport’ it sometimes looks cruel as the young calves get yanked back by the neck when lassoed.

Then we have ‘wrestle the calf’. This time a larger calf, no lasso, and the guys have to jump off their horses and grab the cow by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. Fastest here was 6 seconds.

Then we have the women’s speed race around three barrels – if they knock the barrels over there are penalty points. It’s smart and impressive and the horses are absolutely beautifully turned out and real thoroughbreds.

Finally, it’s the death defying ‘Bull riding’, bare back while it bucks and jumps and twists and turns every which way to shove off the cowboy who has to hang on for dear life. It looks pretty vicious, many of the bulls succeed in throwing the riders but the guys that hang on do it really well. Here too they hang on for at least 8 seconds. Cowboys get marked on technical ability and the number of bucks a horse of bull has tried to hoist them high into the air.

The show ends at about 4.15pm and it’s been all the better for being a sunny day and a Friday – the start of the weekend and the locals are out as well in force. We assumed many skipped the afternoon work shift.

We wander back to the Hostel to do our packing as we have to leave really early to get to a campground in near Banff which operates a First Come First Serve system and is relatively small by the Lake and is highly rated.

As a final swan song we go back to The Stampede ground for a last look and some dinner. This time we try the East Canadian speciality – Poutine with steak. It’s ok, but the gravy is a bit salty. Later we have a long hotdog wrapped in bacon from the BBQ place which is quite nice. Note: one issue for anyone going to the show is the fact that you have to pay cash for everything – no credit cards here. We end by enjoying some live Music at the Coca Cola stand which is pretty well attended as the performer is well known as an ex – Ice Hockey player now turned musician.

We don’t hang around for the fireworks as it’s getting pretty crowded and we have an early start……so it’s goodbye to Calgary & The Stampede ….. It’s been fun. Not sure we would have come here if not for the show!

Additional photos below
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21st July 2014
Bridges from the train

rocky moutaineer.
hi there, read you blog covering your trip on the RM. we will undertake a trip on same next year to celebrate out 65th/70th birthdays and our 40th wedding anniversary. really looking forward to it as we will tie-up with our nephew in saskatoon and old freinds in vancouver. any tips/information you may have would be gratefully received. glenys and fred chase.
2nd September 2014
Bridges from the train

Rocky Mountaineer
Hi Glenys and Fred, thanks for reading the blog. You'll have seen that we aren't fans of Rocky Mountaineer as a result of our experience (and we're still waiting for a response to our complaint 2 months later despite chasing!!). So our best advice to you, especially as your trip is to mark such special events, would be do the trip but with a different form of transport. We'd hate your dreams to be shattered by RM's inefficiency. Perhaps hire a car or do a coach trip and stay in some really super places with the money that you will save - and you'll get to see so much more, which is what we did travelling back the other way. Hope this is helpful and best wishes for your special occasions. Caroline & Michael
23rd July 2014

How unfortunate about that trip through the Rockies! I'd planned to cross Canada from east to west, but will certainly reconsider that. I just looked on their site and was shocked at the prices. I went from NY to Chicago and then to California on trains at a fraction of this cost--so surprising that prices are higher in Canada. However, looks as if you're going to enjoy the sites much more in your car!
25th August 2014

US/Canadian Railways
HI Michael and Caroline. Sylvia and I took the train in the US from Boston to Seattle (haven't written that log yet:(). We noticed that the train was very slow and was frequently passed by freight trains. We were told by our car attendant that the track owners made more money from freight trains than from passenger trains so the freight trains got priority. We were 14 hours late getting to Seattle but as we were in no hurry it didn't bother us. The journey itself and the train experience was a lot of fun.

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