Blue Earth
Glazer's Camera

Riding the Canadian Rails, Eh?

Friendly commentary from a VIA Rail employee in the dome care is one of the delightful perks of train travel. Friendly commentary from a VIA Rail employee in the dome care is one of the delightful perks of train travel.
© Doug Wilson

Don't want to hassle with airport security? Travel shooter Doug Wilson shows us how a rail journey from Seattle To Alberta can be its own destination

If you don’t plan carefully, you might miss the train. We’re not only talking about going on a trip; we’re talking about getting the image on film. With today’s concerns about air travel, train travel may offer an alternative way to get where you’re going. It may even be your next destination assignment. I’ve been fortunate to provide photographs for three train articles for the New York Times Sunday travel section in the past year.

One trip began with a phone call: Could I catch the next train from Vancouver, B.C., to Jasper, Alberta, in the Canadian Rockies?

“We need the images now, and there has to be snow on the ground,” the editor says.

“Of course I can go,” I reply.

vThe fact that I have to drop everything and book a train that leaves in two days, from a city 140 miles and an international border away, is par for the course. I know it will be necessary to get images, both on board and of the train itself, in a scenic location.

Getting location shots of a train presents special problems. You need to find the right location with the right light, and if you are photographing a moving train you may have only seconds to make the image. It’s best to schedule an extra day at the beginning of the trip so you can rent a car and find some scenic locations from which to photograph the train. Knowing the schedule, with the help of the train crew or dispatcher, is vital. I have had instances where I hiked a couple of miles to get to the right spot, then had only 15 seconds to get the picture.

Most travel articles are illustrated after the text has been written, and the conditions and timing are likely to be different than when the writer was on the scene. Travel writers for the Sunday New York Times travel section, for instance, tend to move in anonymity. Following them with a list of possible photos several weeks or months later is considerably different than accompanying them while they’re composing their stories.

You must be willing to talk your way into getting access to photograph the locations discussed in the article that your photos will illustrate. And you must be able to accomplish this with little more than a smile, a copy of the story (which you will have received via fax or e-mail) and whatever trustworthiness you can convey—since you carry no press credentials.

Half the fun…

For this particular Times assignment, I book a Friday Amtrak train from Seattle to Vancouver, B.C. From there, it’s on to Canada’s VIA Rail for a 17-hour, 45-minute overnight trip to the scenic mountain town of Jasper. Three times a week, VIA Rail travels across our northern neighbor’s countryside, from Vancouver to its eastern provinces. I will arrive in Jasper unannounced to begin photographing a train story that was written months before but assigned for illustration only days before the deadline.

I make a few images of the Vancouver train depot on Friday evening, as a golden sunset floods the sky 30 minutes before we depart on the 530-mile trip to Jasper. At that moment, the light is lovely; the reality is that by the time the train leaves, it will be all gone.

Getting a clean shot from a moving train requires luck and split-second timing. While I struggle with slow shutter speeds, fading light, moving trains and travelers, and fine-grain transparency film, I read the descriptive words of the writer. It’s a wonderful portrayal of train travel. Writing doesn’t require decent light; I wish the same could be said of photography.

Dropping my backpack-strapped suitcase full of winter clothes in my sleeping berth, I find the trainman and explain my mission, requesting the opportunity to photograph him making up the sleeping berths as described by the writer.

Dinner on a cross-country train is an adventure. I am seated with complete strangers who willingly pour out their life stories as the meal progresses. Instant friendships form when traveling by train. It’s a very special experience. This is journalistic coverage—not advertising or art-directed collateral shooting. High-speed transparency or slower push-processed film, available light, and maybe a little fill flash are all one dares to use with a trainload of strangers intent on their adventure. It’s not their job to get great images for an editor who expects results, not excuses.

A gray Saturday dawn brings us closer to Jasper. I head for the dome car to get images of travelers craning their necks to view the Rocky Mountains through a blur of falling, filtering snow. I meet a couple from Seattle on their honeymoon. The couple seated ahead of them are Australians celebrating their 25th anniversary. An extroverted trainman provides a running monologue as our group enjoys the early morning traverse through the Rockies. For me, it’s fill flash, set at minus one stop in TTL mode, and 1/125th of a second shutter speed with ASA 100 transparency film. Quick captions are noted.

In the grasp of Jasper

By the time I arrive in Jasper at 11:15 a.m., I know and have photographed most of the train crew and several of the passengers. There is little snow in Jasper; I have arrived in early November, before the snows have come. Unfortunately, the writer came in January, when there were a couple of feet blanketing the ground.

Since I was sent on short notice, without contact information at Jasper Park Lodge, I find myself introducing myself to the public relations representative at the lodge. The gracious young lady who meets me is stunned by my unannounced arrival, but eager to see the lodge well presented in a national publication.

I generally have free rein around the lodge, introducing myself and explaining my mission and tight deadline. It is amazing and gratifying that people are so cooperative. Being friendly and low-key is definitely an asset for a photographer who is dependent on complete strangers’ willingness to be photographed.

While the train was the means of getting to the story’s destination, it is the scenery and activities noted in the article that now need to be recorded on film. The cabins where the writer stayed, the view out the window and the lake locked in the ices of early winter need to be recorded on transparency film.

I start before daylight on Sunday, catching the hues of a winter sunrise. I look forward to the day when I can do this type of assignment digitally. It is great to see the results instantly and be able to edit them on a laptop at the end of the day.

The writer and his daughter had hired a guide to take them cross-country skiing along the edges of Maligne Lake. This was my next destination. My guide, Barry, is knowledgeable and friendly as we four-wheel along the icy roadway to the lake, pausing to photograph bighorn sheep, mule deer and a moose cow. Just out of camera range, I also spot a pair of timber wolves crossing a frozen lake.

Jasper Park in winter is a very cold, but definitely worthwhile, adventure. Down jackets, insulated boots and a wool cap make it bearable. A word of caution, however: Don’t wear wool gloves. The fine fibers may end up in your camera during reloading. Glove liners are the best bet; you can get them at REI or other good outdoor clothing outlets.

The following Monday morning I finish up around the lodge, photographing a steaming outdoor pool, and then shuttle to the train station for an afternoon departure.

Happy returns

As soon as we are under way, I start photographing the camaraderie in the lounge car in the fading winter light. I have one more specific image to make as we wend our way back through the mountains: Mount Robson, the highest point in the Canadian Rockies and a landmark on the rail route. The sun is almost gone as we near the 12,972-foot peak. When it appears, I have possibly 30 seconds to get a clear shot out the window of the speeding train.

After another overnight stay on the train, I arrive back in Vancouver early on Tuesday morning to catch a 10 a.m. charter bus to Seattle. When I arrive, I drop my film at the lab before heading home. The next day is spent captioning to meet my deadline of having my film on my editor’s desk by Thursday.

The deadline has been met; the five-day trip is but a fleeting experience. Months go by. The story has been published and paid for, and I am in the middle of another afternoon assignment.

My cell phone rings: Can I fly to Calgary in the morning to catch the Royal Canadian Princess train early the following morning, then fly back that afternoon?

Well, that’s my job.

Doug Wilson
Story Author: Doug Wilson

Doug Wilson is a Seattle-based freelance photographer specializing in travel and general editorial and corporate photography.

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