Railroading North America

16/ Jasper

16-jasper-main-drag-dsc06492-useme1DAY 16
Jasper, Alberta
Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I’m trapped in Jasper, Alberta, population 5,000, without good alternatives.

I have expected Jasper to be more interesting and lively than it is. The stores are closed and the season over. The people are mostly gone.

I have come here because this is where the train branches. From here one train goes northwesterly to Prince George and Prince Rupert on the coast just south of Alaska. The other train, The Canadian Train #001, continues on southwesterly for another sixteen hours to Vancouver.

Like my plans to go to Churchill at Hudson’s Bay, the train schedules have conspired to make a trip to Prince Rupert impossible given the time I have.

My trip must end on November 18 — two weeks from now. The trip to Churchill would have taken seven of my remaining day, and maybe more: CN the owner of the tracks is doing track work, could not guarantee its schedule. I could be trapped for days.

Prince Rupert, BC, is scrubbed for a different reason. VIA Rail has changed its schedule. In the old schedule I could take a ferry from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy on Victoria Island instead of backtracking to Jasper. The revised schedule means I miss the once-a-week ferry by a few hours.

So I am in a Jasper hotel. It is an amiable place. Gradually, I realize it is largely staffed young Australians.

I first begin to notice when checking into the hotel. The clerk has an Australian accent. We talk. He is stunned that I have been to Gunnadah in New South Wales. He grew up there.

“Nobody has ever been there,” he says. “Nobody even knows where it is.”

“I have also been to Moree,” I say.

“No! Good on you,” he says. “I notice neither of us are there THIS morning, eh?”

The help is game, but vaguely incompetent. When I order an omelet with onions, peppers and ham, I get cheese bacon and tomatoes. I look around: Did I get someone else’s omelet? There is no one else.

The next morning I ask for Tabasco and the waitress brings me Worchester sauce. “You had Tabasco yesterday,” I say.

“It’s now lost,” she replies.

Later I meet two Australian women clerks, saying to the first, “Sydney?” This is a complete guess. The girl is excited. “Yes!” She and her friends are puppies, full of life and fun. I look at the other: “And Sydney?”

The other young woman is from Adelaide on the south central coast. A company that hires and sends young Australians abroad to work hired them all.

“So this hotel owned by Australians?” I ask. No.

There are 30 young Australians working in the hotels here through the winter. “We’re having a right good time,” one girl tells me.

I have no doubt.

VIA Rail Canada is owned by the Canadian government, “The Crown Corporation.” I’m not sure I ever get this straight:

Is this a quasi-public organization that owns a lot of stuff, or is “Crown Corporation” another name for “government-owned”. My efforts to get it straight get me different answers, none definitive or convincing. I figure maybe a lot of Canadians themselves are sure. But when I probe this issue I seem to appear a bit addled and thick I decide that clearly what The Crown Corporation is, is clear to Canadians.

I decide to shut up and Google it. “In the Commonwealth realms, a Crown corporation is a state-controlled company or enterprise,” according to Wikipedia.

The best cable TV service these days is the furthest from civilization I have noticed.

In Jasper the TV has Edmonton stations, a day away by train. Local cable also carries Spokane, Washington, CNN and NBC and ABC stations from somewhere in either Washington State, Montana or Idaho.

Wherever the stations are, you can get a really good deal on a used car there.

It is election night. I settle in to watch the election results, flipping from station to station.

I check a web site in Florida to see who won my seat as water and sewer commissioner. The candidate I hoped to succeed me lost, but I have remained the highest vote getter in the history of the community. The public still loves me more than anyone else.

I drift through a Jasper grocery. Milk comes in five, not four, versions — whole, 3%, 2%, 1% and skim. I find “Artic Cod Liver Oil,” then a variety of liver flushes, and then check out a rack of metabolic-something-or-others. Whoa. There are several aisles of this. I never seen this much new age drugs even in the States.

I find Meghan working in a clothing store and we talk as I try on a leather hat. Meghan is from Saskatchewan, the province further east. I’m vague about where it is until she says, “it was dark — you slept through it” which is true.

Meghan likes living in Jasper because it is quiet and safe. “I can walk around at nights,” she says, adding, “We do have a bad element in the elk population.”

“Bad elks?”

“Bad elks will chase and butt you, and rough you up. They hang out down at the far end of the street by the tracks at night. They give the elk a bad name.”

“I’m safe if I stay away from the far end of the tracks at night?” I say.

“You’re safe if you keep an eye out for elks with red collars.”

Bad elks get red collars so you can see coming. Bad elks also hang out with the ducks, “so when you see a lot of ducks, sometimes, you know, better watch out: bad elks might be around getting ready to chase and butt you.”

I already know about the ducks. The ducks use the sidewalks as toilets. If you want to avoid stepping in duck poo, stay off the sidewalks.

I ask Meghan about this. “Yes, the sidewalks are duck toilets.”

It is worse than that.

When Jasper built new sidewalks, some ducks were willing to walk blocks to go to the bathroom on the new, clean sidewalks.

“Come on, really?”

That was Meghan’s story and she stuck to it.

Jasper was originally called Fitzhew. The town is built entirely within the Jasper National Park and all buildings are on parkland.

“The Crown Corporation owns the park?” I say, still hoping to find out who The Crown Corporation is.

“No, the Queen owns everything.” If you want to do anything you have to get a letter from the Queen of England.

“So, the Queen could come in here, build condos and put up a Wal-Mart?”

“She wouldn’t do that.”

“But she could.” I persevere.

“There are boards that would have to approve it — Jasper is very tightly controlled as to what you can build.” That explains the cell phone tower hidden in a neighborhood that is so close to the ground I could almost touch the top of it.

Has the Queen ever been here?

“She doesn’t hang around much.”

I have a sandwich at “The Other Paw,” a coffee and sandwich shop across from the train station. As I eat my sandwich I am staring at flower child posters that are more 1960s than the 21st century.

One poster with lots of small children everywhere standing on a bridge reads, “A bridge built with 7 billion parts will endure anything.” My favorite is a huge Cookie with a bite out it that seems to be floating in space near the Moon. It reads “there’s a secret place in outer space where fun looking cookies float all over the place.”

I ask about the posters, but the young clerk knows nothing about them and, tellingly, has not even noticed them. Another other clerk, standing on front of the poster that reads, “behind the clouds of today is a bright and sunny tomorrow”, says, “They came from New York, I guess. They’ve been here forever.”

How long is forever?

“I’ve been here since August; they were here when I got here.”

(Photograph, the main street in Jasper, Alberta, in middle of weekday)

Distance today: 0
Distance Total: 5,768 miles / 9,283 kilometers

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