It was not the best accommodations, but it was too late to turn back because the train was gathering speed quickly and moving away from the road into the North Ontario bush. At least we were moving eastward and that was all that mattered.
Less than an hour out of Dryden, the train began to slow to a halt and as it did, the bell erupted with an ear piercing clang, clang, clang that continued uninterrupted as we pulled into a small station. We knelt down on the floor, hands over our ears, keeping our heads below the window. At one point the door opened up and the engineer peered in at us.
“If you hear that bell,” he said, “Keep your heads down,” and then he turned, shut the door and left. The train began to move again and finally the bell was silenced, but not for long. As the day wore on and the Sun began to set, the train made frequent stops accompanied by the bell that we now began to hate.
To make matters worse, the control panel would hiss and spit and send out a shower of sparks through the cab. Our attempts to close the metal doors over it were unsuccessful and in the end the three of us were resigned to huddle together as far away from it as possible, ever watchful for the sparks that threatened to set our clothes on fire.
Sleep was impossible and by morning all we wanted was to get off that damned train. Just as the Sun was rising, it came once again to a halt, but without the incessant bell ringing. I peered out the window and could see fields instead of trees. I heard voices and went out to investigate. I found the engineer and another worker struggling with wrenches and large crowbars on a wheel housing under a box car. We were only 10 kilometres out of Thunder Bay, so a decision was made to walk the rest of the way.
Terry Fox Memorial Park, Thunder Bay, Ontario (top); 2006 Hyundai Accent in Kenora, Ontario. Click image to enlarge
The freight train took about 16 hours to reach Thunder Bay, while the 2006 Hyundai Accent took just three and a half hours on the Trans-Canada and I was in Thunder Bay by mid-afternoon on Sunday. I stopped at the Terry Fox Memorial Park to admire the spectacular view of Lake Superior from the mountain top, but only briefly before going on again as I still had another 700 kilometres to go to reach Sault Ste. Marie.
The Trans-Canada Highway at various points along Lake Superior offers truly impressive views and even though it is probably quicker to travel through the U.S. to get to Sault Ste. Marie, I still prefer the over Lake Superior route.
But it is not a great road after dark. As the sun was setting behind me I spotted what would be the first of three Moose beside the road before darkness made it impossible to see anymore. It was uncomfortable, to say the least, driving in the dark, alone on the highway, knowing that there were probably plenty of these creatures around, but that I would not see one unless it was in my headlights. It was nearly midnight when I finally reached Sault Ste. Marie, tense, tired but grateful that the day was over.
Compared to the long stretch from Winnipeg to Sault Ste. Marie, the last leg of my journey to Ottawa was easy driving. Except for a newer four-lane section out of Sault Ste. Marie and the four-lane highway that bypasses Sudbury, the Trans-Canada Highway is much the same as it was 40 years ago: a busy two-lane highway.