This is a big post and includes many photos.
Tuesday 29th May
Today I was left all alone in the house. I have a head cold waging war in my umm err head. Donnis did not want me to go to her mums nursing home and spread germs. Joan went to work and I just stayed inside trying to keep warm and sleeping often. During those coldish waking moments I thought about the train trip with which we commenced our US and Canada journey. The trip began in Seattle, we changed trains in Chicago and again in Buffalo before arriving in Niagara Falls Canada. Originally the trip was scheduled for 4 days and ended being of 5 days duration.
I always had this want or need to go on a long train journey. A train with an overnight sleeper car and a dining car. Previous train trips were on suburban trains to go to work. Once when I was transferred for work I took a trip from Sydney Central Railway to Wyong a journey of only a few hours. Some years ago I went on a train from Taree to Sydney Central Railway. Although the journey was a few hours longer the train had a café bar. You ordered and paid for a meal from a limited menu and were given a coloured tag. When they called your colour you made your way to the café car to collect your meal which was in a foil container and you are given plastic cutlery. You take that back your seat and eat automatically. By that I mean no relish or enjoyment. You eat automatically. Imagine if you will all the people around you are eating a chicken casserole called on a blue tag. Others like me still have a green or red tag waiting on a call for our colour. It did not seem a civilised way to enjoy a meal.
The Amtrak meals were certainly civilised with table service, several choices plus sides, wine, soup and dessert. The table cloth while not being linen was white paper which was removed after each group f 4 finished eating. Sitting alone was not approved. Proper cutlery and crockery – well, the crockery was the Melamine type. Oh and plastic glassware and the coffee was served in take-away cups but the cutlery was real. We also noticed people were leaving a gasp shock horror, TIP. We had never planned to tip although Donnis who has been brought up in a tipping culture was afraid we would not get proper service unless we tipped. That seems like blackmail to me. One couple who we had several meals with, discussed tipping. I asked how much tip do you leave? She answered, this is my last $5 so this is all I can tip. Why do you tip? Because the staff only receive a minimum wage. Oh how much is that? We do not know. Then how do you know they are on minimum wage? Because…well …well because that is what we have been told. What if you are on a minimum wage, do you still tip somebody else on a minimum wage? Ummm don’t know. What about pensioners on a minimum fixed income, do they tip? Don’t know. They did finally comment that on their next meal they had no money left with which to leave a tip and they feel uncomfortable. On average they try to leave 15% of the value of the meal as a tip. In restaurants it is suggested the tip is 20% or 25%. On this train trip the average wait person would serve 10 tables per hour. The average meal would be $100 per table. Do the maths on an average of 10% tip per table, that’s an extra $100 per hour in tips. Tax Free! On top of the minimum wage. The service is no better or worse if you do not tip.
I did some research on minimum wages. US rates are all over the shop with 51 states having different minimum wages but averages out at $7.25 per hour. Almost slave labour with wait staff virtually begging for handouts. No wonder they beg for tips. Employers do not want to change the minimum wage as it is simpler to pay wait staff less and let them survive on tips. It’s less paperwork and less they have to work out meal prices to include a fair and living wage. Americans and Canadians for that matter think food prices are cheap. Mostly they are not. The advertised price might look cheap but once you add on GST – each province has a different rate – from as little as 5% to as much as 25%. Then a tip goes on top of that.
In Canada the average minimum wage is $11.70 and the same tipping game goes on there.
In Australia the average minimum wage is $17.20 with a rare occasional tip.
Recently we had coffee and a doughnut. We had to pay at the counter then wait for our name to be called to collect the coffee and take it back to the table ourselves. We used a debit card to pay. Instantly 25% was added to the cost for a tip. There was no service yet we were still expected to pay a tip.
Luckily the US has $1 bills so if you are the tipping type you can carry a big bag of small denomination money to pay all the little tips. On the train we never saw anybody tip with coins. They always threw notes onto the table.
Canada only has coins for small denominations – just like Australia.
Now back to the train trip. It was fun for the most part and we never got bored. For those contemplating a train journey and if you are a light sleeper or have trouble falling asleep, be aware a train journey may not rock you to sleep. It may rock you awake. If the train picks up speed to maintain a timetable the carriages will begin to sway side to side. There is also a very slight forwards backwards motion none of which seems apparent during the day. Then there is a clickety clack which you do not seem to hear during the day. As well, going through rural areas the driver is required to sound his horn when approaching crossings without warning lights. At night the horn sounds often. Again it is not something you hear during the day. If you get a chance to fall asleep during the day do so
Would we do another long train journey in the US? Probably not! For the most part normal coach seats are quite comfortable and have access to the same dining facilities. On journeys up to 12 hours I would agreeably do another train journey but not overnight. I did not fall asleep easily. I do not fall asleep on long plane flights either. I should also mention that as “room” passengers we were entitled to First Class Services where available. Chicago Union Station has a First Class Passengers Lounge which includes a baggage storage area. They also provide free food and drink which changes throughout the day. They provide lounge chairs, dining tables with chairs and benches for working on computers. Power outlets are beside almost every seat. Local TV and WiFi is included. I have no idea if there was a similar service at Seattle but we did not see such a service.
Finally try to preview the timetable. If you are expecting to travel through an area where you want to see special scenery be aware that some journeys may pass through that area at night. Our train went through the American Rockies which I wanted to see. Our train was 12 hours behind schedule when we passed through. Had we been on time we would not have seen the Rockies in daylight.
Wednesday 30th May
The day started quietly as I struggled with the head cold. Donnis and I planned to go to Costco before she visits her mum.
Then came the phone call from Ivan and Maia. “Do you want to go to Kicking Horse Mountain for a few days?”
“Be ready in an hour.”
Thursday 31st May
Ivan and I left for a hike. First we stopped at a conjunction of two rivers.
Kicking Horse River begins in Alberta and is fed by the snow melt from mountains on the north side of the valley.
The Columbia River begins in British Columbia and is fed by snow melt from mountains on the south side of the valley.
The rivers run westward on either side of the valley until they join at Golden and continue the westerly journey through BC as the Columbia River and enters the ocean in Washington State USA. Further east of the valley near Lake Louise another river begins, the Kootenay. This river heads south into Ohio and Montana USA. (readers may recall I mentioned the Kootenay as we travelled by train through USA) It then heads west then north back into Canada and joins the Columbia.
On our way to the walk I spied a small herd – flock – group – family of Mountain Sheep.
They had a couple of young in the group and all are losing their winter wool. I noticed one, a buck who seems to have had his horns shorn or perhaps even broken in a territorial clash.
Today we did a gruelling 9 Klm return hike to Wapta Falls which is on the Kicking Horse River. http://hikingwithbarry.com/2013/11/28/wapta-falls-yoho-national-park-hiking-bc
I must be very badly out of condition as the walk drained me, especially as we took no hiking poles or worse, no water. Later I realised we are high up in the mountains and oxygen levels would be far less than I am used to. Level walking or even walking downhill was no roblem. It was walking uphills when I suddenly found I was gasping for breath.
The falls drop about 15 metres and immediately pound against a large rock in the middle of the river. This creates a huge spray which billows up above the river. The walk was steep and with few places to step unless you have poles or something to lean on or fall against, such as a tree.
Mid- afternoon, after our hike, we drove to the small town of Field which has an inordinate number of guest houses…all with no vacancy signs. Towns such as Lake Louise and Banff have a high No Vacancy rates due to expensive rents for seasonal workers. This little town is only a half hour away from those centres. Field supplies guest house accommodation for those seasonal workers.
We had lunch at Truffle Pigs a fancy old restaurant instead of the planned diner which we found, on arrival to be closed until mid June. http://www.trufflepigs.com/lodge/
On the way home I spied a black bear on a hill above the highway.
We stopped and I jumped out to photograph the bear.
He was a little camera shy and annoyed but I had a steep hill and 4 lanes of highway between us.
I was sure I could escape into the car before he got down the hill. He trotted behind a log and hid, looking up occasionally to see where I was.
When he was browsing on all four legs he did not look so big.
Later as he stood and showed his full size I realised he was quite a mature fellow and by the look of his coat and size he is well fed even this early after the thaw.
The rest of the drive back to Kicking Horse was uneventful.