It’s funny that just a week ago I was thinking to myself how laid back train hopping has become for me. Don't get me wrong, I still get all the joy in the world from it; but the days of heart stopping close calls, getting stuck in the middle of nowhere, and everything that came with train hopping in the primitive years, seems to have vanished almost as if I never have had to go through with it in the first place.
I attributed this to a certain wisdom that has come with years of riding and surviving those ever so exciting close calls. As train hoppers we strive for knowledge through experience. As time passed I rode the same lines over and over until each lines pattern became second nature to me.
The hot, anxiety, and fear that came with each trip in the beginning, soon turned into a cool, calm, collectiveness. Shit was Zen. Of course as with everything, the second you start to get over confident, life has a way of putting you in check.
I had just come off a five week film contract which had left my pockets flush with cash. The Movie was called CLOWN and one of the stars in it was Peter Stormare who was the wood chipper guy in Fargo, he also played Satan in Constantine alongside keanu reeves. On top of the great pay, they also feed you all day on set, so not only was I nice and plump near the end, I also managed to save all the money I would have spent on food, which for me is most of it.
The next gig was a few months away so naturally I was thinking it was time to roam. In the end I decided it was only fitting to hit the rails for some classic winter riding. Once I was done with freezing my ass off, the plan was to then head over to Cambodia for a bit and visit a buddy, swing over to Thailand and meet up with Bandita, then maybe hit up some freights there. I would then come home broke as fuck and start work on the next show.
The plan was fairly straightforward. I'd head to Toronto with Bandita (She was spending New years with her family) and then after saying goodbye ride North to Shreiber. The goal was to first head up along lake Superior during daylight hours. For some reason I have only been able to accomplish such a feat during the summer, and the past couple years it has always been dark when I have rolled through during the winter. This mostly had to do with being overly selective on what I rode due to the cold. Either way If I missed it on the way up I would just grab it on the way back, seemed like a shoe in.
Next I would head back south, check out Capeleau and spend a day or two there. Chapeleau is a refueling station and unofficial checkpoint along the CP main. I have been through there countless times, but have always been down and out of site. I was hoping to spend some time watching trains come in and do their thing so I could get a better appreciation for what was going on while I rolled through. I knew that they would refuel each unit and that it took about 20 mins per unit, but I wanted to actually see how it all went down from the outside.
From there I was thinking of riding further south back to Toronto then heading East depending on how I was feeling. Of course the whole time I would be camping outdoors. Winter camping is actually pretty epic if you have the right gear, which I did. However for this trip I made a major error in judgment which not only cost me my sanity, but also put my safety at risk. My trip was cut short, and I ended up coming home with my tail between my legs.
Chapter one - Into the abyss
The IM facility in which I was to begin my journey was literally located on the edge of the city. As we turned off the last paved road and onto a snow covered dirt road, I said goodbye to any ideas of warmth and comfort I may have had for the foreseeable future. The houses turned to scattered farms, then to old scrap yards like the kind you'd see in a horror movie.
As we approached the wye so too vanished the street lights leaving only the soft glow of the city in the distance. We said our goodbyes, I grabbed my shit, quickly jumped the gate, and walked out of sight. Soon after Bandita drove off back to the city, leaving me alone in the darkness with just the barren snow covered corn fields and the wind.
Standing in the center of the wye the main line ran North to South. The IM facility was to the West and of course connected to the main via this sexy Wye. Trains roll out of this yard at around 10 mph before turning onto the main which is perfect for catching on the fly. I walked to the north tip of the wye and off railway property into a farmers field to wait for my train.
I prefer to be off railway property whenever possible, and most of the time their territory ends not too far from the tracks anyhow. It greatly reduces the chances of getting nailed and for the most part I’d rather deal with a farmer over the RR police. Even though I was in the middle of nowhere I still like to make a practice of good habits, so I treat every situation the same regardless of where I’m at.
To be honest though, growing up I have gotten in trouble trespassing involving drunk rednecks a few times, and in the middle of nowhere that can be pretty dangerous, and a lot worse than dealing with cops; but those are stories for another time.
Since I was all suited up in a nice parka, winter boots, and heavy duty snow pants, I just sat in the snow and pulled out a smoke. It was liberating in a “I can sit wherever the fuck I want” kind of way. As I lit a smoke I gazed up at the red signal lights and over to the full but quiet IM facility in the distance.
What was really liberating though was the fact that this winter unlike any other I had decided to pass on bringing my bivy/winter military sleeping bag/ blue foam set up. For some retarded reason, well I guess the reason was Im retarded, I decided that my parka, snow pants and winter boots where warm enough that I could just sleep in them. It wouldn't be as cozy as my sleeping kit, but I wouldn't have to carry the fucking thing around either.
In the winter months my kit doubles easily, and when I’m on tour it can be a real pain in the ass to lug all this shit around. Not to mention if I need to bolt fast, or get into a small space, its almost impossible. So on top of all this excess weight, I have to pre think everything so I'm not stuck in a bad situation.
Worst of all is running after a train in knee deep snow with all this gear. I don't know if any of you have ever watched people do it, but its not pretty. picture a handicap kids with a one piece snowsuit, oversized backpack, lunch box and the works running after the school bus and you're getting close to the idea. As far as I was concerned it was a more than fair trade.
As I sat there listening to the wind it slowly began to get colder. By now it was around 11pm and the adrenalin of starting out was beginning to wear off. I surveyed the land and went over my strategy. Even though I have been places many times I still like to debate on my approach depending on what I want to catch exactly.
The plan this time was to wait at the wye and catch a slave as they rolled out. It was late and I had a good 15-20 hour ride ahead of me, so a warm unit was a welcome option. The train would first roll north out of the yard, then turning east and curving a bit south before finally bending back east traveling about 100 yards towards the wye. Of course once at the wye it would turn north onto the main.
The area was surrounded by fields so the only options to stay out of site where the ditches along the tracks. Of course the ditches weren't all too deep, so lying in the ditch close to the train wouldn't work too well either. Instead I chose the ditch off the main, south of where the yard connected at the wye. As the lead units pulled past me and turned north I would then get out of the ditch and head over and make my move.
If I waited on the north side of the tracks the lead units would be able to see back to where I was as they curved north. Even though it was night, it was a full moon and with the snow acting as a bounce it was fairly bright out. Again there was slim chance they would see me due to it being night, but either way I opted for the safer choice which was to wait on the south side, so as the leads past they curved out of sight from where I was.
By the time I was done my smoke I could already hear the chugging of two ac4400s revving up in the distance. As they crept their way north through the yard I could see the light from the lead unit pop in and out of view as they rolled behind another string of silhouetted double stacks.
Not long after the light from the lead unit came out of the yard and turned East towards the wye. Soon the entire field around me was lit up with bright light leaving only the small section of the ditch in the dark. I crouched as low as I could get as the leads rumbled by and I watched the light turn north. Once they passed over I got up and made my way over, already appreciating the free hands and not having to carry my bulky ass winter sleeping kit.
Chapter two - Into the Dark Cold Night
Behind the two big AC4400’s where about 5 cars of double stacks. As I made my way through the wye and up beside the train it quickly changes to empties, not what I wanted to see. 5, 10, empties in a row, then 3 or 4 full sets. I was still hopeful that this could be a good train, however as the train pulled out further I just saw more empties all the way back. As I stood next to the train looking back it soon became apparent that this one didn't have a DPU.
For one, they were running two leads up front, which on this stretch always reduces the chances of pushers further back. To boot they were running almost all empties which would have cut back on the need for pushers even further.
Once my worries where confirmed I had to make a decision. Do I stay here and wait for the next freight, or get on this one and ride in the cold. We talk about patience being a virtue when train hopping and really I should have just chilled and waited around. However as usual the thought of being left behind seemed more dreadful than me freezing my ass off on a moving freight, so I decided to jump it anyhow.
The Idea now was to ride three hours north to the next crew change and set up camp. From there I could chill and wait for a proper DPU. There I would be in the woods away from any big yards, and all the trains pulling through North would take me where I wanted to go.
By now the train was rolling by and starting to pick up speed. Each ride is an empty intermodal, all with no floor or any real poarch to ride safely. The train jerks its slack as they notch up and it begins to pick up speed, the hum of the wheels getting louder. “Fuck!”, Empty suicides for at least 20 cars back, its now or never. I decide I'd rather freeze on a train than wait for the next one.
I watched a couple cars roll by until I saw a ladder I liked. As it rolls up to me and by I run with the train a few steps, grab on with both hands, run a few steps further to match the speed of the train, then try to step up onto the ladder. Of course my snow pants catch on my pants and I can't raise my feet high enough to actually step on the ladder. I try again while running in the snow along side of this ever faster train as we roll around the wye.
Again I try to jump up but my foot comes an inch fucking short of the ladder rung. By now we are getting close the the northern switch which connects us to the main. Not wanting to run through that I jump up one last time and us my left knee to hold myself on the ladder.
As we roll over the switch I pull myself up onto my feet and climb the ladder. Thank god I didn't have to carry my oversized sleeping set up. I threw my pack down on the grate and had a quick look at the empty well. About 30 yards ahead is a level grade crossing so my next mission was to get out of sight quick.
From up top on the car grate I quickly gazed to the bottomless ride I have chosen. I could see the tracks passing through underneath with only the odd 4 inch ledge here and there to stand on. Everything is covered in a hard packed snow including the entire space under the grate which is where I plan on being.
While holding on with both hands I slide down and clear the snow off one ledges so I can get my footing. The crossing is seconds away, and as I watch the tracks fly by underneath me I wonder if this is the safest thing to be doing. Once I had a foothold in the well my next job was to clear out some of the packed snow from under the grate so I could slide in.
This is when my first mistake became apparent. Another retarded decision I made on this trip was that I thought I could get away with just bringing my work gloves. They are basically thin work gloves not really designed for keeping warm. I figured I would tour units for most of this trip so fuck it, didn't bring winter gloves. One less bulky thing to carry.
Well it turns out the second they get snow on them they get soaked. Within seconds of starting to clear the snow my hands where already frozen. To boot the other hand which was holding on to the train is already gone numb.
By now we are at the crossing so I duck down as the crossing lights ding past getting louder then trailing off behind us. Once we passed any view from the road I continued to brush away as much snow as possible from under the grate, despite my frozen hands. The train is going to pick up serious speed soon and I, A) want to be away from the open floor, and B) want to be out of the insane wind that will soon follow.
As I'm clearing snow I am trying to slide into the grade. With all my gear on I’m fatter than usual and the space is really tight. I remember back to days when me and Bandita would sleep head to toe together under these, now I can't even fit under by myself. Finally I manage to clear enough to slide in part way but its still tight as fuck.
By now my fingers are completely numb to the point I cant feel them past the knuckle. I'm a bit surprised that they would freeze that fast, but nonetheless they have. While my pack is still up top in plain sight I am down under the grate trying to take off my gloves and get them in my pockets to warm up. This is extremely difficult due to the tight space, but I manage to get them out of my gloves with my teeth, and into my pockets.
The whole while my train hasn't picked up any real speed yet. I can still hear the low hum on the rails below me. Through the grates I can see the cloudy night sky above me and the silhouette of trees rolling past. We roll through a couple crossings but still no change in the trains speed.
My fingers are still frozen after five or so minutes in my pockets and I’m getting worried. Not even on a train for ten minutes and I'm crammed under a grate with frozen fingers, great start. And to think I still have days of this ahead of me, and its only going to get colder as I head further north.
After about ten minutes my fingers start to hurt really bad. I was used to the itching that came sometimes from the cold, but this was a pain I have never felt before. Just wait it out, the pain will go away and the feeling will come back. I pictured my fingers black, and they sure felt that way, but I knew deep down it should be okay as there is no way one would get frost bite that quick. The whole while we are rolling north, now going under bridges and it began to snow lightly.
The pain in my fingers was brutal but the feeling came back somewhat as we started to slow down. As the sound of heavy breaks filled the air I wiggled my way out from under the great to see what was going on.
Up ahead I saw lights from a few factories and noticed we where pulling into a siding. Further up the siding there where lights flashing at a level crossing. Did someone see me get on, are they waiting at the intersection checking each car as it rolls by. Those are standard thoughts and I don't let them worry me too much, but I do get my pack close just incase.
We finally come to a stop 50 yards from the crossing next to this massive warehouse and I decided this was my chance to find a better ride. With fingers still frozen I climb out, grab my pack and climb down the ladder to the left away from the tracks where a train may pass. As I walk further down the train I kept checking up front for flashlights or any sign of people coming my way. So far the coast is clear and I continue my way back through ankle deep snow.
At this point I'm aware than if for some reason they did come looking for me my footprints would lead them right to me, fucking winter. On both side of the tracks where pretty serious fences running the entire length, not the kind you jump easily, especially with all this shit on. So I decide if for some reason they do come after me the best route of escape would be to run about 50 yards back to an overpass and then out.
As I'm walking I see farther back that there is a group of about 4 or 5 double stacks which I am hoping one of them has a decent ride. The whole while I am waiting for either another train to come roaring by, or my train to air up and leave.
It took about 6 minutes to hit the first intermodal. The walking wasn't too bad as most of the tracks here had been windswept so the snow wasn't too deep. I then proceeded to see which Intermodal was the best ride.
The first three cars were suicides but the last one was perfect. It didn't have a well I could ride it, but it did have a space between the grate and the container where I could hang out in safely.
Since I was only going one crew change it wasn't like I needed any real hiding space. Climbing onto the back I then cleared all the snow between the container and the grate making myself a nice little hang out spot.
Still nothing was happening as far as my train, no freight passing, just silence and a little snowfall. Behind me there was one more IM double stack, then autoracks stretching all the way back under the overpass and out of sight. To the front of me I could see all the way up to the front of the train along with the blinking yet silent crossing lights.
It was another ten minutes before a train passed. Seeing as it passed really slow I opted to get off and lay low beside the train. You can see a fuck of a lot from inside a unit and if for any reason they are looking they will see you. Even down in a well you have to hug the walls pretty fucking tight to be out of sight. A lot of times while riding DPUs I look at the wells to see what they see, and most of the time you see everything perfectly.
By now I could hear the units coming in the distance. Once the lead passed our lead he flicked his lights on high and I watched the light intensity on the containers behind me. and the light was starting to intensify so too was the sounds of the freight as it approached. The oncoming freight was going real slow and my only worry was that my train would start rolling before it passed and I'd have to move with it.
As the leads slowly roared past I climbed back up the ladder and looked up the train to watch her roll by. It was an intermodal heading south, two leads and double stacked as far as I could see. This was the kind of train I needed heading north.
It was massive and sure to have one or two DPUs. I love the sound of big ass trains rolling by. The hum of the wheels on the rails, the odd noisy ass car that rattle by, chnt, chnt, chnt...can't think of how to make the sound, but you know what I'm talking about. The odd generator on the side of a container. That one squeeky as car thats so loud you can only be glad you're not stuck riding that one. And the best sound of all, a chugging DPU as it rolls by. This train did not disappoint, and as the rear DPU buzzed by I thought to myself, “of course, all the other trains have DPUs”, murphy's law in full effect as usual.
Not long after the rear unit past my train began to air up and we soon rolled through the crossing and made our way north into the night. The farm fields quickly turned into dark forests as we left the city behind. The trees were all stripped bare poplars with just a thin layer of snow covering them. As my train picked up speed it also began to kick up lots of snow. Luckily I was behind a container and out of most of the carnage. I quickly thought about having to do this on my previous ride, “fucking idiot”.
It was now time for a smoke of course. So I sat down with my back leaning on the container and I pulled one out. It was about -5c which wasn't too bad even with the wind from the train. With the snow flying it actually created this amazing visual. The snow filled the air as we picked up speed like some sort of thick fog. As we would blow by a red light you could see the beams perfectly, then the train would turn a corner and the containers behind me would silhouette the light and you could see this red glow followed by perfect outline of the train behind me.
I tried to capture it on film but it was too dark. To add insult to injury whenever the snow touched my face or anything it melted. This wasn't so bad for me personally, but my camera was getting snow on it that then turned to water. I needed it for my Asia trip so instead of risking fucking it up I put it away. The worst part was after the water melted it would then quickly freeze and turn to ice. Hopefully It didn't fuck up my camera.
Anywhere that heat came out from would develop this growing layer of ice. The cuffs on my jacket, ice. The hood of my sweat shirt, ice. Top of my jacket, ice. Gloves, ice. By now I wasn't even wearing my gloves because they where pure ice and useless for keeping my hands warm. I would just keep my hands in my upper jacket pocket which was layered in a nice fleece. Along with my hands I also kept my camera batteries in there to keep them from freezing as the cold zaps the fuck out of batteries.
The snow started to really fly as my train hit 50 mph and we really began to rock it. It was pretty much a straight shot now to the next CC on a main line, so there wasn't going to be much Sunday driving.
As I finished my smoke it began to get colder and I decided to bundle up and grab some Zzz. The blowing snow was slowly covering me with a nice blanket as I lay back using my pack as a pillow. I pull my hood up over my head and with the melting snow hitting my face I close my eyes.
All was well for about 30 seconds, then the cold from the train itself starts to burn through my winter clothing. It wasn't cold enough to do any damage but it was definitely cold enough to make me really uncomfortable. For this reason I couldn't sleep and by now I was wishing I had my sleeping kit.
Normally whenever shit gets cold I can get into my winter sleeping bag and all is good. This time of course I didn't have any of that and I was already regretting not bringing it. I tried for the next hour to sleep, but no matter what I tried or how tired I was, it was a no go.
By the time we sided for the next Southbound to pass us, the clouds had cleared revealing a magical starry night sky. I used to love riding down in the wells on summer nights and staring up at the sky. Since you were in a well you couldn't see the land around you so it looked as if you weren't moving. But looking up at the stars they would twist and turn with the train.
Of course that was on a nice summer night, this was far from the case. It was a fuck of a lot colder by now and I gave up completely on trying to sleep. The view wasn't too comforting either. All alone on a Icy snow covered Intermodal in the night. Only lit by the cold blue light of the moon, not exactly romantic to me at this point in time. The condensation from my breath was coming out thick and freezing to my jacket.
Thoughts of being warm in Asia filed my head as I tried to find any kind of warmth I could. While stopped I saw a milepost which told me we were about halfway to the next crew change. Soon after the southbound roared past and once again we where off to the races.
With the sound of the wheels racing below I set in to try and get warmer once again. As I pulled my arms into my sleeves I heard a ripping sound. whatever I thought. I've had this parka since the winter of 93/94, what's a little rip. Once my arms where in my jacket it was a bit more bearable and I tried to rest as best I could. The whole while hoping we would be arriving at the next crew change soon so I could sleep without the wind and cold train pestering me. I wasnt looking out for milepost so I had no idea how close I was. I just lay there freezing reminding myself that for some fucked up reason I love this shit.
The ride seemed to drag on as one does when your suffering. I thought back to this ride on a unit and how it goes by too fast. Not the case when you're freezing your ass off, it felt like forever. The ice was only getting thicker all around me. Now the bottoms of my pants where frozen solid. The furn on my parka was also frozen stiff now due to the condensation from my breath.. I wasn't in any real danger of freezing, just extremely uncomfortable, but For Fuck Sakes.
At one point we passed a reduced speed under a bridge and I thought I recognised it. So I got up, popped my arms out of my parka and looked over the side confirming that we where indeed at the next Crew change. I grabbed my shit and got up on the grate by the ladder. There was a specific location I liked to wait for trains here. If they where rolling mid point DPUs one always landed within 10-20 yards of this spot, most of the time it was bang on.
As we rolled up on it I climbed down the ladder, threw my bag off, then jumped off into the knee deep snow. Soon after the train rolled to a slow stop and all was quiet. Relieved to be out of the wind and off that train I sat down and grabbed a smoke while looking over the train.
The moon had the place lit up really well. I could see the back of the train in the distance now, it was just before the bridge we rolled under next to a red signal light. After my ride there was one more double stack IM, then about 20 Autoracks, and finally a blinking FRED. On the other side of the train was another track which had a manual switch connecting the mainline to that yard.
Since there was no work to be done here the train soon aired up again and I watched it roll out. Car by car rolled passed with increasing speed and I thought about this train rolling through the night on the next stretch without me on it. Burning through the untouched wilderness, dark and frozen as it made its way north to where I wanted to be.
Earlier I had thought about staying on and freezing so I could get to where I wanted to be sooner. This train would have hit the lake during the day like I wanted, but that was 12 or more hours away and I suffered enough on just 3 hours. Not to mention there was a refueling station/checkpoint on the way and my ride didn't have anywhere to really hide from a busy place like that so Fuck it, it was best to stay.
As the FRED whined past me and out of sight around the corner, I was once again left in silence. I tried to do the math on the latest I could catch a train here and still hit the lake in daylight before I'd have to wait a whole other day. I heard my old train blow its ghostly horn off in the distance as it pushed on. I think my chances to hit the lake during daylight hours are fucked now. I finished my smoke and decided it was time to find somewhere to sleep.
Chapter 3 - Decisions, Decisions
With the adrenaline of getting off still coursing through my veins I had yet to feel the terrible cold that was about to sucumb me for the next few hours. I walked away from the tracks and down into the woods. The snow was now kneed deep for the most part and I told myself this should help in keeping me warm a bit.
I figured since I’d be using my new revolutionary sleeping kit I could pretty much sleep anywhere. So not being overly selective I found a spot by a fallen tree and lay down. Again the first 30 seconds where great, but soon after the cold from the ground crept in.
“For fuck sakes!” Once again I was reduced to putting my arms in my jacket, hence ripping even more of it, while trying to fight against the ever growing cold and fatigue. I tried sleeping in any and every position but the cold would always eventually creep in and fuck my shit up. I tossed and turned but just couldn't find anyway to be comfortable.
This went on for about 30 mins until I heard what I thought may be a northbound train coming in the distance. Of course, this must be the 12:30 Vancouver train I should have waited for back in the city. Now, there was the CNr main line that ran a quarter mile to the east on the other side of the lake which to the untrained ear can sometimes sound like its here. CN has different units so they make a different sound, but when they are far away it can all sound the same. I was really uncomfortable so I was lying there in the snow praying this was my train. It sounded like it was but fuck when you're not doing too well you have a hard time believing anything good.
Sure enough the sounds of engines grew loud enough to be beyond a reasonable doubt, so I got my arms out of my jacket and waded thru the snow towards the tracks. As the train rolled by I saw right of the bat that again there where two leads up front. “Fuck!, its okay there is still a chance of grabbing a mid or rear DPU”.
I made my way up onto the side of the tracks where at this point the train was still coming in fairly quickly, and had a nice winter breeze blowing along with it. As I saw the lead units turn around the bend and out of sight up ahead I looked back in hopes of seeing a DPU rolling my way.
As the sounds of brakes grew louder and the train slowed I looked back but could not see anything at all. I decided it was time to start walking back in hopes of a rear DPU. My only hope at this point was that the train would be short enough for me to see the back before having to walk all the way to the end for nothing.
The tracks curved past the bridge which is about 100 yards back, and if the train was any longer I wouldn't see the end. Well keeping true with my situation thats exactly what happened. The snow was shallowest closest to the tracks but of course the train is there still moving and I'm trying to walk along the train as close to it without getting my shit caught. The whole while rushing as fast as I can and trying not to step down the hill on the other side. This crew change here is usually only 5 to 10 minutes since we are basically in the middle of nowhere in a town of maybe 100..
The snow was ankle deep and with the weight of my pack and winter gear I got tired fast. Heavy breathing almost weesing by now but I have to push on. There is no fucking way I'm missing a DPU on a night like tonight. I think back and remember that I have never missed one yet, but that doesn't mean tonight won't be the first.
By the time I'm getting close to the bridge I’m almost too weak to keep going but I'm too close to give up. Any minute this train could leave and I'm not quite close enough to the back to catch it if it rolls by.
Shortly after reaching the bridge the train airs up and in seconds picks up its slack. FUCK!, it rolls back for a few feet then stops, I pick up my pace. Now on the other side of the bridge and the snow is deeper and its hard to get a footing. I still can't see or hear anything from the back but any car now and it will be in sight. The train starts to pull forward slowly and picks up speed. Still can't see the back, still deep ass snow tripping over the odd railway tie, and almost dead from the treck.
The train is speeding up almost to the point that It won't be safe to try and catch and I still can't see the fucking back! I was pretty much ready to lose hope when finally the back was in view, no DPU. I fall back into the snow and watch the last bit of the train roll out.
Two fucking IM’s no fucking DPU’s. That one would have got me to the lake during daylight hours, maybe even during a nice sunset, but thats not gonna happen now, fine whatever. After a moment of relief that I at least didn't miss a DPU, I started to make my way back into the yard. There is no worse feeling in the world than coming close and missing something you could have had. I can't handle rejection by anything else this world has to offer, but missing a train you wanted to catch will cause a man to slit his wrists. Since I was only going to settle for a unit, all was good.
I was all warm again from the recent workout, so despite not catching out I was in good spirits. I decided to play it safer this time and camp halfway between the Mid and Rear DPU point. Strategically this is always a better option as you can grab the mid DPU when it rolls by as the train is slowing, or walk to the back and be on the rear one by the time it stops. In the summer its not a bad sprint to the back, but with this deep snow and lots of gear, this shit just wasn't my thing.
As I walked back I heard the whistle of another train rolling by on the other side of the lake. It always amazes me how loud those engines can sound some times. Its almost as if they are right next to you.
I climbed up some rocks and over to a place we camp in the summer. Memories of camping by the fire, smoking cigars and getting drunk with friends seems so foreign now with everything barren and frozen over. I didn't need to ask myself why I was the only one here now.
I was still warm at this point, but I knew soon enough I'd be right back where I was, freezing and unable to sleep. Once again I settle in for a battle with the cold when I hear another northbound train coming. Fuck busy night! I was more nervous now than ever. By now it was around two o'clock in the morning and I was ready for some warmth and sleep. I figured if I missed this one it would be one of those 8-10 hour waits for the next train, so a lot was riding on this one having what I need.
Well sure enough, IM train rolls in with two leads up front and no DPU. As it rolled out I was feeling pretty low by this point. My schedule was all fucked to hell and I was probably stuck here for a good bit now. I walked back into the bush and tried to sleep.
As usual the cold kept getting in and despite me getting more and more tired I couldn't sleep. I tried leaning on my pack, but ass froze. I tired sitting on my pack but whatever I leaned on would freeze. I tired sitting on my pack and just leaning forward, that was warm but too awkward to fall asleep. Once again I ripped my jacked a little more and ended up huddled on the ground trying to sleep.
Not having clouds in the sky always makes shit colder and tonight was no exception. After about 30 mins trying to sleep I had it. I got up but couldn't barely move. I was fucking tired and almost frozen stiff, it was time for a fire. Even if I didnt ever get it going at least I was doing something and keeping warm that way.
Originally I had figured I'd just grab the next train so no sense in getting to comfortable, but it was at the point I was dangerously cold and it didn't feel like I was gonna get out any time soon.
I crossed over the tracks and down a hill away from the nearby houses that were on the west side of the yard. By this point I was so cold I was having a hard time warming up even when walking. Everything was covered in a few feet of snow, I had no paper on me, and my lighter was almost dead.
Normally I have my cooking kit with me along with shit I never use like one of those silver safety blankets (go figure). Duel, a writer/rider buddy of mine borrowed a bunch of my kitt for a cycling trip he did out east this past summer. I was hoping to grab it off him on my way through town but he was out partying it up with girls somewhere out of town when I rolled through so I was out of luck. Boy would that stove, fire gear and safety blanket come in handy this night, eh there Macky! But no, I had fuck all with me but a shit lighter to work with.
After finding a spot and putting down my bag I started getting pieces of birch bark together first. There where only about three trees in the area and they didn't have much to offer, but I figured even if I can't get a fire going I'll at least be moving and warm. The whole time I'm crunching through the snow up and down this hillside with my headlamp on wondering when I'll get warm.
After the birchbark I started getting more tinder, kindling, and building a pyramid around the birchbark. It was starting to look like a fire, but with no paper I was worried I'd only have one chance to get it going. If it failed I wouldn't have the heart to try again. I was just too cold and it was too hard to move.
The wood was harder to find as most of it was under the snow and covered in thick ice. I did manage to find enough that was above the snow to work with. The only shity thing was even if I got a fire started it was all dead wood which would burn fast. Great for heat but shitty for maintenance, as I'd have to work on it constantly to keep it from going out.
The whole time I was prepping this fire I was contemplating my actions for the next day or so. Should I stay here and wait for the next northbound? I'm so fucking cold though, it could be wise to warm up. Should I walk 30 mins into town in the morning and warm up, get coffee ext? But what if my train comes when I’m there, I'd lose my shit. Should I just grab whatever comes through so I'm at least going somewhere, even if I'm freezing? At least I'd be making progress. Or maybe I should just walk to the other side of the yard and just go back home? Cause fuck this freezing to death with no warmth bushit. Thoughts of Thailand and palm tree lined beaches filled my mind.
Either way each choice involved freezing for the next good while so I decided to stick with it and keep going with plan A and wait for a northbound. Once I got the fire going maybe I can then get some sleep and decide further action in the morning.
By the time I was ready to attempt sparking the fire it was around 5:30-6am and the sky was turning a dark purple/green. I had enough wood for a lazy mans fire so once it was going I could sleep and wake up the odd time to get it going again. The lighter was too cold to light but after a few tries I got it to light the birtch.
It went up pretty quick thanks to how dead the wood was, but at the same time everything went so quick it was like 911 emergency call until I got bigger pieces in and got it under control. The wood was all pretty damp to, so needless to say the fire smoked like a bitch. Half the time my eyes where burning from eye tokes but I was at least on my way to warmth.
Once I had the fire going I lay down next to it and took what warmth I could. As it slowly started to get light and with my mixed fatigue I was starting to see what looked like people standing on the edge of the yard looking at me. I really wasn't sure if it was someone or not but figured it was just me being tired. Some of the hallucinations I've had over the years train hopping after long hours of no sleep have been pretty crazy. I have learned to just accept them and ignore them as much as possible.
I’m not sure if this came from years of drug, specifically psychedelic abuse, or the effects of the cold and lack of sleep. Either way it can be freaky. So I just lay down and closed my eyes hoping no one was there. Not long after, as I lay in a C shape around the fire the warmth came to me and I drifted off to sleep. It took a bit to find the perfect spot to not get burnt yet stay warm, but once I did, it was fucking bliss. At last warmth and rest.
At some point a Southbound rolled through and I wondered if they would see my fire and call me in. But at this point though I really didn't give that much of a fuck and went back to sleep hoping they wouldn't give a shit. Not long after I was awoken again, this time to a Northbound rolling in. I was comfortable but forced myself to get up and at least go trackside and see what's rolling thru. Again it was an IM with two leads up front, and after last nights missed attempts I didn't feel like I was going anywhere any time soon.
I walked up to the tracks and looked down the line at what looked like a mid end DPU. I wasn't sure yet so I listened, but it was too far back for me to hear over the rest of the train. I looked harder squinting my eyes and listening for any sign waiting until the train came in a bit more. Finally I heard it chugging and I knew it was a DPU.
Quickly I ran down the hill in the snow to the fire and kicked as much snow as I could on it until it was out. By now the rear facing DPU had rolled past where I was. I quickly grabbed my pack and ran through the snow up the hill and after the DPU.
By now the sun was up as it was close to 9am. The DPU stopped right in front of a house that would not normally see the tracks, but it being winter had a clear view of both entrance points. I stopped behind the DPU and considered the chances of being seen by folks having breakfast or something. After the night I had though I just said fuck it, I'll take my chances. In some towns you get folks who just love calling in train hoppers. I remember once when I was starting out we jumped a fence by this shity house and then got on a grainer. The owner, some nasty sounding lady in what I can only guess was a moo moo called the cops. When they showed up she literally pointed her flashlight on on and said “they're right there”. The fucked up thing is they walked up and down the train past us a couple times and didn't see us. We lay there motionless amidst mosquitos praying to god, pretty sure we where done for, but they never fucking got us. Part of me thinks they saw us but said nothing because the lady was a bitch. Cause three of us were literally lying on the porch of a grainer with a slight raised side.
Anyhow I climbed up the front of the rear facing unit, but when I went to open the door it was locked? Where there some other riders on here and they closed it, was it really locked? I gave it a good heave and after a few tries it opened. I guess it was frozen shut from the cold.
I got inside as quick as I could, closed the door behind me and then made my way up into the unit. After a long night of freezing my ass off and missed trains, I was finally on something warm.
Chapter 4 - Back on track
The train sat there for a good ten minutes and although I was pretty sure everything was good I kept checking both sides of the train to make sure no one was coming. Not long after getting on though and the train began to air up. Now for those who have ridden in Units you're probably aware that the sound they make when pumping air isn't anywhere near as sexy as any other rolling stock when airing up. That slow hiss and ticking sound is replaced with what sounds like a nasty bathroom session. In this case though as usual its a welcomed sound. The train then rolled backwards slightly, followed by shaking to a stop as the power pulled against the slight hill. Then shaking a bit more we began to move forward. I watched the speedometer light up. 1 mph lights up red on the gage, then 2mph and so on around the wheel to 10.
The dial lights up to 10 mph then changes back to the start, but now the 1 has a zero beside it and is a 10, 2 became 20 and so on as it goes back around the dial. As we pick up speed past 10 mph I know all is well and we roll by the yard office and on our way north. Its an older unit but I could care less. I strip down to the basics, crank up the heat and pull out some beef jerky for breakfast.
The only food I had on me where two bags of jerky, the peppercorn kind to be exact. I figured it would take me up North easy, but then again I wasnt planning on the delay. Either way I cracked open a pack, put the radio to channel one and sat up in one of the chairs while marveling over the winter wonderland that was all around me.
This next section of track was mulit directional as CN and CP agreed to share their lines for faster service. So trains running north all took CPs trackage, and all trains running south took CN’s trackage.
By this point though not much mattered to me but catching some rest. I wasn't overly tired due to the sun being up but I can't resist crashing on a unit floor. There is something so peaceful about the soft hum of the engine and the sound of the heaters blowing while you roll.. The floor is prime real estate and even though most of the chairs on board go back to 180 degrees (why they do this I don't know, as I doubt they can all crash during the job) I prefer the floor.
Laying down on the floor with my pack as a pillow and my feet hanging over the stairs I drift off. I've ridden this route many times over the years and I've seen it all. So I didn't feel I was missing anything by sleeping. With my shity gloves and clothing drying by the heater and the soft rolling motion of the train all was perfect.
It was about 4 hours until the next crew change, then another 4 to 5 after that to a refueling station/checkpoint. I was pretty sure I wouldn't sleep that long, but to be safe any time I woke up I would get up and check the mile postings and markers for updates on my progress. SInce the further north we went had less and less in the way of landmarks I had to rely on the postings to keep up on where we were.
Doing the math it looked like I'd get to my destination after midnight. Of course with the scenic stretch being right before my stop and it getting dark around 5-6pm there was no chance I'd be able to film or get any pictures of that stretch.
I briefly pondered getting off one crew change early, but after the last night I wanted to be warm in the train for as much of the night as possible. I'll just get it on the way back I thought to myself and kept on sleeping. My real concern was I'd get there around Midnight and have to spend the whole night freezing.
We rolled through a city which I briefly woke up for, then back to sleep. I completely slept through the next crew change and woke up somewhere in the great white north. The trees had changed from scrawny poplar and birch trees to heavy evergreens, maples and oak. Of course it was all covered in a crazy amount of snow, but it looked amazing.
I sat by the back door and lit a smoke. Watching all the boarded up summer homes next to the tracks along the way I think to myself how cool it would be to own one of these shacks out in the middle of buttfuck nowhere. Or even better one of these long since abandoned and half caved in farm houses of old. Just sit and drink in the sun and watch freights roll by all day. That would be the fucking life!
There are a lot of small untouched lakes up here, so magnificently covered in snow. The tracks in many parts wind along the side of the lake. At times I catch a glimpse of the lead units up ahead, but looking back I can never see if there is a rear DPU. I make it my mission to see the end of the train at some point. So for every long ass corner with a long view back I tried my best to see the last car on the train until its was too dark to see, but no luck.
As we approach the refueling station I gather up my gear in preparation to leave the unit. It takes about 20 mins to do each unit, and with two leads up front I know I will be there for an Hour minimum. With less than ten miles to the yard I exit the unit and prepare to get out of site for the next hour and a half. I've heard talks about hiding in the bathrooms through these but honestly it's too close for comfort for me.
A couple years back me and Andrew were riding a rear end unit when it broke down. Long story short they ended up bringing it up front and it went from being a rear end DPU to being towed as the second lead. To make matters worse at one point the train just couldn't go on so they pulled into a siding until a crew cab could come pick them up.
I see one of the crew coming back to our unit so we grab all our shit (it was winter) and the both of us cram in the washroom. This guy comes and sits in the cab talking to himself, no Idea we are huddled in the washroom. The whole time he is saying to himself “don't get sick, don't get sick”, and I'm thinking great hes going to come to the washroom and BAM!
To make matters worse the crews pick up driver is on the radio saying the roads are too bad and can they walk out a bit, but this fuck is like “no come here with your car”. So for the next 20 mins while they wait for the car (which is now stuck in the ice up the road) Me and and pour Andrew are crammed in this washroom with all our shit so tightly packed we are practically kissing. Its so hot were sweating bullets. I was at the point I was just gonna bust out and be like dude! their ride finally came and we got out of there. Our train wasn't going anywhere so we had to hike out to the highway to hitch a ride onwards. On the way out we past the now stuck taxi, which the crew had left behind for a different ride. Nice guys. So ya I’d prefer to avoid those close calls.
Things go smoothly at the checkpoint and we are back on our way in no time. The snow covered trees have now turned to Ice covered trees as we head ever further north. Adding in that it had begun to snow and it was all really amazing to see. As time passed it almost became a complete white out. Seeing the thick ice on the trees I was glad I was inside somewhere warm.
By now it was starting to get dark. One more smoke and back to sleep i went. I was feeling kind of shity from sleeping most of the day and I knew I should have stayed up, but I just couldn't help it. So I dozed off again but this time in one of the chairs with my foot up on the dash.
Next thing I know I'm falling and I wake up in horror for a second. Due to the vibration of the train, my leg shifted over and fell. For a second I didn't know where I was and for some reason had a vision of falling between cars. Seeing I was intact and had my legs I thought alls good back to sleep for a bit longer.
I had 2 more crew changes until it was time to get off. With it being dark and all the flying snow it was almost impossible to see any mileposts. After getting up I put on my headlamp, opened the window and stuck my head out in hopes of seeing one pass. The snow was so heavy and we were going at such a clip that it was a complete whiteout outside. Whenever I stuck my head out the window, the wind was so intense that I couldn't breath. So after about 15 minutes of trying I gave up and tried the front. Heading down the stairs and out the front door wasn't any better. I didn't have the wind in my face but it was still a complete white out.
I was a little worried at this point as without knowing where I was I may get off at a siding in the middle of nowhere and be fucked. The crew change I was to disembark at was in the middle of nowhere. It was a little town that you can't see back here from where the train stops. I was stuck there for a day and night last year same time so I knew it pretty well, but it looks almost like any other siding you would see on the road.
I kept trying through the next few hours to see a milepost or a marker but no matter which way I did it I couldn't register anything. By now we had passed the last crew change before I was to get off. My jerky was gone and I was hungry for something more substantial to eat. I was hoping that there would be a store open in town when I got there, but knowing small towns everything would be shut and I'd have to wait for morning.
We arrive at the next crew change and I was confident it's the right stop so I risk it. Shreiber is surrounded by rocky hills and lush forests, and its actually pretty scenic when you add in Lake Superior.
I grab my shit and walk along the side of the unit to the back and then off. As usual I stop and wait for my train to leave. If you spend enough time on a train you get kind of close to it in a way, so I alway like to watch it head off and say my goodbyes, if that makes any sense.
walking into town through even deeper snow now (even on the tracks) and sure enough all the stores are closed. It's 12:30am and now I have to ride out the fucking night without sleeping gear again. Its a fuck of a lot colder 15 hours north but at the moment I felt okay about it.
It was warm enough as long as I kept moving, but the wind from the lake was blowing pretty good in some parts of town. Snow drifts filled every sidewalk and this place looked like something you'd see in a movie. Not a car or soul moved in the streets, just me and the wind.
By the time I was done touring through part of town it was around 1 am. It was pretty much a ghost town at this point, and everything was shut down. After a bit more walking I found a place out by the highway that opened for breakfast at 6am.
Okay, I can kill 5 hours no problem. The restaurant is part of a building complete with convenience store, gas station, and a laundrymat. Its right on the transcanada highway and I believe greyhound busses stop there for a rest stop. Of course it was all locked down so I'd have to wait until morning to get out of the cold.
I was hoping to film some of the lake at sunrise but it was a good hour and a half walk out of town and I wasn't up for doing that walk twice. So I opted to TRY and sleep in the bushes across the highway and go for breakfast when it opened.
So I find a nice little spot at the bottom of a cliff by some ski-do tracks and give it a whirl. Its pretty cold up here and from what I gathered it was -15c not including the wind chill blowing off the great lakes. As with before the same issue with the cold coming through kept coming up so I couldn't sleep.
It didn't take long for me to get up and try to find a better place in town to sleep. At this point anything out of the wind, or off the ground would be a drastic improvement.
By now it was still only 2am or so, four more hours to go and I'm getting really tired. I walked the town but there isn't much there, no public buildings to sleep in, no doorways or anything. I just need to get off the cold ground, I don't care if its heated, but I can't find anyplace.
To make matters worse there was a heavy cop presence in this town and well, I stuck out like a sore thumb. Why am I here at this hour walking around, How did I get here?...oh I hitched up here to do some winter camping..oh no sleeping bag or tent?.....If they stopped me it would have been a tough one to get out of.
I toured around like a zombie for about an hour until I found a bank. I decided I should try to take out money to see if I have access to any cash; as opposed to just ordering breakfast at the restaurant then finding out my balance is too low. I had a nice chunk of money at home in the form of work cheques, but I didn’t cash them so I could save it for Asia.
Sure enough I had funds, and even better the banks vestibule was heated. Now this was a small town and the vestibule was tiny. To make matters worse it was all glass of course and it was right on the main downtown street of this little town. If anyone drove by, especially the cops, they would see me. It was warm and I really wanted to sleep but would it fuck me in the long run.
I went back outside for a bit but after dealing with the cold again I told myself I just have no choice but to get warm. Back at the bank and its 3 am. I sit down on the ground and lean up on my bag and pass out by the window. Waking up and its 3:30 and all the snow and ice that had built up on me is now making a massive mess.
On top of my leg going numb and being uncomfortable as hell, this is so fucking ghetto. I hate sleeping where people could come by while I'm passed out. I normally have a hard time sleeping in these cases but after last night I was so beat I just stuck with it. The whole time hoping no cop drives by and sees me passed out by the bank machine. I woke up every half hour or so until around 5am when a car stopped outside and the driver was looking at me. I got up, stretched as if I was leaving and they drove off.
It was new years eve today so the bank was closed for the day, which was a good thing. As usual here I am sitting and looking at all these bank adds with happy people and all their investments, nice houses ext, and I'm stuck huddling by a bank machine like a bum, figures.
Even though it was early as fuck and new years eve, some people may still be going to work in the am and I didn't want to be at the machine if they came in. So I moved back by the door, sat on my bag and fell back asleep against the glass one last time as the town outside started to wake up.
I woke up just after six and was excited to get a warm breakfast. It was a bit of a walk to the highway and still dark but it was all good. Although arriving there I go inside the building and make my way to the door for the restaurant. As I get there I see a sign that reads its fucking closed for new years holidays! You gotta be fucking kidding me!. Luckily the gas station was open on the other side of the hallway. So I went over and bought some water, snacks like almonds and shit and of course some cans of food so I could cook a meal later.
I grabbed a warm coffee on the way out which tasted like piss and sat at the laundromat for a bit as I woke up. The goal for today was simple. Head down to the lake to do some filming and take a few pictures, then head up the tracks and catch a southbound along the lake for some epic day time shots. I was fueled up and back in good spirits despite another shity night and was looking forward to the day.
The walk to the lake was nice and it was still dark as I made my way out of town and down to its frozen beaches. From outside town its a 2 km trek downhill on a non winter maintained road. Snowmobilers rode on it all the time though, so it was nicely packed and easy to walk on. The only shity thing was I’d have to walk all the way back up and out in order to get to the Southbound catchout spot.
Arriving at the beach was epic. Everything was frozen except for the lake itself which was casting huge waves on the icey beach. The beach was covered in a sheet of ice and when the waves crashed down it made a really cool sound that I'm at a loss for words to describe. It was a frozen and barren rocky landscape which was a far cry from the summertime tourism sign in town.
As the sun came out I starting getting the shots I was looking for and all was good. The only issue I had was that the cold was killing my batteries. I had yet to take the time to charge them the past few days and it was coming to haunt me now. I also wasn't planning on going back to town before catching a train so I was going to have to conserve them as much as possible.
By the time the sun was fully out I was ready to make my way back up and wait track side until a Southbound rolled through...with a DPU of coarse. THe whole time I was taking pictures and then walking back up I was listening for a train wondering if one would come by and I'd miss it. The longer time passed with no trains and the closer I got to the spot the happier I felt about my chances.
Chapter 5 - Here we go again
Today was going to be a good day. So what if the last two nights sucked ass. I put my time in and I'm due for some shit to work out. The walk uphill was a tough one but I made it. Just before town i took a left and cut into the bush. Not long after I was up on the mainline and walking back to where I hoped I would soon be catching a DPU.
It was around 9:30 am when I got to the spot i was hoping to grab a ride at. Even though the sun was out it was extremely cold. It was that biting cold that burns the face. When the sun came out it was bearable, but with the clouds coming off and on I spent most of my time with my parka hood on and closed up.
I was feeling good about my chances but as noon came and went I started to get worried. Only a couple more hours until it would be too late to get day shots of this ride. It was way too cold to hang out here another night and I was thinking to myself if this train doesn't come until after dark then fuck it I'm taking it anyhow. As much as I would have loved to document the scenery it wasn't so important that I needed freeze to death over. Besides if I froze to death here overnight I wouldn't get the shots anyhow.
I decided to play it safe and start making a fire now just incase I get stuck there for any length of time. The woods were a lot thicker here and it would be hell to do this at night. I played a game with myself in which every time I walked down the line and around the corner to check a signal light, I would come back with as much wood as I could find.
Due to the cold I wanted to move a lot so this worked out great, and in no time I had enough wood to last most of the night it need be. After a few hours there where footprints everywhere like some army had passed through. By two o'clock I could hear a Southbound in the distance. This was literally the first train of the day in either direction.
Now due to the tracks running along the lake you can hear the train a good 15 to 20 mins before it actually gets there. At first of course you aren't sure if you're just hearing something, but praying it will be your train. Then you hear it, but pacing back and forth it goes away again. Listening more carefully all your thinking is that its the highway nearby playing tricks with you. You start singing stupid songs about how your freezing and you would like a nice warm chariot to take you away. Then once you know its your train your adrenaline starts pumping and the thought of cold is out of your mind.
When this train pulled in I filmed it as it passed, then made my way down to the tracks and immediately started working my way back just incase. The next section of track was not quite a bridge but a narrow section filled in between two hills, steep on both sides. There wasn't much room to walk with a moving freight on one side and a sheer drop on the other. But once again old wizehop is knee deep in snow and booking it like a retard chasing the schoolbus.
There was no Middle DPU in sight, and to make matters worse this train stopped for less than five mins. Before I even got close to the back it was airing up. As it began to move I tried to book it back determined to get a rear DPU. I would run back one car then take a break out of breath, all the while she's picking up speed.
This train was my only chance at catching that stretch during daylight hours. At this rate It would be sun set for part of it and would probably be sick as fuck to film. I contemplated just riding outside on a double stack but the thought of the snow fucking up my camera shot that down pretty quick. I was hoping to film a doc in Cambodia (non train related) and sell it to get my money back from the trip so I needed this camera. Not to mention after the night I just had freezing on a train for the next 4-5 hours didn't interest me.
The train picked up speed fast and it was already going too fast to catch safely by now. I remember telling myself hell or high water I'm going to grab that fucking ladder if it takes my goddamn arm off. The whole time I'm watching it whiz by me at increasing speed, and I'm like “okay the ladder is low on the unit and its a proper step, if I jump like this...no it wont work dont even bother”.
Of course the last part came around the corner and no DPU. “Fucking Bitch, why the fuck am I doing this in winter. Its too fucking cold to ride outside and the days are so fucking short to wait around for units!.” I was not happy about missing the train but again it wasn't like I was going to ride it anyway.
I contemplated waited for the next train right where I had stopped, but it was windy as fuck there. No sun came through the trees and well all that work I put into a fire would be worthless. After a short sad smoke I made my way back up the tracks to where I was earlier. The snow was really deep to boot and I had to stop a few times to rest.
It was only getting later by now and I was really starting to think I was fucked. It was way fucking colder up here and after last night I was already a bit kooky. I decided to walk into town and get some more snacks along with some booze for the ride if the LCBO was open. It didn't look like I'd get my shots in so might as well get loaded.
After a brief stop at the gas station back in town, I then headed over to the liquor store which was luckily open. I decided on a mickey ( I believe you yanks call it a 5th?) and a few tall cans. Of course they only had Canadian whiskey in the smaller bottles. Don't get me wrong I love Canada and all it encompases but FUCK the whiskey we make is absolute shit. This is where I hear oh Gibsons is good or Wisers is good..NO its all fucking shit. Its sweet as fuck and it tastes like ass. Always a guaranteed hangover the next day to. There is no good Canadian Whiskey or Rye period.
My issue is if I get a 26er and beers I may get too drunk and risk passing out on the train through an inspection and get woken up by the OPP. This sounds silly, but when I'm on trains I get too excited and I can't control my behavior. Not wanting to risk it I give Wisers another try and after grabbing a few tall cans I make my way to the cash.
The lady at the cash is friendly and of course right away picks up on the fact I'm not from town. I tell her ya Im winter camping down by the lake all alone, and she asks where I’m from and then is like you came all the way up here? And I’m like ya its nice here, I came through here a few years back with a friend and fell in love with the place. The girlfriend is visiting her fam and I’d rather be freezing my ass off up here all alone.
It was as close to the truth as I could go, but when I told her I was going to drink on new years alone I felt kind of retarded, but hey it was the truest fucking thing I’ve said yet. She tells me its supposed to be the coldest night of the year and I’m like oh no problems, I got all my winter gear, I'm good to go. Then she asked if I drove there and I said ya of course. I paid for my shit, said goodbye and then she watched me leave and walk away in my car.
Alright, stocked up on some more food, got some booze, all I needed was for my train to pull in and it was party time. So by now I accepted I wasn't going to get my Great Lake shots. There was no fucking way I could justify freezing my ass off here another night. I still could hit up the check point tomorrow and spend a day filming it, so all wasn't lost yet. Since I've only ever rolled through I was still excited to see what goes down there from the safety of public property.
As I walked back to the spot the sun was starting to set. I was hoping now that the train would come in the night, I could have a few drinks and catch some Zzzs. I would get to the refueling point by morning, film all day, then come night sneak out on the next train. Again nothing had been working out so far so it was now time for shit to go proper.
Heading back I watch a Westbound GM roll through and the boys inside drop me a friendly wave...yes gonna be a good night and I throw a salute right on back. I get back to the spot and pack up the latest additions to my stash. It was really cool having everything fit in one bag, but man would it have been nice to curl up warm in my sleeping gear and take a nap.
From here I waited a good couple hours and it only got colder as the sun sank behind the hills taking what little warmth it had with it. I spent most of the time just pacing back and forth trying to keep warm. My feet hurt which was strange at first, but it turned out the frozen snow on my snowpants was somehow melting into my boots. My socks where soaked and my feet were fucked. I changed into a dry pair which helped a bit, but I was still fighting the elements on a serious note by now
As the sun set I decided it was time to light the fire. It was depressing to do as it was admitting I was going to be there for a while, but I was just too fucking cold to hold off. The night before I had grabbed a few CP worksheets from the train to use when lighting the fire. For some fucking reason they don't like to burn to well and did fuck all for me.
This fire was tough as hell to start and when I finally got it going none of the wood burned very well. I spent a good 15 mins fighting to keep it going, but after another 15 I decided it was too much effort and if I had to sleep by it the fire would be out after 5 minutes of closing my eyes.. there was moisture inside everything and the wood just wouldn't burn. As I threw snow over the fire the last bit of warm light left leaving only the depressing cold light from my headlamp and darkness.
By now the sun was below the horizon and the scenic view of the lake was lost in the darkness. I went back to pacing up and down listening for any sign of a train. Not long after the next Southbound rolled in. I was ready this time to fucking run back the second it rolled by. I ducked down in the woods and as soon as the leads passed I jumped down and was about to run when I looked up at the train as it rolled by and was like WTF?!
It was a special train like one I've never seen before. It was too dark to photograph but wasn't anything too out of this world. The whole train was made up of these massive grey cylinders that were about as high as a double stack and rounded. They where hollow in the middle and some didn't have the covers on the end and you could see massive ladders that ran down the centers of each.
Each section was two car lengths long and the Siemens logo was printed on the side. I stood there and just looked up in awe as they rolled by wishing it was summer so I could ride this fucking train...but being winter there was no way.
Once again though it didn't have a DPU and I was left out in the cold, alone, and now in the dark, freezing my fucking ass off. I was starting to lose my mind, both in the fact that it was starting to feel like no train ever would come, and also because the past few days of cold and no proper sleep was catching up to me. I’d been waiting since 9am and it was almost 7pm, and I was getting colder by the second.
By 8:30 pm and almost 12 hours waiting in the cold the next train comes. Same strategy, the second the leads unit rolls by I'll jump down the hill and burn it back. I won't stop moving until I hit a Unit, hell or high water. If its a mid DPU ill grab it as it rolls by and if its a rear DPU I'll be closer to it by the time the train stops. Because god knows with this snow and the narrow walkway it will be a trek and a half to the back of the train.
As the lights from the lead unit light up the tracks below I put on my headlamp so I can see as I run along the side of the train. Two units blow by followed by general manifest rolling stock. Thats fine, a lot of trains will have 20 or so cars of general goods, then a whole train of Intermodals trailing, this could still be good.
I book it as fast as I can but the more the train pulled in the more I realised this was strictly a GM train. It was strictly grainers, gravel and sealed up boxcars for as far back as I could see, which wasn't far.
This was it! I was sick of waiting around and being cold as fuck. I was ready to get out of there hell or high water. so I decided to grab a grainer and just go. As the train slowed down I watched as each grainer rolled by looking for one where the brake end was on the front and the back was clear and open. Just before the train stopped I found a nice grainer to climb into. Before I got on i tapped the cars to see if they were empty or full to try and gauge how long this ride was going to take or what my chances where of getting left on a siding. Sure enough it was full which was a bit of a relief. Still a low priority train but it had product so it was going somewhere.
The train sat there for about five minutes in which time I squeezed in along with my pack. Not long after settling in the right side cubby, we aired up and began to move. It was pitch black inside but I had my headlamp to light the way. The familiar sound of grainer filled my eardrums and I was happy to be heading off, good riddance to this icy hell.
As we picked up speed I was excited to once again be on the road. I was sure the metal from the train would soon get cold, but I was at least out of the wind and be on the move, which was a heck of alot easier to deal with than waiting for a train that may never come. My gloves were soaked and frozen of course, but they still added a layer between my skin and the icy cold metal of the train. Once inside though my hands went back into my upper pockets.
We didn't end up rolling too far and before I knew it we had slowed to a stop. I looked outside the cubby hole and we had stopped right in the yard. “Fuck me!” here we go on a fuckin GM train that's going to take its sweet ass time.
I looked over to my right and notices we were parked next to the Siemens train. Then my mind raced, did this train pull into the yard in order to let a high priority IM train roll by..Maybe an IM train with a DPU, and here I am stuck on a fucking Grainer in the dark about to freeze.
As we sat there the cold began to set in and looking at my bag o booze I was a little depressed to think I couldn't get drunk on a nice warm and spacious unit. Then I thought about my canned food, my bakes beans, my puritan soup, and my Chili, I won't be able to cook it on anything as MAC had my stove. The more I sat there the more I didn't want to be on the grainer. Thats when the slack broke and we began to move.
Fuck it, I thought, I suffered waiting all day for a goddamn unit, two nights freezing my ass off with no real sleep only to catch a grainer? screw this shit, I'm riding a goddamn unit. I don't care if its freezing out i'm gonna catch one and enjoy my shit even if it kills me. Its a 15 to 20 hour trip back to Toronto, might as well do it in style. By now we where picking up quite a bit of speed. Trains always pick up speed fast when you don't want them to ehhh!
I rush to make my way out of the hole as fast as I can grabbing all my shit as I do. We are starting to haul ass now as we are getting close to leaving the yard. I turn on my headlamp and check both compartments making sure I have everything and it looks like I do. I throw my pack over one shoulder, which isn't the best way to climb about on moving train ladders but I don't have much time. As I climb onto the side ladder I know we are now going fast enough that I will bale when I hit the ground. It doesn't bother me too much as I'm determined to get off this train now, and well the snow is deep right. Once again I'm warm from adrenaline and excitement.
I toss my pack and watch it bounce and roll along the snow, then jump after it falling hard into the snow. It was pretty deep so it was a soft fall and I didn’t hurt myself at all.. The train is almost flying now as it whizzes by my head. In less than a minute the FRED blows by and I'm left in its blinking red light with the echo of the train heading off into the distance.
As I am still technically in the yard I quickly make my way to the Siemens train which is blocking me from my exit. Crossing it was a bit tough with all my gear but I found a place to climb up and over. On the way over I climbed inside of the tubes just to check it out. God only know what they are but they're cool nonetheless.
Finally crossing over to the other side, I made my way up along the train and out of the yard. The snow was deep as fuck along the outside but there was a huge rock face that ran all the way back to town so I had no choice but to hike it. It was a good 40 min walk through town back to the other side where I was to catch out. I didn't seem to mind and even took a detour stopping off one more time at the gas station hoping to buy some more water ext. All this deep snow trekking was making me thirsty, but they had closed early for New Years.
It was almost 10 o'clock by now and it was looking like I was going to be spending new years alone freezing my ass off, too cold to even drink. I drank a shit ton of water outside the gas station and began my walk back to the catch out spot one last time.
Chapter 6 - The Winter Fox
Once again I’m warm from all the walking and I was feeling good about my decision to drop the grainer and catch a unit. I walked the streets that are starting to feel familiar by now as I make my way to the other side of the town. There isn't a soul in sight, just the wind blowing snow over the barren streets. The only life in town were the swinging street lights that dictated orders to invisible cars.
The snow was blowing across the roads creating this white river like feel to everything. I walked past the empty schoolyard, then further on down past the closed home hardware which was advertising wood stoves inside. The local bar was even closed up which was a bit of a surprise with it being new years and all. Again it was a complete ghost town.
I figured everyone was already at someones place warm and celebrating new years eve. On the way through downtown I passed the bank and prayed I wouldn't have to retreat back to it again tonight.
As I'm walking down the last street, passing the last streetlight and final home in town. I see what appears to be a dog following along side me about ten yards away to my left. I look over and to my amazement it was actually a fox. He was your typical orange and white fox with black feet and he was all fat with his winter coat, and he was just prancing along like we where best of buds..
As I walked and looked over at him he just walked and looked at me. This was really cool but I wasn't sure how to take it in. I stopped for a sec and he kind of jumped back and just looked at me. I was like “its okay dude, its all good” and I started walking. He kept his distance but kept following me again.
We walked together for about 40 yards then he went off into the dark. I walked into the woods and up onto the train tracks towards the catchout. It was dark out here and the second I hit the tracks I was back into the freezing cold. There where no lights on any of the signals and I was starting to second guess my decision to stay out here.
It was colder than it had been yet on this trip and I fully bundled up closing my parka as much as I could to fight off the burning sensation in my face. I was really starting to think to myself how much of an idiot I can be sometimes, when I look back towards town and what do I see.
The fox was walking along the left side rail towards me silhouetted in the moonlight.. He was walking all nonchalant like a cat and he just sort of pranced his way over to me. He came right up to me and stopped. I said hey and he kind of jumped back, but still seemed interested in me. He then took off up a hill to my left and into the dark woods again.
At this point I think my delirium was starting to kick in and as I watched the woods wondering if he’d come back out I thought I saw a really big fox. Not just a fluffy one but this hairless monster of one standing in the bushes. I looked closely and squinted my eyes at it, and it looked like it was standing there behind some trees. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, but I was thinking it may just be a rock. It didn't look like anything that would be real as it was fucking nasty looking, but it freaked me out none the least. Of course it didn't move which made it all the freakier. I decided to ignore it and go back to pacing back and forth on the tracks.
Soon after our friend the fox shows up again and comes over to me and just kind of stands there checking me out. He saw my bag but wasn't overly interested in it. I figured he was probably after food of some sort, and seeing as he didn't seem to into a fat older train hopper meat, I should see what I got for him.
I can hear the hippies in my head at this point going on about how you shouldn't feed wildlife. That may be, but I was freeze fucking cold and buddy was hangin with me so I reached in and got some almonds. My dads dog loves em so I figured why not a fox. I toss him one and he indeed loves almonds. So me and the fox hang out and have almonds together for the next bit. My hands where getting too cold to eat with so I put the rest away and put my hands in my pockets to warm up.
I fully expected the fox to go away but he just hung out. He would watch me, then go along the tracks and eat up small bits of grains that had fallen off passing grainers, then come back to me. Then he would go up on the rocks and put his nose in the snow almost like he was burying grains or something. Then again he would come back to me.
I was freezing cold by this point and could only think about being warm, but I had to get him on tape even for a second since I knew people probably wouldn't believe that I chilled with a fox. I took out my camera and got a few shots of him, but my hands were freezing so I put an end to it pretty quickly.
“Alright man, I gave you some almonds, now you give me something. When is the next fucking trains coming?”. Silence, he just sat there looking at me. I just went back to pacing around my spot, which had gone from 40 yard of pacing in the morning, to a hard packed three foot circle by midnight.
By now we were minutes away from New Years and I was losing my mind. I didn't pay the fox much attention as I was too cold and tired to care about anything. We where just there together, doing our own thing. As new years came in I started getting text messages from friends.
“happy new years buddy” ya you too, Im freezing my fuckign ass off. For some reason it made me feel better to vent that fact. “ Haha man you're fucking crazy”. I'm fucking serious, I'm gonna die out here!” I could picture everyone all warm at some party getting fucked up, and here I was in the middle of nowhere freezing my ass off.
By this point I was so tired and beat down I was starting to sleep while standing in the middle of the tracks. I would just close my eyes for a second but I would dream instantly. The cool thing was in a way I was aware of it, and could kind of come in and out of it. I closed my eyes and I was looking through an old slide at something in a yellow room and this Indian doctor was talking to me about it.
I would open my eyes and back in the freezing cold. And then close my eyes again and boom no more cold just these weird ass visions while I kind of rocked back and forth on the tracks..which where nice. Open my eyes and back to freezing. I decided to see if I could sleep since I was obviously tired. Sitting on my pack and leaning against a tree seemed to be the best bet, after all trees aren't cold right...wrong.
In no time I'm back on the tracks and worse than ever. I decided to call bandita as hearing her voice would be comforting. We talked for a bit and I again felt good telling someone how fucking cold and tired I was. I could almost pretend I was there through the phone, but in reality I was far from anything alone and cold.
She was worried about me and told me I should go somewhere warm. I thought about that fucking bank vestibule, but what risk missing a train to only be stuck here longer? I definitely couldn't bare another night there but it was coming to the point where I didn't have a choice. I couldn't go on. The condensation from my breath was freezing over my parka so from time to time I had to open it up a bit.
“Get a hotel for the night, just get warm”. I thought about it but its so late, are any even open, plus I don't know if I even have enough money. I spent what I had on food and booze, now I'm stuck. The more we talked and I thought about it, the more I wanted to get a good nights sleep. I asked her if she had any room on her credit card to help me out and she said she would try.
She found a room in town which was something like $40 a night by the highway and I was like “perfect, are they open?, she said “yes” I thought about it a bit more but I was just so cold and tired I was ready to give up. Again though it was a good 40 min walk to the highway, would a train come in that time.
“What about a bus back to toronto”? Bandita looked it up, “$250 one way, next bus is not until tomorrow at 11am” whaaaatt. 250, thats fuckinggg retardeddd and even then, no buses until tomorrow.
After some talking I decided it was worth trying to get a hotel. Then maybe tomorrow start fresh and get those daytime lake run shots in. Bandita called and tried to book it for me but the owner said NO, because she thought I was going to bring people there to party...seriously?! Um lady, I'm fucking freezing to death here, but she wasn't having it. Back to square one.
It was a tight spot but I told her I will try to catch the next train no matter what. If I can't get out on that train I'll fucking go find a hotel by the highway or go sleep in the bank. It was a super low moment. If only I had my winter sleeping bag none of this shit would be happening.
My feet were freezing and sore, my fingers where numb. I was tired as fuck and starting to see shit. My face was frozen and I was cold to the bone. It hadn't even been 48 hours and I was already destroyed.
“Wait a minute I think I hear a train” I said. “Oh fuck, please have a DPU, I'm worried about you” bandita comes back. “Ya Im pretty sure its a train. This is it, make it or break it.” This whole trip it has always come down to the last minute so this had to be my train. I told Bandita I would call her back with results either way and hung up.
Chapter 7 - The Midnight Special
The fox was now gone but my attention was on getting the fuck outta here on a unit. Over the next 10 minutes the sounds of the train came in and out of focus while I got ready for action. As the tracks light up in the distance I could here the units powering down for the crew change ahead. I climbed up the rocks and into the woods as the lights finally shone my way and intensified.
This is fucking it, it all comes down to this. I put on my wet and frozen gloves which hurt to wear. Headlamp was on check, got all my shit, check. The whole while the lights are getting brighter and the sound of the train was getting louder. Where I am hiding I was at the same level as the windows for the units, so I could see them as they rolled by perfectly.
I ducked behind a tree as the leads pulled past and the second they did I jumped out. Two up front, I jump down and make my way towards the back. The snow is deep and I'm already weak. As every two cars passed me I need to stop for another two to catch my breath. My fingers are in pain and I have to keep putting them in my pockets to try and warm them in any way.I keep walking as much as I can but I keep needing to stop. I'm getting worried as I literally do not have the energy needed to push on, but I must.
The train slows to a stop and for the next 50 yards I don't see any signs of a unit. This is a massive train and if I have to walk all the way back to get a unit I wont make it. Five minutes pass and I still don't see a unit, but the train hasn't aired up either. I am trying to push on but I can't and more and more I need to stop. The snow is deep, its hard to get my footings on the tracks, I'm not going to make it.
Time seems to be flying by but I'm getting nowhere. Its so hard to walk when the train is on one side of you and right beside you on the other is a sheer drop off. It wasn't so steep that one would get hurt, however if I slipped down I wouldn't be climbing up in the snow and ice any time soon. Pushing on I turn of my head lamp as it seems to be limiting my view more than helping it. Im getting warm again and I already want to take of my hat. Come on Unit please, just fucking be there, I need this.
I’m feeling pretty shity about it all as I'm getting slower and slower with each step and I still don't see any lights up ahead. I keep looking and listening for any kind of sign when I think I hear something around the corner in the dark. The thought of going back to town or having to take the bus fill my head, but I literally can't get anymore strength to push faster.
I go a bit further and stop to listen, trying to hold my breath to hear. Wait a minute, yes I can hear a unit around the corner, but its still too far too see. This is it, there is a unit on this train but I need to get to it before this train leaves. I pick up my pace but nothing changes, I still need my breaks. Any minute this train is going to leave without me and I will be fucked. I am so stiff from being cold I don't know if I could catch this train if it was on the fly, I'm literally on my last legs.
I walk up four more cars and it comes into view about 10 cars further back. FUCK, its there I can do it. The whole time I'm wheezing and stumbling expecting this train to leave. Four more cars and the train is still stopped, two more and I'm within striking distance, and then I make it there. There in all its glory sits my savior with its ditch lights on and a gentle idle rumble.
I was so weak and out of breath that I had to stand there for a sec before climbing the ladder up the front. The engine was purring and the lights up the ladder where such a welcome site. Please don't be anyone in here so I can enjoy my salvation, I thought to myself. Not that I hate people, but I had dreams of getting drunk, eating and passing out with room to spare. I wasnt up for sharing space or even really talking to anyone.
I climbed up the ladder but my hands were so frozen I couldn't grab the rungs completely. Up the ladder I went and I opened the first door. Out of breath I opened the second door and I see a pair of striped stockings sitting in the middle seat. “Hey hows it going”? I say. I was disappointed but whatever I'm freezing to death and company on a warm unit is better than being back out there at this point.
I briefly think about asking if its okay if I can ride with them, but I know I am not getting of this unit so there is no point. As I head up the stairs I look up and realize there is no one sitting there. WTF?! I threw down my bag as I got to the top of the stairs and I went to look out the back side door. I look at the door and its open and there is a pile of snow that had been building up in the cab. Okay am I seeing shit or what! Outside I see a guy way at the back corner leaning on the railing. I look back out the door for a minute squinting at what looks like a person but again they're not moving.
The train hasn't aired up yet at this point and as I close the back door I accept that I'm alone. Still out of breath I go to the heat switch which is off. So I turned it on as it was quite cold in there. The windows where iced up from the heat being off and the door being open for god knows how long. I turn it on but the heat didn’t work.
Seriously, all this and I get a unit with no heat, of all the times in my life, this is the one that has no fucking heat! The stove still works so at least I can cook, or maybe even use it to heat the place..but no heater, wow. I then briefly looked for the breakers before sitting down on the top steps and trying to find my phone.
My fingers where still frozen solid and I couldn't even feel anything I touched. I went through every pocket I had and couldn't find my phone. Did I seriously lose my phone while running after this train? Should I go back out and look for it? Kidding. No its gotta be here. After searching through my pockets a few times and all over the cab I found it and tried to dial Bandita.
My hands weren't working too well but I managed to finally dial her. “I fuggin made it. just barely bud I fuggin am on a unit” I was so out of it and frozen I couldn't speak. It didn't matter though as she was happy I was safe and warm.
My previous predicament had stressed her out and while people were celebrating new years she was worried sick for me. when the shit hit with the hotel owner her mom had wished her happy new year and Bandita snapped on her. So now we could both finally celebrate New Years in comfort. As we talked the train aired up and we were off.
I talked to Bandita about seeing the fox and she went into the spiritual meaning of seeing one as. And then all about power animals and such. Maybe seeing the fox represented a new era in my life. I'm not normally into that stuff but under the current circumstances I couldn't help but feel there was maybe something more too it. It gave me a lot to reflect on with another year passing and me getting older. But really what better animal to represent a train hopper than a solitary sly fox.
I regretted in not putting more effort in spending time with the fox in that moment. Its not everyday you get to hang out with wild animals like that and I pretty much ignored him due to the cold. As we started to pick up speed I said my goodbyes as ones we left town there would be no reception for a good 5 hours.
I searched the cab for the heater breakers and thought to myself wouldn't it be funny if I looked over the camera footage and I was just alone talking to myself the whole time. Finding the breakers I reset them and got the heat going. As we passed the yard office I sat back down on the steps and let out a sigh of relief, My finger where still frozen but I was sure they were going to be okay.
That last bit of frozen hell was enough for me to throw in the towel this trip. I had gotten in two days what usually takes me a couple weeks. I love the feeling of getting back from a tour all bruised and battered.Even though I didn't accomplish anything I set out to do, I did manage to get some hardcore suffering in which was fine.
You see for me suffering is a form of premature enlightenment. Since you're too busy focussing on the pain here and now, you don't dwell on all the stupid shit in your head. Maybe thats why I do shit like this, fuck up my body so by brain can catch a break.
The train broke down a few times on the way back and it ended up taking me over 24 hours to get south to the city. It was ample time to sleep and I ate all three cans of food in warm bliss. My beers had frozen while waiting for the train, and anyone who has ever tried to drink frozen beer know how it gets.
I sat up in the chair and cracked the beer, stoked at having a cool tall boy in a warm cab. Of course it was mostly frozen so I was sucking out the bits of froth when I could. Well I guess at one point it started thawing out faster than I though. I slammed the can back to get a swig and half the can poured out onto my black hoodie. Stunk like fucking shit I tell ya. So on top of my stench I now smelt like some dive bar washroom.
The trip was a nice one and other than the delays was uneventful. I slept most of the way and it went by fairly quick. Sure enough by the time I got off the train the next day around 4 am, Bandita was there waiting for me with a coffee and Tim Hortons chili
Its been two weeks since that fateful weekend and most of my senses are back. Surprisingly the tips of all my fingers where numb straight up until a couple days ago. Yesterday three of the fingers peeled off a good 2 to 3 mm at the tips, leaving a sexy pink underbelly. On a set of already dirty hands they look pretty awesome to be honest.
The second day back I lost the use of both my thumbs to the point I couldn't use a spoon. I think it’s more carpal tunnel though, or worst case I'm getting MS, but like I'm going to go get tested for that shit. I'd rather just fall into a train one day when my legs give out and that be that...
My feet haven't fared so well. I am assuming they received more damage from being wet. For the first few days they hurt quite a bit. To be honest though thats a norm for me and I actually kind of like it. However my second toe on my right foot has gotten number with each day. Again I dont think its frostbite but I do wish it would go away.
This was the first time I have ever actually worn any type winter boots, normally I just have a shity pare of docs. It scares me to think how my feet would have been had I worn them.
Anyhow moral of the story here? Simple: pack what you need to be safe and don't try to cut corners. Winter is not to be fucked with and I guess it took me 33 years to learn that one. Will I ride in the winter again? of course its all I ever think about. I can assure you though I'll have all my gear with me the next time!.
Two more days now and I'm off to Cambodia. I have no doubt soon enough I'll be sweating my balls off wishing I was hanging out with the fox freezing instead. Ain't that how it always goes. With any luck I'll also be hoping trains in Thailand in a month or so. If you don't hear from me again I'll be rotting in a Thai Jail.