Saturday, 31 August 2019

A Trip into the Railroading Past (Alberta Prairie Railway)

A Trip into the Railroading Past (Alberta Prairie Railway)

Sometimes traveling doesn’t have to be an epic journey to be fun, educational and just a nice break from the everyday working world.  A good example of this is a day trip, and it is hard to beat a day trip on a historical train, the sort that might have been found 100 years ago on the great plains of North America, in this case Alberta, Canada. 

Depending on the day, and your luck, it might be an old steam locomotive or an old 1950s era diesel-electric, like the one shown below, which we travel led on during a lovely August day in 2019.
Alberta Prairie Railway is based in Stettler Alberta, which is about 2 to 3 hours from the main population centers of Alberta, the cities of Edmonton and Calgary.  Both of those cities have excellent international airports, so they are easy to access for visitors from all around the world.  During our trip, our coach-mates were from England, Austria, and the Netherlands, as well as from many regions of Canada (Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan and British Columbia), and of course, Alberta itself.

The railway primarily uses an old branch line, which is no longer in use by the major railway companies, to journey through the big blue sky country of central Alberta, on a trip that lasts for about 5 hours, including a great country-style meal at the half-way point.

Note that this is not the Rocky Mountain region of Alberta (though those are only about a three hour drive due west), nor the dry dramatic badlands (though those are only about an hour south), nor the vast ranch-lands of the foothills (though those are also only a few hours southwest); they are rather the fertile heartland of the province, generally known as the parkland.

The line does occasionally share some facilities with the modern railway business, such as these cars on a siding, which contain oil (the round dark cars) and agricultural products (probably wheat in the cars farther back), two of the mainstays of Alberta’s economy.  Though that does intrude on the historical fantasy aspect of the journey, it is probably appropriate, as railways have always been largely about moving freight and making money.  It is likely that 100 years ago, a lot of the rail traffic in Alberta would have been devoted to moving wheat, just as you would see today.

The passenger cars are about 100 years old, according to the patter that our train guide provided.  They have obviously been refurbished, but are in quite excellent shape, as the accompanying photo clearly shows.

The seating was comfortable and spacious, and the windows opened to provide fresh country air.  However, given the age of the cars, and the rhythmic jostling of the train on the branch line, people were cautioned to keep their body parts on this side of the open window, as there was always a chance of the window coming down on its own, as the train jostled, as trains will do.

The seating is assigned when passengers get their tickets, which can be arranged by a phone call or email.  We had our tickets mailed to our house in the city, but I imagine other arrangements are available.  The metal signs above the windows let people know to whom the seating has been assigned, so there is no potential for misunderstandings on that score.

Along with the passenger cars (our train had several of these), there is a “bar car” where you can sit and enjoy a beverage (alcoholic or not, as you prefer) and listen to live musical entertainment.  The bar car had a fairly decent selection of beverages, all things considered, at good prices.  They also had some snacks available.

I bought a serving of white wine for myself and my wife – it had to be served in a plastic cup with a lid and straw (and yes, it was a paper straw).  As you can imagine, carrying a properly stemmed wine glass on a jostling train was just not a sensible option.  Along with the bar car there is a concession car, with snacks, souvenirs, and maps, to help you plan further adventures in the area.

There is also an observation car, which is open to the elements and is a stand-up affair, which gives one a nice view and a chance to feel the wind in your hair.  As the sign says, the car was actually created by retrofitting a flat-car, to enclose it with walls, yet open it up with nice big windows.  At the leisurely pace that the train travels, there is no sense of danger when leaning up against the windows and taking in the sights, sounds and pleasant breeze of the countryside.

Along with the historical railway stock, the staff were also dressed in period costume (more or less) and role-played their parts as historical characters.  The conductors were dressed in appropriate costumes – I don’t know about the engineer, as we never saw him (or possibly her).

One of the main historical characters portrayed was Gabriel Dumont, a major figure in the Riel Rebellions of 1885.  The Dumont character acted as a tour guide on the train, mingling with the passengers and relating interesting facts about the early railroading days.  Among these was the fact that the standard railway gauge (the width between the tracks) could be traced back to the wheelbase of an early Victorian horse-drawn carriage, and that width could ultimately be traced back to ancient Rome, via the width of tracks on the old Roman road system.  There seems to be some controversy about that, but it makes for a good yarn on railway tourist trip.

Dumont as a railroader in the old Canadian West seems rather unlikely, but Wiki tells us that he actually lived until 1906, so he would have overlapped some of the early railroad era in Western Canada.  On top of that, he spent some of his later years working in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, so he was no stranger to performing and speaking in public. So, perhaps having a Gabriel Dumont character as Master of Ceremonies wasn’t as much of a stretch as one might think, at first.  It certainly could be considered dramatic license, though.

Dumont was also a crack shot, and that played a prominent role in one of the highlights of the trip, a “train robbery”.  The train was held up by horse-riding train bandits, though passengers were assured that the loot that the desperados were collecting would go to a children’s’ charity.  As you can probably tell from the passengers expressions, they took the “robbery” in stride, knowing that it was going to two good causes, our entertainment and a children’s charity.

The bandits were soon put in their place by our man Dumont.  A “gunfight” ensued, with the aforementioned crack shot Dumont eventually getting the better of the other contestants, before returning to the train.  Amazingly enough, the horses were not particularly alarmed by all the gun-play, as they grazed bucolically while the duel transpired.

The half-way point of the trip was in the small town of Big Valley.  The town had some appropriately themed “old west” shops and served an excellent buffet supper in the community centre.  Among other items, it featured fresh Alberta prime rib, which is as good as beef gets.  As it happened, I had attended a wedding on the previous weekend at the Edmonton Country Club, which may well be the swankiest  golf and country club in the city of Edmonton (1 million plus people), but the meal at the Big Valley Community Centre was easily as good as the supper at the high-end country club.  The rich eat well, but so do country folk, at least around harvest time.

We had a bit of time to kill in Big Valley, so we visited a fairly amazing old tool and hardware museum near the train station.  One of my companions was a heavy duty mechanic, so he could really appreciate the museum.  Apparently, the vast collection of old tools (from farm equipment to electronics) and some vintage automobiles were collected by a single fellow, with help from his wife, of course.  Among the collection was old Model T farm truck, a mint condition 1970 Chevelle, and a motorized bathtub racer.  Oh, and there is also a vintage doll collection, for the kids, collected by the wife.

By the way, another great museum, not too far away, is the Reynolds-Alberta Museum, which also has a vast collection of vintage machinery, including classic automobiles and aircraft.  My mechanic friend says it is great, and others I know that have visited the place have said the same.  I haven’t had the chance to visit yet, but I plan to do so, soon.

After leaving Big Valley, we headed back to Stettler.  People were digesting the excellent meal, so everyone was a bit laid back.  That put people in the mood to enjoy the entertainment provided, a sort of cowboy singer with a folksy and amusing patter between songs.  He managed to get people to sing along to some old classics, and just generally provided a nice capstone to the trip.  Unfortunately the picture is a bit blurry (train jostling, I guess) but you get the idea.

We got back to Stettler about 7:30 p.m. or so, which meant a two hour drive back to the city in the late summer evening of a pleasant Alberta day, which is always a pleasure.  A bit of advice – if you are heading to the train from Calgary or Edmonton, take the secondary highways.  There are plenty of alternative routes on the prairie and the paved backroads are generally much more scenic than the busy four lane Queen Elizabeth Way, which runs between the two major cities.


Alberta Prairie Railway website:
Wiki entry for Gabriel Dumont
Big Valley Tool Museum
Reynolds Alberta Museum
Now that you have read about some old-time train travel, you should read about some other interesting road-trip possibilities.

On the Road with Bronco Billy

What follows is an account of a ten day journey through western North America during a working trip, delivering lumber from Edmonton Alberta to Dallas Texas, and returning with oilfield equipment. The writer had the opportunity to accompany a friend who is a professional truck driver, which he eagerly accepted. He works as a statistician for the University of Alberta, and is therefore is generally confined to desk, chair, and computer. The chance to see the world from the cab of a truck, and be immersed in the truck driving culture was intriguing. In early May 1997 they hit the road.

Some time has passed since this journal was written and many things have changed since the late 1990’s. That renders the journey as not just a geographical one, but also a historical account, which I think only increases its interest.

We were fortunate to have an eventful trip - a mechanical breakdown, a near miss from a tornado, and a large-scale flood were among these events. But even without these turns of fate, the drama of the landscape, the close-up view of the trucking lifestyle, and the opportunity to observe the cultural habits of a wide swath of western North America would have been sufficient to fill up an interesting journal.

A Drive Across Newfoundland

Newfoundland, Canada’s most easterly province, is a region that is both fascinating in its unique culture and amazing in its vistas of stark beauty. The weather is often wild, with coastal regions known for steep cliffs and crashing waves (though tranquil beaches exist too). The inland areas are primarily Precambrian shield, dominated by forests, rivers, rock formations, and abundant wildlife. The province also features some of the Earth’s most remarkable geology, notably The Tablelands, where the mantle rocks of the Earth’s interior have been exposed at the surface, permitting one to explore an almost alien landscape, an opportunity available on only a few scattered regions of the planet.

The city of St. John’s is one of Canada’s most unique urban areas, with a population that maintains many old traditions and cultural aspects of the British Isles. That’s true of the rest of the province, as well, where the people are friendly and inclined to chat amiably with visitors. Plus, they talk with amusing accents and party hard, so what’s not to like?

This account focuses on a two-week road trip in October 2007, from St. John’s in the southeast, to L’Anse aux Meadows in the far northwest, the only known Viking settlement in North America. It also features a day hike visit to The Tablelands, a remarkable and majestic geological feature. Even those who don’t normally consider themselves very interested in geology will find themselves awe-struck by these other-worldly landscapes.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

The Mission to Jupiter’s Moon Europa (Clipper)

The Mission to Jupiter’s Moon Europa (Clipper)

Some time back (2017), I blogged about NASA’s upcoming decision about a possible mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.  You can check out that blog with the link below, which also has a lot of general information about Europa.

Europa is one of the preferred targets for the search for non-Earth life within the solar system, as there is every indication of a watery ocean below a permanent layer of ice, though we don’t yet know how thick the ice actually is.  The possibility of there being such an ocean was noted from results of the Voyager missions, during the last century.  Since then, the evidence for ice and water has only grown stronger (e.g. images and measurements from other probes, Hubble photos that seem to have spotted water plumes being thrown high above the surface, etc.).

That’s important, as NASA has a “follow the water” strategy, in its search for life.  The tidal disruptions that keep the moon’s ocean from freezing may also provide energy for life, and the chemicals that may be found at the ocean/crust boundary might provide the needed raw materials for life.
The ultimate mission would include a lander, and some sort of vehicle to access that ocean beneath the ice, to search for signs of life directly. Although that mission is still some time in the future, it seems as if a preliminary mission, a series of close encounters with Europa called “Clipper” is moving ahead to the next stage (as many as 45 flybys, one every couple of weeks).  The mission is scheduled for sometime in the 2020s.

The Clipper mission will carry out detailed reconnaissance of Europa, via a number of close fly-bys of the moon.  It will have an eccentric orbit around Jupiter, which will allow it to remain a safe distance from Jupiter’s intense magnetic field for much of the time.  That’s important, as the magnetic field traps highly charged and highly energetic particles from the solar wind, which are destructive to highly sensitive instruments, such as Clipper will carry.  Then, once each orbit, the spacecraft will swoop down towards Europa, on a fast and close flyby, and collect close-in scientific data.

The probe will carry a number of scientific instruments, including:

  • High resolution cameras, to take very detailed pictures of the surface, including “chaotic” features which may actually be where water has broken through the ice in the fairly recent past.
  • Spectrometers, which will help to determine the composition of the surface, by measuring the tenuous atmosphere and/or particles there, as well as the spectra of light coming from the surface.
  • A Dust Analyser, to investigate the properties of dust that may be in the high atmosphere of Europa, presumably ejected by the moon.
  • Ice penetrating radar, to estimate the depth of the ice (i.e. the distance to the under-ice ocean).
  • Magnetometers, to measure the strength and direction of Europa’s magnetic field in detail, which will also help discover important facts about the ocean, such as its level of salinity (salt in the water acts as an electrical conductor, which induces a magnetic field).
  • A Thermal Instrument (ultra-sophisticated infra-red camera?) to identify warm spots on the ice, where the water has “outcropped” in the recent past, or is still escaping to the surface.  If plumes are detected, it may be possible to sample them directly, and gain information about the under-ice ocean.

At this stage of the process, NASA has selected a number of research teams to propose and build the scientific payload described above (possibly other instruments as well).  After that (assuming the necessary funding is given) the instrumentation will be finalized and built and the details of the mission’s launch, flight path, orbit, etc. will be worked out.

Then, the mission itself (2020s), hopefully followed by the proposed Europa Lander mission, a few years later (2030s).


1 – Proposed Europa Mission, from 2017
2 – Facts about Europa
3 – NASA site, regarding the Clipper mission
Now that you have read some real science (astronomy and astrophysics), you should read some science fiction.  The Witch’s Stones series would be an excellent choice.  Alternatively, you could try the short story “The Magnetic Anomaly”, a SF story which includes plenty of interesting geophysics, including magnetic fields. 

The Witches’ Stones

You might prefer, the trilogy of the Witches’ Stones (they’re psychic aliens, not actual witches), which follows the interactions of a future Earth confederation, an opposing galactic power, and the Witches of Kordea.  It features Sarah Mackenzie, another feisty young Earth woman (they’re the most interesting type – the novelist who wrote the books is pretty feisty, too).

The Magnetic Anomaly: A Science Fiction Story

“A geophysical crew went into the Canadian north. There were some regrettable accidents among a few ex-military who had become geophysical contractors after their service in the forces. A young man and young woman went temporarily mad from the stress of seeing that. They imagined things, terrible things. But both are known to have vivid imaginations; we have childhood records to verify that. It was all very sad. That’s the official story.”