Hivernal Voyageur -- VIA Rail #603 Montréal to Senneterre

Hivernal Voyageur -- VIA Rail #603 Montréal to Senneterre

Departing for the remote forestial regions of Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Mauricie in the north of Québec, #603 is arguably one of the most unique, spectacular and under-appreciated rail voyages in North America.

07:45 February 24 2016

Montréal is immersed in a gentle snowstorm. VIA Rail #603 from Montréal to Senneterre awaits us, nestled deep below the underground warmth of Central Station.

The voyage to Senneterre is long -- about 717 km or 13 hours each way. Senneterre is not a particularly well-known place, nor is the little train -- composed simply of one locomotive, a baggage car and a 1950's era stainless-steel passenger carriage -- which makes the journey three times a week.

From the start of boarding, our train seems to have a unique air. Harried suburbanites form whirling throngs as they alight from suburban trains. Long boarding lines assemble for intercity trains to Ottawa, Toronto and Québec City. Our departure to Senneterre, however, is relaxed and unassuming. There are no lines for boarding: at 07:45, the gate is opened without ceremony. We descend to track level. Just eight passengers board for #603 to Senneterre, with another modest handful embarking on #601 to Jonquière. Both trains are attached together and operate as a single 'joint-train' from Montréal until Hervey Jonction, where the two trains are separated and continue on to their final destinations.

These little trains are considered essential services. Funding is provided primarily by government subsidy, ensuring a reliable year-round means of transport -- most especially in winter -- to isolated First Nations communities, as well as hunting, outfitter and winter sport camps located along the line. Most of the trip is off-grid, with no internet or mobile phone service.

I have purposely selected to undertake the journey on a quiet winter Wednesday. The train is not always this empty, with locals, trappers, hunters and adventure sport tourists filling the train much of the year.

As we take our seats -- each passenger is afforded a complete row of spacious seating to themselves throughout the entire journey -- there is a feeling that we are departing for a place not just remote in distance, but almost unimaginably remote from life in the big city; a place that feels very far away. We travel along the ancient outposts of the Hudson Bay Company, to places evocative of hearty voyageurs and the Log Driver's Waltz; along this railway line, we return to an untouched Canada of another time.

08:15 February 24 2016

We depart on-time. We are enrobed in snow and will remain so throughout our entire journey. Winding first westward along the busy corridor tracks connecting Montreal with Ottawa and Toronto, then traveling north and finally northeast, passing through industrial, suburban and then exurban Montréal.

09:10 February 24 2016

We move at what seems like our own pace, and then pick up speed after our first stop in Joliette. We then forge our path through barren winter farmlands. We appear as a chimera, an illusion, bright green and yellow, plowing a path through the unique whites, grays and blues of a snowy winter dreamscape. Inside the heated comfort of our spacious carriage, the enormous windows afford us an unmatched view, capable of framing and aggrandising the majesty of the landscape. Trees, barns and hydro towers pass like tiny islands -- visible, sturdy, noble -- yet indistinct, existing at an uncertain distance, like a blurry winter mirage.

11:19 February 24 2016

We arrive in Hervey Jonction, a fork in the line where trains #601 and #603 detach and prepare to depart in different directions. After a few minutes, #601 for Jonquière departs, following the eastward track to the right. Then the switch is flipped and we depart westerly for Senneterre, towards the most remote part of our journey, entering deep forest and welcomed by the full majesty of winter.

13:10 February 24 2016

About 45 minutes outside of Hervey Jonction, our speed reduces and we delicately begin to cross the Pont de la Rivière du Milieu. 60 metres high and 121 metres long, it is the highest railway bridge in the province of Québec.

16:30 February 24 2016

The track is excellent, with maximum speeds of 50mph throughout the line. The gentle, engineered swath at times hugs the line of deeply frozen rivers covered in freshly fallen snow, and then at once is tucked in between steep rock faces and evergreen forests, rising up from all sides, snow covered and silent. Our train, and the occasional chalet, are the only exceptions to the totality of Nature here, and the peaceful life of the winter forest.

Throughout our journey, we make a number of unscheduled and requested stops at remote points along the line, in addition to scheduled station stops in larger towns. Hearty adventurous types who have spent days alone in the forest wave down the train. The engineer reverses and the crew helps load the gear into the baggage car -- enough to survive for days in the remote winter forest -- as well as canoes, ATVs and coolers full of fish and game carcasses.

17:26 February 24 2016

As the gray light of day begins to fade to the striking blue of a snowy winter dusk, our little train reverses on to a side track.

In a maneuver repeated many times during our trip, the engineer trudges through the deep snow and changes a manual switch, clearing the main line and allowing a fast freight to pass us. After tearing past, loaded with fresh cut logs and processed wood, the switch is realigned for the siding. We return to the main line and continue on our way.

19:23 February 24 2016

As our train comes to a stop in small communities along the way, the station is often the only light which betrays the darkness. Inside a tiny resto-bar located next to one station, bearded locals are warmly aglow in the wood-paneled chalet motif of the interior. They look out, as I look in from our stainless steel carriage. What must it be like to live so deep in the forest, watching the only connection to the outside world pass in one direction today, and then returning the next, without much ever changing in this noble, remote community? Our eyes meet, and we greet each other with a wave, as our train departs and slips gracefully into the winter night.

Train whistles echo through the night forest. We rumble over remote snowmobile crossings. The interior lights of our carriage are dimmed for sleeping and beam a ray of light upon the snowy darkness, which rises and falls with the lay of the terrain. I pleasantly lose all sense of time and place. As we carry on through the winter night, all at once it seems like no time has passed at all.

21:32 February 24 2016

At last, we approach the end of our journey: Senneterre, Québec. Population 2,952. We are hailed first by the lights of a lumber mill on the outskirts of town. In the distance, there is a subtle, iridescent orange glow rising above the town which is unique to those tiny outposts located in impossibly remote places. Silent and reassuring, it's distinctive light rises to greet us. Just four passengers alight.

Happily we arrive just before the last shops have closed. The streets are wide, snow covered and mostly empty. The motel is just a few blocks from the train station. In the motel parking lot, skidoos outnumber the pickup trucks. I retire to my wood-paneled room. The temperature is a relatively mild -4c, but the air smells of impending snow.

05:13 February 25 2016

Snow inundates the streets of Senneterre. Heavy and wet, the snow is jettisoned by fierce winds which howl at over 80kph. It lands sharply against my face as I trudge the short distance from the hotel to the train station. This is a proper blizzard, without any fear of hyperbole, and its dramatic presence will attractively dress the stage for our departure.

05:45 February 25 2016

In the terminal, there is refuge. Despite the weather, our train departs on-time, reliable and warm. We charge resolutely into the blizzard which now completely subsumes us.

07:43 February 25 2016

As daylight breaks, an expanding blue glow irradiates the landscape, casting itself in relief against the swirling, luxurious blue and white of the steadily falling snow and the sturdy green of the boreale forest. We carry on throughout the day, gliding gently through a forestial otherworld, greeted throughout our journey by the intractable beauty of winter, and the persistent, incessantly falling snow.

20:26 February 25 2016

After nearly thirty hours aboard, our 1434km journey ends as we return to Montréal, nestling ourselves again into the hearth of Montréal's Central Station.  From our forestial vantage point at the end of the line, the glow of the winter metropolis is seen more clearly in relief, it's dynamism made more perceptible by the contrast, and for having traveled so convincingly into the still life of the deep winter forest.