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VACATION Wilds of Canada best seen by train



Published: Sun, September 1, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



One of the highlights of the trip is when the train travels over the 130-foot-high Montreal River trestle.

By JON BAKER

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

There's no better way to explore the Canadian wilderness than from an air-conditioned railroad car.

No black flies. No mosquitoes. No sleeping on the hard ground in a tent, 100 miles from the nearest shower. Instead, you just sit back and relax in your seat, while the train rolls past sparkling lakes and endless forests.

That's what I did recently when I took the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, which travels from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, to Agawa Canyon Park.

The park, accessible only by train, is located in a heavily wooded gorge 114 miles north of Sault Ste. Marie. When you're there, you feel like you're deep in the northern woods. For much of the trip, the only highways you see are dirt logging roads, and they're few and far between.

Sault Ste. Marie, a gritty industrial city of 75,000, is reminiscent of Youngstown. One of its main employers is a steel mill. The city is located on the famous Sault Canal, which makes it possible for ocean-going ships to enter Lake Superior.

I didn't have time on my trip to take in the sights there, but Sault Ste. Marie offers a variety of attractions. There is a casino, the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre and boat tours of the canal.

All of the main tourist attractions are conveniently located downtown, as is the depot for the Agawa Canyon train.

The train is operated by the Algoma Central Railway, which was built in the early 1900s. The original plan was to connect Sault Ste. Marie with Hudson Bay, but the builders made it only as far as Hearst, Ontario, 296 miles to the north.

It was a daunting task pushing the rail line through that rugged country 100 years ago. One 10-mile stretch took 2,000 men an entire summer to complete.

Spectacular views

Today, passengers on the Agawa Canyon train reap the reward of those men's hard work. The train passes through spectacular wilderness that had passengers shifting from the left side of the train to the right side to take in all the scenery.

The train passes countless lakes, big and small, with names like Achigan and Ogidaki. The shores of these lakes are dotted with vacation cabins, accessible only by the train or by float plane.

The Algoma Central runs a passenger train between Sault Ste. Marie and Hearst, which makes stops as needed at the lakes on the route.

One of the highlights of the trip is when the train passes over the Montreal River, 92 miles north of the city. The train travels over a 1,550-foot-long trestle which is 130 feet high.

On one side of the trestle is a hydroelectric dam which supplies power to Sault Ste. Marie. On the other side is a large reservoir.

Railroad employees give the passengers plenty of notice before the train reaches the trestle so they can have their cameras ready.

It takes about three hours to reach Agawa Canyon. For the last 12 miles of the trip, the train descends 500 feet to the canyon floor.

The train stops at the canyon for two hours. During that time, travelers can hike the numerous trails in the canyon, eat lunch in the dining car or visit the ubiquitous gift shop.

Hiking trail

The hiking trails wind along the banks of the Agawa River and up the sides of the gorge. There are three waterfalls at the park, all a short distance from the train.

The day I was there, though, the waterfalls were a disappointment. Ontario was in the midst of a drought, so the falls were short on water.

There are also numerous picnic tables in the park for those who don't want to eat lunch in the dining car. That's where I had my lunch. I purchased a box lunch on the train for $8.95 Canadian, which included a ham and cheese sandwich, a boiled egg, a bag of potato chips, an apple and two brownies. Passengers can bring their own food, if they prefer.

The time went quickly, between eating lunch, visiting the waterfalls and walking through the gift shop. The train leaves promptly at 1:30 p.m., and passengers are expected to be on the train 10 minutes before that.

The trip back was not nearly as interesting, but it gave me the chance to see what I missed on the trip out.

And when I got my credit card bill later that month, I found that it was an inexpensive way to spend a day. The 9-hour trip cost just $39, thanks to the favorable exchange rate with Canada.

The Algoma Central Railway offers other tours, including an excursion to Agawa Canyon in the winter, known as the Snow Train. Or there is the train to Hearst, Ontario, a 592-mile round trip, which requires an overnight stay.

XFor more information, or to order tickets, call (800) 242-9287, or go online at www.agawacanyontourtrain.com.




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