Ride the rails to Group of Seven country
Story by Mariellen Ward
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
SAULT STE. MARIE, ONTARIO — It was at about Mile 7, after the hustle of getting up early to get to the train station in downtown Sault Ste. Marie and settling into my plush seat on the Agawa Canyon Tour Train, that it hit me. I realized that I love the idea of a scenic train journey. Nothing to do all day but relax, sip tea and enjoy the beauty of the Canadian wilderness from the comfort of a recently refurbished train car.
Outside the large picture windows, I can see that we’ve left behind the industrial heart and outlying suburbs of Sault Ste. Marie and are now entering the southern perimeter of the Canadian Shield. These are the oldest rocks in Canada, and among the oldest in the world, the bedrock remains of a volcanic rock mountain range that covered a huge portion of Canada and once soared up to 39,000 feet into the sky, much higher than the Himalayas. It is this geological phenomenon that gives the Canadian Shield its rugged beauty and that has drawn artists and outdoors enthusiasts to the Algoma region for many generations.
And it is the beauty of this area and its role as muse to the Group of Seven that has drawn me here, too. As a teenager, I studied art and loved Tom Thomson, Emily Carr and the founding members of the Group of Seven. These artists were inspired to develop a unique style by the Canadian landscape. They were “painting pictures of Canada for Canadians,” as Art Gallery of Ontario curator Gregory Humeniuk put it when I interviewed him before leaving Toronto.
It all started in the summer of 1918 when Lawren Harris and a friend came up from Toronto to explore the Algoma area by train. Harris was so excited by what he saw that he rented a boxcar, had it pulled by train to a siding in Agawa Canyon and spent the summer hiking and sketching. Over the next four summers, Harris and the other six artists who would come to be known as the Group of Seven made painting trips to the Algoma region and the Agawa Canyon, which runs through it, a slash of natural beauty.
Many of these paintings can be found in the Art Gallery of Ontario, particularly those of J.E.H. MacDonald. His colours are thick and forceful, his style intimate and there’s a luminosity to his paintings that evoke the spirit of the place. They captured my imagination and were one of the reasons I wanted to take the Agawa Canyon Tour Train.
As the Agawa Canyon Tour Train leaves civilization behind and progresses along the tracks toward the canyon, it feels as if we’re going back in time. The foggy morning adds to the primeval feeling of the landscape as mist-covered mauve lakes slide past.
And the view is not the only thing that captures my attention. Flat-screen monitors overhead broadcast GPS-triggered commentaries about “the rich history of the region with stories of Ojibway fur traders, explorers and entrepreneurs that opened up this vast wilderness” and other bits of information, including one segment about the Group of Seven. The recent upgrades to the train also include a locomotive-mounted digital video camera that shows the engineers’-eye view on the flat-screen monitors.
And then there’s the dining car. We are called in for breakfast one coach at a time, and the service is attentive and friendly. In fact, the warmth of the staff is one of the most special things about this trip.
Finally, after a leisurely four-hour ride over 114 miles (all the distance markers are in miles, not kilometres) of track, we get to the Agawa Canyon Park at noon and the train stops so we can all get out and stretch our legs. By this time it is sunny and warm, and the park is lush with the ripeness of mid-summer. It is a gorgeous place, worth the trip and worthy of its reputation as a rugged paradise. There are several trails to choose from — I opt to walk up 300 stairs to the lookout point — and my only criticism of the entire experience is the short duration of our stop: one-and-a-half hours is not enough time in Agawa Canyon Park.
So, at 1:30 pm I reluctantly board the train for the return journey, feeling I have had only a tantalizing glimpse of this magical place.
SEE THE FALL COLOURS IN AGAWA CANYON
Prices: The Agawa Canyon Tour Train departs daily from downtown Sault Ste. Marie at 8 a.m, June 26 to October 14, 2012. The adult fare is $85, rising to $105 from September 14 to October 14, 2012 because that is he best time of the year to see the fall colours in Agawa Canyon. The leaves are ablaze with spectacular colours during the last two weeks of September and the first week of October.
Reservations: Book well in advance for this popular train trip. Call 705-946-7300 or toll-free 1-800-242-9287 for tickets.
MAP OF DOWNTOWN SAULT STE. MARIE, WHERE THE TRAIN DEPARTS
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