A Trackside Photographer—Canadian Style!

Canadian Pacific #9371 traveling westbound between Ingolf, Ontario and Caddy Lake, Manitoba,. through the Canadian Shield.

This past New Year my wife and I took a vacation to the Whiteshell Provincial Park where we spent ten days in a cabin so that we would have two weeks to do nothing except relax and do all the stuff that we love to do in the Canadian wilderness.

The Whiteshell Provincial Park is located in the boreal forest of Eastern Manitoba, which is also part of the Canadian Shield named after the jagged granite terrain.

So to begin my story as a “Trackside Photogapher”, I find myself standing along a Canadian Pacific (CP) main line waiting for a westbound freight. Trains were on a holiday schedule, so I had some time between freights to think.  I ask myself and wonder what it’s like to be a Trackside Photographer in Kansas, or Virginia, or some of those cool places where there is so much more diverse landscape to capture. “Not sure”, I reply to myself, as I ponder in envy. But I am a Canadian Photographer on the prairies, and I endeavor to make my photography fresh and unique . . . so let me tell you how a good ol’ prairie boy makes his train photography unique.

The terrain along the Canadian Pacific main line. With the long stretches of rock walls, walking along the tracks is not recommended for safety.

Manitoba is a large province, roughly the same land mass as Texas. However, only three main lines run across it east to west. Operated by Canadian National (CN) and CP Railways, two of those main lines join in Winnipeg and travel west. The other one runs from Winnipeg, South to Lake of the Woods in Minnesota traveling to Thunder Bay. We have a mostly flat open prairie landscape where the rail lines are located, and bridges and tunnels are rare. So without an abundant amount of interesting landscape, unique photographs run out quickly.

Eastern Manitoba is the exception and has a short span of different terrain to offer some unique Manitoba train photography. The catch is that most all of it is remote and inaccessible.

A rare intersection where the Canadian Pacific and the Canadian National railways meet. A remote location well off the beaten path.

After Google searching the area with satellite images, I found one of Manitoba’s only tunnels and some cool landscape burrowed through the granite between Rennie, Manitoba and Ingolf, Ontario. on the CP line. I also found a cool spot where the CN line has a bridge that crosses the CP line west of Rennie, but because of the inaccessibility, a hike on foot is required. As a side note: walking along the tracks to access photography is a lot easier, but NOT recommended. Trains travel this stretch at full track speed and there are few crossings to hear a whistle. So these trains can sneak up on you very easily. It’s amazing how quiet 10,000 tons of steel can travel.

Now you know about Manitoba’s terrain. It’s time to talk about the conditions. Today, the temperature is -41 Celsius ambient temperature. Yes at that point it’s also -41 Fahrenheit—hot water freezes instantly if you throw it in the air. You need to “plug in” your car overnight or it will not start. There is what they call “Wind Chill” warnings because the wind makes it actually feel colder (believe it or not), and exposed skin freezes in less than a minute. In 2016, Winnipeg was considered the coldest major city on earth. Yes, these are the challenges that a Canadian trackside photographer needs to confront in order to take photographs in the winter.

Canadian Pacific #9362 hauling containers and traveling westbound near Rennie, Manitoba on a frigid evening.

Getting There..!

As I mentioned previously, in the Whiteshell there are only a handful of road accessible locations to stop at for a passing train or track photo; otherwise you need to hike on foot to your location. To get the photos you see in this article, I needed to use my 4×4 truck to get as far into the bush as I could without being stuck in the knee high snow. Then I hiked by snowshoe through the forest approximately a mile and up to three.

Once I got to my location, I needed to wait for the shot that I wanted, and needed to be dressed for the extreme conditions.

Waiting and listening in anticipation for the tale-tell sound of a diesel engine sounding off in the distance I finally hear a whistle . . .

Winter wear requirements included a full two-piece extreme snow suit, wool and deer skin mitts, a wool toque, face cover and goggles, layers of wool socks, long underwear and extreme winter boots rated to -100 degrees.

That day I ended up standing on a granite rock cliff for four hours waiting for my westbound train. Even with the extreme winter gear, I was very cold and my extremities were going numb. But I spent a lot of time to get there and I am determined!

Waiting and listening in anticipation for the tale-tell sound of a diesel engine sounding off in the distance, I finally hear a whistle—a westbound, passing by a crossing three miles away.  I get ready, hoping the camera settings are right and the camera actually will work.

Oh, the wonderful sight of a steel diesel locomotive traveling at sixty mph around the bend, lights full ablaze and kicking up the fresh snow in a whirling frenzy as it speeds through the pristine wilderness.

SUCCESS! I can’t feel my fingers now. My nose has a blister from the frozen viewfinder touching my skin. Now to get back to the truck, and the HEAT!

The walk back through the snow actually creates body heat and warms up the toes and fingers, and it has warmed up to -32. You are definitely Canadian when you look forward to -32 and consider it warm.

Via rail #6416 (train #2) passing at track speed early New Year’s morning on the Canadian National main line near Brereton Lake, Manitoba. Temperature was -41 Celsius.

That was day ONE! I continued to venture out daily for the remainder of our trip in similar conditions in search of more unique trackside photography. I never did get to the tunnel. Just too far and too cold, and the journey three miles up the track was just too dangerous. That will be a shot for another day.

This is my story, experiences and reflections of being a Trackside Photographer – Canadian Style. I hope you enjoyed it.

Our summers are warmer.

Kevin SiemensPhotographs and text Copyright 2018

Grade Crossings

Several years ago, I lost patience waiting around for a train to photograph and started to pay more attention to the landscape that the tracks run through. I became absorbed in the things that surround the railroad, and that the railroad alters and defines as it passes through. So absorbed, in fact, that trains occasionally rumbled by un-photographed.

Read more

The New River Gorge

Part Six

Approaching MP 365, looking track east about half-way between the town of Sandstone, West Virginia and Sandstone Falls.

Across the river from Thurmond, West Virginia, we continue our journey eastward along McKendree Road. After about two miles the road crosses the river at Stone Cliff. After crossing the river the road turns to dirt and gravel. At Stone Cliff camping is permitted and there are rest rooms but no shower facilities or electricity. A footpath from Stone Cliff up along the river is a nice area for spring wildflowers and after about one mile you come to Big Stony Creek which has some nice waterfalls when water flow is up (best time is in spring). I’ve never ventured beyond Big Stony Creek so I don’t know how far the path goes. Read more

Wheat Kings and Pretty Things

Lost in the land of living skies.

One day this spring,through a Facebook group, I was apprised that the local short line, Forty Mile Railway, had received empty grain hoppers from Canadian Pacific (CP) at their transfer track just east of Stirling on the former CP Stirling subdivision, and that Forty Mile would be moving the cars sometime the next day. After some text messages to my contacts in Foremost, it was confirmed around 8:00 am on Sunday (which was Mother’s Day) that the Forty Mile train would be heading east towards Foremost. After talking with my wife Becky, we agreed that I would get the morning to chase the train and then the afternoon I’d take her and our daughter Kayla out west to the Crowsnest Pass for a relaxing drive.

Read more

An Afternoon
  on the Buffalo Southern

Heading back home in October, 2014 after three days in Ontario, Canada, I decided to drop off the interstate in Hamburg, New York to see if I could scare up an Alco or two. I knew only two things about Hamburg; first, the Buffalo Southern Railroad had a shop there and second, that shop was home to my favorite diesel locomotives—Alco. It isn’t a big town, so finding the tracks wasn’t hard and they led to a small station, behind which sat a beautifully restored Alco High Hood switcher and an old friend from the Pittsburgh area, a Pennsylvania Railroad decapod (2-10-0), now sitting on display. A few derelict (likely parts sources) 539 powered Alco switchers were there also, slowly rusting away. The Buffalo Southern shop wasn’t here, that was for sure, but there was a hobby shop sign on the station door, so in I went, finding a large “O” scale layout occupying most of the space. Three old guys sat in a corner swapping stories and I asked them if they could point me to the Buffalo Southern shop complex. “Yeah, they’re down behind the Carmeuse plant, but don’t go in there cause they’ll arrest you or throw ya out.” There were nods all around in agreement to that statement, so I thanked them and headed off to find me some Alco’s—I’ve been escorted out of a few places after simply wandering in like a bumpkin, so it was no big deal to take a chance.

Read more

A Steam Powered
 Time Machine

The Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad

The coal tipple at Chama is still functional.

This past summer, while on a family vacation in Colorado, we visited the Cumbres and Toltec Scenic Railroad.  As a lifelong train buff, this had been on my bucket list for a long time, and it did not disappoint!  The Cumbres and Toltec is really a museum, but it’s a living museum.  On the morning we were there, we felt as if we had stepped back to a time when the narrow gauge railroad was a thriving business.  If you get to the rail yard early, you can watch the crews getting the locomotives ready, and hooking up the trains for the day.  These are the very same preparations that would have been made almost 100 years ago.

Read more