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

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

The Fall of a Prairie Icon

Meadows, Manitoba Grain Elevator and Annex
1912 – 2017

Meadows, Manitoba is located approximately 20 miles west of Winnipeg on Hwy # 221 in the Rural Municipality of Rosser, MB. Meadows is a village comprised of a dozen properties and farms that the  Canadian Pacific mainline on the Carberry subdivision passes through.

In 1912 a small grain storage elevator was erected in the town to accommodate the local farmers during harvest. After a brief private ownership, the elevator was sold to N.M Paterson & Sons, now known as Paterson Global Foods. In 1922, the same year it was purchased by N.M Paterson & Sons, it was destroyed by fire. It was quickly replaced by a 30,000 bushel capacity elevator the following year powered by what was then a modern 12 HP elevator motor. Read more

Manitoba Trackside

The Scene in 1984

Among my nearly annual visits to the Canadian West, 1984 was a momentous year . At Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, I spent time trackside observing and photographing the many Canadian National (CN) and Canadian Pacific (CP) freight trains, as well as VIA Rail passenger trains that emanated from the provincial capital of Winnipeg, fifty-five miles to the east. At Portage, more lines (subdivisions) spread out. During that June visit, my genial hosts (aunt and uncle!) let me use their Toyota to visit many nearby Manitoba towns.

While the Western Canadian grain industry was contracting—undergoing major changes—I realized that the handwriting was on the wall for Canada’s wooden “country” elevators. Consequently, I made the effort to photograph them. While doing so, I noticed myriad trackside details that completed the Manitoba trackside scene. Read more

Galt Coal Burns All Night 

The Great Falls & Canada Railway


AR&CC locomotive #13 at Shelby Junction (Virden, Montana) in the winter of 1897. This locomotive was originally North-West Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC) #1. From left; Fireman A. Niven and Engineer T. Nolan. Photo courtesy Glenbow Archives NA-1167-11

In time, the Lethbridge (Alberta district, Northwest Territories) coal mines would feed all the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) steam locomotives in western Canada, as well as the stoves of its stations and many settler prairie homes. The slogan “Galt Coal Burns All Night” was emblazoned on signage wherever it was sold; lumber yards, grain elevators, and farm cooperatives. By 1890, the North-West Coal & Navigation Company (NWC&NC) averaged 90,000 tons delivered per year to Dunmore, and the CPR wanted more. Northwest Mounted Police Superintendent Deane reported the Galt mines could produce more than 1,000 tons per day – with the possibilities for more in sight.

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Prairie Elegy

SK Imperial 1 1986

The Trackside Photographer is pleased to present a new gallery of photographs by Eric Gagnon.

Prairie Elegy documents the final days of Western Canada’s Wooden Crib Grain Elevators. These evocative pictures record a time 30 years ago  when the iconic structures were disappearing from the prairie landscape.

Eric wrote about his trip in “Wheat Filled Wonders” which we published in June. Now he generously shares 43 additional photos taken during the 1980’s as he traveled across Saskatchewan and Manitoba, following the tracks of the Canadian Pacific and Canadian National railroads that served the grain industry. The wooden elevators are now gone.

Prairie Elegy is listed under the Galleries menu at the top of the page, or click here to view.