Planes, Trains, And … Helicopters

Snowboarding B.C. To Alberta By Rail

By Jesse Huffman

It took over two hours, four glasses of complimentary champagne, and three cans of Molson for Serfas to exclaim, “What do you mean we haven’t left yet?” A thorough assessment proved that yes, it had indeed been over two hours since DaKine riders Brandon Ruff, Chris Englesman, Jon Cartwright, Chris Coulter, TransWorld photog Scott Serfas, and I had boarded the VIA Rail Canadian Line train in Vancouver, B.C. headed east to Jasper, Alberta. We’d been sitting seven deep in the train’s bar car entertaining ourselves-the only other passengers who could keep up with our man-antics being a retired art gallery owner and a truck driver from Vancouver. This unlikely couple kept us on our toes. The ex-gallery-ess questioned Serfas’ lensmanship: “What are you taking pictures with? That little Leica?” A few of us summed up the woes of professional snowboarding to the truck driver: “See, we’re pretty much marketing tools.” He advised that we, “Shut up, stop whining, and get a life.”

With that perspective-altering statement, the train gave a lurch-and we were off to Jasper, Alberta, home of Marmott Basin Resort, Robson HeliMagic, and the beauty of the Athabasca Valley.

Going by train offers a unique alternative to the usual speed and complications of a road trip. You check your bags, drop your bum in a seat, and relinquish concerns about who’s driving or when you’re going to get there. The scenery rolls by at a digestible pace-in our case, the forests and lakes of B.C. and Alberta’s steep and jagged Rockies.

VIA Rail has been operating since 1978, and the trains’ interiors are a testament to the period’s styling-corridors of shiny metal and plastic run throughout the dining and sleeping cars, all marked with stark lighting and signage. Our crew was saved from fold-down airplane-style seats by an upgrade to first-class one- and two-person cabins. These were a model of efficiency: built-in sinks, chairs that fold into the wall to make way for fold-down bunk beds, individual bed lamps and fans-all chromed out in shiny aluminum-and the whole thing wrapped in silver corrugated steel and rolling its way through the Canadian wilderness.

Jasper is smack in the middle of the Athabasca Valley-a wide plain floor and steep mountain walls produced long ago by glacial carving. Tourism hits its peak in the summer months, when outdoor enthusiasts flock to Jasper National Park for hiking and other attractions. In the winter, the town of Jasper depends on Marmott Basin Resort’s draw, and like any good mountain town, it offers housing, lots of good food, and, of course, partying (this is Canada, you know).

The Bear Paw Bakery was our spot for morning staples like coffee, pastries, and sandwiches. For dinner, the Downstream Bar provided chill atmosphere and good eats. As for the aprà¤s, we hit up Pete’s Bar-eclectic music mixes, stiff drinks, and tons of crazy kids up from Edmonton getting sauced.

Jasper National Park is Southeast of Jasper down Route 93-otherwise known as the Icefield Parkway. This roadway connects the town of Jasper to Lake Louise and bisects two of Canada’s most stunning natural monuments: Jasper National Park and Banff National Park.

Just rolling out of town on Route 93, we had our first wilderness experience: a group of woodland caribou, huge herbivores that stand shoulder height to an average person were slowly grazing alongside the road. Farther down the way, we encountered a pack of wolves roaming in and out of the trees-they were close enough for us to see the fierce eyes set in their broad faces. These predators are the size of a large German shepherd and move with the confidence and lean swagger of wilderness Mafioso. The train stopped to give us a better look as the pack disappeared into the forest. A lone wolf stood behind, maintaining an eerie eye contact. We held our breath and watched until it turned and sauntered back into the shadows.

Past Jaasper, the Icefield Highway peels off the valley floor and climbs in elevation up into the mountains. Their jagged peaks slice diagonally into the sky-craggy forms arranged like a geological bookshelf tipped on its side. We passed the Columbia Icefield and the Athabasca Glacier’s wrinkled and blue-streaked mass, which slowly spills down the side of Mount Columbia, the highest point in Alberta. Lower down, the glacier oozes its frozen form out onto the icefield’s expanses-miles and miles of inhospitable-looking terrain. In every direction is the jutting and stratified evidence of forces conspiring at an inconceivable rate over an inhuman period of time.

There are many options for shredding close by the town of Jasper. Past the Columbia Icefield, Parker’s Pass offers wide-open Alpine bowls for backcountry riding, with steep and exposed terrain just a short hike off the road. Twenty minutes outside of Jasper, Marmot Basin has 1,675 acres of rideable terrain, nine lifts, extensive tree riding and hikeable backcountry, and a terrain park. Not to mention the handrails our crew helped themselves to-but with an average of 160 inches of snowfall each winter, there’s no good reason to go near them, really.

Heli-boarding is big time in this neck of the woods, with multiple operations situated right next to the train line. Our crew spent two days flying with Robson HeliMagic. Helicopters are ceaselessly strange and wonderful things. It’s an experience of equal parts trepidation and excitement-you shut the door, latch the handle, and give the pilot the thumbs up. The bird starts to do the side-to-side shimmy as it shakes off gravity, and then you’re gone-weightless and peeling away from the heli-pad at some obscene angle, gyrating toward the mountains. Forests and foothills pass, then the sub-Alpine and the peaks of mountains rushing underneath in a wave of nauseating euphoria. Then there’s the whole drop-off and pick-up madness, and the terrain-untracked and deep.

(sidebar/box-these shouldn’t always be placed at the end in design)

The Plan

Everything you see here was either planned over the phone or the Internet. Check these Web sites to plan your own rail-powered get away:

VIA Rail:, 1-888-VIA-RAIL

Marmot Basin:

Jasper Central Reservations:, 1-800-473-8135

Robson HeliMagic:, 1-877-454-4700