First Hop, Sudbury to Winnipeg

August 11th, 2004

I had been dreaming of trains for many nights and the day had finally come where I was going to try to hop a freight for the first time. Hitchhiking from Halifax, I had been staying near Sudbury, Ontario for a couple weeks doing some volunteer organic farming. I wanted to do my whole trip without paying for transportation. My goal was to catch out in Sudbury and get a ride to Winnipeg, thereby solving the problem of trying to hitch through that horrible stretch of highway. I haven't tried it, but I've heard stories; no one will pick you up. I guess they know if they do, they're stuck with you to Winnipeg, cause there's really nothing in between. If you look at a map you can see that Sudbury is about half-way from Halifax to Winnipeg, so this was a sizable part of my journey. I figured it would be good to try hopping for the first time here, as it was small towns, low security, and beautiful scenery. I had got some advice from my friend Julie and read Duffy's book as well as checked out for the crew change points. I read that Sudbury was no longer a crew change but decided to head there anyway to see if I could talk to some yard workers.

It was about 4:00 pm when I was dropped off in downtown Sudbury - I quickly found the CP yards there, right on the edge of downtown. A mixed freight passed the crossing at Elm St. and it probably would have been slow enough to catch, but this was my first time and it was the middle of the day - too risky for me. There were a couple workers in the yards knocking some trains around, so I sat and ate a bit and just watched them. After a half hour or so, one of the workers sat down at a small hut in the middle of the yard as the others went off to do something else at the other end of the yard, so I took the opportunity to ask him about trains to Winnipeg. He was a really nice guy, he told me that the next train for Winnipeg was early next morning, but I would have to hitch to Cartier, about 45 minutes north of Sudbury, and that there was a crew change there. He also told me that train hopping was illegal (duh!), to be careful and don't get caught by the police. After that I went and picked up some food at the local grocery store and started walking out of town.

The next thing that happened was really amazing, and kind of indicative of my luck on my cross-country journey; out of the blue a woman stopped and asked if I needed a ride anywhere! She had seen I had a backpack and a hitchhiking sign and just wanted to help me get out of downtown. She also insisted that I take $10 for supper! Of course I accepted her offer, and she drove me out to the highway where I hitched a couple of rides to Cartier. Now Cartier is pretty much a couple houses, a store, and a train yard; there was nothing doing there, so I stocked up on water at the store for the long journey and prepared to bed down in the jungle beside the tracks. I had brought along my boots, earplugs, good gloves, dark clothes and bag, all of which I would recommend to anyone wanting to get into this sport. There was a huge blueberry patch by the tracks, so I filled my smaller water bottle full while swatting at the swarms of blackflies that were hungry for fresh meat.

At 10:00 pm it was getting too dark to see well so I got into my sleeping bag and tried to get some shut-eye with all the anxiousness and excitement about tommorow morning... that is if I woke up in time to catch this train that was supposed to be rolling through. But what do I hear, not 5 minutes after I get into my bag? It's a train whistle, and sure enough, a freight comes rolling up going west, the direction I wanna go! I quickly gathered my stuff and roll the train for a good ride. After the 3 units, it's mostly intermodals but then I see a couple of ACF Centreflow grainers roll by and one of them is pointed the right way, with the air brake junk on the front deck! The train slows and stops... This is my big chance... I don't know if this train is headed for Winnipeg or what but I might as well take what has been served up right in front of me. Next thing I know there's lights up at the headend for the crew change, I'm crawling through the bush trying to get closer to the grainer I scoped out, and then I'm actually climbing onto this huge train to be taken wherever it's going! Nothing can explain what I felt at that moment, the insanity, the doubt, the rush, the "I'm actually doing it!!!" feelings and everything in between. I take off my pack, lay down on the deck and keep low. Minutes later the train jerks into motion (so that's what it feels like!) and we're rolling though the dark Northern Ontario night.

As we leave the town, my eyes get adjusted and I can see quite well by the light of the full moon - we're passing by small lakes, lots of trees, cottages, and the occasional loud dinging crossing so fast it's all a blur. All I could do was sit and think "I've done it! I've done it! I've really hopped a freight train!" for the 4 hours it took to get to Chapeleau, the next crew change. We stop and I lay down again and wait... 15 minutes, half an hour... I hear the brakes release and it sounds as if the engines have disconnected. We're not going anywhere fast, so I pull out my sleeping bag cause I'm getting cold and tired as well (it's almost 3:00 am) and bed down on the back of my grainer. I was woken a few times in the night by moving trains, the most memorable being an mixed army/intermodal train complete with tons of tanks, APCs, etc. rolling by. Creepy. At 7:00 am or so, I wake to the sound of footsteps on gravel... uh oh. This is it, I tell myself, I'm gonna get thrown off this train and have to hitchhike the rest of the way... A worker walks up and looks curiously at me in my bag, a big black lump on the deck of the grainer - what can I do? I smile at him and ask him what's going on with my train! He looks startled for a moment, then says that it looks like the power's getting hooked back up soon and I should be on my way. Phew! He also reminds me to stay out of sight so the cops don't catch me and to be safe... I thank him and breathe a sigh of relief for his kindness as he trundles off into the early morning light.

At 7:30 am we're moving again, through muskeg and trees and lakes, the vast northern Ontario landscape... a lot of the same, not much to tell... At noon we're in White river, another small town crew change. I lay down again, cause there's a bull sitting in his bullmobile half-assed scooping out the train (I see him again on the other side, I guess he just drove around as the crew changed). An eastbound intermodal passes us in the yard and we're out of town at 12:20 pm. At 1:45 pm we hit a big bridge right before Heron Bay, where we go into the hole and get passed by a westbound intermodal of 96 cars. At 2:00 pm we hit the town of Marathon, where we coast right by the skatepark, kids doing tricks in the warm summer sun so close but so impossibly far away too... I think about yelling and waving at them but decide not to just in case. I miss my skateboard at home in Nova Scotia... I probably should have laid down here too, as there were two CP trucks that appeared to be bulls sitting by the tracks - they easily could of saw me as I was sitting up the whole time. I vowed to hide better the next big town we hit. At 2:20 pm we hit the north shore of Lake Superior and an amazing view! Vast stretches of crystal blue water with the orange afternoon sun glinting off, islands with waves crashing up on them, amazing cliffs - and two short tunnels to get me excited! At 2:45 pm we hit a HUGE wooden bridge that put the Heron Bay Bridge to shame - this thing was really long and really high, with an amazing view of the beaches below! You know the old pictures you see of the steam locomotives pulling freight over an impossibly long bridge? Well this was it. Wow! There was another couple of short tunnels after that, and because of the track mostly following the shoreline, there was some opportunities to see the whole train! I determined I was on the 27th car of a 90% intermodal train of about 125 cars... I couldn't get an exact count but pretty close! This was the life, beautiful scenery, warm sun, a breeze and no bugs, traveling down the iron road in the middle of nowhere!

At 3:40 pm we were in Schreiber, the next crew change, where I tried out my new hiding technique: The ACF cars I was on had the cubbyholes on them, but inside the space above the wheels was open, so there wasn't much room, only enough to kneel down and get out of sight, or shove a pack, one or the other. Luckily, I was facing another open deck of a grainer, so I stuffed my pack in the hole of the car I was on, and jumped over (with good hand-holds of course) to the forward-facing grainer deck and hid in it's cubby, thereby getting myself and my gear all out of sight. After half an hour we left town and passed a mixed freight in the hole, as well as a CP work crew train. At 5:00 pm there was two medium tunnels, I grabbed my bandana and tried to avoid some of the diesel fumes... Soon we were not by the lake any more, but cruising along beside the Transcanada, where I swear that some people in a truck saw me sitting on my deck and pointed but I'm not quite sure... I used my new hiding method in Nippigon at 6:00 pm and at 7:30 pm when we arrived in Thunder Bay, the next crew change. I was expecting that maybe my train would get broken up here, but it was not to be so. First we entered a huge pulp/lumber mill yard and then continued on to a huge grain yard, (with 99% grainers and some amazing graf!) where we stopped for a half hour or so. Then we stopped next to a lake where I think the crew change happened. After 15 minutes we got moving again and rolled through a couple more big yards and at 8:20 pm we were leaving town. I thanked my luck for hopping a train that was going direct to Winnipeg and not having to jump off in Thunder Bay and try and catch another.

I was surprisingly tired after a day of just sitting and bedded down for another night on the back of my grainer, waking up for the crew changes at Dryden at midnight and Keewatin at 4:00 am. I had a horrible night trying to sleep - the new engineer was really blasting it on the flat praries we had hit since Thunder Bay and the whole train was rocking so violently that I was afraid it would fall over or I would fall off any second.

There is nothing quite as beautiful as the early morning sun rising over the prairies as seen from the back of a grain car, hurtling down the tracks to connect farmers to the industries in the towns. It was quite cold but the orange sun and mists rising off the fields welcomed me into the great Canadian heartland like nothing else.

As we approached Winnipeg at 7:00 pm (time change), I hid again in my cubbyhole, waiting for a chance to get off - now here's a new adventure! Just we slowed and I was about to get ready to jump, I saw a bridge approaching and held back. We crossed the famous Red River and slowed even more, going through a deserted industrial area by the looks of it, no people around... This is it! I threw my pack off toward the back of the train, and got down on the handy-dandy ladder... Back Foot First, Back Foot First rang out in my head and I stepped off and dismounted cleanly just like a professional! I congratulated myself and ran back for my pack. I had done it! 36 hours on a freight train, 1262km in record time! I sat and ate the last of my food in a park, called my friends from a pay phone, met up and had the best shower of my life. Riding on freights is fun, but mighty tiring, loud, and dirty. Be prepared!

On the rest of my journey, I made it up to Yellowknife and down to Victoria (where I am now) for free, hitching the whole way. I am hoping to travel back across Canada when things warm up a bit, this time hopping as much as possible. See you out there!

Crew Changes on this route:

Cartier, White River, Schreiber, Thunder Bay, Dryden, Keewatin, Winnipeg.