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41 Hours Chasing a Train

The 2016 Canadian Pacific Holiday Train

Story by Neil Zeller December 4th, 2016

the plan

The plan was simple. Fly to Thunder Bay and chase the train, snapping photos from various cool places.

That's all they (CP) gave me for requests. So really, how perfect is that? I get to do something I love (chase trains - shoot photographs), with the only limiting factor being the train schedule.

It's a bit of a dream really to be given carte blanche to be creative. When I was officially given this assignment, I dove into maps and photos online to start formulating my plan. Thunder Bay was where I decided to fly into, and Nipigon, with its very cool train bridge, was the target for that evening. So, to get to Thunder Bay in time to get to Nipigon in time, I had to be on a 6 a.m. flight from Calgary. 41 hours later, I was tucking into bed in Winnipeg at the hotel after shooting the final performance (for me) a little earlier.

Thunder bay to nipigon to upsala

Landing in Thunder Bay around 2:30 p.m., I was met by Andy, one of CP's PR folks out of Minneapolis. He was here to get on the train later that evening and host the performances for a week or so. Most of the communications staff from CP take stints on the train looking after all things Holiday Train. This includes making sure the performances go smoothly, hosting, and general labour in the passenger car. There are riders on board from time to time, who are CP staff or charity groups. The train staff members serve everyone hot chocolate and cookies, then clean everything up before the next group board. It was unusual this day, as every leg had passengers. So, seven sets of 60-plus people to manage at each stop (60 off, 60 on), then clean and vacuum the car each time, too. Needless to say, I tried to stay out of their way whenever I caught up to them at a performance stop. That said, I had a job this year, and had to make specific requests for what I wanted the train to do at times. Mostly it was: "Can you stop here for 30 seconds?"

I had a secret weapon this year, though. Andy was connected. He asked if he could join me for the little bonus trip over to Nipigon, and I was all for that! What I didn't know was that he had tools to nearly very accurately see where the train was on the tracks. This was great, because instead of waiting out in the cold with my shutter button finger ready to catch the train as it whizzed by, we could wait in the warm car. In my chats with the CP people before the assignment, I had targeted this bridge as my key position for the night. I have always asked for a full stop on the bridge so I could take a long exposure image, greatly increasing my chances of a cool shot. I never received any clear answers (and never expected to, either) but I had to keep asking. It's my job to get the shot, as the risk of being labelled a ”PITA".

Andy was in text contact with the train manager. I knew this. What I also knew was the train was running an hour late due to an unrelated railway issue that happened earlier.

This is Andy and I conversing as we scout our location

Short story long, my request was granted, sort of. It was a very slow crawl across the bridge. My camera gear was put to the test and succeeded. I used an ISO setting of 10,000, and I was just able to make the image a success. Now, a full stop for even 10 seconds would have been better, but it takes way more energy and time to stop and start a train than to just slowly roll by. So I understand. We still won on this night. Thanks to Andy and the crew for allowing me to be super whiny to get the shot.

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Nipigon to Thunder Bay to Upsala

After we got the shot on the bridge, we went over to the Nipigon performance. It was the most perfect crowd there and on top of it all, it was snowing lightly to give the night the proverbial 'cherry on top'.

From there, we headed back into Thunder Bay. We looked for a found a couple spots along the way to capture the train, but the goal was to get into town to see the crowd. It was huge, and full credit to them all, they stuck it out waiting for the late train. Way to go, Thunder Bay! I got my crowd photos, and some from up on stage. The Canadian Pacific Police Service got me all kitted into full safety gear, so now I am officially one of the team. I am always striving to be an ambassador for events like this, and now I was truly a part of the team. Nothing feels better than that!

I got back to my hotel around 11 p.m., and finished editing and delivering photos by 1 a.m. The train was pulling out of town at 5:15 a.m., so it was to be a short sleep after a long day.

I woke up to my alarm at 4:15, packed up my gear, and headed out. A quick stop for a bagel and coffee and I found myself just west of Thunder Bay, checking my maps and confirming my pre-scouted locations. I had a bridge located on the Google Maps, and it looked like a waterfall underneath. I found the spot, but missed my parking spot, so I had to back down a narrow road. I used my flashlight to navigate to the edge of the angry river and at exactly the moment I dialed in my settings the train whooshed by. I happily got the shot and headed back to the car to catch up to and pass the train so I could stage again.

That's the toughest part of this assignment. To attempt to stay ahead of a train that can travel at 100 kph without the burden of stoplights, 90-degree corners, and traffic, was daunting, to say the least. I had to choose wisely if I even want to take time to go to the bathroom for fear the train would get away from me! I would typically leave a performance halfway through just to get back on the road up ahead.

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Ignace to Vermilion Bay

I tend to enjoy the smaller communities, for lots of reasons. They are fun to shoot, and with smaller crowds come more unique opportunities to capture individuals. The check presentations tend to invoke tears, too. Ignace was no exception. It's also cool to see all the school kids out there on a school day and all the business people and townsfolk. A few had even showed up on snowmobiles!

From Ignace, I had my eye on a remote railway-river crossing part of the way to Dryden. The shot from the highway with my zoom lens would have been nice, but when I got there I hustled up and fired up my drone to see what it looked like from above. I pulled quite a ways off the highway on a snowy road and flew up to see what I could see. It was good. The combination of the river, the snow, the trees, and the sky was perfect. The train would stand out dramatically in this landscape!

Lots of communities get the train coming through in the day as it's the only way to make as many stops as possible and still finish the tour before Christmas. The train isn't as dramatic, granted, but it's still beautiful. Combine that with that fact the performance is the same as at night and the charity causes are the main reason for the train, and people are just as happy to see it! Same goes for photography. While the lights don't show during the day, the train still photographs well! And a well composed image is just as powerful in the daytime, I think.

So, I am sitting there, with a hovering drone ready to take the photo. Only thing is, the train is nowhere in sight. I have about 20 mins in battery life for the drone and I am sitting at 17 mins right now. I can see on my screen what the drone is seeing and down the line the train is not there.

15 minutes’ battery life. 12 minutes. 8 minutes. 5 minutes...

Finally, I hear the whistle and can see the light of the train off in the distance (through the drone). It's still a long way off and I am debating landing the drone and changing battery. Nope. Can't risk it.

4 minutes. 3 minutes... At last the train is approaching. Woohoo! I get the shot as my drone starts beeping its low-battery warning and,very much relieved, I land the drone and pack up to rush off and capture the next stop. Phew!

Off to Dryden where there is a cool waterfall to stake out then on to tiny Vermilion Bay. I've never been to any of these towns before, so it's great to see all these new places, however briefly.

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Kenora to Winnipeg

Kenora. I zoomed through you, as you have several bridges and a tunnel right in town that I had to get to ahead of the train. I saw enough, though, to know I'm going to come back soon one day to enjoy some vacation time. Just had to say that.

So, at Kenora, it was my sole focus to get to Tunnel Island to scout a shoot location. It worked out great. You guys have a railway tunnel right in town. That is awesome, and I am stoked for the result as it was a real challenge to capture. To stay off the railway right-of-way, and to capture that extreme difference in light, took a bit of doing, that's for sure. But those icicles! Ugh, so good.

From Kenora, I skipped over Ingolf as it was a straight shot for the train, but a backtrack for me. I would have never gotten to Whitemouth. Whitemouth Municipality (Town and Country folk combined) has a population of approximately 1,500 people. They were all there, and they all brought a friend! What a turnout! The train by this time was a bit late, so I got quality time with some residents. They were all super. It was -7 Celsius, and they were all glad it was so warm out! I love the prairies and all its people. Train came, people partied.

Winnipeg was a whole different story. I knew it was going to be big, but holy moly it was huge! I got myself hopelessly stuck in the traffic and had to watch from afar. I was wearing my CP vest, so I was being asked all sorts of questions and I was happy that I had all the answers!

What a day! This was my last stop. I'll fly home in the morning!

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One last shot

It was 10:30 p.m. I had been on this assignment, effectively since 4 a.m. the day prior. In my digital scouting before the trip, I had spotted a great bridge across the Red River (and a great shooting location) that I assumed the train would be crossing. I thought I missed my opportunity to get the shot when I got stuck in all the slow traffic, but miraculously, I had a chance to sneak out, and I did. I went and set up in the muddy banks and waited. I am so happy to show you the shots that completed this part my assignment. I waved goodbye to the train and headed to my hotel.

I went to sleep at 1:30 a.m., with a 3:30 a.m. alarm. I woke up at 5:08.

I was sitting on my plane at 5:52. I am a fan of small airports, just so you know.

Oh, here is the schedule for the train: Even if you can't get out to see the train, please give generously to your local food bank, they need your help more than ever these days!

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Footnote: Thanks will always go to Heather and Martin at for connecting me to Trains in the first place!