The blast from the train engine horn echoed off the granite cliffs of the canyon -a call to stragglers to make haste and climb aboard for the four-hour journey back to civilization. But my dad, brother and I took our time in the wilderness. This was one train we were happy to miss.
We had come to Northern Ontario's Agawa Canyon to get away from it all, and as the tourist train rolled off in the distance, a feeling of isolation closed in like a darkening sky. It has no cellphone service and no radio reception, and the only way in and out of this destination 200 kilometres north of Sault Ste. Marie is by rail.
For decades, the Algoma Central Railway has operated an excursion train here. Now, there's an option for those who want more time to explore this scenic gorge full of waterfalls, jagged peaks and towering pines. From Monday to Friday, you can rent the railway's private park and have it all to yourself.
Your accommodation? Shunted onto a siding almost hidden by the trees, it's a lone stretch caboose.
The setting today is much like that experienced by members of the Group of Seven in the early 1920s when they rented a boxcar from the railway to use as a portable base camp and studio.
Only our caboose was no boxcar: It was kitted out with all the conveniences of home - a hot shower, heat and air conditioning, a galley kitchen and a roomy lounge. We were in the bush, but we were not exactly roughing it. Railway memorabilia hung on the walls and the floor gave gently as we walked, giving the sensation we were on a moving train.
Kevin Lucas has worked in this park for 22 years. He tends the grounds and gets called upon when the caboose's water heater won't turn on. He's the perfect host, informative and unobtrusive, and can tell you where the fish are biting and about trails not found on the park map, such as the one to Black Beaver Lake with its network of slippery rope ladders to scale the canyon walls.
The Agawa is a twisting valley 150 metres below the granite face of the Canadian Shield. Its rocky spires turn crimson in the evening sun, reflected in painterly relief against the Agawa River, which courses through its 15-kilometre length. The place feels more like the British Columbia interior than Ontario.
I had read that bears and moose rarely venture into the canyon because there is no easy way out, but the guest book proved otherwise, with accounts of bears stalking the caboose like prey. From the porch, I scanned the tracks for unwanted guests before crossing to the river to swim and paddle.
It is an odd sensation to have a whole park to yourself. Nature is more of an adventure when you know you are the only one experiencing it. And there's a sense of serene majesty about the Agawa when you're gazing up at waterfalls on both sides of the canyon. We paddled to Bridal Veil Falls, where the cascade splashes into the river, and found the perfect swimming hole, deep and clear, with great slabs of rock to dive from, lie back on and watch the mist rise in the sun.
I climbed the 300 steps to a lookout at different times of day to watch the light and shadow transform the shape of cliffs receding in the distance. Summer casts a hundred shades of green in the forest.
Taking a cue from a comment in the guestbook, we set off before the tourist train pulled in each day. A ramble along tracks redolent of creosote and pine was the perfect escape to sustain the illusion that the Agawa was truly ours.
Only this fantasy came to a thundering end with the roar of a passing freight train in the middle of the night, inches from my pillow. I was alarmed at first - then gently lulled back to slumber by the repetitive clickety-clack.
For his part, Kevin doesn't hear the trains any more. "But when I wake up and see the pictures on my wall askew," he told me, "I know one's been through."
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Pack your bags
GETTING THERE The Agawa Canyon Tour Train runs daily through Monday, Oct. 12, departing Sault Ste. Marie at 8 a.m. and returns at 6:30 p.m.Adult fares until Sept. 11 are $70 return; fall fares for the autumn colour tour are $90. THE CABOOSE The Canyon View Camp Car sleeps four people, two in a bunked bedroom and two on pullout couches. Guests must bring take all provisions for the week with them on the train. Weekly rates start at $1,755 for two people. To reserve the caboose, call the Algoma Central Railway at 1-800-242-9287. WHEN TO GO This year, the season runs until Oct. 9. MORE INFORMATION www.agawacanyontourtrain.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail