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BBC Travel

I'm weaving along a narrow ledge between razor-sharp mountains and a gigantic, glittering lake, the tiny, two-car Kaoham Shuttle is arguably Canada’s greatest hidden rail journey. And at just 10 Canadian dollars for a two-hour return trip, it’s also a bargain – especially if you’re a fan of both spectacular scenery and wildlife.

Founded in 1912, the Pacific Great Eastern Railway (later renamed BC Rail) used to trundle passengers from North Vancouver to the northern city of Prince George, linking dozens of backcountry communities en route. But by 2002, its money-losing passenger services had all been canned – except for a daily diesel “rail bus” between the tiny western Canada towns of Lillooet and Seton Portage. When the transcontinental freight operator Canadian National Railway acquired BC Rail’s operations in 2004, this lone passenger service somehow endured.

Today, the Kaoham Shuttle – a partnership between Canadian National and the Seton Lake First Nation community – remains a vital service in an area where backcountry roads are sometimes impassable, while also luring travelling train spotters who can’t quite believe their luck.

All aboard

I arrived at Lillooet Station after a 320km forest-and-mountain-filled drive from Vancouver. Huge, pyramid-straight mountains dwarfed the gable-roofed building, while a dozen empty train tracks striped the ground in front of us.

A skeletal tumbleweed rolled across the platform just as the late-arriving train shimmied into view. Bell ringing, it screeched to a halt in front of the platform, looking like a pair of attached steel sheds on wheels.

After paying my fare, I slid onto a seat in the first carriage, making sure I snagged a left-hand, lakeside spot.

At first glance, it’s clear this 30-passenger train was purpose-built. The seats looked left over from an old transit bus, while the granite-coloured floor tiles seemed to come from a hardware store clearance sale. The driver sat in the front, right-hand corner, beside an engine hump that was also used as a ledge for his paperwork, packed lunch and a bottle of window-cleaner.

No-one would mistake this functional conveyance for the luxury of the Orient Express. But as we rattled alongside a fast-moving river and suddenly emerged wide-eyed on the shore of jade-green Seton Lake, the scenery was no less magnificent.

Taking in the view

The mountains across Seton Lake were cloaked with dense forest – a sharp contrast to the jagged, rust-coloured cliffs that rose along the tracks, just inches from the windows. The rails twisted like spaghetti strands ahead of us, threading a narrow route between the rocks and the lake.

Without any announcement, the driver slowed down every few minutes; it was our cue to scan the scenery for wildlife. It wasn’t long before we spotted eight bighorn sheep peering curiously at us from on high, followed by a black bear and two cubs snuffling around a nearby tree.

After a quick stop at the red-roofed Shalalth Station, we encountered the line’s only tunnel: a narrow, rough-hewn 1.2km cave that looked like a mythical dragon’s grotto. On the other side was the community of Seton Portage: a clutch of wooden houses centred on a derelict brown church, it’s sharp, pinprick steeple rising above it all.

Heading back

After dropping off the mail and chatting with a few of the locals who came for a social visit, our driver shifted to the other end of the train and prepared to head back down the line. I asked if I could sit on the nearby cooler that served as a makeshift bench at the front of the train. “Go ahead,” the driver, Eugene, said, smiling. “It’s the best seat in the house – apart from mine.”

The return trundle was more relaxed, with passengers comparing wildlife shots and watching the now-familiar diorama unfurling alongside. Eugene explained that the day’s animal sightings were fairly routine. Cougars pop up once or twice a year, he added, but falling rocks are more common.

There were no tumbling rocks the day I was there, but as we rounded a corner, four young deer – two with furry antlers – skittered away from the rails. A little later, the train screeched to a halt as Eugene spotted a well-camouflaged, sandy-coloured mountain quail hopping over the tracks, followed by 10 bouncing feather balls climbing over each other to get across. Once they made it over safely, we continued on our way.

Clouds were rolling in as we inched back towards Lillooet. But there was just enough time for a wildlife finale. Two adult mountain goats – their white, shaggy coats half-moulted – stared intently at the train from about 5m away; a pint-sized baby jumped around on the rocks nearby.

“You don’t normally see them this low – you got lucky,” our driver said, hopping out to change the points on the rails ahead. Lillooet Station was just a couple of minutes away, but I was already planning my next ride.

Friday is the best day to board the Kaoham Shuttle, since the train departs from Lillooet at 10:30 am (morning departures the rest of the week are from less-accessible Seton Portage). Reserving ahead by phone is recommended, especially in summer (250-259-8300).

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