Ridin’ the rails with Tyson, Russell, and Ramblin’ Jack

HAINES JUNCTION ‘I’m definitely, hugely inspired,” says Elsabé Kloppers, who lives in this village.


‘I’m definitely, hugely inspired,” says Elsabé Kloppers, who lives in this village.

Kloppers is flyin’ high after ridin’ the rails with headliner musicians Ian Tyson, Tom Russell, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott.

In November, Kloppers conducted interpretive nature programs on two Roots on the Rails’ music festival trains.

“And I happily got to attend all the concerts, workshops, and jam sessions on board,” she says.

Kloppers, an outgoing, flamboyant musician and naturalist, becomes almost effusive when discussing these tours. She does not stop grinning.

“When I come off these trips, I just want to relive the magic and explore all the new tunes we have just heard or jammed,” she says.

Kloppers recently rode the Scottish Fiddle Train from Vancouver to Toronto. The tour featured master fiddler Alasdair Fraser and Natalie Haas on cello, in conjunction with Quebecois traditional music sensation Genticorum.

Her most recent tour was on The Cowboy Train featuring the stalwarts — Tyson, Russell, and Elliott.

At home, Kloppers works as a biologist with Yukon Fish and Wildlife Management Board’s Stewardship Program. She is also an accomplished classical musician and fiddle player.

“I’ve been playing a whole lot since I’ve gotten back,” she says. (Kloppers plays solo and with the local Ruby Rangers Band.)

“There’s such a great level of energy and excitement aboard the trains. It starts as soon as we get on, and people kind of catch that spirit.”

Some have likened the tours to the movie Festival Express, except with paying guests.

Kloppers, a wellspring of enthusiasm, elaborates. “You are on this moving thing; there’s an incredible live sound track going on day and night. You have the scenery going by.

“And the food — divine food.

“It does feel like you are part of a surreal movie experience.”

“Incredible characters come on these trains — both musicians and guests. We laughed for days,” Kloppers says.

“These characters add such a neat flavour, and are a really enthusiastic audience for the music and for my interpretive presentations.”

Kloppers conducts interactive nature presentations each morning, summarizing the natural history of the areas through which the train is travelling.

Her material includes ecology, geology, and sometimes cultural and historic aspects.

“Then I roam through the Skyline car answering questions and pointing out features and wildlife as encountered,” she says.

How does a South African-born biologist get to ride North American folk festival trains anyway?

“I was very, very lucky!” says Kloppers, beaming. “While working as a wildlife technician in Banff, I heard about Roots on the Rails. I e-mailed them requesting information.

“When the owner, Charlie Hunter, realized I was a wildlife biologist, he asked if I would consider doing nature talks on his trains!”

Kloppers has since worked on six folk fest train tours including some in Colorado and New Mexico.

Her first featured Fred Eaglesmith in 2006. Kloppers is now one of the six regular Roots on the Rails staff.

On board, the bands perform in minimal space (train width) in a special 1950s lounge car that Roots converts into a performance car. Rows of seats line the walls. The bar becomes the sound booth.

“The performers have to work at maintaining their balance to offset the crowded stage and the train’s erratic movements,” says Kloppers.

“Also, despite excellent mixing, sound is a challenge. A train can have a hum of its own.”

Kloppers quotes Tyson as saying, “Today I think this train is in D.”

“When winding through Hell’s Gate in Fraser Canyon, you have all the grinding and lurching. It is all part of the ambience, but the musicians and sound engineer have to compensate,” she adds.

Besides the onboard concerts, the musicians offer workshops and informal jam sessions, in which the guests and Roots staff can participate.

In the cities at either end of the tour, local venues host the performers.

Roots on the Rails, a Vermont-based company, partners with VIA Rail in spring and fall to host four or five music fests per year. The first of these trains ran in 2003.

Roots charters seven exclusive cars on the front of VIA’s regular cross-Canada passenger trains. Baggage cars separate the regular train from the music fest section.

“Our section and the music are not open to the regular passengers. Most of them have no idea how much fun we are having on our section of the train!” says Kloppers.

“Regular VIA staff serve the festival cars, and apparently, there’s a kind of lottery among their staff to see who will get to work on our section. One time they had to write essays to be chosen,” she adds.

“The VIA Rail employees have been really amazing to work with. They have the whole routine down,” says Kloppers.

The music fest trains travel for four days between Vancouver and Toronto; the cost is approximately $3,000 per guest. Typical guests are baby boomers with well-established careers.

“However, there are also youth, older folks, and families with young children,” Kloppers adds.

“They can be a real international mix, but all share a common love of live music and a sense of adventure.

“I’ve seen wonderful camaraderie quickly build on each of these tours; a large portion of guests return yearly. They become a family — a unique one.”

In Vancouver, VIA Rail picks up the bands, the Roots on the Rails staff, and the 65 paying guests. That festival travels to Toronto for a final concert.

In Toronto, Roots on the Rails staff have a two-day turnaround. Then the new set of performers and guests come on board, and the next festival tour rumbles on back to Vancouver.

Kloppers laughs.

“It’s a crazy, sleepless couple of weeks. The headliners and guests may be up jamming all night. No one wants to miss anything or waste time by sleeping.

“With little sleep and changing time zones, our body clocks can get quite confused. During our last two tours, I changed my clock seven times in 11 days.”

Not all tours unfold as planned.

Kloppers’ first tour in 2006 started with an unexpected twist, but turned out to be one of the best. The tour was booked for the ferry Queen of the North. The ferry sank one sailing before the Roots tour began.

The tour venues, transportation, and attractions immediately changed. Musicians ended up playing in a quaint local pub in downtown Prince Rupert.

“However, the guests and musicians were cheerfully game for whatever happened next,” says Kloppers.

“And the added adventures provided writing material for new songs and poems — it all becomes the stuff of new legends.”

Kloppers sums up her recent Cowboy Train experience.

“Hearing headliners like Tyson, Russell, and Ramblin’ Jack jamming together and sharing stories from magical days past, it kind of felt like we were witnessing the twilight of an incredible music era.

“It was an enormous privilege to experience that.

“Add to that the camaraderie of our ‘train family’ with all of us rockin’ our way across the remarkable Canadian landscape.

“We will never forget it.”

Kloppers adds, “As a person who loves nature, travel, live music, and cheerful people, I could not have found a happier organization to be part of.

“And the only cure for the post-train blues is yet another train tour.”

Hmm. The post-train blues. Sounds like a song.

Elaine Hurlburt is a writer living in Haines Junction.