Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Trains Hitting Large Animals Must Stop And......

September 18, 2012

Recently, emails arriving at my desk have involved some discussion around wildlife being struck by trains.  Many ballast-pounding railroaders have at least one story to tell about hitting an animal or a bird.  Of course the stories that are told and re-told, are the ones that involve a side effect of the strike, some of which are tragic, while others are quite humerous, except of course for the creature that was struck by the train.

When the latest of the 'animal strike' stories arrived this morning, I began to write an email, enclosing a story that I was a party to in Jasper, Alberta.  However, once I got to paragraph number three and I still hadn't gotten to the part where the animals and the train were less than a mile apart, I realized that it was going to take longer to get to the 'meat' of the matter (pardon the pun), than an email would do justice to. 

What to do???

Well, write it for this blog, of course. 

Circa 1970-ish, during a period of heavy winters and warm summers, animal strikes on the CNR right of way had become a serious problem for trains running between Hinton, Alberta and Kamloops, BC.  Even worse were the problems encountered on the BC North Line, the former Grand Trunk Pacifc railroad, between Red Pass Junction and Prince Rupert where snow was falling, at times at a rate of nearly one foot per hour according to Rocky Hartline, who was then I believe, the Trainmaster at Prince Rupert.

Conductor Roy Richards taking his turn at the broom on the west switch at Redsand after a meet where we took the hole for the passenger train.

Bruce Harvey photo
When the snow was laying ten feet deep along the right of way, large animals would founder in snow that was up to the top of a Moose's neck.  CN was running snow ploughs so often that a 'Snow Service' assignment was established and the ploughs and spreaders ran on a daily basis in an effort to keep the mainline open for traffic.

The cleared right of way became a place of refuge for large animals that were becoming exhausted, emaciated and cranky due to the terrible pressure that Nature was imposing on them.  More and more large animals, mostly Moose, but also Elk and Mountain Sheep were being run over by trains that couldn't stop in time to avoid the collision. 

At times, when we were grinding up the hill between Thunder River and Albreda, a Moose would appear in the headlights two or three pole lengths ahead of the train. 

Many Thanks to Ron Bowman for this photo.

On occasion, the Moose would recognize the locomotive as an adversary and it would turn toward the train, lower it's head, positioning its massive rack of antlers for attack..., and it would charge! The result was always the same, if the train consisted of loaded cars.

If we were pulling a drag of empties, the Moose had a good chance of winning the match. 

Photographer unknown.

The next paragraph is definitely not for "the sqeamish".  Go make some popcorn, if you must, and skip the gory details.  I'm just saying.....

Moose hide is extremely thick, tough and resilient.  If a Moose, once struck, remains between the rails and gets rolled up instead of being cut up into pieces by the passing wheels, it becomes a very large mass of meat and broken bones, held inside the intact hide.

This large mass would soon be chewed up by passing rail cars, if the cars were heavily loaded, but if they were empty, such as an empty boxcar, tank car or flat car..., then there wouldn't be sufficient weight to hold the car on the rails while it passed over the Moose carcass.  This generally resulted in the empty car being lifted off the rails and deposited onto a diverging route which again..., ended up with derailed cars or a full fledged train wreck.

Train crews began to receive an order attached to their clearances that read, in effect...,

"Trains hitting large animals must stop and make a standing inspection.  Animal carcasses found beneath the train must be removed from the tracks before the train can be allowed to proceed."

Well, railroaders like to think they're tougher than shoe leather, but when it came to having to remove mangled animal bodies from beneath their train..., not so much. Most often, the crew would opt to try to pull the train past the offending carcass rather than put their hands into the steamy mess.  (Sorry, I had to say it ;-)


I was working the Jasper spareboard and took an early morning call for a Swan Landing Turn.  We were to run caboose hop eastward from Jasper to Swan Landing, a distance of 34 miles. 

There, we were to put our caboose on the east end of a grain train that had been set out due to congestion caused by heavy snow on the Albreda and Clearwater subs, west of Jasper.  CN was now ready to handle this train westward, as the ploughs had cleared the mainline and some sidings in the mountains.

I brought the engine, two new SD40's off the shop and picked up a brand new steel caboose out of the cab track.  The conductor and tail end brakeman, who shall remain nameless at this time had both oil stoves fired up and a kettle was boiling happily. 

As I cut the air into the caboose, the tail end man stepped out onto the caboose platform and said that we couldn't leave town for about 20 or 30 minutes because of a heavy westbound that hadn't yet arrived from the Edson sub.   The conductor was making coffee and if we pulled down to the east end of the yard and stopped well back from the east end of track nine, the engineer and I were welcome to come back for a fresh cup of hot coffee.  He repeated that part about stopping well back of the east end of the yard and then said..., "Les Hunt is the hogger on the westbound and he's already calling the yard office, begging to have someone drive down to the east end to line up all the switches for him to enter the yard."   Heavy trains coming in from Henry House in very cold weather, as this day was, would struggle to keep moving when lining up the switches and removing the derails at the bottom end of the yard. 

With this in mind, I immediately volunteered to line up the route for the westbound, but the brakeman laughed, saying that Hunt had booked rest on their crew in Edson recently, resulting in a 24 hour layover instead of returning home after only a four hour layover.  Obviously, Engineer Hunt would pay for his silly action.

The sun had come up and was burning away some of the frost-fog that had hung in the air.  The mountains appeared hazy, but blue sky was beginning to replace the low, grey overcast.

Sitting in the caboose, warmed by two stoves and sipping hot coffee, we chatted and told stories until radio chatter announced the pending arrival of the westbound. 

But it wasn't railway related chatter that we were listening to. Instead, Engineer Hunt was bubbling over with excitement.  He had called his tail end crew to tell them that he had struck two Rocky Mountain Bighorn Sheep in a rock cut near the mileboard.  He was asking them to watch the track behind and let  him know if they had been killed, or just knocked down, as his leading locomotive was an F7A 9100 class locomotive with limited rear vision capability.

Big Horn Sheep
Photographer unknown

We listened for the reply. 

Soon, Hunt's conductor called to say that both animals were dead and laying beside the track, apparently intact.

Our conductor and tail end brakeman looked at each other with smiles on their faces.  Every one in the caboose knew what must be going through Les Hunt's mind at that moment.

Hunt owned some small cabins beside the Yellowhead highway near Pedley in an isolated and sparsely populated area in the eastern foothills of the Rockies.   To the south of Hunt's Motel, as it was known, lay a few hundred miles of forest, stretching all the way to Calgary.  Hunt had a registered trap line out there and hunted and trapped to augment his earnings on the railway. 

There could be no doubt about what Les Hunt would do as soon as he had yarded his train and retrieved his truck from the parking lot.  He would ski-daddle right out to the east mileboard, climb up the bank and retrieve the two dead rams, packing them back to his place for processing. 

There is one small fly in this ointment, however.  And that is..., the animals were killed "inside Jasper National Park", and the rules about killing wild animals in the park now came into play.  The Park Warden must be notified.  RCMP might have to investigate.  CN Senior Officers would have to be involved in the subsequent investigation.  There would be lost future earnings to consider. 

But none of this occured to our erstwhile hogger, Mr. Hunt.  He announced on the CN radio that he was going to grab those animals before the coyotes got to them. 

With GM 567's shaking the morning air, the westbound pulled into the yard, wheels slipping, then catching on freshly sanded rails, while we waited, out of sight of the arriving Hunt and crew.

Power heading for the 'barn'. Bruce Harvey photo taken in Jasper yard. 

In hushed tones, we formulated a plan.

When the dispatcher gave us a "Slow Clear" signal to leave the yard, we would slip silently out onto the mainline, so as not to let Hunt know that we had overheard his plans.

Arriving at the mileboard and spotting the dead animals, we stopped and viewed the scene.

The winter winds had blown all but a couple of inches of snow from the ground near the tracks, but elsewhere, the snow lay two or three feet deep.  The only tracks to be seen in the snow were those of the two rams which had been involved in their annual ritual of fighting for control of a small harem of ewes when they were struck and killed by the train.  It wasn't supposed to end that way for the unfortunate animals and I'm sure we all felt badly about the fact that they had lost their lives...,  but opportunity was knocking on our caboose, wasn't it???

 Both rams were laying immediately beyond the outside edge of the ties, with their amply endowed heads just beside the rails.  There was one on each side of the main line, lying in exactly the same positions.

We couldn't believe it!!!!

While the conductor spread a couple of wool blankets on the caboose floor, the engineer, rear brakeman and I, while holding tightly onto the handrails of the caboose, and being careful not to step on the ground, carefully lifted the big rams straight up and carried them, one by one into the caboose and laid them out on the blankets.

As soon as our illicit cargo was aboard, we slipped quietly away, leaving no trace that we had ever been there.

Upon our arrival at Swan Landing, I put the caboose on the east end of the grain train that had been sitting there for over a week, and then took the engine to the west end and tied on, coupling in the air.

Cold weather and the extended length of time that the train had sat idle meant that it would be at least an hour before there was enough air pressure built up in the caboose's gauge to enable us to begin an air brake test before departing for Jasper.

Eventually, we arrived back in Jasper.  We had all agreed that we would never speak of this to anyone, but I was curious to know how the boys on the caboose would handle things.  They had gotten rid of the carcasses, cleaned the caboose and wiped away any clue that we had been involved. 

Scuttle butt in the Legion and the Athabasca Hotel beer parlour was rampant with wild tales and even wilder speculation.  Within a couple of days, almost everyone had heard about Les Hunt's brush with the Law, the Park Authorities and the railroad. 

Hunt had driven his truck to where he figured the bodies would be laying and climbed the steep rocky fill until he reached track level. 

This photo was taken just east of Jasper and will give a idea of the climb from the highway to the tracks near where the sheep were struck and killed.


All he found were the tracks left in the snow by the two quarreling rams, some tufts of hair and a few spots of blood.  The animals were gone.  But where had they gone? 

I mentioned earlier in this post that Les Hunt was a trapper and a hunter.  He knew how to track an animal using any of the normal, natural signs that tell of an animal's passing.  But there was nothing "normal" or "natural" about this situation. 

The tracks clearly showed that the animals had come down from the hillside above the tracks and had met and fought on the railway right of way..., but there were no tracks leading away from the scene.
Yet, there were no bodies to be found.  It just wasn't possible, but there it was in front of him. 

He was stunned!

He drove back into Jasper to find someone he could talk with about this mystery, and I suppose he might have spoken with too many about it, because the authorities became involved and immediately went to have a look for themselves.

And here's the evidence that they found.  There were sheep tracks in the snow indicating that two rams had come to this place to fight.  There were marks, again in the snow that indicated that they had been struck and killed and..., there were footprints in the snow showing where a person or persons unknown (Les Hunt) had climbed the steep bank to the tracks and had descended that same bank to the side of the highway.  It was beginning to look like an "open and shut" case, all right.

Two "Trophy Big Horn Sheep" had been killed and their bodies had been removed..., illegally.
Hunt had been overheard saying that he had hit the animals and that he was going to go to the scene of the crime and retrieve the bodies. 

The authorities went to visit Mr. Hunt at his 'motel' on the highway.  That must have been a scary time for Les.  He had always bragged about living at an isolated location so the cops wouldn't bother him.

Would things work out OK for my crew?  Only time would tell because we had sworn an oath that we would never tell.  Surprisingly, we held to that oath....until now.

There was only one occasion that I can recall that the name "Swan Landing" was associated with the incident. That was one day, a month or two after the event had taken place, I was riding on the head end of an eastbound train, and while we were passing the small yard at Swan Landing, my engineer, Curly Paul (whose father, incidentally had been the fireman on the first Grand Trunk Pacific passenger train to arrive in McBride in 1915.  courtesy The Robson Valley Story by Marilyn Wheeler) leaned toward me, and with a deep scowl on his face barked at me saying....

"Do you know anything about the two Big Horn Sheep carcasses that were found here at Swan Landing?"

I nearly choked, but I managed to blurt out a defensive thrust similar like....,

"Now, why would you think I would know anything about that.  I didn't even know that sheep carcasses had been dumped there!!!"

Curly settled back into his seat and, looking at nothing in particular out the front window, he thought for a moment.

"It's gotta be those damned American hunters" he said.

"They come up here and can't shoot anything outside the Park, so they kill the trophies inside the Park and take the heads away with them."

"They just dump the bodies like so much garbage," he said. 

I thought it best to let it lie.

I never heard what happened to the heads of those animals, but about a year later, I recieved a small package in the mail.  There was no return address on it, but the post office cancellation stamp was from Edmonton.  

When I opened the package, I found inside ... a tobacco pouch made from a Rocky Mountain Big Horn ram's scrotum.

I bought some pipe tobacco on my way home.