Three years. I’ve waited three freakin’ years for this moment.
I survived a broken ankle.
I survived the pandemic.
But I’ve waited, and waited, and waited. Patiently, mind you. Very, very patiently.
Because this is the weekend. The weekend when that big, illuminated freight train with its traveling concert of Christmas music chugs through North America. And with it, my personal chase of that train throughout the Capital District and the Adirondacks – and this year, into Canada.
I’ve spent the past three years in search of great shooting spots for this chase. I’ve checked and confirmed all my camera gear. Anybody else can have Santa Claus and a big sleigh and eight flying reindeer (nine, if you count Rudolph) (ten, if you count Olive).
No. As far as I’m concerned, Father Christmas drives a diesel-powered locomotive with enough rolling stock to be visible for miles and miles. This is what Christmas means to me. Instead of a Lionel set around the Christmas tree, let’s build an entire train set in 1:1 scale.
Five years ago, I had my first fun experience with the Holiday Train.
Four years ago, I photographed it as it crossed the Cohoes-Waterford Bridge.
Three years ago, I chased it all the way up to Crown Point and took fantastic shots all the way.
I am ready this year. Ready and able.
Let’s do this.
DAY 1. Saturday drive to Quebec. I have two stops planned; one in Kahnawà:ke, a First Nation locale outside of Montreal; and then a second stop at Saint-Constant. The Kahnawà:ke stop will hopefully catch the Holiday Train as it crosses a rail bridge parallel to the Honore Mercier Bridge; while Saint-Constant should allow me to capture the train arriving and a performance.
I decided that only three cameras should make this trip – my two Nikon Df cameras for 3D stereoscopy; and my Nikon F2S camera (“Nikon Athena”) for infrared shooting. All my cameras and lenses have been documented with the US Customs and Border Patrol; so that’s what I’m bringing. All my other camera gear can wait for the rest of my trip.
And trust me – I was so worried about crossing the border. I’ve watched enough online episodes of the reality series Border Security: International to be prepared for a trip into secondary inspection and having my car torn down to the rocker panels while some sniffer dogs patrol my camera gear.
But as I arrived at the border crossing, the border officer simply asked if I had any drugs or firearms (no), whether I was photographing the Holiday Train as a business (no), whether I had any alcohol in the car (no), and how long I was staying in Canada (one day). Then he waved me through.
Aces. Now let’s get to the shooting spots.
LOCATION ONE: LaSalle, Quebec
My original plan was to photograph the train as it crossed over the St. Lawrence River into the tribal lands of Kahnawà:ke. But I ran into several problems – I couldn’t find a good shooting angle, parking was limited, all of those.
So I needed a new shooting spot. And after searching Google Maps like crazy, I found what might be an optimal location – a spot on LaSalle Boulevard that borders the St. Lawrence River.
And look – at the corner of LaSalle Boulevard and Belanger Avenue is a bicycle repair shop.
This will work for me. In fact, I even purchased a T-shirt from the bicycle shop as a good luck memento. Plus, there was convenient side-street parking available. And I’m good with that.
The train has to arrive at Kahnawà:ke by 4:45 p.m., so if I set up my gear at 4:00 p.m., I’ll be in time. The two Nikon Df stereo cameras were set up on my tripod – both merged with Vivitar 19mm f/3.8 ultrawide lenses. I had my Nikon F2S (“Nikon Athena”) around my neck. If I’m going to do this, let’s do it with all my available cameras.
I had initially hoped the sun would stay in the sky for the train to pass through it, but the sun dipped below the horizon at about 4:15. No worries.
And amazingly, I seem to be the only person photographing at this spot. I thought that with 20+ years of Holiday Train photos and Instagrammers and other foamers out there, I would have had to jockey with ten other photographers for this prime spot. This is why research is so important. Scout your location.
At about 4:25, another person joined me. I could tell he was a Holiday Train enthusiast – he wore a CP Holiday Train knit toque on his head. I could tell he was also a local – he sported a Montreal Alouettes winter jacket. We talked for a while – his name was Tony, he used to work for Canadian Pacifc (he retired after the pandemic), and he wanted to get some pictures of the train as well.
And at 4:35 … look what arrived. Tony started filming with his camera phone; I filmed a bit with my camera phone WHILE remote-triggering the Df‘s to get me some swank shots. All that practice at Saratoga Harness by using my dual set-ups with the remote trigger – it better pay off right now.
Oh my … I got the locomotive, all 14 rolling stocks, and they’re all lit up. With “golden hour” lighting as well. This is better than anything I could have achieved at the Cohoes-Waterford Bridge. Swank. I wished Tony a Merry Christmas, tore down my camera setup, loaded everything back in the car, and now it’s off to Saint-Constant.
LOCATION TWO: Saint-Constant, Quebec
The plan for Saint-Constant is to shoot the whole concert. I would just use the Df stereo setup. Plus, I figured there’d be plenty of parking. It’s a train station, so people are expected to park in a parking lot, right?
HOO boy was I mistaken.
There must have been 5,000 people at the event site by the time I arrived. I was lucky to find anywhere to park. And after a short hike to the performance area – dragging two Nikon Df‘s and my bulky tripod in bone-chilling weather – I arrived at the performance area. Temporary guard barriers all around.
Okay, Chuck. Think fast.
I saw what appeared to be a team of CP employees with expensive camera gear. “Is this where we can shoot photos for the train?”
“Where are you from?”
“I came all the way from New York.”
The employee pointed to a small gap over in the corner of the fencing. “Set up your gear there and don’t block anybody if you can help it.”
I can handle that.
And in my little corner of the shooting area …
Look what showed up. Nice and big and bright. CP locomotive 2246.
And then the stage car arrived. And as the doors opened … country singer Jojo Mason entertained the audience.
And after he performed two songs, country singer Lindsey Ell added some holiday love for the attendees.
And because this was a charitable fundraiser as well as a free concert, Canadian Pacific granted the local Saint-Constant food pantry a $4,000 donation. Look at that check.
What an incredible show. Jojo Mason and Lindsey Ell brought the crowd to their feet. Lindsey Ell even tossed her guitar pick to a little girl at the front of the barricade. Sweet.
Then the boxcar stage closed its drawbridge doors, and the train headed to its next destinations. It’ll arrive in the Capital District this morning for shows in Mechanicville and in Saratoga Springs.
But I still had a 3 1/2 hour drive home. And after a pit stop at the duty free shop – apparently there’s this type of potato chip that Canadians love, something called “All-Dressed” – I purchased that and some souvenirs.
Okay, now I’m at the US border crossing. And it looks like the car in front of me did something or contained something that wasn’t to the border guard’s liking. From what I could tell, the car was motioned over to secondary inspection.
I pulled up to the crossing.
“Purpose of your trip in Canada?”
“I photographed the Holiday Train in Saint-Constant.”
“What did you buy at the duty free shop?”
I handed her my receipt. “Some potato chips, some fridge magnets and a couple of sodas.”
She handed the receipt back. “Welcome home.” She waved me on.
I returned to the Town and Village at about 11:30 p.m. Totally wiped out.
But man on man, it was so worth it.
And I’ve got some shooting spots for Day 2 that I truly hope will be epic.
And I mean EPIC.