To the Sugar Shack and Back: An Alberta Overnight
What had I been thinking? I sat in the ditch with my exhausted ten-year-old son, Max, chugging Gatorade and sucking on gel packs, our be-panniered bikes splayed on the grass beside us. We were attempting our first ever bike trip together, an overnight from our home in west Edmonton, Alberta, to a campground in the town of Devon, about 35 km (that’s about 20 miles) southwest of the city, on mostly country roads. Things went swimmingly for the first 20 km; sure, we took lots of breaks — for water, Clif bars, even to check out a playground we passed — but the pace was steady, respectable. I was sure we’d make it.
But then we hit a stiff headwind, and I could see Max beginning to wilt. At 25 km, he announced he was beat, so we pulled over. As we sat and rested in the ditch, I wondered to myself if my plan had been overly ambitious. Thirty-five clicks was pretty far for a ten-year-old, wasn’t it? And we hadn’t even reached the dodgy part of our route yet, the 3-km stretch on a busy highway, the only bridge across the North Saskatchewan River to Devon. Uphill.
Then, just as I was imagining having to make a sheepish phone call to ask my wife to come get us, up popped Max. “Let’s go,” he said. “I’m good.” And he was. In fact, he didn’t flinch at the highway and he even powered up the hill into Devon ahead of me, unfazed by the tractor-trailers rumbling by us. We made it — of course. No phone call needed.
We stopped for a celebratory milkshake at one of my favorite pit stops in Devon, Wanda Lee’s Sugar Shack, a classic throwback drive-up ice-cream/burger place that somehow manages to still exist directly across from a glitzy Dairy Queen. With full bellies, we rolled down to the Lions Campground, a gem of a spot on the banks of the river. Our campsite featured a terrific view of the reflected sunset on the steep river bank.
Max and I have cycled lots together in the Edmonton valley, usually for 10 or 20 km at a time, but he was keen to go on a longer adventure. He’s heard me talk about, and seen pictures of, my annual bike trips with my buddies, and he’s long been curious about the bins of panniers and racks in the garage. So, we struck on the idea of a short overnight as a kind of intro to cycle tripping and an enjoyable father-son adventure.
Preparation for the trip was a big part of the fun. We went shopping at MEC for some new cycling gear, bought a few freeze-dried meals (thumbs up to the Richmoor Mac ‘n’ Cheese and astronaut ice cream sandwich; thumbs down on the Backpacker’s Pantry Hawaiian Rice with Chicken), mapped out the route on Gmap, made packing lists together. We attached a rear rack to Max’s Trek 1000 road bike, and mounted my small front panniers on them. That way, he could haul some of his own gear — an essential part of any bike trip, I think, that feeling that you’re carrying your stuff, all you really need to get by. As the days approached, we planned, talked about the weather, dreamed about the campfire we’d have. So great was our anticipation that Max (and even I!) had trouble falling asleep the night before we set out.
On the actual ride, I discovered that one of the fun things about doing this kind of trip with a ten-year-old is the conversation. Max was excited, of course, and talked a lot, but the best part was the surprising, original lines he came up with; lines you don’t tend to hear on bike rides with adults. For instance, he announced at one point, “Dad, I’d like to host a water break at the top of this hill.” I’m pretty sure in all my years of riding my bike with friends, I’ve never received such an invitation. (What does one even wear to a hosted water break?) Or there was the moment when he interrupted his own story to observe, “Boy, Dad, those gel packs sure make me talk a lot.”
But the best part of the whole overnight was just watching Max on his bike. On a longer ride like this, on quiet country roads, I could really observe him in a way that I just don’t get to do when riding in the city or even in the busy, twisty river valley. I could ride alongside and just look at him out of the corner of my eye. He’s so skinny, in that ten-year-old way, all bones and no fat, it seems. No wonder he got tired. He’s got hardly any muscle on his boy frame. How could he power that machine at all? And yet, in a way, he didn’t look all that different from a lot of pro cyclists, who are ultra-skinny and seem to have little upper-body strength, and yet are so nimble and light on the bike. When Max got up out of his saddle to charge up that final hill into Devon, my heart jumped a little. He looked, in his extra-small bike shorts and too-big jersey, like an actual cyclist, dancing on the pedals — for just a few seconds a mini-Schleck. At the top of the hill, he looked back at me with a grin. “That wasn’t so bad. Kind of fun, actually.”
This, of course, was what I had been thinking of when I proposed the overnight. Of the way that a bike trip, even an overnighter, can make you feel adventurous and allow you a chance to surprise yourself. And of the hope that my son and I would experience a moment like this, together, on our bikes.
Tip for this adventure: Devon Lions' Campground, sites RN 3-9. And Wanda Lee's Sugar Shack, of course.
Favorite local bike shop: Revolution Cycle