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.

Get more information about bike overnights.

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

23 responses so far ↓

Kathleen - Nov 29, 2011 at 9:49 AM

What a great story, and so well written. Max sounds like a wonderful kid. You did a great job involving him in the entire adventure, which I think paid dividends for both of you. Thanks for sharing this with us.

Carol - Nov 29, 2011 at 12:24 PM

Wow, what a trip. I am very proud of my son and grandson. This story makes me want to do some cycling.

Max - Nov 29, 2011 at 4:03 PM

Cool story(yes I am the Max in the story)

Anna - Nov 30, 2011 at 11:07 AM

Thanks for the great tale. I'd love to get out of Edmonton and cycle and your story has it all the how-to stuff I needed: the Mec pre-trip expedition (I've done that and look forward to more), the route, and the rewards of doing it with someone small. What a great break in my work day this makes!

Kevin - Nov 30, 2011 at 11:15 AM

Sounds like a great trip and I enjoyed the narrative of your adventure together, Dave. I'm looking forward to more rides together with the boys next summer.

Jeff - Nov 30, 2011 at 3:16 PM

Thanks for sharing this great story! Promoting a healthy active lifestyle and bonding with your child, life doesn’t get much better than that. Max is fortunate to have you as a father.

Kathie - Nov 30, 2011 at 3:50 PM

Adventures like this are what bring parents and their kids together and I enjoyed reading about yours. I've been wanting to take my 10 year old son on an overnight bike trip, too, but have shied away from it because I wasn't sure he could do it. I need another adult along to help me, so that will be how I get the plan started. Thanks for the inspiration.

john h - Nov 30, 2011 at 5:22 PM

Sounds like it was a wonderful expedition. I wish I had steered my son towards cycling as opposed to baseball sooner. We have taken many rides together, though not overnights, and I enjoy each one. Cherish the time together, they grow up so fast.

Lorie - Dec 1, 2011 at 11:03 AM

Beautiful undertaking turned into a beautiful story beautifully written.

Ron - Dec 1, 2011 at 8:00 PM

I remember that hill to Devon. You two must have had a good workout riding up there!

Becii - Dec 1, 2011 at 8:13 PM

Heart touching! Really makes me hope Ashton will be up for some amazing adventures like this when he's old enough. We miss you guys!

Larry - Dec 1, 2011 at 9:00 PM

Way to go Dave and Max! What a great story to read. It brings back happy memories of our Great Montana Double Loop ride - stiff headwind included. Thanks for sending it Dave. You guys are an inspiration.
Bikes Rule.

Ryan - Dec 2, 2011 at 10:32 AM

Thank you for sharing this wonderful adventure. Makes me think I need to start going for some longer rides with my (almost) 9 year-old Daughter so we can start doing some S240's in the coming years.

Bruce - Dec 2, 2011 at 2:37 PM

Great article you guys! That's a great accomplishment, Max, and Dave nice writing!

Kathy - Dec 3, 2011 at 6:49 AM

Wow, Max is lucky to have a great Dad like you David. What a wonderful trip! You describe your adventure so vividly, thanks for sharing!

Hugs from your proud Aunt Kathy

Leanne - Dec 3, 2011 at 6:58 AM

Hi David! Reading this, I actually laughed out loud. Mostly because Curtis is 10, and similar things come out of his mouth too. I could vividly picture your adventure. So great to hear you both made it!
From your cousin, Leanne

Travis Grant - Dec 5, 2011 at 3:00 PM

This is an inspiring tale of fatherhood and a boy's coming-of-age adventure. Well done, Dave!

Kyle - Dec 6, 2011 at 11:05 AM

Nice! I remember taking my son, when he was about the same age, on mountain bike trips. We'd load up the truck and go camp, then pedal the trails. Now he is 22 years old, 6'4" and as strong as a truck. He just got back from Afghanistan. I can't wait till we can go bike together again! Take my advice, MORE pictures.

Stuart - Dec 7, 2011 at 1:14 PM

What a nicely told story. I like the way you notice the different conversation, relationship and physicality of your son. And how he leads you through his mini pain barrier. Adventures bring these things out, even a 'simple' overnighter. And it's good to have a bit of a challenge in there and see how you both cope. Too easy and it's just recreation, too much and it could be misadventure but sounds like you had this outing tensioned just right. Kids are often capable of far more than we think. Our 10 year old surprised us by completing a 1500km tour with us this summer, riding solo over the High Tatras in Slovakia. It's amazing how far you can get one revolution at a time.

Tina - Dec 8, 2011 at 12:26 PM

Way to go!! I'm so proud of you Max. And what a great story - I loved every part. I can't wait to hear about the other brave adventures you take on in the future.

Mark - Aug 30, 2012 at 12:24 PM

Priceless, can't wait until my grandson is old enough to go......

Andy - Dec 7, 2012 at 6:23 AM

My daughter is two right now... only a few more years and we'll be rolling down the road together. Can't wait!

David Crook - Dec 11, 2012 at 3:32 PM

Dave and Max...

Thank you so much for sharing your incredible adventure. I have four incredible daughters, but no son. I can tell you that the times I shared with "My Girls" were every bit as memorable, just less testosterone. They all loved to cycle and camp and still do. My wife Lucy and I are enjoying our forty fourth year of a very happy marriage. I think much of our contentment was born in our love of the outdoors. I hope you will share more of your love for each other and your epic adventures.

Cheers,

David
Fort Myers, Florida

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