Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Onoway Getaway

It was back in May, during the Dusty 100, in fact, that Val, Penn, and I received an invitation to visit Bigfoot Ryan’s cabin near Onoway, northwest of Edmonton, and ride some gravel roads around Sandy Lake. Finally, a few weeks ago, we got our act together and ventured out there. It was a glorious, sunny, clear day—a rarity in recent weeks—and perfect for autumn riding. But the cycling was only part of the reason for going. I’d heard Ryan and his partner Gigi talk about their cabin at the lake for years and just wanted to check it out.

Ryan had warned us that the cabin was old and rustic and small—technically classified, in fact, as a tool shed, since it’s under 100 square feet. And yes, it's all those things, but it's also totally cool: it’s got character, coziness, and an off-grid charm. As Ryan says, it feels more like a fort, really, and he’s right. I’d call it a ramshackle aesthetic; the structure looks to have been built by unusually competent teenagers out of whatever happened to be lying around at the time. Think old-school tiny house—before tiny houses were a thing. (And, really, what are tiny homes if not high-end forts?)

We parked, unloaded the bikes, took a quick look around, stuck some beer in a snow drift, bade farewell to Gigi, and were off. The ride was lovely, north-west up toward Nakamun, along roads more dirt than gravel, packed hard as tarmac.  We passed driftlets of snow in ditches and hit a couple of icy patches on the roads, but, really, the conditions were terrific for a fall gravel ramble. The fields were full brown, drained of even the pale yellows of a few weeks ago. There were dogs, to add a little excitement, but nothing Penn couldn’t handle with his notorious canine Jedi mind tricks. And there were plaques aplenty (the work, no doubt, of a zealous local history buff), commemorating the former sites of schools and post offices of Stettin, apparently a village which no longer exists.  

Cairn marking one of the sites of Stettin School 

Back at the cabin, the beer was poured, and Ryan and Gig, gracious hosts that they are, laid out some deluxe snacks and walked us out to the shore. The cabin is on what used to be the edge of Sandy Lake. Sadly, the lake is disappearing, and the water that used to be a stone’s chuck from the cabin door is now way out past a series of docks stranded in the grass. There’s no stream or creek that feeds the lake; it’s always been filled by springs. But years of drought and the effects of oil and gas drilling in the area mean that the lake's water supply is pretty much gone. 

The community of Sunrise Beach used to be a thriving getaway for city folks, and July weekends would bring out boating enthusiasts and their home-made thunderboards. But now, with the shallow lake unnavigable by all but a canoe, people are selling and moving on. It’s mainly birds you hear these days—geese and tundra swans the day we were there—not motor boats anymore.

A couple of Rogues on ice for apres ride.

Heading home, I felt a mixture of emotions. The legs thrummed with that good tiredness that comes with a vigorous ride. Plus, there's almost always a small thrill with exploring new territory (with the promise of new routes). And we'd finally gotten to see Ryan and Gigi's lovely cabin by the lake.

But it was hard not to feel a twinge of loss at the same time. The cabin had lasted longer than anyone thought it could, but it was finally falling apart. Ryan and Gigi have plans to knock it down and rebuild. Summer was over, the days of this kind of riding numbered. And, most depressing of all, Sandy Lake was drying up. It seems inevitable that some day a plaque beside a field may be all that’s left to tell passing cyclists of the former site of Sandy Lake.


  1. I'd love to make the trip out to Sandy Lake before the old cabin is knocked down.

  2. Sounds like a fun time was had by all.

  3. An excellent read Dave. You have a described our little shack by the lake perfectly. Your observations are spot on and beautifully articulated. Cheers.

    1. Glad you liked it, Ryan. That was a swell day. Here's to the next ride!


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