A Shared Journey: The Devil’s Gap

This is the 8th post in the A Shared Journey series from guest blogger Sarah Hornby. Links below the post will guide you through the entire series.

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It was late October and winter had already started to arrive in the mountains. My friend Megan and I wondered if we could squeeze in one more “warm” weather bikepacking trip by taking on Ryan’s Devil’s Gap route, one of only a few routes remaining in my 2019 bikepacking project. It started and ended in our hometown and remained relatively low in elevation—perfect for a late season adventure.

Ryan’s guidebook noted that “the bikepacking bold should be captivated by this challenge,” and indeed I was. Devil’s Gap is a rarely-travelled backcountry entrance into Banff National Park and I was excited to see it for myself.

It all started innocently enough, right from my front door. Megan and I spent most of our first day tucked into mossy forest trails. It was technical singletrack, yes, but we were in no rush, and took our time laughing our way along (and around) the many trail features, obstacles, river crossings, and eventually up and over a snowy pass. It was the perfect place for the Salsa Spearfish to shine, even dressed in its full bikepacking ensemble. We smiled often at how great it felt to be on our bikes.

We woke the next morning to an unexpected sensation: warmth! A balmy breeze blew through my tent and the trees outside rustled in a forceful wind. It was a Chinook and meant rapidly increasing winds and temperatures in the hours to come.

Back on our bikes, we laughed at the surprising ease of the first few miles. It wasn’t an illusion—we were being blown uphill, zero pedaling involved. With gusts of more than 120 km per hour, we were lucky to never face it head-on. Still, the few crosswinds we battled were unnerving enough!

With the help of the powerful Chinook, we arrived at our destination in just a few short hours. We savoured the chance to relax at a café, stock up on food, and outfit ourselves for proper winter. Tomorrow’s forecast warned of snow and a drastic drop in temperatures as we would be heading into Devil’s Gap.

We set off in a morning chill as soon as it was bright enough. We figured we would need as much daylight as possible. As we reached the turn-off headed away from civilization, we took a moment to collect our thoughts. It was cold and snowing, and I wondered if this was even a good idea.

We knew that navigating through Devil’s Gap would be tricky. Though we had a GPS route, there is no discernible trail through. It is out of cell service and it would be unlikely that we would encounter anyone out there at this time of year. No matter which way one navigates through the Gap, there are water crossings to be tackled. How many crossings were there? How deep would the water be? Would the current be swift? Would we have to chance a walk across thin ice? Temperatures would be dipping into the negative double digits and getting wet was not an option, especially since we would be camping out in a remote spot.

As we rolled onward, snow blanketed the rough, icy road beneath us. The few vehicles we saw—hunters, we assumed—struggled up the slippery hills. One stopped and the driver stepped out.

“Sarah?”

It was Craig, an accomplished bikepacker and ultra-distance cyclist. We had met years ago prior to the start of the Tour Divide. He was there to race and I was there to see Ryan off.  We learned that Devil’s Gap was one of Craig’s favourite rides, and that’s exactly where he and his friend Sheri were headed. What luck! Craig knows the area like the back of his hand, and his offer to guide us through was all the trail magic we could have wished for. We couldn’t believe we had crossed paths in this seemingly random place, on a day most people were huddled inside keeping warm.

With Craig and Sheri leading the way, we chit-chatted until the bumpy road suddenly descended to the long-awaited Devil’s Gap. I’m sure my jaw dropped. The area is spectacular, with imposing mountains rising dramatically all around. It felt mysterious—eerie, even. Pedaling forward, I marveled at our surroundings as we simply followed along, not having to second-guess our way through thick brush, narrow horse trails, and completely pathless sections. Our chance meeting with Craig and Sheri surely saved us hours.

Fortunately for us, Craig also knew the easiest place to cross the river. It was only a few meters wide, barely knee deep, and had no current. Still, I wasn’t confident that I could ride across without a slip of a foot into the water. Not willing to chance wet boots in the freezing temperatures, Megan and I quickly (though unenthusiastically) pulled our boots and socks off our already-numb feet and waded across the frigid water.

On the other side, there was a sense of relief as we picked up a more established trail. My brakes were frozen and there was ample deadfall to climb over, but we were within striking distance of our campsite now. We parted ways with Craig and Sheri, grateful for the time shared. Meeting them was definitely a highlight of our trip.

Setting up camp on the shores of Lake Minnewanka, darkness came quick, bringing with it a big drop in temperature. We danced around to keep warm while our dinner cooked, then promptly retreated to our tents. My three-season sleeping bag was pushed to its limit as temperatures dipped to -15 degrees Celsius, making for a rather sleepless night.

Outside our tents the next morning, we were greeted with a picturesque scene of freshly-fallen snow at our peaceful lakeside spot. But we were eager to wrap up our adventure and return to warmth, just a few hours away. The finale of our ride along the flowy lakeside trail was scenic but chilly, riddled with more patience-testing fallen trees from the windstorm, and mostly spurred on by thoughts of the nearest bakery and café, which is exactly where we headed upon emerging from the trail. While many of the rides we had done this year were longer or harder or filled with far more elevation gain, this one packed its own unique punch with the weather and venturing into the unknown. It was a memorable way to cap off the season, before winter settled into the mountains for good.

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CLICK BELOW TO READ SARAH'S EARLIER POSTS...

A Shared Journey: An Introduction

A Shared Journey: The Icefields Parkway

A Shared Journey: High Rockies Trail

A Shared Journey: Trip Of Lies

A Shared Journey: Celebration Of Life

A Shared Journey: A Fleeting Moment In Time

A Shared Journey: The Struggle

A Shared Journey: Beauty Rising

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lured to the west by the beauty and lifestyle of the mountains, I transplanted myself to the Canadian Rockies to live, work, and play in this gorgeous corner of the world. Here, a casual interest in cycling has grown into a passion my life seems to, quite happily, revolve around. No matter how big or small the two-wheeled adventure, it's the freedom, friendship, and simplicity that always has me dreaming about what’s next.

This post filed under topics: Bikepacking Mountain Biking Overnighter Sarah Hornby Spearfish

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lured to the west by the beauty and lifestyle of the mountains, I transplanted myself to the Canadian Rockies to live, work, and play in this gorgeous corner of the world. Here, a casual interest in cycling has grown into a passion my life seems to, quite happily, revolve around. No matter how big or small the two-wheeled adventure, it's the freedom, friendship, and simplicity that always has me dreaming about what’s next.

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