Winter. There’s usually two sentiments attached to this season that can start as early as September for those of us up here in Alberta: love it or loathe it.
Insert snow covered mountains, proper gear to keep warm and loving it is my sentiment! Perhaps my adoration for winter has more to do with growing up on the north shore of Lake Superior where Old Man Winter didn’t budge until around May. With cross country skiing, ice fishing, snow machining, skating, alpine skiing and snowboarding available to participate in I had it all as kid, or so I thought! Fast forward to the other weekend where I was given the opportunity to try out a new winter activity that had been on my radar for quite some time + is creating quite the buzz these days: Fat Biking.
With almost perfect fat biking conditions present: 1cm of new snow on top of hard pack I chose Sundance Lodge for an overnight via fat bike as my adventure destination! Hearing that the lodge which is located in Banff National Park was a popular day ride for bikers in winter I was sold on the idea of biking in and staying one night at the lodge I had visited via cross country skis on previous trips.
I connected with Andrew at Soul Ski + Bike in downtown Banff for my rental as they allow overnight bookings. He got me geared up with a Surly Ice Cream Truck (its massive 4.6 tires had me feeling good about riding on snow) and a spare tube in case I got a flat. I brought my own pump, tools + helmet for the trip.
Being a professional photographer means carrying a decent amount of gear in my pack for my adventures. While getting ready for this trip I had initially started organizing using a 30L pack, but had to scale down to 24L so that my head was able to tilt back without hitting my pack. This I learned was a very wise choice once I got to riding!
There are two routes for getting into the lodge and neither of them include arriving via motorized vehicle! Most popular methods of travel in winter are: fat bikes, cross country skis and snowshoes.
Route 1 begins right at the Cave + Basin Interpretive Centre and is perfect for people visiting the area who are staying in Banff or those who do not have a vehicle. You can head in directly from downtown! If you park at this start point, be sure to leave a note on your dash letting Parks know you are at the lodge overnight.
Route 2 is the one I chose, beginning at the Healy Creek Parking Lot with a ride total of approx 21km return and around 350m elevation gain. I loaded up my bike and drove the 15 minutes or so west from Banff to the Healy Creek Parking lot on the way to Sunshine Village Ski Resort off of Sunshine Road. For this route ensure that you also leave a note on your dash letting Parks know you are at the lodge overnight.
After only a few minutes on the trail I arrived alongside Healy creek, a great spot to look back and take in Mt Bourgeau to the west and to the north Mt Edith and Cory!
After 2.6km along fairly flat terrain I hit Brewster Junction, turned right and was on the trail leading me to the lodge. I got an exercise in cardio for the next 3km, climbing around 150m (in the easiest gear possible I will confess) back and forth up a number of switchbacks before leveling out. I followed this mellow trail for a few more km’s until I reached a junction on my right where I got to go downhill for the first time!
I have a few “must haves” that I bring in my pack no matter what, and for this trip they were: Munk Packs: a trail fuel favourite and my go-to Bergamot Vanilla chapstick by Element Botanicals + Hike365!
After my first downhill, I cruised along for a few more km’s until reaching a fun downhill section where the views opened up! Once at the bottom of the downhill, I crossed 2 bridges and followed the creek for my last couple of km’s to the lodge!
Sundance Lodge is owned and operated by Banff Trail Riders and was built in 1991. Next door to the lodge is the Ten-Mile Cabin (1923) it was used as a rest stop for mountain guides and packers traveling to Mount Assiniboine back in the day. Ten-Mile Cabin was declared a historical site in 1990, though its solar panels used to power aspects of the lodge were installed just last year! About 4km from Sundance Lodge are the remains of Turtle Tom’s Cabin, which I learned was in the area before Banff became a Park in 1885. Further past Sundance is another beautiful destination called the Halfway Lodge, which is available for bookings via horseback through Banff Trail Riders.
I am already dreaming ahead to summer and BTR’s fishing trips offered on horseback. As an alpine lake fly fisher, a multi-day trip on horseback with sleeping in an A-frame tent and fishing Mystic Lake is right up my alley! As I explore more of my backyard here in Alberta + western Canada I understand why the tourists stopping by my art stall at the Banff Farmers Market in summer tell me I live in one of the most beautiful places in the world!
Being greeted by the staff as soon as you arrive at a backcountry lodge is one of those things that warms your heart no matter how cold it might be that day. Our chef + host Steven was there with a smile and of course a laugh as I happily got my sore butt off my bike + took in the beautiful surroundings and lodge! Unless he is busy in the kitchen making his amazing cinnamon twists Steven will be there to welcome you to your home away from home!
I “secured” my bike for the night on the covered deck in case it snowed, got a tour of the lodge and chose my room. After scarfing down a cinnamon twist (or two) with a hot cup of cowboy coffee I got settled in my home for the night, complete with down duvet + wool Pendelton blankets! The entire lodge is heated by two fire places on the main floor, which keeps the upstairs a perfect temperature; cool but not too cold, which is important on an evening when all 10 rooms in the lodge are full!
After my snack I went for a walk around the lodge to snap a few photographs and get a plan in mind for some long exposures I wanted to create that evening! I realized it was almost dinner time so I sat down at the kitchen table with a beer (cold cans + bottles of wine are available for purchase) and got to know some of the other guests of the lodge.
Steven was hard at work getting our family style dinner ready in the kitchen. I enjoyed my beer while looking at the black and white photographs decorating the walls, listening to stories from him on the history of the area. A few minutes later other guests who had been warming up by the fireplace in the main room started trickling into the kitchen and settling down at the table. There was a total of 10 guests in for the evening and we had arrived via fat bike, snowshoes and cross country skis so dinner was spent chatting about our experiences on the way in!
An inspiring couple from Iqaluit were among those staying at the lodge. I learned that these two folk singers had chosen to take their vacation within Canada instead of heading to a warmer destination in winter! Ellen shared a few words from the song Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers with us: “tracing one warm line through a land so wild and savage”. These words struck a chord.
Meeting other guests might be my favourite part of staying at backcountry accommodations. When there isn’t cell service or wifi you are given a chance to slow the heck down, disconnect from technology and instead connect with others, the great outdoors and this beautiful northern gem we call home that is so vast and wild that we could spend our entire lifetime exploring its provinces and territories yet barely scratch the surface of its beauty.
Warm from the oven whole wheat buns with butter + freshly made vegetable soup were the perfect warm up and start to our meal!
While the rest of the guests enjoyed bison, I was treated to delicious stuffed tomatoes to go with my ratatouille and garlic parmesan mashed potatoes! There was dessert of course, but I inhaled my strawberry rhubarb pie with vanilla ice cream before remembering to photograph it!
I went to bed fairly early as I had a wakeup for 2am to see if the clouds that had brought snow earlier might lift and allow me to shoot some night time long exposures. At 2:05am I poked my head out the door to a star filled sky and very crisp -16 air! I dug into my pack got my camera gear, my snowpants, down jacket, wool layers, 2 pairs of tights, my shell, buff, toque, shooting gloves and down mitts! Remember when I said I love winter? So long as I am warm I do!
A few hours later I had created a couple of great images! The clouds had started to move in when I shot this above image, mother nature does what she wants!
I had got the okay from Steven to turn one light on in the lodge to create my photographs for a short period of time. The lodge is powered by solar power so despite how cool my photos would look with the lodge fully lit up, one light was more than enough to achieve the look I wanted!
I go back into my warm bed around 5am and slept until 8am. My sole motivation for getting out of bed when the alarm went off was that a cup of hot cowboy coffee was waiting for me in the kitchen fresh from the stove! Steven told me his secret to a perfect pot, but you’ll have to stay at the lodge and ask him yourself!
After a leisurely and full breakfast of flapjacks, scrambled eggs, hash browns and loads of coffee I shot a few interior images of the lodge. When the sun started to peek into the valley I offered to snap some images of some of the guests before we all departed.
The ride out was unbelievably fun and fast! I am very thankful for the new bridge over Healy Creek which was installed this past fall after the original one was taken out during the floods of 2013! It took me just under an hour to make it back to my truck!
Bike – Surly Ice Cream Truck
Helmet – Giro Feature
Tights – Nike Dri Fit from Sport Chek
Green Toque – Drift Creative Apparel
Hiking Boots – Arc’teryx Acrux
Backpack – Deuter Futura Women’s Specific 24L
Primaloft Jacket (gold) – Patagonia Nano Puff
Down Jacket (camoflauge) – Peak Performance Helium
Flannel + Trucker Hat – Dolly Varden OC
Red Jacket – Arc’teryx Beta AR
Black + Green Pack – BCA Stash 30L
Fuchsia Beanie – Winter Woolies Shop
A.V is the professional photographer + artist behind North Birch Grove as well as the founder of Hike365. Based in Canmore Alberta Canada this redhead owns more cookbooks than cameras + always has Metsä her trusty blue heller at her side. Look for her in winter on the skin track + in summer cruisin’ with her vintage Boler Trailer! Want to connect with A.V? Drop her a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org <3