[Editor’s note: This is the first in a two-part series on the 38th Annual Sierra Trek a gathering of four-wheel-drive enthusiasts that took place last weekend at Meadow Lake just northwest of Truckee.]By Paul RaymoreSierra SunStanding on top of Ellis Peak, surrounded by the sapphire-blue expanse of Lake Tahoe to the east, the rugged granite of Desolation Wilderness to the south, and myriad alpine lakes and jagged Sierra peaks to the north and west, it struck me that I was a long way from anything man-made.Except, of course, for the 11 sport utility vehicles parked just below me – one of which had been my ticket up to this spot.Joining me on the summit were almost 20 other participants in the 38th annual Sierra Trek, a yearly gathering of four-wheeling and sport utility vehicle enthusiasts who come to this area to camp, socialize, and test their off-highway driving skills amidst the backdrop of the Sierra scenery.This year’s Trek, sponsored by the California Association of Four Wheel Drive Clubs, drew more than 900 participants from all over the Western United States. While the majority of participants came from the Bay Area and Central Valley, it was not unusual to see families from Southern California, the Mt. Shasta area, and even a few from Washington and Oregon at the Trek’s base camp on Meadow Lake (approximately 20 miles northwest of Truckee).I learned about the Sierra Trek event through Jack Raudy, an active member of the Sierra Treasure Hunters four wheel drive club out of Sacramento. Raudy, the former executive director of the California Association of Four Wheel Drive Clubs, invited me to come along on the Ellis Peak SUV run as well as the more challenging four-wheeling adventures to be had on the Fordyce Creek trail later that weekend.I met Raudy and the other participants of Thursday’s SUV trip up Blackwood Canyon to Ellis Peak at 8 a.m. at the group’s staging area off of Route 89 north about 15 miles north of Truckee.After gulping a cup of coffee and making a quick sandwich, we were off. I chose to leave my Jeep behind and ride shotgun with Raudy as we hit the road in a caravan of 11 vehicles – mostly Jeeps, but also a number of Suburbans, a Dodge Durango and a Mitsubishi Montero.Our group leader, Jim Bramham, quickly demonstrated an incredible knowledge of the history and geology of the terrain we would be traveling through at our first stop at the Alder Creek Picnic site – the location of the Donner Party Camp during the winter of 1846-47.While the challenging driving experiences draw a large contingent to the Sierra Trek every year, the SUV trips are geared toward people who enjoy driving off the highway but also want to learn a little more about the history that makes the region special.So after a brief lecture on the mistakes that led to the Donner Party’s tragic winter, we loaded back into the SUVs and headed south on state Route 89 to Lake Tahoe and the entrance to Blackwood Canyon near Homewood.
As soon as the first tires left the pavement at the base of Blackwood Canyon the drivers in the group started getting excited. Many chose to lower their tire pressure for better traction on the rocky terrain we would encounter on the trail up the canyon, but Raudy assured me that there was nothing on the day’s agenda that a stock SUV couldn’t handle.”It’s mild four-wheeling,” he said. “It’s not going to hurt your vehicle. It’s just an opportunity to meet a lot of nice people and see some backcountry scenery and roads that you would never see if you didn’t come out with us.”Even so, many participants said they felt much more secure doing a trip like this in a group rather than alone.”We love being in a group because when we first bought our SUV we were very apprehensive of going out alone because it’s scary. With a group it’s supervised, the people involved in the group leadership are always mechanically inclined,” said Ted Donaldson of Marin.Bramham reiterated that the SUV runs were designed so that nobody every gets left behind or alone. No matter what broke down on anyone’s vehicle on the trail, someone in the group could probably fix it – a scenario I witnessed first-hand about halfway up the trail as Bramham and others partially disassembled the fuel system on a Jeep while looking for a blockage that was causing the engine to stall. (It turned out the Jeep was just out of gas. Fortunately the owners carried a spare five-gallon tank on the back.)Back on the trail, we encountered a couple of technical sections that had all the drivers shifting into four-wheel drive low-range. With Bramham acting as a spotter, guiding the drivers’ wheel placements, all the vehicles made it though and we were on our way to Barker Pass where we stopped for lunch.Lunch provided an opportunity to sit down and talk to the other members of the group, including Steve and Lori Burger or Novato, whom I asked what motivated them to come to the Sierra Trek.”Look at this group,” Lori said. “There are women, there are kids and it’s a lot of fun; plus the food is fantastic.”It turns out that the Burgers had just gotten their Jeep back from Bramham with a new engine, transmission, tires and more, and they were eager to try out its new capabilities.After lunch we got back on the trail up to Ellis Peak, with Raudy pointing out the environmental impacts of four-wheeling and off-highway trips like the one we were on.”It might sound like an oxymoron,” Raudy said, “but a lot of our members are members of the Sierra Club.”Raudy argued that while four-wheeling enthusiasts and environmentalists sometimes have different opinions on what types of uses should be allowed on public lands, in general the goals of both groups coincide in that both have a strong interest in preserving wilderness lands.”Not only the environmentalists are watching us closely, but the Forest Service and the BLM. Everyone wants to make sure we’re treading lightly,” Raudy said, adding that the four-wheel drive clubs do a lot of self-policing in order to ensure that they don’t lose access to areas currently open to them.Trail maintenance plays a big role in that effort. Raudy pointed out that the trail we were on was maintained by the local North Tahoe Trail Dusters four-wheel drive club.
It was a message that I heard from a number of people in the group, including Ted Donaldson who argued that group treks are a good way for an SUV owner to test his or her skills under the guidance and control of a trip leader. “It’s a great way to get out there under good conditions and regulations on the proper use of your SUV and the proper respect for the environment,” he said.While we were talking, the environment was doing its best to impress us, and soon enough we were standing on the summit of Ellis Peak, looking out on the panoramic views of the Tahoe Basin and the West Slope of the Sierra.Sharing the summit with a number of surprised hikers who weren’t expecting to see 11 SUVs pull up, George Graner of Sunnyvale explained that one of the reasons he enjoys these SUV runs is that they allow him to get out in wilderness areas he wouldn’t otherwise be able to.”The reason I do this is to get into areas I like. I’m not into off-roading for the driving. I just like getting out into the nice peaceful quite of the woods,” Graner said. “I just like getting out into the backwoods. Some of the places I like to go to in the truck, I used to hike to as a teenager.”And while the sight of Lake Tahoe in the distance was amazing, it also signaled that the trip was almost over, with only a short drive back down the paved road that climbs up the other side of Blackwood Canyon separating our little caravan from the one-hour traffic jam leading back to the real world.See next Wednesday’s edition of the Sierra Sun for details on the Sierra Trek Fordyce Creek Trail run and a book review of Charles Wells’ “Guide to Northern California Backroads & 4-Wheel Drive Trails.”Sidebar:To join the California Association of Four Wheel Drive Clubs call Office Manager Bonnie Steele at (916) 381-8300 or e-mail her at CA4WDC@aol.com. Membership costs $40 per year for a family membership, and will allow you to go on the following upcoming SUV trips:Sept. 11 Mormon Emigrant Trail RideHosted by the Flat Fender Jeep Club, this narrated trip begins in Placerville and ends in Genoa, Nevada. Participants will learn about the early Mormon pioneers’ travel when they were called back to Salt Lake City. Participants will hear quotes from their diaries and visit locations where there are still visible ruts left by their wagon wheels and explore their old campsites. Cost for this trip is $75 per vehicle. Guests will furnish their own food and beverages. Contact Kate or Oly Olson at (530) 622-1117 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.September 18-19 Bodie Ghost Town Loop near Bridgeport
This trip into the rolling Bodie Hills takes in the remains of an old mining region, including the ghost towns of Masonic and Bodie. For trip prices and more information, contact Oly or Kate Olson at (530) 622-1117 or e-mail email@example.com.September 18-19 Henness Pass Road Trip up “The Forgotten Highway”Hosted by the Sacramento Jeepers, this narrated two-day trip begins Saturday morning in Marysville, Calif. and ends Sunday afternoon in Virginia City, Nev. Guests will step back in history as they journey along the historic route that miners traveled from the played out gold field in Sacramento to the new silver mines in Virginia City. For questions and trip prices please e-mail HPRT@sacramentojeepers.org. Additional information and registration is available on the Sacramento Jeepers web page: http://www.sacramentojeepers.org.October 16 Slate Mountain Trail TripHosted by the Capital City Mountain Goats 4WD Club, this trip takes participants from Placerville into the high Sierra to an old suspension bridge across Mosquito Canyon, an old forest service lookout atop Slate Mountain and the ruins of a 1920’s, six-story hotel hidden in the forest. Cost for the trip is $55 for adults, $10 for children 717 years of age and children 6 and under are free. Cost includes a gourmet hot lunch, outhouse trailer, booklet for the trip, trail snacks and soft drinks and a dash plaque for each vehicle. Contact Dennis Bartholomew at (916) 421-7788 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for reservations or more information.4X4 Safety clinic teaches off-road driving skillsIt doesn’t matter whether you are going off the pavement to fish in mountain streams, hunt in the backcountry or simply getting away from the big city, you need to understand how to drive in that environment and gain an appreciation of your four-wheel drive’s superior traction.To assist sport utility vehicle and other four-wheel drive owners to learn more about their vehicle and how to properly drive off-road, the Capital City Mountain Goats 4WD Club will conduct its final 2004 hands-on safety clinic on Saturday, Sept. 25 and Sunday, Sept. 26 at the Prairie City State Vehicular Recreation Area, located approximately 20 miles east of Sacramento. This is a one-day class and students may choose either date. Classes begin each morning at 8 a.m.The clinic begins with a one-hour classroom presentation, followed by four hours of memorable hands-on driving, where students will encounter many simulated obstacles similar to what they might find in the backcountry. Students will learn how to read the terrain, learn what to do if the vehicle goes into a skid, how to climb a steep hill and how to drive over trails and big rocks. The clinic also teaches students about the importance of obeying the rules and environmental concerns in the backcountry. Students will continually hear instructors talk about treading lightly, not disturbing wildlife and staying on designated trails.Cost for the one-day course is $55 for the student-driver and $5 for each ride-along passenger. For those choosing to pay at the clinic, the cost is $60.The Prairie City State Vehicular Recreation Area is located off Highway 50, approximately 20 miles east of Sacramento. Take the Prairie City Road exit and continue on Prairie City Road to White Rock Road. Take a right on White Rock Road and watch for the entrance to the off-highway vehicle park on the left hand side of the road. The classroom instruction will be conducted at the Prairie City park headquarters. To reserve space in the upcoming September clinic or for more information, contact Douglas Sinclair at (916) 421-7219 or Tex Texiera at (916) 423-1369.
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