OFFROADING SHAKE-DOWN CRUISE '95Author: Larry Soo
Dates: Feb 25, 26, 1995
Cast of Characters:
Day 1: (Saturday)It was with some trepidation that we embarked on our first offroading trip of 1995. The lower mainland (southwestern BC ... the Vancouver area) had been under a pall of rain and for a few days, slushy Salt-Snow[tm]. Camping in the rain was not something that any of us looked forward to but we were anxious to shake off the heebie-jeebies of the west coast rainy winter so there we were, gathered at 9:30am on a gray Saturday, outside the Sasquatch Inn on Hwy 7.
As usual, Gord and his wife, Sue were early (on time). Parked across from their charcoal grey S-15 Jimmy (stock and LOW) was Rob Bryce and his brother, Andrew. Rob's lifted Comanche with 31" tires was temporarily without the Lockrite locker. He had a new replacement but hadn't had time to install it. By an exceedingly odd coincidence, Rob and Andrew had also arrived early (on time). Andrew was visiting from Manitoba (the prairies) for a few days and this would be his first time offroading in BC.
I was in my YJ with 31" tires and a Lockrite in the back. As was our custom, my girlfriend, Sue, and I were on time (late). I attribute our being on time to the fact that when I went to pick her up she was still washing her hair. With me was my brother, Bill, in his 93 Ranger with a rear Lockrite and Clay Howey in his stock Nissan with the 31" tires. We had all been up late last night getting ready for the trip so we looked quite bagged. The exception was Gord and Sue who, because of some absurd genetic disorder, actually completed their packing three (3) days earlier. Our cunning plan was to head north along the West Harrison road (run along the west side of Harrison Lake for a ways) and connect to the Duffy Lake road. Along the way we could look one or two hotsprings indicated on the map. Once we reached the Duffy Lake road, we would head east to Lillooet, and then north to the Dunroven Ranch. The Dunroven Ranch was listed as a class 7-8 because of some dangerous side-hill traverses above the Fraser River. Because it was early in the year, we fully expected to have to fall back to Plan B, C, D and so on. In other words, we weren't going to be upset if we couldn't do the Dunroven section or anything else. Above all, this trip was to locate possible routes for later in the year and to get away from the city (at least what we Canadians consider a city).
So off we went. The order of vehicles was partly dictated by our dog, Chase (a small German Shepherd). She rode with Bill and would whine incessantly until Bill was driving at the front of the group. She also insisted that I drive behind Bill's truck. To ensure this order, she spent most of the trip staring at me through Bill's pass-through window. After a while she got less stringent and let us change positions.
During the summer, the West Harrison road is severely washboarded and dusty. I was extremely miserable driving this road with my top down last summer. The high volume of weekend traffic covered me and my passenger in the talc-like dust within minutes. On this day, the road was smoother and no dust. Even so, the pot-holes had not vanished.
[Rob adds: We cringed at the approach of each pot-hole while doing warp-8 just trying to keep Bill, Clay, and Larry in sight.]
The only danger was eroded portions of the road and deadfall. At one point, Sue and I paused to take some pictures beside a waterfall. When caught up to the group, we had just rounded a corner and saw the Jimmy and Comanche stopped in the road. Everyone was looking over the edge of the road, looking at four wheels pointing straight up in the air. I suddenly felt sick. I was wondering if it was Bill's or Clay's truck and if they were ok. But as we drew closer, we could see that it was a blue, full-size Chevy. Apparently, the driver had tried to cut a corner which had been eroded. It was like he tried to drive from one end of a C to the other end without negotiating the curvy bit. The truck slipped off the edge and rolled onto its top before hitting a tree near its rear axle. If that tree wasn't there, the driver would have had a few more faster rolls ahead of him. As it was, the driver's side look quite crushed. Couldn't see any blood, though. We wondered about the ethics of picking the truck for parts but at what point does a vehicle become abandoned? Is there a proscribed mourning period? The fact that it still had license plates on it (although the insurance had expired) was enough to deter us. Besides, we had a schedule to keep.
By this time, about 2 hours into the trip, the skies were getting lighter. Perhaps the weather was going to improve? We also started seeing bits of snow. At first, the snow was thin enough that it just covered the edges and middle of the road. But after a while, it was everywhere. It wasn't much of a problem for those of us with 31" tires but Bill's Ford and Gord's Jimmy were leaving trails in the center of the road. This was old snow, the kind which is coarse and packs down ice-hard. It was inevitable that Bill, who was in the lead, would get stuck. The stock tires and TTB suspension made for a nice snow plow. The front end of his truck was plugged solid with hard-packed icy snow.
It was a simple job for Clay to pull Bill out with a snatch strap. From that point on, Clay decided to lead in order to break a trail through the snow. It was only another 200 meters or so before we reached dry ground again. Clay made it but it didn't seem to help Bill. In fact, it might have made it worse beside Clay's tires may have compacted the snow to the point where Bill high-centered on the snow between the tracks. In any case, Clay turned around on the dry (wet, actually) ground and came back to give Bill another pull. As he got closer, he had more and more difficulty moving forward and backward. The Ranger was stuck just before the apex of a slight corner and Clay was having difficulty lining up his Nissan with the Ranger. He was trying to break out of his tracks to clear more snow but ended up getting too much snow packed into the front end of his truck.
So the situation was that we had the Ford and the Nissan face-to-face, both stuck. After taking a few turns at shovelling, we were able to pull on the tow strap hard enough (five guys) to get Clay out but he couldn't get enough speed or traction to give Bill a good yank. It was time to drag out the winch. He had just bought a Warn multi-mount platform for his M8000 winch and it was an extremely tight fit. Only after borrowing Gord's hammer were we able to secure it to the truck. Once mounted, Bill easily winched his truck out of the snow. By that time, Clay had also backed his truck out onto the dry ground again. What surprised me the most was that Gord, whose S-15 Jimmy was the lowest vehicle in the group, motored through this section with no difficulty. I thought for sure he would get high-centered but he didn't. Remarkably, he didn't even seem smug about it <g>.
Of course, my YJ and Rob's Comanche got through without a problem because we were driving Jeeps[tm] <g>.
Having re-grouped on the other side of the snow section, Clay suggested that I take the lead for a while (Chase didn't seem to care by this time). With my ground clearance and rear locker, progress was quite easy, especially since we were able to maintain some speed. Sue was impressed since this was the first snow offroading she experienced and it was a huge difference from driving her Toyota Celica on a snowy street. Things got a bit dodgy when we had to slow down a bit to avoid some large rocks and then cross a wooden bridge. The bridge was the typical logging truck type which consisted of large logs on either side and ties (like on a railroad) sitting between them. Two large, thick planks were placed on top of the ties and it was on these which you were supposed to drive. The problem was that there was a fairly heavy snow acculumation on the planks. This necessitated a slow drive with one side of the vehicle on the planks with the other dipping down, bouncing along the ties. It looked neat but wasn't particularly difficult. Clay was fairly close behind me as we tackled the rise which started after the bridge. We stopped when we reached another dry section about 100 meters later. By this time, Rob had radioed that Bill was stuck just before the bridge. I guess he had to slow down too much to negotiate the corner just before the bridge and had lost his momentum. A bit of winching got him onto the bridge but he needed more help to climb the slope on the other side. We decided the give the winch a rest and yank his truck with my Jeep. Since I didn't have tow-hooks on the back (I know I know) I turned my Jeep around so we could wrap the snatch snap around my front bumper.
This worked well until we were almost at the crest of the slope. That's when I got stuck but since it was easy for Bill to back-up downhill, he just gave me a yank downhill then I gave him a BIG yank uphill. Gord's low ground clearance finally caught up to him so Andrew and Rob pulled him a bit. [Rob adds: Funny how the Jeeps[tm] were doing all the pulling!] While everyone was together again on the dry stuff, I took a short spin along the next snow section and could see that it was thinning out. That was great because we'd never reach the Duffy Lake road at that rate. After a short tailgate lunch break, we blasted through the remaining snow. That was the end of the winch's use for the weekend.
The rest of the West Harrison consisted of slaloming our way through downed trees and run-off ditches. The damp weather made this route much more scenic than during the summer time. Everything was green and we saw many road-side waterfalls. When we finally reached the Lineman Logging Camp (they process the log booms which move up and down the lake) the road widened and became an easy 2-wheel drive surface. From here to Lillooet, this was mostly Indian land. We passed through a couple of small villages, one of which was notable for it's sparkling multi-spired church set among shabby houses in the middle of a little valley. A few kilometers after this we started to look for St. Agnes Well which had a hotspring (according to our maps & books). We found it but it was a letdown. It consisted of a couple of bathtubs sitting in a clearing, fed by black PVC pipe diverting water from a hotspring further up the hill. It was located right beside the road and showed the signs of too many visitors (ie: garbage). There was also something like a sauna shack beside the tubs but we didn't look inside because there were a couple of people there (looked like 60's hippies...even had the multi-coloured van) and we didn't want to intrude on there interlude. Just before dusk, we stopped at a campground along Lillooet Lake, about 40 minutes south of the Duffy Lake road. There were about a dozen campsites here and all of them were vacant. The only other people at this huge, mirror-smooth lake were locals who were doing some fishing and a few kids on ATVs. We selected a campsite protected by thick walls of tall firs and within sight of the lake's shore. By this time, the skies were a blue which we hadn't seen since last summer. Tomorrow would be a great day. We went to sleep with the sound of some locals zooming up and down the backroads in their trucks.
Day 2: (Sunday)Like most trips, the morning started out with Chase sniffing around our tents around 6am and pretending to be a bear. Then she did her usual barking routine at the first person out of their tent (Gord gets that honour). It was a good thing we camped away from the lake because a cold, brisk wind was whipping up some waves. It was cold but we knew it would warm up before noon. After breakfast And breaking camp, we reviewed our plans for the day.
Gord and I each had copies of The Fourwheeler's Companion. My copy, the older one, classed the Dunroven Ranch trail as a 7-8. Gord's newer copy didn't even mention it! The description in my book said the route was deteriorating rapidly. I guess it had deteriorated to the point where it was impassable or the trail was gated at the ranch or the reserve. In any case, we decided not to risk this beautiful day on a dead-end trail. Our Plan B was to follow the powerlines above the north side of Anderson and Seton Lakes, between D'Arcy and Lillooet. From there, if he had time, we would head south to hope along the gravel road on the east side of the Fraser River. Our first destination was Mount Currie to get some gas. While driving along Lillooet Lake, we came upon an old Chevy pickup parked diagonally across the road. The windshield was smashed in, as was the driver's side window. We also spotted some oil and driveline parts lying on the road. Apparently, the driver had a (big) problem with his truck, left it in the road, and someone came along and vandalized it. My guess is that is was one of the locals who came flying around a corner, nearly hit this truck, and then got mad and started smashing things.
About ten minutes outside of Mount Currie, Clay picked up a middle-aged Indian, named Bernard, who was hitch-hiking into town. Everyone knew each other around here so hitching rides was a common thing, as was walking along the road into town. He was able to add colour to the area (no pun intended, besides, I'm "coloured" too so it's not politically incorrect <g>) by commenting on things we saw during the brief ride to town. He also mentioned that the vandalized Chevy had been there for three days and its owner was still down at the lake, fishing. Laid back or what, eh?
We gassed-up at the only station in town and headed towards D'arcy which sits at the west end of Seton Lake. The scenery was gorgeous. Imagine being cooped-up in the city all winter and then arriving at the edge of the forest where the trees give way to savannah brushlands, warmth, and blue skies. I had no doubt that this was the first day of summer. The feeling was unmistakable. The road to D'arcy left-turns across some railroad tracks and becomes a serpentine dirt road which wends its way quickly and steeply up the mountain ridge overlooking Anderson Lake. The road is marked with a sign warning that this is a 4x4 road and you use it at your own peril. It has been maintained by volunteer efforts and donations can be made at a pub in Lillooet. Upon reaching the first powerline tower, it straightens out and hugs the side of the mountain as it heads east, intersecting with the powerlines every couple of hundred meters. The view from here was breathtaking. The mountains which contain Anderson and Seton Lakes rise steeply and are scarred by cirques and minor rock slides. The road itself was slightly muddy but no problem until we reached the snow.
Progress through the snow went well at first. We passed by a local in a Toyota 4Runner (he had a funny grin on his face which made us wonder what was coming up). A hundred meters past his truck was what looked to be a Japanese visitor. Further up the road, we saw their two young Labs, running around with radio transceivers mounted on their collars. We wondered what they were up to. Things turned bad when we came to a cut in the mountain. It formed a sharp, right-hand u-turn. The apex of the u-turn was a wooden bridge and on the other side was a fairly steep uphill section. Bill, Gord and Clay were ahead of me and Rob. The bridge looked neat so we were taking photos as we crossed it. Near the top of the hill on the other side, Gord stopped so Sue could take some photos. Clay stopped behind him and I stopped behind Clay. Sue (my Sue, not Gord's) muttered something about not liking the fact that we were stopped on a snow-covered hill. Being the know-it-all long-time fourwheeler, I naturally told her not to worry (obvious foreshadowing).
After Gord and Clay resumed their climb up the hill, I put my Jeep in gear and it did nothing. It just spun its tires. Uh oh. We were on a sheet of ice but hadn't noticed because our forward momentum avoided any slipping on the way up the hill. Now that we trying to start from a dead stop, it became obvious that we were extremely low on traction. Slowly increasing the gas from idle (I have an automatic) gave us enough grip to move half an inch before slipping. A subsequent attempt resulted not in forward movement, but in my YJ sliding backwards while my wheels were turning forwards. I told Andrew & Rob to back down the hill while I attempted to regain control and make another attempt to climb the hill. Andrew backed down a bit but not much because he was also on ice and didn't want to increase his momentum to the point where he wouldn't be able to control (Rob's) Comanche. Keep in mind that there was a corner at the bottom of the hill and a river on either side of the log bridge.
Gradually, my Jeep stopped sliding and I was able to rally for another assault on the ice patch. Again, I lost traction at my previous position and ended up sliding backwards. Around this time, Sue was kind of frozen (no pun intended) in fear...she didn't like this sliding backwards business. On the next attempt, the Jeep lost traction and started sliding backwards in a big way. Through the junk in the back of my Jeep, I could see Andrew and Rob in the Comanche...and they were getting bigger. I radioed to them to back-up but they didn't respond. The last time I looked at them in my mirror, I estimated our distance to be 5 feet apart. I can't tell you what a helpless feeling it is to be sliding on sheer ice with your foot pushing the brake pedal to the floor. I started to tense up and grip the wheel harder, mentally estimating the damages & cost of repair when Rob's front end crashes into my tailgate.
[Rob adds: Meanwhile, I was wondering whether this was the perfect time/excuse to get someone to pay to replace my grill guard with a winch mount! But since everyone knows how cheap Larry is <g>, I decided now wasn't the right time.]
It was taking too long to smash into them and the Jeep ended up slowing to a stop on the crunchy snow instead of hitting the Comanche. Andrew had indeed backed up enough but it was awfully close. They said we were about a foot apart at one point. After pushing my heart back down into my chest, I backed up a lot and took a run at the hill and made it up without a hitch. Andrew & Rob did likewise. It took a while for Sue to return to normal, she was _real quiet_ for about half an hour. After that, I thought I wouldn't do anything to scare her for the rest of the trip but I was wrong.
Anderson Lake and Seton Lake are bisected by a narrowing in the valley. Where Anderson Lake is dark blue, Seton Lake is a pale torquoise green which is typical of glacier-fed lakes. On this strip of land is the village of Seton Portage (portage is a French Canadian verb used to describe carrying a canoe over land). After a lunch stop along the road overlooking the village, we continued down the powerline trail as it gradually descended towards Seton Portage. From Seton Portage we were to head to Lillooet. This involved negotiating a tight seemingly infinite series of switchbacks which gained elevation rapidly. On this same south side of the mountain were a number of large (approx 7-foot diameter) water pipes which ran from about half way up the mountain down to a power generating plant beside Seton Lake.
After the zigzagging climb up the side of the mountain, the road began its inevitable descent down the north side. As expected, the descent didn't equal the ascent in elevation; we lost between a third and a half of the elevation we gained. We were finally able to see the source of the power generating plant's water. The source was a man-made lake called Carpenter Lake. The water level had dropped by a large margin, as indicated by the large broken sheets of grounded ice framing the lake. At the east end of the lake, we passed through a primitive tunnel, the other end of which was an overflow dam. The water chute was huge. Five full-size trucks could have driven through it, side-by-side. When we reached the other side of the dam, it was obvious that the overflow hadn't been used in a long while. The stream bed under the chute was mostly dry rocks with only a trickle of water for a stream. The chute ended about 80 feet above the stream bed. Under the chute, at ground level, was a tunnel which apparently looked like it was the bypass tunnel which was used during construction of the dam. Of course, we _had_ to drive into it. Admittedly, there _were_ signs which warned the public to stay away from the river bed since it could be severely flooded by the dam gates at any moment but we were feeling reckless.
It didn't take long before we were engulfed in darkness. The tunnel floor was rocky and strewn with short to medium length pieces of river-smoothed driftwood. With the headlights on, we travelled about 200 meters before reaching the end of the tunnel. We had dead-ended at a set of sliding steel doors which were leaking water. Gord radioed that he was starting to feel uncomfortable and would be backing out. Rob and Andrew did the same thing.
[Rob adds: When we heard someone say over the radio: "Cool! The doors are leaking water," we decided to get the hell out of there.]
It was very easy to feel claustrophic and full of dread. Sue also started feeling uneasy so I gave her my flashlight so she could walk out of the tunnel. I had to stay and take photos because this was definitely a "Kodak Moment." Turning around in the tunnel was very difficult. Bill managed to just barely turn around his Ranger since he was in the lead and was at the widest section in front of the doors. Clay had no choice but to back-up because he couldn't get around Bill to the wide section. Half-way out I was able to turn around after banging into a couple of large rocks, just like Bill did. It was a great relief to finally be outside again. By this time, it was around 3:00pm and we had another 2 or 3 hours of highway driving ahead of us. We had to scrap our plan to drive along the west side of the Fraser River. Instead, we would make a bee-line for the coast via paved highways. The only concession would be to check if the Anderson River road was gated. Clay wanted to know this for future trip possibilities.
Around dusk, we reached the Alexandra Bridge and the turn-off to the Anderson River road. Clay was in the lead with Bill close behind him. The rest of us were a ways behind. After 10 minutes of driving, we heard Clay's voice on the CB and he sounded worried. He said he was on a sheet of ice, had lost control of his Nissan, and warned us to stay well back. What we learned after the fact was that Clay had attempted to drive up an extremely slippery slope, lost traction, and started to slide bacwards, towards Bill. Seeing that Clay was coming towards him, Bill tried to stop but ended sliding _upwards_ towards Clay. It was a tense few seconds before Bill finally came to a stop and started sliding backwards instead. What surprised us most during the time of the incident was that a full minute had passed between the time Clay radioed that he was in trouble and when he reported that he stopped sliding. He was lucky there was enough of a berm to prevent his truck from sliding into the Anderson River. Since only Gord had snow chains, we decided not to go any further. Back at the highway, we made a short detour down towards the Fraser River to see the old Alexandra Bridge. This site was now a provincial park but for some reason, the gate which prevented vehicle access to the abandoned bridge was wide open. Oh well, we thought, might as well use the opportunity. So we headed down the overgrown road until we reached a set of railroad tracks. I crossed first to recon the rest of the road. To my surprise I was able to reach the bridge and even drive across (if I wanted to). But given the age of the bridge and the lack of maintenance, I decided that a photo at the end of the bridge would have to do. The bridge deck was made of a metal grating which let you stare at the Fraser River under your feet. Being afraid of heights, I felt very queasy walking across the old bridge. Sue didn't like it either and waited in the Jeep. While I was taking some pictures, she shouted something which I couldn't understand. After a couple more tries I got it, "Rob's truck is stuck on the railroad tracks!" Clay and I both felt sick as we raced to the Jeep. The Fraser Canyon has very active train activity on both sides and the odds were high that a train would pass through soon. Just as we reached my Jeep, Rob and the rest of the group pulled up in the Comanche. Ha ha, funny joke guys.
[In his defense, Rob claims: Sue apparently didn't hear the disclaimer to the joke that immediately followed it. We tried a couple times to cancel the distress call, but Sue wasn't listening.]
On the way out, Andrew crossed the tracks easily. The Comanche's wheelbase allowed him to keep one end on solid ground while the other was on the rock bedding and rails. I had a bit more of a problem, mostly due to a bad approach angle. Back on the highway, homeward bound, we saw a train heading towards Alexandra Bridge about ten minutes after we had gotten off the tracks.
[Rob adds some B.S. to the effect that: The combination of Andrew's expert offroad driving ability and the Comanche's wheelbase and finely-tuned suspension made his aging beast a superior rail-crosser.]
There ends the tale of our first overnight trip of 1995. In light of the fact that we were fully expecting to be disappointed by snow drifts this trip was a great success. No one damaged their vehicles, we had some excitement, explored new roads, located potential trails for further exploration, had great weather, took lots of great pictures, and the comapany was fantastic. Thanks to everyone who came along.
[Rob adds: It was a blast for everyone, and now Andrew wants to move out to the coast to do more of the same, only with his Blazer which is built purely for mudding.]
And now, my "Lessons Learned" bit:
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