My first 4x4 outing for 2008 was compliments of the Herd of Turtles 4x4 club and their GPS Challenge held on March 1. As befitting for such an important event, I engaged in a 6-week flurry of mechanical activity which primarily consisted of me fretting for 5 weeks about how difficult it would be to changed my cracked exhaust header, and then on the last available weekend, spending one day doing the job. I also noticed some play in my Dana 300's front output shaft but since I only noticed this on the weekend preceding the event, I decided that it wouldn't break because I didn't want it to. Positive thinking in action!
The GPS Challenge was an informal, untimed event. At the staging area (a mall parking lot in Mission), entrants were given coordinates for the first location. Navigators typed those coordinates into their GPS units and gave directions to the drivers. The difficulty was that most of the trails weren't on maps so the GPS units couldn't tell the navigators HOW to get to the location. They had to make educated guesses based on where they thought the trails and roads would take them. Taking the obvious route would sometimes lead to a dead end while the less obvious route was the correct choice.
My navigator, Mark, and I arrived at the meeting parking lot at the appointed time of 8:00am. That gave everyone a chance to check out the vehicles, sign the liability waivers, and buy food and gas. We spotted some out-of-province licenses plates, most of them belonging to members of the Ridge Runners 4x4 club out of Washington state, and one Alberta plate.
Vehicles were sent out individually or in pairs if they were working as a team. The idea was to stagger the start times so trucks didn't get bunched up on the trail. Great idea but a resounding failure. Speaking of teams, Mark and I paired up with Wil and Yaz who were in Wil's Toyota, thus forming Team BC4x4. Wil's Toyota is a real "Toyota" in the same way that Nike runners are real American products. My Jeep, on the other hand, is pure Jeep...except for the International Harvester axle implants. What's my point? I don't have one but I do seem to get sidetracked easily, don't I? In any case, it's a very nice "Toyota" and now that it has an automatic transmission and Vortec motor, I do find myself feeling immoderately covetous.
Our departure time was at 8:45am and so, armed with a full day's supply of flatulence-inducing snack "foods" and the smug optimism of people with big tires and brand-new, unused tow straps, we headed off into the woods. Our Garmin 60CSx had no problem navigating us to the first location because it was located at the end of the pavement, at the beginning of the East Stave Lake Forest Service Road. Since it was on a main road, the GPS provided us with precise turn-by-turn directions showing us how to get there. When we got there, Wil and I aired down the tires while Yaz and Mark went searching for the elusive Tupperware containers that held the scraps of paper indicating our next coordinates or "geocache." There was one piece of paper for each team and three different classes. The order of geocaches differed depending on the class, and the easier classes didn't have to get to the same geocaches as the harder classes, either.
The second set of coordinates took us farther along the East Stave FSR. We soon caught up to one of the Washington guys in a Samurai who had just passed a right-turn turn-off which led to the next geocache. I quickly veered off the road and onto the trail before he could turn around, snickering like that snickering dog in that car racing cartoon...you know the one. I was still in two-wheel-drive but didn't want to stop to lock in the hubs, because that would've really ruined my display of snickering, so I soldiered on in 2-high, loading up the torque converter on the steeper sections. The trail soon ended with the site of a huge woody. That's right, a wood-grained full-size Jeep Wagoneer was parked at a lascivious angle. It was kind of diagonal and tilted across the trail, like he was jammed in and couldn't turn. But as it turned out, it was just a very odd parking job done by Dennis, who was in charge of manhandling John's big woody.
The Jeep was empty because John and Dennis were out stomping through the trees on a quest for Tupperware and we soon joined them. My navigator, Mark, found it almost right away and after quickly typing in the coordinates we waited around some more. Why? Because the Americans in the Suzuki, the ones whom I had skipped past at the main FSR, had now shown up and were looking for the geocache. And the only way out was back along the narrow trail that we came in on. So I showed them were it was we all turned around and headed back out. On the way out, another pair on trucks that were just coming in had to pull off into the trees to let us pass. I was thinking that the staggered departure idea didn't work so well.
Like I said, this wasn't a competition. And while we spent the day searching for little scraps of paper, the real intent was for us to have fun on the trails. Think of it as structured play time. Most of the routes involved backtracking and criss-crossing over previously travelled trails, so we were constantly squeezing past, following behind, or waiting for other 4x4s. The downside was the time spent waiting for people to get unstuck or deal with breakdowns. The upside was that you got to watch people trying to get unstuck or deal breakdowns.
There was one mud hole that had a serious hate on for Ford products. It was quite a site seeing a Ford Ranger and Ford Explorer mired in the mud while the recovery Jeeps were impotently winching themselves toward them. For the Ranger, we did a bit of shoveling and then pulled it out by simultaneously using the winches on my YJ and Gord's TJ. I was thinking that I could pull it backward while Gord pulled it forward but then someone suggested that pulling it in the same direction might be more productive. Whatever.
Steve used his TJ's winch to free the Explorer by running a block to pull it backwards, away from the mud wall it ran into while trying to climb out of the hole. It took a while but he succeeded.
In another incident, the driver of the Subatoy (Subara Brat on a Toyota chassis) was about to drive through a very deep mud/water hole but reconsidered and decided to back up. He had to back over a log which distracted him a little and he backed into his friend's Jeep, breaking off part of the Jeep's Ramsey winch. While they were assessing the damage (ie: mentally laying blame) I walked around the mud hole, gauging the depth with a stick. It was at least 3 feet deep and, being one who hates doing regular maintenance, I didn't relish the thought of changing all my fluids and repacking the bearings after driving into that, getting stuck, and trying to winch my way out. Looking at the GPS, we could see that the geocache was within walking distance so cowardice and a predilection for indolence won out. Our navigators walked ahead to get the papers while we turned the trucks around. Team BC4x4 wimped-out. As far as I know, no one drove through that hole.
The other really difficult section was one I didn't even lay eyes on. The trail to get there was narrow, muddy, and we were the 8th or so vehicle in line. And the line was stopped because one of the Jeeps was rather badly stuck in that section. Mark and Yaz walked up ahead, past the stuck Jeep to retrieve the geocache papers. When they returned we decided to turn around to head to the next location. It's too bad that I didn't slog through the brush to take photos of the obstacle but it just goes to illustrate the delicate balancing act I have to perform in trying to reconcile our exciting, dynamic world with the sloth and apathy that is such a significant and precious part of my personality. And just to show you that there are pros and cons to every choice, let me just point out that by not walking up to the obstacle, I had time to insert foil-wrapped burritos in various nooks and crannies in my motor and said burritos were delightfully tasty an hour later when we unwrapped them. See? Yin and yang. Good and evil. Mac and PC. There's a lesson in there somewhere.
Finding the last geocache was anti-climactic. The last scrap of paper just said, "go to the meeting place." No exclamation marks. No lavish use of upper case letters. No one waiting to offer us tearful congratulations on completing the course. We were left with a curiously empty feeling. That's when we remembered the burritos safely tucked away on my in-line six.
After injecting the burritos' paste-like bean and "meat" goodness into our gullets, we were ready for more adventure. None of us wanted to go to the "meeting place" and it's very possible that some of that sentiment derived from the simple fact that we didn't really know where the "meeting place" was. I suppose Team BC4x4 should've paid more attention at the driver's meeting or perhaps read the paperwork more carefully. And a logical assumption would be that the meeting place was the same as the staging area. But that was all incidental to the fact that it was only 3:00pm and we wanted to do more four wheeling. Wil suggested that we look for snow and so we headed farther north along the East Stave Lake FSR. Team Lippmann came along because they, too, were unclear of where the "meeting place" was. Someone on their team really should have paid more attention at the meeting, too.
The road was gravel for about a kilometer before we ran into patches of snow. By the end of another kilometer, there was snow everywhere, and we had caught up to a couple on a pair of ATVs. They were having some trouble and the 4x4 ATV was attempting to pull the 2wd ATV through a shallow depression in the snow. We gave them a hand to get unstuck and turned around. After they left, Wil voiced his firm conviction that we had just saved the guy from the punishment of the withholding of sex for some arbitrary period of time.
Seeing as how the ATVs had trouble in the snow, we decided to air down a bit more. Well, Wil and I did. Chris Lippmann's 35x12.5 MTRs were the smallest tires in our group and he had the most difficulty. Air pressure might've had something to do with it, as well, since he was running at 12psi. Wil's 39.5" IROKs were at 2psi (he has bead locks) and my 36x13.5 IROKs (which are actually 37" tall) were at 8psi. As you might've guessed, Wil had the least problems and left us far behind. Wil was telling me to go slow, which I was, or at least thought I was. But my Jeep kept breaking through the top of the coarse snow and ended up plowing snow with the axle housings. Chris had even more problems, having less floatation and less ground clearance (my Jeep's spring-over while his is spring-under).
The snow was about 18" deep and Team Lippmann had eventually given up and spooled out the winch line so they could begin turning around. Wil and I had travelled a few hundred metres farther. By that point, the only way I could keep going forward was to go back one truck length and then go forward, chewing my way to two truck lengths. It was slow going and I knew I'd overheat my engine if I kept doing that. I radioed Wil to tell him we were going to turn around. While I was waiting for his reply (in the form of a veiled insult), I idly goofed around, seeing how slowly I could turn my wheels by riding the brakes and applying just enough throttle to overcome the brake pressure. To my amazement, the front tires began to pick their way up the snow wall they had just dug and then stayed on top of the snow pack. Wow! Wil had told me to go slow but I didn't think he meant THAT slow. This was a fantastic discovery, marred only by the fact that I had already admitted defeat and in so doing, I had sustained a few pecks to the head (sorry, you either get the metaphor or you don't).
Going at a super slow speed, the Jeep was able to stay on top of the snow and we soon caught up to Wil and Yaz. The cool thing was that if I used too much gas, the Jeep would immediately dig straight down, but I could easily climb out of the hole again by using slow wheel speed. Seeing how well that technique worked with 8psi in the tires, I made a mental annotation on my todo list: install those bead locks that you've had sitting in your garage for the past 3 months!
We drove farther before deciding it would be rude (although mildly amusing) to abandon the Lippmanns and so we turned around. Now that I had the knack of floating on snow, turning around was dead easy. Wil was in the lead when I heard a weird squeaking come from under my Jeep. It sounded like it was rotational. I stopped and had a look underneath. I found a large branch jammed into my transfer case skid plate which might've been rubbing against my rear drive shaft. I removed it, hopped back in, and off we went. And there was that squeaking noise again. I stopped again and looked at the front axle. Uh-oh, the passenger side u-joint was broken and the outer axle shaft ear was badly bent. That was my first broken u-joint and first axle shaft damage since I bought my Jeep back in 1993! Not bad, considering that I'm running axles from a 1978 Scout. I unlocked the hubs, shifted it into 2wd low, and continued on. I was extra careful to use very, very little throttle now that I was limited to 2wd. I was following the tracks we had made coming in, so the snow was packed down and firm enough that we didn't break through the surface. After collecting the Lippmanns, we continued on our way back to the pavement, had dinner at Rocko's in Mission (highly recommended!) and then headed home. We never did make it to the "meeting place."
A big thank you to the folks at HOT4x4 who have established a well-deserved reputation for putting on a lot of fun 4x4 events. We had a great time, as usual.
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