A couple of years ago, we were covering the legendary Dakota Challenge and we met a group of folks from the North Idaho Trail Blazers. During the course of our conversation, they regaled us with tales of their 4x4 adventures deep in the Idaho wilderness on awesome trails that offered premium challenge and absolutely stunning scenery. We couldn't help but be a bit skeptical. After all, if there was all of this awesome off-roading up in Potatoland, why hadn't we heard about it? Then they told us that their favorite time to go four-wheeling is in the winter when the mountains are covered in 3 or more feet of snow. Yeah, right, we thought. No 4x4 can navigate that much snow unless it's on the end of a winch cable. Turns out, we didn't know all that we thought we did.
In the big scheme of things, Idaho is relatively new. It entered the Union as a state in 1890, 25 years after the Civil War, but only seven years before Massachusetts introduced the first subway (the train, not the sandwich place). Most of northern Idaho is heavily forested and mountainous, and only 20 percent of the land is tillable farmland. The Idaho Panhandle National Forests (IPNF) administers approximately half of the remaining wooded land. The forest is approximately 300 miles from the Pacific Ocean and sits between the Cascade Mountains to the west and the Bitterroot Mountains to the east. The area is saturated with wildlife, and it's not uncommon to see deer, elk, and moose in addition to occasional cougar tracks. These animals hide out in the thick stands of Douglas Fir and Bull Pine trees, which at one time supported a thriving logging industry in the area.
North Idaho Trail Blazers
Made up of 15 member families, this 8-year-old Coeur d' Alene 4x4 club is active in numerous fund-raising and charity causes. They organize a yearly tree cutting of downed trees to provide firewood for needy families in the northern Idaho area, and they sponsor an Off-Road Rally that generates hundreds of dollars in food and cash for the local food bank. Their primary purpose, however, is family off-roading, and they are known throughout the area as a group of capable and helpful 'wheelers. They've been asked to assist in mountain search and rescue operations as well as to retrieve stuck vehicles that can't be recovered by normal means.
After hearing about the Trail Blazers' legendary winter trail expeditions, we made plans to attend their annual Cabin Fever Trail Run, which takes place each March in the mountains west of Coeur d' Alene, Idaho. The event is open to members and guests, and the paltry $20 cover charge includes a full day of trail running as well as an end-of-the-day gigantic Spaghetti Feed.
The run used Forest Service roads that would likely be easily navigated by families in minivans in the summer. In Idaho winter, however, these same roads are covered in more than 3 feet of snow. As we accessed the trail, we were amazed that even though it was relatively late in the winter, there was virtually no sign that anyone had came out to explore the awesome Idaho backcountry. We gave the couch potatoes a silent thank-you, then pressed our rigs deeper and deeper into the Idaho wilderness. The first sign we saw that indicated there was life in the woods after all were the bones of a deer left scattered on the snow by a hungry predator.
We quickly learned that the North Idaho Trail Blazers have figured out the key to traversing deep snow. First, they don't attempt to navigate 4-plus feet of powdery snow because it's virtually impossible. Oh sure, they've done it, but it's generally requires winching every foot of the way. No, they simply wait for the natural hardening of the snow from the natural fluctuation of higher daytime temps and cooler nighttime temps. When the snow hardens, it's ideal for their heavily modified vehicles.
By far, the most popular tire we saw were 36-inch Swampers, and they were generally more than 10-1/2 inches wide, with many being more than 14-1/2 inches, and most often they were aired down to around 8 to 10 psi. Almost every vehicle in the group sported two lockers, with mechanical lockers ruling the pack. This combination created almost unstoppability for our group as we explored the seemingly deserted mountains throughout the day.
As we hung out with club members, they talked about a really tough trail that the club likes to frequent. Needless to say, we politely inquired as to whether or not we could experience the trail any time soon, which is how we ended up spending another day with the North Idaho Trail Blazers.
You Gotta Be Kidding
Though unrelated to the Cabin Fever run, we couldn't resist experiencing the level of challenge that the Trail Blazers routinely attack, so the next day we accompanied select club members to one of their favorite places. It was a challenge just to get to the area on snow-choked rocky trails that were very different from the smooth terrain of the previous day. When we got to the Valley where the stretch of trail resides, we were completely and utterly shocked. Picture the boulder-strewn Die Trying in Colorado, Axle Alley in Arizona, or Wrecking Ball in California, and cover it with 3 feet of snow. We took one look at this brutality and congratulated them on their creativity. This was going to be fun.
For the next six hours, the Trail Blazers demonstrated their unbelievable understanding of deep snow and off-camber 'wheeling since they did the seemingly impossible and traversed the entire 1/2-mile stretch of trail with 15-plus vehicles. Yes, there was carnage, but mostly just a few tires peeled from the rims. Since there was no way to see exactly where the obstacles were under the snow, there was plenty of drama and a few pucker moments as trucks tipped and twisted. The snow was so deep in the valley that covering any distance on foot required 'crawling on all fours to avoid sinking waist-deep in the snow.
You can receive more information about the North Idaho Trail Blazers Cabin Fever run by dropping them a line at Dept. OR, P.O. Box 2912, Coeur d' Alene, ID 83816, or by e-mail at email@example.com, or via their Web site at www.nitb.org.