Where The Plowed Road Ends, The Fun Begins
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.