Serious snow play at the Winter Fun Festival
The wipers rocked to an even tempo, clearing inimitable crystalline snowflakes with each stroke and depositing them into frozen arcs on the windshield. My view from the passenger seat of Charlie Maier's Jeep TJ was limited to a few hundred yards as wind gusts forced horizontal sheets of the frosty white stuff across our path. Rounding a bend in the trail, the tail end of the Jeep came abreast in an attempt to pass the front. I glanced over at Charlie as he eased off the throttle and pointed the wheels into our slide; a light touch to the skinny pedal returned the vehicle to equilibrium. Any input to the brake would have rendered a fairlead-to-fairlead view of the Toyota pickup behind us.
This was winter in the Sierra Nevada, one of the driest in years, and Mother Nature was unleashing an insolent retort to those of us who had been praying for snow. In an attempted escape from the drudgery of office life, the monotony of staring at a computer monitor, and longing for some snow play, we made a spur-of-the-moment decision to head for the Northern California high country for the 24th annual Winter Fun Festival (WFF).
Winter Fun, which is sponsored by the California Association of Four Wheel Drive Clubs (CA4WDC), is the quintessential model of a great family four-wheeling snow run. Based in the quaint little burg of Grass Valley, California, the three-day event is comprised of trail rides ranging from historic tours of the Gold Country to snowblind treks in the highlands, home-cooked meals, kids' games, and casino-style evening entertainment. Last year's event attracted almost 600 participants from across northern California and Nevada.
O'dark-thirty: After stuffing our bellies with a full-spread breakfast and coffee, we departed for the Henness Pass historic toll road. Deeply rooted in the chronicled record of California's Gold Rush and the great migration from the east, the Henness Pass is said to have been pioneered by Patrick Henness in about 1850, hence the name. It was an alternate safer low-elevation route to the ill-fated Donner Pass route to the south. Eventually, the Truckee Turnpike Company developed it into a toll road in 1859, and operated with appreciable success until the transcontinental railroad was completed in the 1860s. As would be for the 1860s era, accusations of thievery graced local Motherlode newspapers, charging Henness with stealing discovery credits from Joseph Zumwalt. In any account, we were here to find snow, and Henness Pass was the place.