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.
Beating the pavement on our previous day's haul up the San Joaquin Valley, the sun shone brightly and weather reports of new snow were bleak. Not good. (Our benevolent editor was expecting images of cool 4x4s dashing through even cooler snowdrifts-pun intended.) Passing through 4,000 feet in elevation, the rain began to congeal and stick. Mother Nature was answering. As my Garmin GPS clicked 6,000 feet, white-out conditions enveloped the highlands and the route splintered into a tangled array of sidetracks and spur trails. What ensued was an all-day game of follow-the-leader through hill and drift. In bumper-deep conditions, tow straps and winches were implemented with regularity as axles plowed and tires settled past the point of providing traction. Our trail crew, the Grass Valley Four Wheelers, labored like cattle hands on a winter roundup, worked the perimeter to ensure that none of their flock went awry, and maintained a headcount so that no one would be left as a permanent fixture in the winter landscape.
Down in the lower elevations, Winter Fun participants were touring the some of the last inhabited outposts of civilization. The SUV and Historic tours visited lost settlements with colorful names like Rough and Ready, French Corral, Moonshine Road and Brittany Springs, and historic points of interest at the North Star Mining Museum. They also passed the historic Oregon Creek covered bridge, one the last remaining covered wooden bridges in the state.
Reflecting on tales of intrepid miners, teamsters, and settlers, cresting the summit in buckboard wagons, wearing only hand-sewn leather boots and wool clothing, we were thankful for the invention of Gore-Tex, the luxury of a good heater, and the security of a reliable four-wheel-drive.
Back at HQ, the Grass Valley Fairgrounds, the Winter Fun cook crew was whipping up a home-style roast beef dinner with all the fixin's. Evenings at Winter Fun are all about ... the fun. The next generation of four-wheelers were testing their driving skill at an RC Jeep race course, the raffle crew dished up cool gear from BFGoodrich, Warn, Tuffy Security, and Advance Adapters, and the adults tried their luck at a Las Vegas-style casino night.
The Winter Fun Festival kicks off the winter wheeling season each January. For information on this year's event, to be held January 12-14, call 800/4x4-FUNN or visit www.cal4wheel.com.
Going snow 'wheeling is way cool, but when spending the night means bedding down in the front seat of a Jeep-or hacking an igloo out of a snow bank-having the proper gear is essential. Without a well-equipped rig, tools, emergency equipment, and above all, experience, a casual day of whooping it up could end up as a nightmarish bad dream. A few tips:
* Let someone know exactly where you are going and when you'll be back.
* Pack extra clothing, a sleeping bag, extra food and water for each occupant.
*Outfit your rig with the proper emergency equipment: A reliable winch, tow strap, clevis, tarp, tools, fire starter and source of heat (Presto logs are awesome), a map and compass or GPS, and a CB radio or cell phone.
*Most importantly, take two rigs, and if things get really bad, stay with your rig. When the weather clears in a couple of days, you can dig your way out or burn the spare tire as a smoke signal (start it with part of the Presto log).