At The Winter Fun Fest
When the autumn leaves change from a verdant canopy of green to a golden array of crimson, ochre, and yellow, our thoughts drift from summer play on the rocks, to winterizing our rigs for mud, snow, and the chill of winter. And when Old Man Winter unleashes the biggest storm of the winter on the High Sierra, we're checking our heaters and getting ready to hit the trail. Such was the case when Scott Becker of Rubicon Express called and said, "Hey Chris, I've got an extra ticket for the Winter Fun Fest. Wanna do some snow wheelin'?" My response was (with the words snow and wheeling, I didn't need much coaxing), "Come pick me up." You see, a magazine dude's life is not all wheeling, wheeling, and more wheeling. It's more like a 70/15/15 split in this order: at the computer, busy with shop projects, and then a little wheeling. That said, I pushed away from my computer; postponed projects on my rig; grabbed a sleeping bag, camera, and some Gore-Tex; and jumped in.
Fast-forward 24 hours. Snow was blowing horizontally across the hood of Scott's Jeep Rubicon as Mother Nature unleashed her second major storm of the season. Our launching point was Cisco Grove, California, which sits at a 6,500-foot elevation and is the start of the Sierra Trek Trail (Fordyce Creek). If you've ever crawled over the granite boulders of Fordyce in the warmth of summer, adding a few feet of snow gives it a whole new dimension. With 35 vehicles in tow, a destination at the first river crossing (approximately 4 miles), and lots of the fluffy white stuff, reaching the river crossing would be a formidable task.
Back in the 1860s, Cisco Grove, a small mining camp nestled between Red Mountain and the Georgetown divide, was in competition with other camps to be the preferred route for the transcontinental railroad. Delegations from Summit City, a major player in the local gold rush and the terminus of the Fordyce Trail, were also lobbying congress along with representatives from every other camp in the area. Landing the railroad meant survival in a tumultuous economy. When the dust settled, Cisco Grove took the prize.
As we blasted over the snow bank at the trailhead, the lighthouse atop Signal Peak, 1,500 feet above, was cloaked by white-out conditions. In the early days of the railroad, there was but a single set of tracks through the Sierra. The lighthouse, an old stone building manned by a single keeper 24/7 and year 'round, once signaled train traffic between Kingvale to the east and Blue Canyon to the west. In heavy weather, the lighthouse was out of business and commerce came to a chilly halt.
Fortunately, we weren't relying on the Signal Peak Lighthouse as we wound our way through dense groves of snow-burdened pines, firs, and conifers. Axle-deep powder and hidden creeks slowed progress as we slogged our way to Driveline Hill, a steep and normally rocky section. The rocks were still there, but now they were covered with several feet of snow. And if you think it's tough when dry, it's nearly impassable in the winter. Driveline Hill would be our nemesis.
Our trail leader, Scott Arentz of Extreme Gear, dropped the skinny pedal to the floor and launched his Jeep towards a narrow passage between the trees. Catching a bad hop sent his driver-side front tire into one of those trees, and the sound of scattered steering components echoed back down the trail. That was the end of Scott's day. A few hours later, spare parts were sourced while the rest of the group navigated the bypass for some snow play and a late lunch at the top. The clouds were breaking and the winter sun was setting low on the horizon by the time we made it back to the trailhead.
In the lower elevations, Winter Fun participants were touring some of the last inhabited outposts of the Old West. The narrated SUV and Historic runs visited lost settlements with colorful names like Rough and Ready, Allegany, French Corral, and Brittany Springs, and historic points of interest such as the North Star Mining Museum and the Oregon Creek Bridge, one of the last remaining covered wooden bridges in the state.
Back at the Grass Valley Fairgrounds, HQ for Winter Fun, the cook crew was whipping up a home-style roast beef dinner with all the fixin's. Evenings at Winter Fun are all about fun. The raffle crew handed out cool off-road gear from BFGoodrich, Warn, Tuffy, Power Tank, and Advanced Adapters to lucky ticket holders, and adults vied their luck at a Las Vegas-style casino night. The Winter Fun Festival, which is sponsored by the California Association of 4WD Clubs, is the quintessential model of a great family four-wheeling snow run. What better reason for a road trip? For information on the January 2009 Winter Fun Fest, visit www.cal4wheel.com or call 800/4x4-FUNN.