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High Sierra Trekking: Half a Century of Great Wheeling at the 51st Annual Sierra Trek

Posted in Features on September 21, 2018
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We can thank James W. Marshall, a sawmill operator in Coloma, California, for most of the off-road trails in the American West. It was Marshall’s discovery of gold in 1848 that prompted the flood of people across the Great Plains and over the Rockies to seek their fortunes. In the process, they forged mule and wagon tracks along nearly every canyon and waterway in the Sierra Nevada. As the gold rush waned and the economy ebbed and flowed during the following century, Mother Nature reclaimed most of these byways until all but faint memories of their existence had been erased. It was such a recollection from Jack Enal, the 80-year-old son of a butcher, that became the catalyst for one of the region’s most iconic four-wheel-drive venues.

In the 1890s, Jack’s father delivered meat to the trading post in Cisco Grove, and Jack remembered occasionally climbing aboard the horse-drawn wagon and tagging along for a ride. Around 1964 he shared this tale, and that of an old miner’s track to Meadow Lake, with Ed Dunkley, an avid history buff and member of the Sacramento Jeepers. Meadow Lake held the foundation cornerstones of the rough-and-tumble mining town of Summit City, and it wasn’t long before Ed gathered a few friends to reconnoiter the route. The idea was to create a fundraiser for Cal4Wheel similar to the Jeepers Jamboree, and after several summers of exploratory trips they had reclaimed the long-abandoned byway. The path traced Fordyce Creek, passing relics of yesteryear: rusting stamp mills, hand-riveted water flumes, and ramshackle cabins. They determined the meadow around the lake would be the perfect setting for a base camp, and in the summer of 1967 three local clubs—the Sacramento Jeepers, Camellia City Broncos, and the Sierra Treasure Hunters (STH)—hosted the inaugural Sierra Trek. Another chapter in Summit City’s chronicle began.

Old Man Mountain stands vigilant in the background as participants on the Thursday Fordyce Creek run make their way across Sunrise Ridge.
Thursday Fordyce Creek run.

A runny-nosed 20-something kid was introduced to Sierra Trek in 1984. It was the 18th annual event, and he’d recently purchased a used 4x4 and had joined STH. The club was one of the official trail committees that year, tasked with guiding participants to Meadow Lake. He had no clue as to what he was doing or how to pick a line through ice chest–sized boulders, and someone had to tell him to air down his tires. He was a rookie along for the ride, both feet shaking on the pedals like leaves in the wind in the tough sections. He had a lot to learn, and the old-timers took him under their wings for a full edification. More on the “kid” in a moment.

The event had grown from a two-day affair with 50 rigs and a Saturday-night barbeque to the full resurrection of Summit City (population 1,200). In the following years, various work projects included drilling a well for potable water and pouring a 50-foot concrete dance floor. Both were made possible via a long-term relationship with the Gleason family, owners of the land around Meadow Lake since the 1800s. By the time the 30th Trek arrived, the addition of a Thursday Fordyce and overnight SUV run around the Tahoe Rim Trail expanded the event to four days. That year more than 2,000 “Trekkies” bellied up to the bar at the Wild West Saloon and kicked up their heels to three nights of live music. While the challenging Fordyce route has always captured the limelight for hard-core guys, new trail rides such as the SUV, historic, and long-wheelbase trips hit the mark for most participants.

During the following decades the vendor show expanded to include dozens of manufacturers and in-camp children’s games were introduced, as well as various attractions such as a climbing wall, dunk tank, and cornhole competition. The raffle, which is on par with any, now hands out more than $30,000 in swag on Saturday night—the young ’uns have a substantial raffle of their own. While Sierra Trek and Fordyce have not achieved the glory of the Jeepers Jamboree and the Rubicon, over the years four-wheelers from all 50 states and dozens of countries have made the pilgrimage to Meadow Lake. In 2008, Fordyce was honored by being inducted into the BFGoodrich Outstanding Trails Program. BFG arrived with a check for $4,000, which was used for various conservation projects along the trail.

Vast fields of smooth granite and numerous erratics are the result of glacial flows during the Ice Age.

Many things in the world have changed since the runny-nosed 20-something’s first Trek. Last year, the event celebrated its 50th anniversary, and now he’s one of the old guys he used to call “old guys.” The Sierra Trek family expanded to nearly 30 volunteer clubs. Eventually, longtime trail coordinator Larry Calkins decided it was time to pass the torch to the new kid. During his tenure at the helm, the River Run, which runs the trail backwards to Fordyce Creek, was added along with a UTV trail ride. After a decade at the post, the kid handed it off to Brett Preble, then-president of Friends of Fordyce. STH has staffed just about every committee, from trash patrol to cooking meals and managing the raffle, and it has had nearly a dozen members chair the event—a fact the kid has always been proud of. [Editor’s note: That “kid” is the author of this story.]

As the venue pushes into its 50s, hundreds of families now earmark the Trek for their annual vacation, many showing up a week early to hike local trails, ply the waters of Meadow Lake, cast a line, and soak in the grandeur of the Sierra Nevada. Ed Dunkley is no longer with us, but we should all be thankful that he took the time to listen to tales of lore shared by the son of a Truckee butcher. For information on next year’s Sierra Trek go to cal4wheel.com.

Trekkies line up in the early-morning light near Cisco Grove where an old mule track departed for the mines at Summit City.
Although Fordyce Creek is too deep to cross during most of the year, Sierra Trek works with PG&E to reduce water levels during the event.
Friends of Fordyce and Cal4Wheel have utilized grant funds, donations from companies like BFGoodrich, and volunteer labor for various conservation efforts. This section of trail below Winch Hill #1 was the result of a work project that rerouted the trail away from a sensitive meadow.
Cal4Wheel’s Natural Resource Consultant Jeff Blewett traverses Winch Hill #3, one of the more difficult sections of the Fordyce Trail.
Manned by rock rollers and winch crews, five separate winch hills challenge man and machine.
The five most difficult sections of the Fordyce Trail are staffed by volunteer crews to guide participants through.
Once a wagon-accessible route to Summit City, Mother Nature has had her way with the trail. The top of Winch Hill #5 is the final difficult section before reaching Base Camp at Meadow Lake.
The first Sierra Trek (in 1966) was a small affair with 50 Willys flatfenders, CJ-5s, and a few Ford Broncos.
The River Run leaves Base Camp and runs the trail backwards to Fordyce Creek.
The first year they allowed those “new” Toyota pickups on the trail was in 1984. Prior to that they were considered too long and less than capable—how the times have changed.
Trek’s trail guides are handy with a wrench or a winch line and are responsible for getting everyone to camp.
The Signal Peak run, one of the long-wheelbase trail rides, traverses the old access road to a lighthouse used by the railroad in the 1860s.
Upon the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1862, there was only one set of tracks crossing the 7,300-foot summit at Donner Pass. Staffed all year round, this two-room stone building atop Signal Peak acted as a lighthouse to signal to trains that the tracks were clear to pass.
The Saturday historic run, which is suitable for most 4WD vehicles, offers a narrated tour of the local area.
The original Summit City Cemetery stands on a hill west of town. It was all but lost until a recent archeological project identified gravesites, erected markers, and fenced the area.
Participants on the historic tour listen to guide Jim Bramham, a literal encyclopedia of knowledge on the area.
Historic tour
From the 9,200-foot summit of Lacey Peak one obtains a 360-degree view of the northern Sierra Nevada.
Relics such as this old boiler from the 1800s can be seen along the various trails surrounding Meadow Lake.
Volunteer clubs serve up thousands of great home-cooked meals during the four-day event. STH has been charged with preparing Friday dinner for the past 10 years.
Sierra Trek is a family affair, and volunteer clubs recruit the next generation of four wheelers (free labor) to join in the fun.
Sierra Trek Base Camp is erected each August on the site of the 1860s hard-rock mining town of Summit City.
Manufacturers such as BFGoodrich, WFO Concepts, MetalCloak, and 4Wheel Parts are always on hand with the latest off-road gear.
One of the best things about Sierra Trek, besides the great wheeling, food, and mountain air, is reconnecting with old friends and having a coldy around the fire.
Each night, Trekkies kick up their heels to live music on a 50-foot dance floor.
When the sun goes down, the Summit City Saloon opens and Trek participants party late into the night.
Summit City Saloon
The kid’s raffle preps the next generation for a life of four-wheeling—we think this dad confiscated his daughter’s RC car…

Sierra Trek in the ’70s

Back in the day, the Jeep CJ-5 and CJ-7 were standard issue on Sierra Trek. The trail didn’t require locking differentials, and tech rules stated you only needed 31-inch tires, a rollcage, fire extinguisher, and towstrap to participate.

Sierra Trek in the ’70s.
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