On the trail with ARB
Hard-core rockcrawling has had an undeniable impact on everyone in the sport of off-roading, but many of us have our four-wheel-drive roots planted firmly in the simpler pursuits of camping, exploring, and other outdoor activities. And when you consider ARB's camping and exploring heritage in Australia, perhaps it comes as no surprise that we all liked the idea of putting together an event that takes us back to our roots in off-roading. And so, ARB's American Outback Series was born, with the first event being held in Oregon in June 2003. This overland off-road trip treated 15 drivers, in their unique, well-equipped four-wheel-drive vehicles, to a camping and exploring adventure that covered more than 600 miles of Oregon's rugged and historic backcountry.
For ARB's next American Outback series, it was decided that the second event would be held in British Columbia, Canada. After a lengthy, nation-wide search, 15 drivers were invited to join ARB in their customized rigs on a 1,000-mile off-road odyssey. To help chart a course across some of British Columbia's most magnificent wilderness, we obtained the guidance of Al Vandervelde from Canadian 4WD magazine and Anne Jackson from the West Coast 'Wheelers. During the planning stages, ARB emphasized that it wanted to cover a great distance and see some amazing backcountry. Al and Anne would not disappoint us.
On a sunny Monday morning in June 2004, our group of Land Rovers, Jeeps, Toyotas, and Suzukis rendezvoused for a drivers meeting at the Apex Alpine Ski Resort, southeast of Penticton, British Columbia. Surrounded by rugged mountains and thick forests of lodgepole pine and mountain hemlock, we slipped into 4WD and laid the first tracks in our five-day adventure. Our overall objective was to travel some 1,000 miles northwest by four-wheel-drive trail and highway. Along the way, our key destinations would include the steep, wooded Apex Bowl country; the pristine wilderness of the Whipsaw country; and eventually, the remote Bralorne Mountains. For the most part, our trip was loosely charted and our camping destinations largely undetermined. The only scheduled connection we would have with civilization was a hotel reservation in the small, mountain-town of Lillooet on Tuesday evening.
Monday's travels brought us face to face with the realities of off-roading in the Northwest as the tight, muddy tracks of the Apex Bowl forced us to claw our way up and over one mountainside after another. Along the way, countless vistas treated us to amazing panoramas and ever-changing weather patterns. By early afternoon, we had burned up two hours on various winching chores, and our chainsaw was quickly going dull on downed trees. After cresting the overlook to the graceful Similkameen River, we dropped down about 1,000 feet and headed north by highway to the turn-off for the much-anticipated Whipsaw Trail. With the sun dropping low in the sky, large stands of ponderosa pine captured the silhouettes of our vehicles as we once again crawled up into the wilderness. Just before sunset, we pulled off the trail to camp at the high point of a series of rolling meadows that were dotted with groupings of tall bristlecone and lodgepole pine. Against the backdrop of an old log cabin and a gravestone or two, our evening faded out around a welcoming fire.
Tuesday morning greeted us with a warm sun, an expansive blue sky, and flowered meadows in all directions. Before us lay the famous Whipsaw Trail, which was once used as a mining road in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, it offers the adventurous off-road enthusiast an opportunity to explore an alpine wonderland of meadows and icy lakes, surrounded by a framework of sawtooth peaks. By midmorning, most of the people in our group were completely absorbed by this beautiful countryside, but we were also realizing that winter had not yet finished with the Whipsaw Trail. The farther we snaked into the higher elevations, the longer and deeper the snowdrifts became. By early afternoon, rooster-tails were flying, and we were being serenaded by the redline-concerto of nearly every engine in our group. Despite the fun we were having, our pace had slowed considerably, and by early evening it was clear that we were not going to make the distant town of Lillooet by sundown. However, as Anne led our group to an isolated campsite on the picturesque shore of Loadstone Lake, no one seemed too concerned about missing the hotel. And as the red clouds of evening rolled over, we enjoyed the unique privilege of another wonderful night in Canada's backcountry.
Everyone knew that Wednesday would be a long day with many miles of highway to cover. Had it not been for the barrage of mosquitoes harassing us in camp, we would have all voted to stay in the Whipsaw country a while longer. But Canada's highways had a treat in store for us, and as we chased them northwest through the towns of Tulameen, Merritt, Spence's Bridge, and Litton, we experienced vast landscapes of towering mountains and expansive, grassy plains. By early afternoon, we began to drop into the deep, volcanic gorges that are home to the mighty Thompson River. Along its shores we drove in anticipation of its confluence with the equally powerful Fraser River. Turning up the Fraser River, we now looked forward to reaching Lillooet and stepping into a hot shower. Unfortunately, there was a growing question in our minds as to whether we would be able to reach Lillooet. A day earlier, we had received word that Lillooet was on a two-hour evacuation notice due to extensive forest fires around the town. When we finally arrived in Lillooet, the scene bordered on surreal with the heavy smell of smoke filling the air and the foreboding glow of flames dancing across the surrounding mountains. As the evening sun faded through a burning sky, heavy raindrops began to fall from an unwelcome electrical storm.
Although we made it through the night without needing to evacuate, Thursday morning did not bring much improvement to Lillooet's condition. With every mile that we put between the town and ourselves, I think everyone secretly felt more comfortable. After skirting the azure shore of Carpenter Lake, we climbed for miles and miles up into the spectacular Bralorne Mountains, with its forests of quaking aspen, lodgepole pine, and grand fir. Eventually, we made the turn onto the Mud Lake trailhead, and it quickly became evident that this heavily wooded trail hadn't had any visitors in a long time -- with the exception of the local bear population, whose tracks were abundant.
As the rocky trail climbed, the trees thinned and every turn began to reveal another meadow or lake, seemingly more beautiful than the last. The name Mud Lake didn't seem very appealing, but as the afternoon melted away and we finally rolled to its shores, we were treated to an absolutely beautiful setting. Mud Lake was crystal-clear, surrounded by timber, and joined by an immense, flowered meadow that was perfectly suited to camping. We never would have imagined our third and final campsite surpassing the first two on this Canadian odyssey, but Mud Lake took the prize. With our now customary campfire blazing and a circle of friends to share it, it was a wonderful place to spend our last night on the trail.
Most everyone in camp seemed to agree that Friday had arrived too soon, but fortunately, we still had a solid day of off-roading ahead of us. After rolling out of camp, the last leg of our trip took us up a series of steep, ongoing switchbacks. A couple of hours into the trail, the trees had thinned as we worked our way above the tree line to a rocky, dome-shaped mountaintop. From the mountaintop, we were rewarded with a 360-degree panorama that revealed mountain range after mountain range for hundreds of miles. The shear vastness of our surroundings gave us a sense of isolation that we've rarely felt from the seat of a 4WD vehicle.
From the dome, we began our long decent down into the Yalakom Valley. This valley actually felt more like a series of valleys that cascaded down from one to the next. As we dropped lower in elevation, our tires dipped into more and more streams and we encountered increasingly lush vegetation. Flowers of all kinds were in abundance, and at times the air was so full with the scent of wild roses that we couldn't help rolling our windows down and slowing our pace. Nearing the bottom of the valley, the creeks transformed into torrents and the trail gave way to gravel roads and bridges. As our speed began to increase, we rounded a turn and for the first time on the trip we caught a glimpse of a large brown bear darting into the cover of the forest. It wasn't much farther when an ominous expression came over the afternoon sky and rain began to close down upon us like a curtain. It seemed a fitting end to our journey as we cleared the last low-lying hills and arrived at the turn that would lead us back to Lillooet and home.