I suppose the dead bird was a bad omen but I didn't realize it at the time. In fact, it seemed like it would be an easy weekend. I was travelling with my 5-year-old son, Cam, and my brother, Bill, and his 8-year-old daughter, Reah. To make the drive from Surrey to Apex Mountain more enjoyable, and in order to haul all our camping gear and tools, Wil lent me his new Cummins-powered Dodge Ram, and Tom lent me his flat deck trailer. The drive to Apex Mountain was very decadent by my standards. It was noise-free, fast, smooth, and in air-conditioned comfort. Pretty much exactly the opposite of what it would have been like in my Jeep YJ. Our plan was to set up camp at the small lake beside the trail head to the main campsite to Nickel Plate Lake. This is where the Lippmanns always camped when we attended the annual Herd of Turtles Turtle Jam event. We pulled into the campsite around 10:00pm and began setting up camp. While doing so, Cam yelled that he found a bird on my Jeep's door. I looked and was surprised by what I saw. A small bird must have flown into the Jeep's door while we were cruising on the highway, got its head caught in my soft door's window, and broke its neck when its body whipped around and slammed into the door. And even if it didn't break its neck, it would have been dead for the simple reason that its body also ruptured during the impact and was partially eviscerated.
The next morning, after breakfast and packing up the trucks (my YJ, Dave's Bronco, and Armin's 4-door JK Rubicon), we headed to the main campsite beside Nickel Plate Lake. Much to our consternation, there was no one there. Normally, the Herd would be camped there, and after a leisurely breakfast and a bazillion last minute errands, everyone would make their way to the main gravel road and queue up for the day's trails. Instead, all we saw was Dan Brama, who someone managed to drive his full-size pickup (with a camper on the back), pulling his Jeep on a flat bed trailer, into the campsite. We were all deeply impressed with this, because the road in was very tight, twisty, and off-camber in some places. Dan himself was pondering how he was going to get out, and was thinking of using his YJ to pull the trailer out first, and then walking back and driving his pickup out. He also informed us that one of the Herd had come to the camp the night before and told him that everyone was camping at the old Jeep 101 obstacle course area, near the Apex Ski resort. Now, I don't blame the Herd of Turtles for my mix up. If I read the invite carefully, I would have known this, but instead I just glanced at the information and assumed that the campsite would be at the same place as always.
Now that we knew where we had to be, we headed down to the 101 course. (It's called that because that's where the Jeep Jamboree used to hold its Jeep 101 course.) When we reached the paved section of road entering the Apex Mountain resort area, my Jeep's front end started binding very badly when going around the corners. I noticed this weirdness when I was loading my Jeep onto the trailer the day before, but wasn't sure if it was simply an unusual glitch or not. Unlocking the hubs fixed the problem, but I was troubled by the symptom. It probably meant that my Detroit locker was hosed (a result of an outing a few months before where I snapped the passenger side stub shaft).
Arriving at the 101 course, we found everyone there and we were just in time to get registered, choose our trails, and go through tech inspection. Ah, the tech inspection. Among other things, it involved parking my Jeep on a slope and proving that the parking brake worked by setting it and then winching to a tree. I failed this test so I crawled under the Jeep and adjusted the spreaders. The day definitely wasn't going smoothly.
Finally, we headed off to the start of the real four-wheeling. I was near the back of the pack, along with the Lippmanns. As usual with any difficult trail, there was a lot of stop and go. But because we were on a narrow trail, we never really knew why we were stopping, nor could we see what was going on. If we walked up the trail to have a look, we'd invariably have to run back to the truck because the line would start moving again. So we just sat in our trucks and waited patiently for the group to get rolling again. On one of these stops, Dave's Bronco had some problems starting but he resolved it fairly quickly (I think he got a jump start). But at another stop, he determined that his alternator wasn't charging. After some discussion, it was decided that Armin would hang back with him and they would get the Bronco back to the camp. They had the option of getting one of the club members to pick up a part for them from the Lordco in Penticton, since they were already doing a parts run. So we left them behind, but not for long. They soon caught up to us. Dave managed to fix the problem (something about a light bulb that was used to provide a load for the charge sensing circuit on his alternator).
Because I had my son and my niece along and it was a hot, sunny day, I didn't want them to be in the sun. So unlike my usual setup where I'd off-road with just the bikini top on the Jeep, I left my full soft-top on. Problem is, I hadn't 'wheeled with the top on for about 10 years. My attitude towards four-wheeling on tight, off-camber trails was pretty laid back because once I got the windshield past a tree, I didn't have to worry about any damage because the worst that would happen is that my roll cage would slide along a tree. That attitude did not serve me well, as I repeatedly forgot about my soft top and dragged it and its frame into a variety of trees. It started off as a bend in the bow and a minor tear, but it reached its culmination when the bow got caught against one tree and tore itself free of the windshield mount, and then 50 feet later the skin got torn right off of the windshield. Sweet. That's when I finally clued in that perhaps I should lower the soft top.
The weather was very clear and even in the shade of the trees, it was quite warm and dusty. The frequent stops with nothing to look at quickly bored the kids, and the heat was making them listless. I felt guilty for bringing them along, and considered choosing some easier, more scenic trails for the next day.
I think it was on a trail called Tommy Gun where things got confused. Vehicles were going one at a time up a very steep set of switch backs. Getting to the start of those switch backs involved driving along a steep, off-camber section while jigging around some trees. Once you got past this section, you were committed to doing Tommy Gun because it was next to impossible to turn around by that point. The problem was, I didn't know that. While we were waiting for the vehicles ahead to get through the section, Dave was notified that he should take the bypass and avoid Tommy Gun, due to the issues his Bronco was having, and also because they were concerned that his Bronco was too wide for the trail. Intermittent chatter on the CBs went back and forth about other things (typical for any large 4x4 run) and somewhere along the way, it sounded like they wanted everyone who was still waiting to go up Tommy Gun to turn around and take the bypass. I thought that was I was supposed to do, and it made sense because it also sounded like someone was having problems up ahead. Thing is, I was already past "the point of no return," but I didn't know that. But I did know that turning around there would be dicey. I've turned around in bad situations before, and this would rank up there as one of the toughest. As I began my attempt to turn around, unbeknownst to me, Dave was behind and below me, on an off-camber, up-hill slope, also trying to turn around. Now, the thing about turning around on a side hill is that you stand a good chance of sliding sideways, particularly when the ground is a bit soft or hard and loose. My plan was to lean up against a tree on my downhill side to act as a pivot point and to prevent me from tipping over. The plan kind of worked except that the Jeep was pinned too hard against the tree. Basically, I got it jammed between my roll cage and my windshield frame. That's when it occurred to me that maybe I should've lowered the windshield at the same time that I lowered my top. "No problem," I thought. I'll just unbolt the two retaining bolts and lower the windshield now, thereby freeing myself from the tree. A fine idea, except for one thing: because I was leaned against a tree, the cage was shifted in relation to the tub, and therefore blocked access to the bolts! Meanwhile, Dave was below me, just before the point of no return, trying to turn his Bronco around on an uphill side hill. In some ways, I think his situation was even worse because he had no near by trees to lean against, and the ground was looser. He knew this, and radioed to ask if I could turn around and anchor the back of his Bronco with my winch. I told him I'm be happy to oblige...once I got out of my own difficult situation. So he and Armin came up to give me a hand, as did Gord who heard what we were doing on the radio and came over from the bypass to lend a hand. What followed was a lot of short winch pulls and people hanging on the side of my Jeep before we finally got it turned around. It was a real team effort. I came very close to destroying my windshield on that section. Once my Jeep was turned around, I drove downhill about 20 feet where I parked my driver's side tire against a tree and then helped winch Dave backwards so he could finish turning around. It was a difficult pull and for a while there, I was worried that I'd pull my knuckle right out of its ball joints. But it all ended well without any damage.
On our way out, we met up with some of the other Herd of Turtles members, including Phil who expressed surprise at hearing that we turned around where we did. That's when I was informed that I was already past the point of no return. Phil and some of the other members apologized for the mix-up but I said apologies weren't necessary. These kinds of communications errors happen all the time when you're on the trail. But that marked the end of my four-wheeling for that weekend. It was a long, boring day for the kids and I wanted to make it up to them by doing something much more interesting for them. So the next day, after a leisurely breakfast, we headed over to the French Mine on Nickelplate Mountain. It was a relaxing drive and the kids enjoyed riding in the Jeep with the top down, enjoying the beautiful weather (which soon turned into a reddish haze from smoke from the forest fires in the Kelowna area). They really enjoyed the mine and collecting interesting looking rocks (no gold ore, though).
What usually happens when I go 'wheeling on the day we're going to pack up camp is that we end up spending longer than anticipated on the trail, get back to camp late, and then rush to pack up and then begin the long drive home. But since we were just having an easy day of poking around the mine, we got back to camp with plenty of time to spare. Packing up was easy since we could just throw everything into the back of Wil's big Dodge, and by the time we finished securing my Jeep to the trailer, I was very pleased to see that we would have lots of time to get back home. But it's never that easy for me, is it? No, it isn't. Because that's when I discovered that my GPS was missing. The last place I recalled seeing it was when we parked the Jeep outside the French Mine, and I thought that I might've attached it to my backpack. The same backpack I wore when we entered the mine. The easy thing would have been to drive Wil's Dodge all the way back to the mine but I didn't want to put any bush scratches on Wil's new truck, so the only option was to unchain the Jeep, unload it, and drive it back to the mine.
Arriving at the mine, I was extremely disappointed that I didn't see my GPS laying by the log where we ate lunch. Partly because it wasn't there. But even more so because that would mean that I had to walk deep into the mine to where we turned around. And I really don't like poking around mines by myself. But what I hate even more is losing $300. So I re-traced our steps all the way into the mine and even took a couple of wrong turns in the process. But the GPS was nowhere to be seen.
When I returned to the campsite and was chaining the Jeep down onto the trailer, Bill searched through my backpack and found my GPS. Yep, it was sitting in the pack of Wil's truck all that time while I was looking for it at the mine. How I missed it the first time, I do not know. But it was so characteristic of that weekend's problems: lots of small, niggling problems that didn't end the weekend but that caused real aggravation. Fortunately, I was able to end the weekend on a high note: a plush ride home in the air conditioned comfort of Wil's diesel pickup.
My apologies to the Herd of Turtles 4x4 club. On the 2nd day, instead of driving to the camp to thank them for their hospitality, I just called them up on the VHF to let them know that we wouldn't be 'wheeling with them that day. Not the friendliest way of doing it, but after the previous day's hassles, I just couldn't muster the energy to drive down to the main camp. I guess in some ways, I was embarassed to be jamming out like that.
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