Recently I got to tag along with teammate Chris for a day of Off-Roading. The Sheppard Run was catered to the newer 4×4 driver who wanted to learn some new skills and techniques when taking the road less traveled. Okay, it wasn’t a road at all…more like a rutted out, muddy trail hell bent on making a mess of everyone and their 4×4’s. The day was hosted by the Ontario Federation of 4WD Recreationists and headed up by their instructor Chris Muir. Chris is also the team mechanic here at Chronicles of Adventure so getting a chance to tag along with him was an opportunity not to be missed as he guided a group of new 4×4 drivers through the paces of the trails.
The day started way too early when I was woken at 6:30am from my slumber, curled up in my sleeping bag. Chris brought along his two bed camping trailer and neither of us were eager to face the chill of the morning air. The group of Trail Guides finally loaded up into their shinny 4×4’s and we headed off for breakfast and some much needed coffee. As I slowly sipped at my cup of Java, I looked out the window of the breakfast cafe, and as the sun began to rise, one thing stood out…Chris’ 4×4. Everyone else had a heavily modified Jeep but Chris and I would be spending the day in his wife’s Nissan XTerra (his Jeep was out of commission). With no real modifications, other than a set of 32″ off road tires, the XTerra looked absolutely tiny parked beside the Goliath Jeeps belonging to the other Trail Guides. If those Jeeps were what would be needed for the trails we would be doing today, then we just brought a knife to a gun fight.
Once done with breakfast, we all headed off the the official meeting place to gather up all the newbie drivers and the spot where Chris would give his morning speech covering what they could expect throughout the day as well as what he expected from them by covering off the rules. His anecdote about someone once being flung out the door of their truck and landing in a seated position, just as they had been while seated in their truck, as their truck slowly drove away, drove home the importance of wearing seat belts.
Eventually all the drivers were split into groups (based on experience and the modifications to their vehicles) and assigned to various Trail Guides who would lead them throughout the day. As for Chris and me, we would be leading the group with nearly zero experience and zero modifications. Lets face it…we had the least capable vehicle!
After Chris’ drivers briefing, eventually all the groups headed off to the trail heads where everyone could air-down their tires. As a road safety specialist, I always impress upon people the importance of ensuring that their tires are properly inflated for the road. Although today we weren’t going to be on the road, and to avoid getting stuck every 50m, everyone lowered their tire pressures to a meager 15psi. Lowering the air pressure in the tires is quite important for off roading so that the tires can better grip the rocks, branches, mud and dirt that we would be driving through. Obviously though, everyone would have to re-inflate their tires again at the end of the day for normal driving.
Although it took a while to get everyone’s tire pressures lowered, we finally hit the road, errr…trail! Slowly our caravan of 4×4’s lumbered though the forest and it didn’t take long before the importance of having an experienced Trail Guide who knew the trails well became clear. If you picked the wrong fork in the trail, you could end up on a trail that would surely get you stranded or suffering serious damage to your vehicle. This was no place to get stranded and there wasn’t a chance in Hell that you could even get a tow truck in here. If you got stuck here on a Sunday evening, there’s a good chance you wouldn’t be found until the following weekend.
We lumbered over bumps, potholes and logs that would have snapped the wheels off a normal car. We traversed deep puddles that quickly covered us in stagnant muddy water that smelled so bad that I was certain that there were rotting animal carcasses in them. To say it smelled foul was an understatement. Chris grabbed the mic of his CB and advised the group “Sorry guys…your Jeeps will never smell the same again. Whenever it rains, you will remember this moment.”…it was that bad. Some puddles were quite deep and thanks to the murky brown colour, it was impossible to gauge just how deep it was. I felt confident in Chris though. With his many years of off roading experience, he was very good at umm…guessing…just how deep the puddle was and whether or not he could just take it head on, or when it was better to skirt the sides of it as much as he could. I thought it was strange though that he would always take a line that put me closest to the water line, risking a torrent of water coming in my window. He explained though that the engine air intake of the XTerra was on his side and he needed to be kept out of the water as much as possible. If that gets flooded, it could result in hydro-locking the engine and that would not only be an end to our day but also an end to that engine.
Although the water came close to coming in the window many times, it didn’t. Well…until it finally did! I’m pretty sure he did it on purpose! It was a nice deep puddle so I was leaning out the window with my camera and I fully believe that he decided to have a little fun at my expense and drove a bit faster than he should have. By the time I realized I was about to get soaked, there was no time to do anything about it. Water splashed and poured through the passenger window covering the inside of the door, the passenger side of the dashboard and of course me in this nasty smelling, muddy brown water. “Oh come on! You wanker!”
Well…I saved the seat anyway. Well…mostly. We had to stop for a little break so that I could clean up a little bit. Thankfully my jacket was waterproof and I brought a towel so I was able to at least clean that off but my jeans were a different story. While I was wiping myself down, various people in the group came to take a look at the mess in the truck and lots of jaws were dropped.
Karma can be a bitch though and after our lunch break, it was Chris’ turn for a nasty bath. We came across a rather massive puddle and unknown to Chris, the right side of the puddle was rather deep. I had learned my lesson though and just as we got half way through the puddle, I quickly raised my window. It was a good thing I did too because his line right through the middle turned out to be a really bad idea. The right side of the truck sank into a hole that would have totally swallowed a Honda Civic. We got stuck and a wall of water splashed through the driver side window and soaked Chris and the other half of the interior of the truck. I could only imagine what his wife would say about her truck when he brings it home!
Quickly he grabbed reverse gear and floored the gas pedal. It was a very good thing that the driver behind us knew better than to follow someone into an obstacle before first ensuring that the other person clears it. Chris freed us from the hole and we stopped for a bit so that he could clean himself up but he was now just as soaked as I was. We didn’t realize until we started rolling again that things had just gotten very serious; The Voltage Warning light was on and we both knew what that meant.
“That’s the Alternator, right?” I asked.
“Probably ya” he replied.
“Shit…so we’ve got what…20-30 minutes to get out of here before the engine dies?” I asked.
“If that” he replied.
Things had just gotten real. He grabbed his CB and called back to one of the other Trail Guides “John, I need you to take the lead. We blew the alternator when we got swamped and we need to get out of here fast.” and that’s when Chris put his head down, turned off all the accessories, hit the gas and got to work. I thought back to his morning briefing and remembered when he said “If any of you watch the Baja 1000…that is NOT how we drive here! If you don’t want to crash…drive slow.” but in this moment, driving slow wasn’t an option. We needed to get out of there before the battery died, or at least get as far as we could before it did. Having to be towed out of the trail by another 4×4 isn’t exactly easy and often leads to more damage. Chris has been on both the receiving end and the towing end before so he knew just how serious the situation was.
We blasted along at some serious speed and we were both being tossed around like rag dolls inside the truck. We bounced over the bumps and branches and blasted through the water holes with walls of water splashing over the roof of the truck but at least both windows were now closed, or we would have been drinking the stuff. Chris was going Hell for leather. I haven’t bounced around like that in a truck since back when I was in the military but I was in good hands with Chris. When it comes to off roading…damn that guy can drive!
After about 15 minutes Chris said “It doesn’t feel right.”.
“What doesn’t feel right?” I asked.
“The steering. We won’t last much longer.”
At that moment we thought it was it was the battery finally drying up. What we found out later was that Chris’ ‘spirited’ driving destroyed the steering box. Well ya…no wonder it didn’t feel right! Luckily, we arrived at the staging area just as the engine started to sputter. So there we were…stranded with the hood up, twiddling our thumbs. Turns out though that there was another Nissan XTerra in one of the other groups and they just happen to have a spare alternator. Talk about luck! About an hour later, the other 4×4’s started trickling in and while everyone re-inflated their tires, Chris also pulled out the jumper cables to add some charge to our battery. Welcome to off roading. Of course had we had a Jeep we wouldn’t have fried the alternator because it’s located on top of the engine and on the XTerra, it’s located at the bottom. Not that I can be too hard on the little Nissan; Chris pounded on it pretty hard after that and the only thing that broke from being driven so hard was the steering box. So overall, its a pretty tough little truck. Although…none of the Jeeps in our group had any issues, even the stock ones…just saying.
After getting back to the campsite, Chris got to work on swapping out the busted alternator with the one his buddy gave him and after a couple hours, the truck was running just fine again. Nothing could be done about the steering box though. Hmm…now why is the tire flat?? Yup…now we had a flat tire and after adding some more air, you could see the air bubbling back out through the bead with the rim. Oh come on! After closer inspection, it was pretty obvious that wood debris had gotten jammed in the bead causing the leak but fortunately after a bit of picking at it, the pressure in the tire got to a point where the leak sealed itself. Ok…we can live with that but we’d have to keep an eye on it for the trip home.
All in all it was a great day even though things didn’t go perfectly. At least we didn’t need to get towed home.
I feel a lot more confident in my choice to get Jeeps for our upcoming expeditions. If you own a Jeep…you already understand…but maybe it’s just a Jeep thing. 😉