with Jim Mazzola
Post United Convention Trail Ride
United Convention this year was in Sweetwater, TN with trail rides commencing after the business meeting at the Upper Tellico OHV Area. To say that we were looking forward to wheeling with old friends again was an understatement.
Sunday came around with the group meeting in the parking lot @ Sweetwater and caravanned down to Tellico in two groups. This trip was especially exciting since the last time I had been to Tellico, almost 20 years ago, the U.S.F.S. had just blockaded the heli-port with felled trees and most other trails were undeveloped. I was excited to see what could be done in the way of developing an OHV area with the cooperation of volunteers and the U.S.F.S. all working FOR to same objective.
As we traveled down the River Road, it was evident that not many motorhomes make that trek. Passing other motorhomes was especially interesting when the other drivers take their half of the road out of the MIDDLE! Needless to say we made it down as far as Campsite #7 when the group finally found a site big enough to hold 6 motor homes and 3 or 4 tents. We were right on the riverbank. But then, some of you know this area like the back of your hand.
We set up camp and Stefan Roth and David Borum from Southern Four Wheel Drive Assn., who were our hosts for the weekend, came down from the motel ready to lead the first fearless group out on the trails. We stayed back and just relaxed the first day.
Monday at 9:00 came and the group assembled at the roads edge waiting for the leaders. Stefan, Dave, and Roy came down. We jumped into Roys group. He was taking the tamer group out and figuring it was my first time down here in almost 2 decades, plus the Tracker with the Rockhopper was on its inaugural voyage, this seemed like the smartest route to take. After checking into the Fee Station, we headed right up the wash and onto trail #6. We had with us, an International, 4 Jeeps and my Tracker.
Carnage started early for us, like 200 feet into the trial. Gene Bernard from California got his front end dangling and the slip joint came to within 1 inch of disengaging then he put a tad too much right foot down and spun the splines just like a corkscrew. Gene was done for the day. He managed to get turned around and limped back down the trail to camp. Gene went back to see what could be done about getting a new driveshaft made in town.
The remainder of the group headed up trail #6. Plenty of rocks and off camber stuff to test the Rockhopper with. We had a stock Jeep with us so we had plenty of opportunities to get out and survey the trail beforehand. It sure is a good feeling to plant the front tires on a rock and just let the clutch out. No running starts, no rocking, bumping the obstacles. And best of all, NO stinking smokin clutch material. Just feather the gas a bit to entice the wheel spin and kinda wait for traction to take hold. A little steering to head for dryer ground and lo and behold the Tracker was bounding over most every obstacle. Notice I said most. Notice the navigator. Im still having a tough time understanding her when she barks left or right!
We headed up around trail #6 and over to trail #5. (This is where I get my obligatory Zook content!, besides the Tracker that is) We ran headlong in a group of Sammys with these really wild little 8-inch wide tractor tires. This group had been up to Hard Rock and Slick Rock. As the story goes, one fellow rolled it down Slickrock. His friends roll him back on the rubber side and he was on his way. In Tellico theres either room to pass or you make room. This group of Sams obliged us and headed straight up the embankment. The picture really doesnt do it justice but these guys looked like they were vertical when I passed them. We got in a little Zook conversation as I passed and then they backed down and we both on our way.
As we made our way back towards camp our last crossing was at Rough Water As we got there our trail guide was pointing out where the line was. He said see that rock? As he pointed to it, we slowly, with a minute or so, watched it disappear under the rising river level. This was kind of spooky seeing the river rise so fast. We had gotten a few showers earlier that afternoon and the time delay was evidently just perfect for our group. We each headed down the rock embankment and through the crossing to the less than graceful exit. Placement was everything. Six inches one way or the other and the wet, slimy rocks would throw you into the awaiting rock wall. You could tell the difference between those locked up and those not. As we hit high ground, we headed back to camp. Can you believe this...well be in camp and its not even dark yet! Those that know me have come accustomed to coming home in the dark. My escapades into the wilds of Canada are known far and wide.
Tuesday we decided to head for the Heli-port. We had basically the same group as the day before except the stock Jeep passengers wisely hitched a ride with our trail leader and we picked up another Jeep. Gene was able to get a new driveshaft made and was saddled up at 9:30. We headed off to #2. Again on #2 the casualties were early and plentiful. One by one the vehicles bounced off the angled slab rock and were pitched into the wall of the trail. The trail had eroded down to the rock base and sharp stickies were everywhere on the side wall. These little rocks either punctured holes in hardtops, crushed the bows of soft tops, rumpled sheet metal or put racing stripes where there once were none.
The worst causality was John Crump from Colorado in a near pristine Jeep Commando. John pounded the 60* slab numerous times gaining a little bit of ground each time. He probable should have quit while he was ahead. The last time he got on the rock it threw him like a wild bull. SNAP, CRUNCH, oh... @&%$#. When the smoke cleared from his BFGs we could see Johns poor mirror. It was plastered between the rock wall and passengers side window of the Commando. Thank goodness Pat wasnt in there. She might have had a few things to say to John. The difficult time was the next three feet. Nothing could be done to get John off the wall. He just had to let the winch drag the truck along the passengers door. The little exercise was much like dragging your fingernails along a chalkboard. As the truck slowly slid along grinding and crunching the door suddenly sprung open. (This must have been when the door handle got ripped off!) As John leaned over and tied the seat belt around the door handle, he just cringed and said, Pat aint gonna like holding her door shut on trail rides!
As we got John on the level ground, we noticed that his front end didnt seem to be turning either. It was sometime here that someone hollered LUNCH. Some volunteers broke out the tools to poke inside Johns front end while other chowed down. After some preliminary work, it appeared that the stub shaft sheared off at the Zeppa joint. These were the old closed knuckle style axles. John decided to head back to camp and call it a day. As he was about out of sight I asked if someone had a seat? Stefan had one. I bounded (read almost fell on my a**) down the hill after him. I caught him and suggested that he park it and jump in with Stefan and at least enjoy the rest of the trail ride. So he did.
As 2:00 came around, so did the daily storm that experienced everyday since wed been here. The difference this time was that we were all perched on the rock base within sight of Guardrail. The torrential river coming down the hill made the rocks even slipperier. Most of the carved out rock bowls were filled with water and trying to judge traction and placement of tires was a bit too much. To try and tackle at this trail in this weather condition was plain stupid. All the while we were headed up trail #11, we listened to a group that was at the Heli-port and was trying to make their way back down. Uncontrolled stumble, slip, and slide was about the best description of their travels down the backside. With no sign of the rain letting up we decided to make this trip another day.
We headed back out trail #5 to camp. Even though you travel the same trails, something seems to change each time. An obstacle once hardly noticed becomes a rockrail cruncher and winch time. Each time we were confronted by the rocks, the task of getting the Tracker up and over started to seem like childs play with the Rockhopper. We again headed into Rough Water Crossing at the end of #5. This time we had an audience of some buggy folks camped at rivers edge. As we each stepped into the water and out the other side each one rooted the others on when scaling the rocks on the other side. We all gather up and made plans for a campfire rendezvous that night and headed back to camp.
Even though I never got a chance to fully run #9, #11, and #12, I was very pleased with the performance of the Rockhopper in the Tracker. I had a tough time deciding if 1st or 2nd was the right gear for some of the obstacles. Some times 2nd worked just a bit better due to a slightly higher speed. I hardly ever used 3rd. This equaled the old 1st gear low range. Those of you considering a low range set up should take a closer look at the Rockhopper upgrade to the Tracker / Sidekick transfercase. As I mentioned in my buildup, this isnt a cheap route but considering the problems associated with divorced case and the enhancements required to make the mount system live in an extreme environment, the low range gearset may prove to be a wise move in the future.
Even though I didnt mention them much, the beadlocked rims I got from Williamettee Wheel in Portland, Oregon worked flawlessly. I did manage to christen every one though! It was comforting to know that I could push against a rock and not worry about hearing the rush of air escaping from my tires which had become common place in my previous adventures.
I look forward to see you on the trail in the future and remember Lower IS Better and SLOW is Really Cool!