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Off-road adventures offer thrills in the backcountry

Four-wheel drivers tackle big obstacles
By: Sara Seyydin Journal Staff Writer
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Four-tires taking on the scenic backcountry — that’s Kurt Huebner’s idea of the perfect escape. Huebner, who is president of the Foresthill 4-Wheelers four-wheel drive club, is one of many locals who prefer to connect with nature off the beaten path. The Foresthill 4-wheelers are one of 141 clubs that are part of the California Association of 4-Wheel Drive Clubs. According to Pearse Umlauf, vice president and general manager of Jeep Jamboree USA, which runs the famed Rubicon Trail, four-wheel driving is a nearly $11 billion industry in California. Huebner said for him it’s all about catching a rare glimpse into nature. “I love being outdoors. You see things you don’t normally see when you are driving on a paved road,” Huebner said. “I have an ‘03 Jeep Wrangler. It’s built up. It’s got big tires and is lifted.” The modifications to his Jeep help Huebner, who is a computer programmer, navigate rugged four-wheel drive trails like the Rubicon and Fordyce. In fact, a four-wheel drive vehicle is all that’s necessary to get started in the sport, according to Huebner. According to Umlauf, Jeep Jamboree USA takes stock Jeep Wranglers right off of the showroom floor, on test runs of the 22-mile Rubicon each year. The vehicles are built to withstand the trail’s terrain, which stretches from Loon Lake in El Dorado County to Homewood Mountain Ski Resort. Navigating challenging obstacles is part of the thrill for many four-wheel drive enthusiasts. Umlauf said that when done responsibly, rock crawling is a great recreational activity. “In rock crawling people try to get over obstacles. There has become a lot more peer pressure and educational groups about the importance of staying on designated routes and not behaving poorly,” Umlauf said. “There is an event called the King of the Hammers. These guys are literally doing the impossible.” For Shane Gulling of Shingle Springs four-wheeling has become a way of life. Gulling has been four-wheeling in over 30 states. He said overcoming obstacles on the trail is part of the adrenaline rush. “There are hard spots and easy ways around. We go the hard way,” Gulling said. “Having your jeep on its side is precarious.” Gulling said one incident last summer at Barrett Lake was a particularly close call. “I literally had my jeep teetering and going on its side. Two friends were holding it up,” Gulling said. “There is the butterflies and that little bit of fear that you don’t want to damage your vehicle, but I did find a way to get some pictures before it was all over.” Besides the heart-pounding adventure, Gulling said the camaraderie he has found in the sport is unique. “Just being outdoors in the Sierra, it kind of tugs on the heart strings. It’s a beautiful place,” Gulling said. “It’s neat to see the same faces every year. The only thing that ever changes is the vehicles.” Huebner said that the Foresthill 4-Wheelers encourage families to four-wheel together. In belonging to a club, members have the added safety of people to help them if they get stuck. Huebner said club members carry extra tools, parts and tow straps to be prepared for anything. “We are a family-oriented club. We encourage kids and wives to come on runs,” Huebner said. “We are trying to get families out there. If you do get in trouble, people can help you out.” Reach Sara Seyydin at saras@goldcountrymedia.com.