Off roading in Minnesota

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Off roading in Minnesota

Postby Mike Brooks » Fri Oct 23, 2015 11:45 am

ATWATER, MINN. -- “I think it’s broken,” hollered Russ Kerber of Jordan, Minn.

His exotic-looking, rock-crawling buggy lay on its side at the bottom of a boulder-strewn gully called Carnage Canyon, an aptly named feature at the Freedom Ridge off-road park south of Atwater.

“What, your arm?” yelled Brian Ohland, who noticed the tipped rig from a ridge.

“No, my axle,” Kerber said.

Ohland quickly descended the steep embankment to reach Kerber and his passenger, who was trapped on the underside of the tip-over. Ohland released the passenger first, and then Kerber, from their safety harnesses. Both men were unscathed, and quickly began working to right the vehicle. They leaned against the embankment, put their feet on the rig’s tubing, and worked the 2,200-pound machine upright with muscle power and leverage.

A small crowd appeared to watch the action of extracting the buggy. After about 30 minutes of winching (and breaking the winch cord), taking instruction from spotters, precise wheel placement and some low-torque horsepower, Kerber made it 50 more feet to the end of the canyon.

Try off-roading

Rick Langness, president of the Minnesota 4 Wheel Drive Association, suggested that people curious about off-roading should contact one of the off-road clubs. “Ask to go out with them as a ride-along,” he said. “You don’t even have to take your own vehicle. There is always an extra seat.”

Joining a club, he said, is a great way to learn about the vehicles, riding opportunities and mechanics, and to find a group of people with a common interest.

There is a registration requirement for many public trails. A three-year registration can be purchased from the state Department of Natural Resources for $30.

For more general information, go to the Minnesota 4 Wheel Drive Association website or to the DNR’s off-highway vehicle pages.

“It’s like putting a puzzle together, getting through the rocks,” said Jerrod Christy of New Prague, a first-time off-roader who called the whole experience “awesome.”

There is a small but dedicated group of people who enjoy putting their four-wheel drives to real use, and opportunities for this type of recreation are expanding in Minnesota. There are about 3,250 off-road vehicles registered in Minnesota, according to the DNR. The number has been fairly stable since 2009.

There are about 15 off-road vehicle projects in the works across the state, said Mary Straka, the off-highway vehicle program consultant for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s parks and trails division. “I see a big commitment from off-road vehicle enthusiasts to get more trails on the ground.”

The state’s public areas include the Iron Range Off-Highway Vehicle State Recreation Area in Gilbert; the Nemadji State Forest southwest of Duluth; and the Appleton Area Recreational Park. There are also opportunities in national forests and on county land. Some places, such as Gilbert, offer features for a wide variety of skills. Nemadji is more for touring, but there is definite need for four-wheel drive and high clearance. There are natural obstacles such as logs on the routes.

Freedom Ridge is one example of a new riding area. It’s a private off-road park in an old gravel pit. Sixteen enthusiasts have put $300,000 into the venture, with Ohland of Clearwater, Minn., and business partner Jeff Thompson of Cologne, Minn., among the main investors. And there is the sweat equity to transform the land, too. Thompson estimated they have hauled in 2 million pounds of materials, from concrete construction debris and logs to old telephone poles and chunks of granite. Ohland’s job has been to create technical features with heavy equipment.

They’ve worked on the park for a bit more than a year, and said it’s just 20 percent finished. Ohland’s imagination runs wild when he thinks about what he can add. The 40-acre property is a natural venue for off-road activity, with steep hills and a couple of small water holes.

The park is primarily geared to advanced-skill rock climbing, but that’s not the only way off-road vehicle users have fun.

There are three types of four-wheel drive enthusiasts, said Rick Langness, president of the Minnesota 4 Wheel Drive Association:

• Trail riders — the ones who take their four-wheel-drives and drive forest and minimum-maintenance roads primarily for scenic purposes. This is what Langness likes the best. “I like the relaxed atmosphere of trail riding and the scenery,” he said. “If I get out early in the morning, I’ll see wildlife waking up and moving around. I’ve seen bear, moose, turkeys and sometimes a deer nestled among the trees.”

• Rock crawlers — that would be Kerber with his custom buggy or Ohland with his modified Jeep. They like to challenge themselves with impossible-looking obstacles and steep pitches.

• There’s also a segment that likes the challenge of mud and water. Andrew Reigstad of Kandiyohi is a mud guy. The ninth-grader got stuck in the worst way at least twice in his attempts at crossing a water feature in a Jeep. His father, Dave, was there with a pickup truck and a rope to pull him free.

“It’s just awesome watching him have a good time,” Dave Reigstad said. Their primary family activity — horses — did not appeal to Andrew. When Andrew found a used Jeep Cherokee on Craigslist for $850, Dave thought, “Why not?”

“I’m not a good mechanic, but he’s learned a lot,” Dave said, noting that his son’s first project was to learn how to replace the radiator. “If I could’ve done this at his age, I would’ve been all over it.”

Mechanical aptitude is a skill that many off-road riders seem to share, as breaking parts is commonplace. “Some people buy their first 4x4 not knowing how to turn a wrench, but there are a lot of people who will gladly share their knowledge on what to do and what not to do,” Langness said. “You grow very attached to your vehicle.”

The vehicle and its capabilities are just one element. “The fun of the sport, when all things are equal, is the skill of the driver,” Ohland said. “And the spotter makes it a team.”

Outsiders may think that wheeling is all about speed and mileage, but that’s not the case. “People are surprised to learn that we go super slow,” Langness said. “Our average speed when we’re off-roading is less than 5 miles per hour. Most of our group can play all day in a mile stretch. We are in no rush to get from point A to B.”

A good day, he said, is measured in fun.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not into your own understanding, Proverbs 3:5
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