New Years GWNF, VA

A small band of CORE members and guests embarked on what was planned to be an easy New Year’s Day drive through the George Washington National Forest but instead, turned out to be a white knuckled adventure.

“I froze, holding my breath. I don’t remember what Debbie said but it was something like “AHHHH!”

The cast of characters included:

  • Bill and Deb Haegele and Betsy and Oliver (The Fourwheeling Puppies), and
  • Haven (guest Puppy), Ford Expedition, CORE
  • Mike Keane, Chevy S-10 Blazer, CORE
  • Tom and Bernadette Keane, Chevy S-10 Blazer, Guest
  • Bob Weaver, Ford Bronco, Guest
  • Ed Comitz, Jeep TJ, Guest.

After meeting at the Wendy’s in Manassas, we all headed out I-66 and I-81 to Fulk’s Run and the German River area of the GWNF. Now, the trails in the German River area are normally not what you would call high challenge (they could be done in 2wd except maybe in a few spots), but this is winter, and it had snowed in the last few weeks. But still, how tough could they be? Famous last words.

After taking the graded Forest Service road to the top of the mountain, we turned off onto the trail head. Our first hint of trouble came when we couldn’t get Tom and Bernadette’s Blazer (Bernadette was driving) into 4wd to make it up the snow covered trail. After a few tries with no success, it suddenly struck me: GM products of that vintage (late 90’s) used a funky front axle disconnect that used a HEATER to engage the disconnect! You could punch the 4wd button till you were blue in the face, but until the heater warmed up the disconnect, you still only had 2wd, regardless of what the lights said. Stupid, huh? Especially in the cold and snow when you need it most. Well, after a few minutes, it warmed up and sure enough 4wd engaged and Bernadette drove right on up the snow covered road.

After checking out one side trail (Yeah, yeah. I couldn’t remember which turn to take. GPSs are great if you remember to program them, which I never do.) we headed on down the main trail. The trail surface was mostly crunchy snow over rocky dirt with a few patches of ice here and there. Nothing that bothered Ed, Mike or myself, but Bernadette, I soon found out was quite scared. Not only of the ice and snow, but of heights. Uh, oh. Bob was also a little worried about the ice.

We traveled on for a while and found a nice pull off where we stopped for lunch and let the Pups out to romp. We talked with Tom and Bernadette. She was nervous (first time fourwheeler) but willing to go on. In actual fact, she was really doing an excellent job handling her truck on the road. She was taking it slow and easy like she was instructed with no sudden braking or steering moves.

After lunch we headed back on down the mountain crossing a few ice patches, but nothing to prepare us for what was waiting up ahead.

They say that if your not the lead dog, the scenery never changes. Well, sometimes being the lead dog has its disadvantages as you get to find all the hard stuff first. At Altoona I found all the big rocks first (which I why I no longer have running boards). Today I found all of the ice patches first.

As we crawled slowly down the mountain I spotted what appeared to be another small ice patch. Unfortunately, the slope of the trail and the difficulty seeing over the Expedition’s hood disguised the true size and shape of the patch. I chose a line to the left, on the uphill side of the mountain, away from the edge. I was crawling veerrryy slowly across the ice when suddenly all four tires broke traction and 5000+ pounds of Expedition lurched about 3 feet forward and sideways towards the edge of the road. The truck stopped as suddenly as it slipped as the tires caught the lip at the edge of the road with the rear end pointed toward the edge and the nose pointed across the road at an angle. I froze, holding my breath. I don’t remember what Debbie said but it was something like “AHHHH!”. Everyone behind us freaked. I can truly say that I have never been more frightened. I honestly thought that we were going to go over the edge.

I picked up the CB mike and as calmly as I could asked if someone could come up and take a look at where I was. Ed, Mike and Bob slowly walked up on the ice to assess the situation. I couldn’t even get out of the truck as I was on glare ice (I had already fallen once today and wrenched my right knee).

What I couldn’t see was that the ice patch was about 2 Expedition lengths long and in the middle of the patch, the ice had mounded up pitching the road off camber. When I hit that point and broke traction, I literally slid the remaining distance of the patch, almost to dirt and snow again. Ed assured me that if I actually steered TOWARD the edge of the road, I would hit snow/dirt and regain traction in about a foot or two of travel and that I still had over two feet of clearance to the edge of the road. It sure didn’t feel that way. But, there was no way I could back up, so I had to trust Ed to spot me and go forward. Guess what? He was right. I got the Expedition back on (relatively) solid ground and moved down the trail. Now we had to decide what to do about the other four trucks. I had to continue on. There was no way for me to make it back UP the ice.

After seeing my slide, Mike’s parents were rightfully terrified. After carefully examining the road, Mike, Ed, and I felt that by running the right side tires along the edge as I ended up doing would maintain enough clearance from the edge and still provide traction to get around the ice. Meanwhile, Bob Weaver, while attempting to spread some dirt on the ice with a shovel, fell on the ice and hit his head quite hard. (We kept a close eye on him for the rest of the trip home and he seems to be OK. Keep you fingers crossed.). Bernadette wouldn’t drive so Mike hopped in behind the wheel and with me spotting for him made it passed the ice with no problems at all as did Ed and Bob.

IMPORTANT LESSON #1: Don’t take ice for granted when wheeling in the winter. Get out and check it like you would check a mud hole before crossing it. Figure out the best line BEFORE you attempt to cross. The underwear you save may be your own! All kidding aside. I made a mistake by not checking out the ice patch first. Fortunately, everything turned out OK.

We headed on down the mountain after getting our breath back, but the excitement wasn’t over yet. Bernadette had calmed down, but just wanted to get back to pavement, an idea that even I thought was a good one. We did a small stream crossing which I spotted Bernadette across (I think I actually caught her smiling as she went by) before we got to the intersection of several trails that marks the halfway point in our journey. We crossed the German River again and stopped at another turnout to let the Pups run where they quickly found the remains of a deer carcass. We decided it was time to head on!

We passed the power lines for a tremendous view of the valley below us. Eventually we came to another stream crossing where the road was somewhat icy on the other side as it climbed up out of the stream. As the Expedition crawled out of the stream bed, I didn’t have enough momentum to make it up the icy road. I stopped and rolled/slid back a little and gave it more gas. Still no go. One more time I rolled back. Nope. One more try. This time I almost made it. The truck stopped and started sliding rapidly backward. I hit the brakes hard only to have all four wheels lock with the ABS pulsing the brake pedal under my foot as I slid backwards towards the stream. Luckily the entrance to the stream is fairly flat and there is no place else to go. The truck stopped just as the back tires entered the water and hit the first rocks. I finally got out and walked up the road. There was an ice covered rock that was sticking up about 4″ that I couldn’t get over! I moved my line over to the right by about a foot and drove right up the road!

IMPORTANT LESSON #2: See Important Lesson #1. At least this time the potential consequences were less serious. But it still pays to be cautious.

I pulled on up the road. I as was walking back to help spot, Bernadette came bouncing up the road with a big grin on her face as she yelled out the window at me, “Piece of cake! I did it on the first try!” You know, I think she was really starting to enjoy this trip.

Well, that proved to be our last adventure for the day, and the remainder of the trip proved to be uneventful. We finally made it back to pavement safe and sound. Bernadette and Tom said that they would definitely do it again, but AFTER the snow and ice had melted (I didn’t mention the mud that comes next! Oops.) Anyway, they headed for home while Ed, Mike, Bob, Deb and I ended up having dinner in New Market.

For an easy New Year’s Day trip, it certainly turned out to be an exciting one. Maybe a little too exciting. But everyone helped each other make it through, and that’s what counts when you are out on the trails.

Have a safe and happy wheeling New Year.

Trail report written by Bill and Deb Haegele and Betsy and Oliver (The Fourwheeling Puppies)

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