There’s not a lot happening in Central Illinois when it comes to the full size truck 4×4 scene. We do have our fair share of mud-bog runs with super-powered rigs sitting on tractor tires. But that’s about it, save for some ORV parks several hours away to the East and North. So, it makes sense that if you were told there was an off-road event within two hours of home that brings in 100’s of 4×4 trucks from all over the Midwest…You would have a vested interest to go and see what’s going on; even if it is a Jeep Club Event!
The Fort’s Trail team is a small but expanding group of Toyota guys hitting the local off-road parks and a few major TLCA events. When we got wind of the Twin Rivers Jeep Club Safari 2015 it was considered a “must do”. We quickly registered and had hoped that 4 or 5 Toyotas would make the trip… As it turned out, we only had two 4Runners representing our small club.
The Twin Rivers Jeep Club is a unique group of Jeep aficionados that work together to maintain a vast network of private trails. The private nature of their trails is what makes them unique! This club has built extensive trails on private property all the countryside near Pittsfield Illinois for the sole purpose of allowing our members to get out and play. Most of the time they operate “members only” weekend runs, but a few times a year they open up the private trails to non-members. The “2015 Safari” was one such event.
Over the weekend of May 15th-16th, the “Safari” event attracted 150 Jeeps (plus two other Toyotas besides ours) and over 250 people.
If you are not familiar with the area between Chicago and St. Louis; Pittsfield Illinois is just another town in central Illinois that sits in the middle of corn and bean fields. Its population is a couple of thousand people at most, and it’s probably a shrinking population like most other small towns in this part of the state. While most people think of Illinois as a suburb of Chicago, Pittsfield and countless other downstate towns have a quiet rural setting that is more Mayberry RFD than “untouchables”!
We rolled into Pittsfield on Friday morning after camping out at the lake the night before and were awakened by a couple of large, banged-up vintage CJs (that’s Jeep lingo) that were brought in on trailers. Town was a menagerie of Jeeps, from old trucks worked into nuclear powered buggies, 10 and 20 year old Jeeps with no modifications, to a LOT of newer Unlimited and Rubicon 2 and 4 door vehicles with varying degrees of modification. The checkpoint at Legion Hall scrutinized our trucks. In hindsight, I think that comes from us bringing in a non-Jeep. To their credit, they inspected every truck and handed out a grade sheet alerting the registration desk of your vehicle’s trail capabilities. Trails are rated on a 1 to 5 scale; 1 being the easiest and 5 the hardest. A 5 trail is designed for those buggies we saw earlier. Those guys would be hitting rev limiters and mashing up against rocks and trees all day.
We signed up for New Salem – a ‘2’ rated trail. One of our friends, attending with a heavily modified Jeep said it was ‘a nice easy trail’ and should be good for beginners to the event. It could be argued that we should have started with a 1 level trail. This was our first event in Pittsfield, but we have had some experience trail riding in Colorado and Arkansas with Toyota events. My 2010 Trail 4Runner never missed a beat there and this event really didn’t seem that threatening at face value, however we were in for a long day. That “don’t worry, I’ve got this” hubris cost me a few dents and a big lump of pride by the end of the day. New Salem is a series of cutbacks with muddy valleys and steep off kilter inclines. To top it off it had been raining pretty heavily the weekend before. I remember thinking, “hey, if it rains maybe we should cancel”. But, it’s hard to follow that logic to its sad conclusion when the lure of camping out and 4 wheeling with your friends shows up at the end of the week.
New Salem was muddy, very muddy. For the most part, it was similar to bad days on the Red Trail at Badlands Park in Attica, Indiana. But, then we hit two or three challenging spots that required lots of gas and a tolerance for bouncing off a tree to stay on track. These are attributes that we have never been concerned about on a Toyota crawl. I did bounce off a few trees, but unfortunately, my Runner was more in the habit of tackling of trees than bouncing off them. I was left with some serious battle scars from two particular areas of the trail.
At one point during a tricky spot I asked the “Tail Gunner” guide for a go-around. It was obvious that going through this chute was going to cause some serious damage to the truck. The guide told me to that “there isn’t a go-around” for this spot. I questioned it but I wasn’t going to be “that guy” needing special treatment. So, I sucked it up and braced myself for a slip and slide adventure into a muddy bowl.
Slide…Crunch… Ease on the gas…Smack…Slide sideways…Big crunch.
I had maneuvered between some narrow trees on the descent with minimal contact, but when I got to the bottom the obstacle, it turned into a bowl of slippery mud. The exit was another narrow growth of trees to thread a way through. Making the approach angle put me on course for a tree on the driver’s door side. Again, I was in a spot with no work around. I bit my lip and gave it gas. I crinkled the driver’s door. At this point, I was adamant that the winch would need to be involved. A trail guide and my friend with the jeep helped find some good angles to get pulled out. At last, I was free!
To the rest of the trail group’s benefit, the senior trail leader for our run came up and said there was a “go-around” for this spot. That saved a couple newer Jeeps and our other 4Runner the agony of major dents. After that we headed to lunch. I was very unhappy with what had transpired out on the trail. It was fortunate that others did not have to get beaten up like I did. But it would certainly have been nice to have avoided it myself. I took my tires down after lunch in the hope that this might give me some control in the mud for the second half of the day. Lowering the tire pressure didn’t achieve an awful lot! I did seem to get up a few more inclines with more ease, but on another aggressive incline and turn through some tight trees I bit a tree hard. I end up resting on it and refused to attempt to remove myself without the winch. This had turned into a brutal battle with unfriendly terrain. I had come to the event with a loosely stocked 4runner equipped with all terrain tires and a winch. This was not going to be enough to get me through. I made a concerted effort to head out back to the campground at that next “go-around”.
By the time I hit the campground I was ready to take my tent and everything in it and throw it through the back window of the Runner and drive home! I had made a big mistake coming to this event and was ill-prepared to deal with the conditions with the truck I had brought. In hindsight, I should have posted something clever on Twitter like “There is no joy in Mudville tonight.” But I was just so bitter that being clever was not on the cards. A shower and a beer later I was a little less emotional about it. After the other guys got back, we headed back to the Legion for dinner. The food served for the participants was excellent and even better, the beer was cheep! Any thoughts I had about leaving a few hours before were washed away in a stream of Miller Lite!
We decided that a level 1 trail might be the best way to go after the day one debacle. We took up with some other newbies and stock trucks on Ridge Rambler. Ridge Rambler did have some components of New Salem, but they were spread out over miles of trails and nothing was horribly narrow or tricky like on the first day. We had plenty of mud, and it actually rained on us to start the day. There were winches being run for all the trucks on the trail – nobody had a perfect day, but it was a far cry from the miseries of day one.
In retrospect the difference in the trails between day one and two were immense. Whereas in the first day we spent 4 hours cutting back over ten wooded acres, cut into switchbacks, Ridge Rambler was a giant sprawling trail that included over 100s of acres of timber with long grassy hilltop roads running into valleys manicured to have lots of space on either side of the truck. There were a few pitfalls to keep it interesting, but this was a far more enjoyable day of “wheeling” in Illinois than day 1. Come midday, the hosts let us stop at their house to eat lunch on the deck.
At about 2PM we could see the darkness on the horizon as more rain was on the way. We had taken ourselves pretty far back into the woods and the land owner knew a heavy rain would complicate our trip and turn into another story of winches and evacuation at the Legion Hall that night. He made the command decision to cut some new routes to shortcut back to another trail. All the trucks broke through the muddy brush to a grassy fiend just in time for a 15 minute downpour. We waited it out while the owner worked on some more shortcuts. He was running ahead with his 4×4 “Mule” equipped with a chainsaw!
It was around this time, while waiting for the next exit strategy that I was approached by one of the trail guides. It started off nice enough, but he got to the meat of the matter by describing all the past failures of Isuzus, Hondas and other trucks that have tried this event. I am not far off when I say it went something like this: “These trails were made by jeep owners in jeeps for jeeps. A couple of years ago we had some guys come down in a Honda and an Isuzu… It didn’t turn out very good for them either.” Hearing this at the end of day one, was like hearing warnings about the river ahead after Ned Beaty had already been preyed upon! Yeah, I just referred to my day one as Ned Beaty’s rape! It kind of loses effect and suspense when you get it later.
I understand the bravado. We, the Toyota guys, were the outsiders. We had everything to prove. How we dealt with defeat would show what kind of competitors we are. Eventually, we got out, but not without one more bang on the rear quarter sliding sideways in the mud on the edge of a field. Damn you Pittsfield… I can never let my guard down. To even out my Ned Beaty talk, we ran into some guys drinking beer outside the Legion and they asked how our day went. I don’t know if they were hoping for more horror stories akin to day one, but we all were having a good laugh, talking about the trails and conditions of day two. I was a lot more at ease and started to forget the conniption I had the day before.
Night Two: Raffle.
All the off-roading and fun culminated in another great dinner by the Legion guys. That night, we saw amazing charity by the Two Rivers Jeep Members as they shelled out tons of money to assist local welfare programs. This whole event was about raising money for charity. Nobody left with a buck in their pocket from what I could tell! At one point a kid wanted the “Jeep Jeep” stuffed animal and his Dad could not compete with the bidding around the room. When the son looked back at his Dad and said “Please Daddy”… The room melted. 20 dollar bills were passed around and he won the item with $380! The doll was pretty unexceptional but the results were amazing. It’s a good analogy for the trails of this event really. Comprised of regular back roads and farms that don’t show much promise to the untrained eye, but put them in the hands of club members and you have a jewel and a world class event. You can see why it’s an event with a loyal following. We will be back…if it’s not raining!
If you decide to give it a go:
Install Mud Terrain Tires.
Be ready for a few dents.
Pack well. Pittsfield has the world’s smallest Wal-Mart, and it can get you by at a pinch, but you won’t have much to choose from.
Book your rooms early or plan on camping. There are 2 campgrounds very close.
Be prepared to get some sideways looks if you’re not in a Jeep.
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