Land of more uses

November 02, 2005 11:00 pm
Jeeps — and in particular the venerable CJ-5 model, like the one in the photograph above — are among the more popular vehicles for rock crawlers. Jeeps are quite rugged even in stock form, and they're relatively easy to modify to handle even bouldery trails. (Photo courtesy Snake River Kanyon Krawlers).
Jeeps — and in particular the venerable CJ-5 model, like the one in the photograph above — are among the more popular vehicles for rock crawlers. Jeeps are quite rugged even in stock form, and they're relatively easy to modify to handle even bouldery trails. (Photo courtesy Snake River Kanyon Krawlers).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Dump a refrigerator-size rock in Beau Stiles' path and he'll try to drive over the thing rather than around it.

Stiles, who lives in Kuna, Idaho, near Boise, revels in rocks.

Especially big ones.

Boulders.

Stiles loves .

In particular he loves the BLM's Virtue Flat Off-Highway Vehicle Area, which, never mind its name, is not flat at all.

This 3,560-acre spread of sagebrush, near the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center about seven miles east of Baker City, is lousy with rocks, though.

And Stiles has driven his 1974 Jeep CJ-5 over (rarely around) many of those lichen-encrusted obstacles, which jut from the sandy desert soil like the incisors of a giant who never touched a toothbrush.

Actually Stiles prefers the verb "crawl," not "drive."

It turns out that the fastest-growing motorized hobby at Virtue Flat is also the slowest, if you measure such things in miles per hour.

In fact, hours per mile is the more appropriate scale, said Stiles, who co-founded the in October 2003.

"It's definitely not a throttle sport," he said.

Stiles and his fellow "rock crawlers" don't care how fast their rigs can go.

They only care where their rigs can go.

Which is just about anywhere, albeit at tortoise rather than hare velocities.

"We definitely try to push the limits of the vehicle and the driver," Stiles said.

Until a couple years ago, though, neither he nor most other rock-crawlers had ever tested their modified machines' mettle at Virtue Flat.

Stiles never even heard the name until a friend mentioned it.

So one weekend about two years ago Stiles drove to Baker County to investigate.

What he found, he said, "is a truly untapped treasure."

"Every trail we ran looked like it had never had a tire on it," Stiles said, remembering his first visit to Virtue Flat. "That's the beauty of Virtue — here's this big area that's not just for us rock-crawlers, but for all off-road enthusiasts."

And not only enthusiasts who rely on the internal-combustion engine to get them around.

pedal over Virtue Flat's camel-hump hills and bounce down its water-scoured draws, too, and in the spring the cyclists even put on a there.

Stiles, who tries to schedule trips to Virtue Flat every few months, usually with fewer than 10 rigs but occasionally with more than two dozen, said he's never seen a mountain biker there.

Stiles also contends that the rising popularity of rock crawling has not created conflicts with the motorcyclists, ATV riders and mountain bikers who also ply Virtue Flat's dozens of trails.

"Typically the terrain we're running isn't what they're on," Stiles said.

Dave Daffer disagrees.

Daffer is a mountain biker from Baker City who rides often at Virtue Flat. He also owns a local bike shop, Flagstaff Sports.

Daffer said the rock crawlers don't bother him — with one significant exception.

"I don't like what they've done to the gullies," Daffer said, referring to a series of narrow defiles that slash across the Virtue Flat OHV area from near Highway 86, the area's northern boundary, most of the way to Ruckles Creek Road at the area's southern edge.

"I think they need to stay out of there," Daffer said.

He thinks rock crawlers pose a safety hazard in the gullies, which are better known to mountain bikers, motorcyclists and rock-crawlers as the "bobsleds."

Although Daffer said he never has encountered a rock-crawler while he was riding his bike through the bobsleds, he said he doubts he would see a rig until he was "right on top of it."

The problem, he said, is that the bobsleds are so serpentine that a rider rarely can see more than 100 feet or so ahead.

And rock crawlers, Daffer points out, don't make much noise to advertise their presence as they putter along.

Motorcycles, by contrast, with their rudimentary mufflers and high-revving motors, spit out enough decibels to alert mountain bikers long before there's a bone-crushing collision, Daffer said.

"I have met motorcycles (in the bobsleds) and I had plenty of warning to get out of the way," he said.

Daffer also said the rock crawlers' wide tires have chewed up the gully-bottom trails where until a few years ago only mountain bikes and motorcycles, with their comparatively narrow tires, went.

"Motorcycles actually help, by smoothing the trails," he said. "But rock-crawlers are tearing the crap out of things when they get in those gullies. They're going to create more erosion."

Polly Gribskov works as a recreation planner for the , which oversees Virtue Flat.

Gribskov said she has not heard any complaints about rock-crawlers from mountain bikers, motorcyclists or ATV riders.

"I think (the rock crawlers) are looking for such a different experience that there doesn't seem to be a conflict with other users," Gribskov said.

Although Daffer disputes that, he said he has not voiced his concerns to BLM officials about rock-crawlers in the bobsleds.

"I'm just another user, and I'm not going to try to create a conflict," he said. "The gullies are my only concern. Elsewhere I don't have a problem with (rock-crawlers)."

Gribskov acknowledged that there's a greater potential for conflicts now compared with just a couple years ago, when rigs such as Stiles' Jeep rarely ventured into Virtue Flat's rock gardens.

"In the few years I've been watching out there (rock crawling) seems to be the growth activity," Gribskov said. "It's getting bigger all the time."

Jeff Grende, a motorcyclist from North Powder who often rides at Virtue Flat, said the proliferation of rock-crawlers poses a potential threat to other users — but a different threat than the one Daffer cited.

Grende's concern is that rock-crawlers, when they drive on soft ground, carve ruts that can flip a speeding motorcycle.

"Once those ruts harden up they just ruin the trail," Grende said.

Like Daffer, though, Grende said he doesn't intend to complain to BLM officials.

"(Virtue Flat) is open to everyone now," Grende said. "I don't want to cause a problem and end up having it closed."