Paul Stelzig carefully nosed his '85 Grand Wagoneer down a steep, snow-covered hill. As he tried to sidehill around a tree to enter a deep gulch, the severe angle of the hill pressed him tightly against his seatbelt. Without warning, his Jeep's 33-inch Swampers lost their battle to maintain traction, and the truck began a rapid sideways slide down the hill, barely missing the tree, gathering speed as it went. When it slid into the gulch, the driver-side tires dug in and the truck rolled onto its side. We hadn't even been on the trail for 10 minutes, and we already had a truck on its side. It was clear that this was going to be a challenging day.
We were at the Minnesota Go-4's Annual River Falls Winter Trail Ride, which is held on private property near the town of River Falls, Wisconsin. The town sits in Pierce County, which was established in 1853 and named for the 11th President of the United States, Franklin Pierce. The countryside is dotted with turn-of-the-century farmhouses and barns tucked into the thick woods. The Go-4s have struck an agreement with the landowner to swap labor for the opportunity to explore the land, and they often muster 20 or 30 members for the workdays. The Go-4s have been hosting this club run for the past 11 years, and it has become legendary for its awesome challenge.
What makes it challenging to begin with is that the land is part of the St. Croix River Valley, which is loaded with gullies and hills. The St. Croix River flows about 8 miles due west of River Falls, and it's only a few miles to the south where the river hooks up with the Mississippi River to continue its southward flow. This challenging terrain is significantly enhanced when the winter snows blanket the land.
This year, the Go-4s scored big when a snowstorm moved through the area a few days before the event, covering everything in a foot of new snow, which is good because up to this point winter hadn't produced much in the way of snow cover. This new blanket of white was whipped around by strong winds, making drifts, which further created a challenge. Our ride began after a feeding frenzy at the Country Kitchen in River Falls, where we built up body heat and energy before heading out into the early morning 0-degree weather. Then, our group of more than 30 trucks aired down and hit the trail for the rest of the day without even stopping for lunch. There was just too much to do on this one-day trail ride. The powdery snow required us to air down the tires to around 10 psi just to be able to move around freely, and even so, the many obstacles kept us hooking tow straps and winch cables throughout the day. Long, steep hills didn't offer enough traction to climb, even for locked trucks, and this is where club members set up winch vehicles to aid in bringing everyone to the top. Even though the temperature barely broke 20 degrees, the excitement and challenge kept everyone warm throughout the day. As a matter of fact, some of the more warm-blooded Go-4 members 'wheeled without tops on their trucks. As the sun began to set, the temperatures began to dip once again toward 0 degrees, and our group packed up and headed into town for pizza before going our separate ways.