Although only nine-years-old, the Northern California Land Rover Club has enjoyed many epic, weeklong trips, through Death Valley, the Mojave Road, the Oregon Discovery Trail, even Baja, Mexico. Our newest adventure is the Northern California Sierra Expedition, which being in our own backyard, has become one of our most popular events. This time, trail leader Chris Solis spent over a year planning for the Sierra Expedition, plotting off-road trails for his Defender 110 that would let a small group of Land Rover enthusiasts explore the Eastern Sierra Mountains of California over the course of a week. The 2015 forest fires forced us out of the Mendocino National Forest and moved our starting point to the Plumas National Forest, with a finish at White Rock Lake, north west of Truckee, CA.
On August 10, we fed ourselves at an In-N-Out Burger outside of Sacramento, and the eight Land Rovers in our group headed north to the Plumas National Forest. An old bridge, built in 1936, gave us pause, but we determined that we could execute a safe crossing.
An hour later we came across two very tired stray dogs. Their collars and tags confirmed their status as someone’s pets, and their hunger and thirst confirmed they’d been in the wild for a while. Don Happel and Michele Harvey remembered spotting a hand-written sign about missing dogs, but with no date on it. It seemed logical that Rovers should pick up rovers, so one dog rode with Michal Cieplinski in his LR4, and the other with Nick D’Amico and his dog, Boozer, in his Range Rover Classic. While Michal set his wife to searching for the owner on the lost dogs, we convoyed on to find adequate space for our tents and Land Rovers.
By 9:30 am the next day the expedition made its way to Hawley Lake. This day featured some of the roughest terrain of the entire trip. Chris knew he’d have to scout and marshal several segments; among other issues, Sean Wheeler’s Defender 90 towed an Adventure Trailer, thus requiring extra care and spotting. First we tackled a fairly steep descent, with a ledge at the top that hid the descent from view. Immediately after the descent, the trail dropped into a small ravine with a sharp left hand turn and a climb over some rocks. The driver had to stay to the right side hill, which sloped to the left, all while climbing over rocks at the very left edge of the trail. It all made for slow, careful going.
Continuing on the path, the group wound its way up the side of the hill. With no room to turn around, it was up to Chris to make sure the rest of the group could make its way to the top safely. Our guide book rates the trail to Hawley Lake, our destination, as a “5.” Michal noted that Chris’ truck listed on one side, and Chris radioed back that, “Yeah, it does that.” A little later, Michal said that he could see all four of the D110’s tires and that the rear axle had shifted to one side. With his multiple roles as trail leader, driver of his Defender 110 and father to his son Roxson, Chris decided to worry about the Defender after he led everyone through the tight squeezes and over many rocks.
Finally we had the space and time to look at Chris’ rear axle. The bolt holding the rear trailing arm to the axle bracket had come loose, probably from all of the bouncing and climbing earlier in the day. Sean Wheeler and Don Happel quickly assessed the twin problems of returning the trailing arm to its correct position and finding a replacement bolt. They couldn’t move it by hand, or fashion a pull with a strap and winch line. In the end, they had to wrench off the front bolts of the trailing arm [chewing them up in the process] to reposition the entire arm. Sean realized that the hitch pin on the rear of the trailer looked the right size to serve as a bolt; I had spare nuts and bolts for the damaged ones, and 90 minutes later, the convoy forged ahead in search of a camp- site—but not without some concern as the trail level had risen to a “6,” according to our guidebook.
At camp, the lost dogs continued to recover, sleep, eat and drink. Michal heard from his wife that she made contact with the owner and told him to look for us the follow- ing day. She also confirmed with a vet that we were doing the right thing by giving them plenty of water and feeding them smaller meals throughout the day. More dog food was donated to help keep their bellies full when the sausages ran out.
After a day and a half of being amongst the tall trees of the Sierras, our next day’s trails eventually opened up to reveal a large valley. A spectacular view did not overcome the white knuckle driving experience. The drop-off to the right ranged from 1000-2000 feet, with only a few inches of clearance be- tween rocks and oblivion. We made it safely to Sierra City, with the exception of gashed sidewall on Michal’s LR3. Sierra City had only one gas station, currently up for sale. Fortunately, the Mountain Creek restaurant could feed us a fine lunch while we met up with a fellow named Les, the owner of the lost dogs. After a few minutes of being in the car with his companions, Les came back to tearfully thank us all. His dogs had been missing long enough for Les to assume they were lost or food for predators. He also showed his appreciation with a gift of a case of wine. After loading up on food, fuel, and karma, the expedition made their way to camp for the night at Wild Plum campground.
The next two days saw our group in- crease to 29 Land Rovers As we relaxed at our lakeside campsite, the water was clear and cold, but felt good in the bright warm sun. Some people brought kayaks to check out more of the lake, or attempted to catch some fish. It wasn’t the best time to catch anything big, but the camp with the chainsaw brought back an 8” fish on Friday. Don Happel also led a couple of shorter day trips around the area. They happened upon the trail which sidetracked some of the drivers the previous year and confirmed that it does in fact get very narrow with the bushes leaving some decent pinstriping along the doors.
By the last nights of our camping we’d attracted 23 Land Rovers: Defenders, Discoverys 1-4, Range Rovers, even a Series Land Rover—one for the record books. The Perseid Meteor Shower seemed less impressive this year, yet even with glow between two mountains emanating from Reno, NV, the meteors and the Milky Way lit up the skies. Away from the fire you felt the night’s chill, but the views more than made up for it. A good view of the stars really makes one feel pretty small in the grand scheme of things.
The fifth and final day came too soon. Some participants only had a couple hours drive to get home, while others had a good 6+ with typical Bay Area weekend traffic. Oh, and it was 110 ̊F around Sacramento. Even before the trip was over, the talk went to looking forward to the next year’s run—a great way to gauge a successful event!
By Brenton Corns
Photography: Northern California Land Rover Club