Tri-City club Peak Putters drive off-road trails
By Paula Horton, Herald staff writer
About a half-dozen four-wheeling enthusiasts perch at the top of a giant sand dune, staring down at other off-roaders.
Several jeeps and trucks line up at the bottom of the hill at Juniper Dunes, waiting to see if their rigs can climb the 80-foot dune.
Some make it nearly to the top, back down, and try again and again.
Others get stuck as they try to crest the top and a lucky few are able to claim bragging rights as their rigs catch air and clear the dune.
But in the end the outcome doesn't necessarily matter the challenge of trying and watching others try is all part of the fun.
"I'm just looking for a good hill to climb," said Dave Walters of Kennewick. "Up, down I like it all."
Walters is a member of Peak Putters, a Tri-Cities-based club for owners of four-wheel drive vehicles that's been around since 1966. There have been more than 110 member families over the years -- some members are even fourth-generation legacies.
The club provides an organized way for people to take to the trails for bumps, fun and adventure, while also encouraging responsible off-roading.
"There's something going on almost every weekend," said Danielle "Peanut" McGhan, 34, of Richland. "There's so many different areas we can go to."
The group recently organized a run out at Juniper Dunes in north Franklin County and invited a group from Yakima, the All Wheelers Off Road Club, to join them.
They met up at Smith Canyon, dropped the air pressure in their tires so they could glide over the sand, and set out for a day of playing.
"We try not to get more stuck than we gotta," Walters said as he set out in his red Ford F-150 Triton V8. "Sometimes that's easier said than done."
But, that's exactly why the off-roaders hit the trails as a group to be sure they are there to help out if someone gets stuck or breaks down.
"We just like to do it safely," Walters said as someone yelling "Yeehaw!" crackled over the CB radio.
"Those are famous last words," Walters said over the air.
"No, that's 'Look what I can do,' " another club member replied.
While drivers took turns waiting to climb hills or spin through the sand, 12-year-old Anjuli Herr excitedly jumped out of her dad's 1984 Cherokee to see if others saw their run up the dune.
"I sit in the back seat and just fly around," the Pasco girl said with a huge smile. "It's fun when we hit the jumps because I don't know what's going on.
"It's like a roller coaster, but better because you get to choose where you go."
Anjuli was one of several children who were out for a day of off-roading with adults acting like big kids in a giant sandbox.
That's another thing that makes four-wheeling great -- it's something the whole family can do together, said Clay Graham of Selah, manager of the All Wheelers Off Road Club.
"We enjoy the trail and you get to see wildlife out here. That's really great," Graham said. "In the dunes, when it's dry, it's so smooth. It's like flying -- or floating."
Graham and his wife, Lisa, have four kids between the ages of 3 to 9 and all have been off-roading since birth. Graham also has an adult son that joins them in his own Jeep.
"It's something to do that doesn't cost a lot," said Lisa Graham, who was knitting placemats while sitting in the front passenger seat of their Chevy Suburban. "The (kids) laugh and giggle every time we hit a hill and always say 'Go faster dad! Go faster!' "
And while the overall goal is to have fun and be safe while off-roading, the groups do a lot more than just play. They participate in community service events and fundraisers, and work with lawmakers on land-use issues.
Graham started the ORV Trail Watch program in September 2008 to try to ensure the trails stay open to off-road vehicles. He worked with the Yakima County Sheriff's Office and the Department of Natural Resources to get the program going.
The nearly 200 trail watch members in Washington, Oregon and Idaho have all signed on essentially to just make sure others stay on the designated trails and to report those who don't.
"We're trying to deter people from doing damage," Graham said. "We want to teach 'tread lightly.'
"Education's the first goal," he added. "A lot don't know (the rules), then there's the ones that don't care."
About a year ago, the Peak Putters helped remove a truck that was stuck in the gully below the Canyon Trail on Badger Mountain for about four mouths.
Vehicles aren't allowed on Badger, but a Kennewick man went out one night tearing up the side of the mountain and knocking large rocks off the walking trail.
Peak Putters members worked out a plan to tow the truck out without causing more damage to the mountain.
It was the right thing to do, they said, and a way to show that not all off-roaders are out there trying to tear things up.
During the run on Juniper Dunes, the group drove up on a scorched trash pile likely left behind by underage partiers.
"Horse riders and hikers see things like this and say 'Keep vehicles out of here' but we're not the ones doing it," said Walters, land-use coordinator for the Peak Putters. "It's public land. It's here for everybody, but you've got to treat it right.
"We're in enough trouble as it is, 80 percent of the trails are hikers only."
Without giving it a second thought, everyone jumped out of their rigs, pulled out garbage bags and started picking up the mess.
They found half of a dumb bell, beer cans, bottles, fast-food wrappers, mattress springs and a plate and fork.
The clubs do organize special cleanup runs for bigger messes, but they will often take a quick break from the fun to pick up some trash when they see it.
"We're so used to seeing it, we're happy when we don't see it," McGhan said. "We'd rather spend five minutes cleaning while we're wheeling than not have a place to wheel."
It's a constant battle to keep the trails open. That's why the Trail Watch program is so important, she said.
"It's just about letting people know you can still have fun, you just have to follow the rules," said Maria Mayes, 33, of West Richland.
For more information. about the Trail Watch program go to orvtrailwatch.org.
For more information, go to peakputters.com.
* Paula Horton: 509-582-1556; firstname.lastname@example.org