Jeepers Jamboree offers modern conveniences in the rugged outback

07/30/2013 12:00 AM

07/30/2013 9:49 AM

When it comes to camping, there are generally two types – car campers, who cling to modern conveniences, and backpackers, who sacrifice convenience to reach secluded destinations.

Jeepers insist on having the best of both worlds.

For 61 years, off-road enthusiasts have sandwiched a two-day campout and party at a modest "valley" that was once the home of the Rubicon Mineral Springs Resort between their sometimes-treacherous 7.5-mile treks in and out on one of the world's most iconic jeep trails.

This year, 543 people paid more the $350 a person to take part in last weekend's Jeepers Jamboree. While most of the participants were from California, some came as far as Norway to experience the Rubicon Trail.

Running between an area north of Ice House Reservoir and Lake Tahoe, the Rubicon was once maintained by El Dorado County, but it fell into disrepair – and became popular with off-roaders – once the resort hotel closed in the 1920s.

The drive to the campground begins at Loon Lake and can take more than four hours. Along the way, trail guides nicknamed "rockrollers" are positioned at tricky spots to help drivers survive with minimal damage to their vehicles.

Mechanics and spare parts are at the ready.

Once at the Rubicon Springs site, campers spread out and set up tents along the Rubicon River.

By day, participants fish, swim, hike or just hang out. At night, a dance party – complete with a band – revs up to full-throttle. A team of volunteers prepares three meals a day and mans the full bar.

Having a good time is definitely part of the experience and for many – or most – that includes alcohol.

Most of the drinking was done in camp, but a handful of beers were cracked during the low-speed crawl in.

While the trail guides reduce the danger, driving the Rubicon Trail is not without risk.

Most experienced jeepers have rolled or tipped over their jeeps at least once.

Last year, the event recorded a fatality. El Dorado Hills resident Rachael Anne Gray, 21, died more than a month after sustaining major burns and other injuries when the 1961 Jeep Willy she was driving slipped off an embankment and rolled several times before catching fire.

The incident was the subject of more than a few conversations over the weekend, but it didn't appear to dampen the campers' spirits.

Chris Patton, a friend of Gray's, said the outdoorswoman would have wanted it that way; she was almost always the life of the party.

"She would walk into a room and immediately make friends," said Patton, one of the founders of the foundation honoring Gray's memory by contributing to causes she supported. "She would walk up and talk to anyone."

Bob Sweeney, director of the jamboree, said he was comfortable with the event's safety precautions.

"Anytime you're on the road, there can be an accident," Sweeney said.

Indeed, most folks said driving the Rubicon Trail during the jamboree is far safer than doing it alone.

Safety is just one of the issues being pushed by El Dorado County officials, who have taken stewardship over the portion of the trail in their county.

Using federal and state grant money, they're building bridges to keep jeeps from having to cross through water, adding sediment traps to improve water quality, building new toilet facilities along the way and trying to educate users on proper trail etiquette, said Vickie Sanders, the parks manager for El Dorado County.

The education efforts focus on spills, sedimentation, safety and sanitation – including a push to eradicate "white flowers" (human waste).

The jamboree gives each participant biodegradable soap and special bags for human waste.

"For the most part, I think people are catching on," said Rusty Folena, president of the Rubicon Trail Foundation.

He said jeepers can be environmentally conscious. As the line of jeeps hit the trail from Loon Lake, most carried a red mesh garbage bag tied like a tail to the spare tire above their back bumper.

One weekend participant, Marty Lynch, of Tempe, Ariz., took his Jeep Rubicon almost directly from the dealership to the trail.

Along the way – with his 16-year-old son riding shotgun – he had a rough time at some spots and a mechanical problem, but was able to solve it and finish the route.

"I haven't looked underneath it yet. It can't be good," Lynch said of the jeep.

He wasn't too worried about the damage.

"I'm just out here to have a fun time with my kid," he said.

Call The Bee's Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @newsfletch.

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