GLACIER — It’s early on a Sunday morning in January, and nine vehicles are parked by the Coal Pad skatepark.
People of all ages tumble out of their 4x4s, from small children to retirees. They all begin deflating their tires.
This group is part of the Rainier Ridge Rams, a 60-year-old club of off-roading enthusiasts mostly based in Whatcom and Skagit counties.
Their outdoor recreation activity of choice — controversial to some environmentalists — is taking their vehicle into the wilderness. This particular day, they’re heading off in search of snow.
Hopping back in their vehicles, now with heavily deflated tires for better grip, they drive up forest service roads until the snow starts to blanket the surface — starting with just an inch, and then suddenly, feet.
One by one, the vehicles follow snow-covered roads toward more snow and hopefully a view. It’s not a straightforward drive: With varying experience levels and types of vehicles, club members take turns pulling each other out of snow drifts and tough spots. They say that’s part of the fun. It’s start and stop, but eventually the group makes it to where the trees part and a vast snowy landscape spreads out below them.
“Overlanding,” sometimes derided in the outdoor recreation community, is a curious sport to some. But enthusiasts say it has its benefits.
On this day, the Rainier Ridge Rams quickly found themselves at more than 3,000 feet. With no one else around, it was a special place to see the beauty of the outdoors on a cold winter day.
The club is one of dozens across Washington, Oregon and Idaho under the Pacific Northwest Four Wheel Drive Association, a nonprofit that aims to better “vehicle-oriented outdoor recreation while preserving the environment.” The Rainier Ridge Rams in particular promote responsible off-roading, and community contributions through trail maintenance and clean-up.
Why members join
Marilyn and Steven Foster of Anacortes joined the Rams a year ago. Marilyn had polio as a child, leaving her unable to hike in the way she’d like to. By joining the Rams, she’s now able to access beautiful views she wouldn’t be able to see otherwise.
“Now we’re just having a heck of a good time,” she said. On this outing, their little white dog, Piper, jumped and rolled in the snow with abandon, wearing a pink sweater.
Every year, the club commits 1,000 volunteer hours of trail maintenance and repairs, and 250 hours of education and enforcement to Department of Natural Resources, former president Kevin Vanderhorst said.
Their biggest event is the Walker Valley Hefty Haul-out in April. That’s when the Rainier Ridge Rams, and any community members that want to join, take part in a massive trash collection effort in Walker Valley, an off-roading park in Mount Vernon.
“We pulled out almost 6,000 pounds of trash in the first year,” Vanderhorst said.
Ten years later, in 2023, he said they pulled out 1,300 pounds. “It’s becoming less and less [trash], which to me is a success.”
The Rams are also connected with Whatcom County Search and Rescue, and are sometimes called to pull vehicles out of risky situations.
In December, the Rams were called to help a family who had driven up near Canyon Creek in search of a Christmas tree and slipped off the road. Vanderhorst and others brought their vehicles to the scene and pulled the car out.
The frequency of calls depends on the weather. Vanderhorst said they get contacted directly on their website half a dozen times during the winter.
Community and education, combined
The Rainier Ridge Rams aren’t a new club; they’ve been around since the 1960s. Kyle Farrar, the club’s new president as of January, has a direct family connection: His aunt and uncle were two of the founders.
Farrar joined in 1998, when he was 16. For him, it was “family tradition” to join the Rams.
Membership has grown over the years. When Farrar joined, the club had only about a dozen active members; it now boasts more than 40. The first Tuesday of every month, the group meets at Extremes Sports Grill on Meridian. Vanderhorst and Farrar said if the club gets much bigger, they might have to find a new place to meet.
Family continues to be a big part of the Rams, with generations involved in the club. On this outing, father-son duo Al and Rex Vandenhaak drove up the forest road in their rig. Bill Lawrence, the club’s secretary, had three generations of his family planning to come in their own vehicles.
Off-roading sometimes gets a bad rap due to unsanctioned trail building and garbage dumping, the consequence of which is often restricting motorized vehicle access to certain lands.
Just in December, the Department of Natural Resources closed Sumas Mountain to motor vehicle access. Unsanctioned trails affected fish “by delivered sediment to streams, violated environmental regulations and angered neighbors by crossing onto private property,” according to a news release.
“We have worked hard to keep Sumas Mountain open to recreators, but there continues to be environmental damage to the public resources in this area,” said Jay Guthrie, DNR Northwest Region Manager in a Dec. 13 press release.
But the Rainier Ridge Rams are strict: They stick to established roads and trails, and are careful to avoid damaging the natural environment, Lawrence said.
Some activists consider maintenance of backcountry roads in sensitive areas to be inherently environmentally harmful. But members of this club are passionate about defending off-road access to public lands.
Lawrence said their “need to recreate is just as valid as the guy who wants to hike the Pacific Northwest Trail.”
“There’s a lot of things I can’t do anymore but I can do this,” said Lawrence, who’s retired. “We’re not causing irreparable damage or harm … We do the best we can to educate and regulate.”
Josh Boswell, the Clearlake District Recreation Manager for the Washington Department of Natural Resources, said the Rams are one of the recreation clubs that helps maintain Walker Valley and provides “extra eyes on the trails.”
“One of the problems that a lot of areas have is that people don’t always stick to the official routes and they kind of build their own things, and that ends up being an unsustainable pattern,” Boswell said.
“[The Rainier Ridge Rams] have been helpful in spreading that messaging and helping enforce those expectations among themselves, all in an effort to make sure we get to hang on to this area and folks are using it properly.”
Farrar said the people doing damage might not be aware of what they’re doing, and the club environment allows newbies to learn about safe, responsible off-road recreation.
“The more we can spread that, the better off it’s going to be,” Farrar said, “because … unfortunately the actions of the few are really ruining it for the many.”
Hailey Hoffman is a CDN visual journalist; reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org; 360-922-3090 ext. 103.
Charlotte Alden is CDN’s general assignment/enterprise reporter; reach her at email@example.com; 360-922-3090 ext. 123.