Video Credit: Tom Kaiser
Two Extremes: California’s Imperial Sand Dunes, Canada’s Sleeping Giant
It’s Friday, I’m over the plague that struck earlier this week, about to see my family in northern Wisconsin, my 30th birthday is approaching and I am planning a snowmobile trip near Thunder Bay, Ontario. Today is an exceptional day. I also just returned from one of those trips that’s hard to recount without sounding like a spoiled travel journalist — camping and riding sport quads in California’s one-of-a-kind Imperial Sand Dunes.
This tale begins in snow-less, winter-deprived Minnesota where temperatures have hovered at or above freezing for most of the month — during what’s supposed to be the nadir of the season. I like winter at it’s most potent. The power of nature as it blows snow drifts across a bone-chilling field is best experienced aboard the seat of a snowmobile, inside the warm confines of high-tech winter apparel. Our no-show winter has limited my riding to one New Years Day excursion with a friend into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. That’s it. As one of the editors at Snow Goer magazine (dedicated to snowmobiles, that’s unacceptable. It’s offensive. It’s a crime against humanity. Winter is no good without all the great activities that rely on thick, frozen lakes and abundant powder. In my opinion, that’s what few southerners understand — winter’s delightful recreation activities like snowshoeing, sledding, snowmobiling, winter camping or even just walks through the white-coated woods after a snow storm.
So, we’ve been quite deprived this winter season. You can imagine my excitement when I received an invitation from Yamaha to attend its annual gathering to camp and ride the Special Edition models of its 2012 sport ATVs in the Imperial Sand Dunes, a.k.a. Glamis. Back when I also wrote for the now-defunct ATV Magazine, this was an annual rite of passage. Now that I’ve traded in quads for Camping Life and Trailer Life magazines, I didn’t expect to be on the guest list. It was a day for celebration and excitement.
With no snow, I was happy to escape Minnesota and enjoy California sunshine. At a layover in Salt Lake City, I saw the snow-capped mountains and was happy some Americans, however few, had snow. Walking out of the Ontario International Airport in Southern California, 80 degrees and sunshine felt great on my bleached winter skin. Food, drinks and NASCAR video game races at Dave & Busters weren’t bad, either.
The next morning our group packed into a 15-passenger Van and drove through the San Bernardino Valley, past Coachella, alongside the de-populated Salton Sea shore and into the Imperial Sand Dunes. You know you’re close when the horizon lightens, and the dark-shaded Chocolate Mountains loom in the distance. This is such a strange part of the country. In younger years, I was never very interested in visiting the desert. Now that I’ve been able to experience it a handful of times, I feel like a little kid approaching Disney World as the sand blows across the empty two-lane highway.
We unloaded our gear and set up camp in a row of toy hauler trailers. I shared quarters with my good friends Bill Lanphier (motorsports journalist, professional musician, crazy man, Madonna’s former bassist) and Jeff Henson (excellent rider, equine expert, mountain bike enthusiast). Our pack of journalists and Yamaha officials were also joined by representatives from GoPro (makers of the high-def, wearable video cameras that are taking over the world) and Camp Chef, makers of extremely innovative, affordable camp cooking equipment. The Camp Chef guys, Matt and Steve, would be cooking our meals throughout the trip and, from past experience, I knew we would be eating high on the hog.
Our fleet of brand-spankin’-new quads awaited us, sparkling in the hot sun: high-revving YFZ450 SEs, spunky Raptor 250s and, my favorite, the torque monster Raptor 700R SE. Each machine is hysterical fun in the towering sand dunes. Aboard a big Raptor 700, a group of us set out for my favorite part of the 45- by 6-mile sand field — the big bowls in the northwest quadrant. You can easily – very, very easily – get lost out here, but after several visits you start to pick up cues that provide a sense of direction. The northwest is defined by massive sand bowls, like riding in football arenas made of sand. In the middle of the rideable section is the busiest stuff, sharper dunes that are great for jumping. Then, toward the far east, are the scrubbier sections and steepest, tallest hills, Oldsmobile and China Wall. I’m still freaked out by the steepest stuff, but that’s only natural when barreling down a hill that’s so sharply angled that you couldn’t stop if you wanted to. It’s all about picking a line, keeping the tires rolling, leaning back, careful application of throttle, clutch and brakes and, as always, hanging on tight.
Between rides and into the evenings, I learned tips on using the new GoPro HD Hero 2 video camera and picked up a few cooking tips from the Camp Chef guys. Here’s one: cut your pork loin in half — makes it look like a pricier tenderloin and also allows seasonings to penetrate deeper for a juicier, more flavorful cut of meat. It’s amazing that two grills and the super-cool Outdoor Camp Oven With Grill (amazing – an oven you can bring camping!) were enough to cook full-on feasts for thirty-odd hungry riders. Stay tuned for our own, hands-on test of Camp Chef products.
Camping trailers are really the only way to comfortably enjoy the harsh environs of Glamis. It gets cold at night, can be punishingly windy and is blazing hot nearly every single day. Local outfit Camp’N Style brings out the units, sets them up and you’re ready for action. I was very grateful to be invited to this trip, always enjoy sport quad seat time and savor every second I spend in the incredible Imperial Sand Dunes. I can’t really imagine visiting here without riding — it really seems like this place was created just for riders.
Now, back in brown, dry Minnesota, I’m planning my next escape, a snowmobile trip up near Thunder Bay, Ontario, which is only about a six-hour drive away. Not bad to reach another, entirely different environment — snow. In researching the trip with the help of the Ontario Federation of Snowmobile Clubs, I’ve also discovered a new place that I can’t wait to explore on behalf of Camping Life this summer: the Sleeping Giant Provincial Park east of Thunder Bay. With some of the sharpest elevation changes in the central part of the continent along the rugged north shore of Lake Superior, this place is on the must-do list for this summer. I can’t wait.
It may be a rough winter in the Upper Midwest, but I’m making the best of it. Wherever you are, I hope you can say the same.