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Local pair lock the hubs, rough it over the backroads
Ask Gibsons photographer Keith Thirkell to talk about four wheeling and he gets right to the meat of it.

“Locking the hubs,” he says.

“Until you've locked the hubs, you ain't been nowhere.”

Thirkell knows all about locking the hubs, plus the finer points of winches, off-road tires and differentiated tubing, having logged time across a good chunk of the southern Vancouver island backwoods along with Pender Harbour writer David Lee last summer for a book on off-road travel.

The result of those journeys, Four Wheeling on Southern Vancouver recently published by Harbour Publishing, offers a guide to some spectacular scenery along logging roads less traveled from Port Renfrew to the Cowichan Valley, along with some hints about suspension lifts and wheel turning radius. A book on traction action and mud-sloppin' good times was a change of material for Lee, who more frequently spends his time writing music reviews for the jazz magazine CODA, literary ventures like Geist.

The aim, however – of demystifying the backwoods - was a challenge that intrigued both men. And the publisher was keen.

With tape recorder, camera, winch, jack, water, and a spare rad hose packed in the back of Thirkell's 1982 Trekker, the adventure was set to begin.

Armed with four inches of lift, $10 worth of gas, and some topographic maps, they were off.

“Keith had notions of where to go. Sometimes they were accurate notions,” says Lee. From the start, the pair knew what they were up against. “Everybody hates four-wheelers,” says Lee. “They're seen as environmentally insensitive clods.”

Part of their mission in writing the guidebook was to debunk the myth and at the same time set out some backroads etiquette for thunderbuggy waanabes.

The project took them from the maze of the Sooke Hills and isolated stretches of the Clayoquot Arm to watching windsurfers on Nitinat Lake and spending an afternoon swimming near the pristine and deserted Virgin Falls.

Most of the traveling was done on logging roads, and while some of the backroads were deserted, other parts were populated by decidedly off-the-wall types.

Near Sooke, one man staggered out of the bush with a freshly-shot buck across his neck and rivulets of blood dripping down his body, asking for a ride to town. (He rode on the bumper.)

Near Oliphant Lake, they encountered another backwoods hitchhiker - this time a young guy who may or may not have been a 'backwoods agriculturalist' who'd lost his transmission about a kilometre or two from the highway. He asked for a tow with a glassy-eyed stare, “none too clear about where it was he was going.” Some of the friendliest people they encountered were logging truck drivers, says Lee. “They were delighted to talk to anyone.”

The book resulted from the journeys contains its share of challenging routes. But the logical extremes were heeded.

“We avoided as much hardship as we could,” says Thirkell. “When It gets to the point when it's faster to walk than drive, you might as well walk."

Ease of access to the backroads is more a political issue than a technical challenge, says Lee, and is a source of much debate in backroads circles.

While there are roads into almost everywhere, “the people who have the most control over all this country are the logging companies. If they decide to gate a road, you're out of it.” And not everywhere should be seen from a four-by-four, says Thirkell. There's still a place, for instance, for walking.

That said, Lee doesn't hesitate when naming the hardest part of the journey: “Making the ferry connections to Vancouver Island from the Sunshine Coast.”

A book on Coast backroading, they say, is a possibility for the future.
-Jane Seyd, The Coast Islander