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Jan 17

Off-Road Adventures at Big Bear Lake

Big Bear Off-Road Adventures“Last weekend, we got stuck in the snow,” said Doug Walton, 76, owner of Big Bear Off-Road Adventures in Big Bear Lake, California. “It took me six hours to dig myself out.” Then, in unison, groans came from the nine passengers riding in the big ugly van as we began our 3-hour adventure through the  mountains and valleys of Big Bear Lake. After everyone mentally did the math, we knew in six hours it would be well after dark. No one liked the possibility of getting stuck in the cold. Although no one said a word, the quick glances at each other revealed that, collectively, we all thought the same thing and wondered if we had made the right decision climbing into the van.

Already well on our way, there was no turning back. We were a captive audience. But, we were quick to realize that Doug had a way of captivating his audience! To ensure he could be pulled out should we get stuck, he had a second truck, a six-wheeled Pinzgauer (made in Graz, Austria for the Swiss and German armies – see 4X4 far right), shuttling a smaller group as well. We road in “Big Foot,” a 1990 Ford E-350, 14-passenger 4WD van built to government specs for its previous life working in an Antarctic research station. From the looks of it, one couldn’t help but wonder if it was close to retirement. But, I digress…on with the story.

As Big Foot sloshed its way through the mud, slush and snow, Doug provided everyone with extensive information on the history of the area. Details about the people involved with founding the area, building the dam, and mining. As he talked about how Benjamin Davis Wilson (of Mt. Wilson fame) is credited with naming the area of Bear Valley he had one hand on the speaker while the other was on the wheel, frantically whipping left to right to counter the sliding on the “road,” all the while never missing a beat of his story. Of course we are missing details here and there because we’re all countering the sliding with “Yee Haw” and “Wahoo!”

Doug of Big Bear Off-Road AdventuresIt’s just the whole picture — an older gentleman (whereas most people may be considering having to take Grandpa’s license away because of his age) clearly displaying the ability to out drive any of us, in this beat up old van, Doug rattling off all the answers to a possible history test, the potential to hit a tree or slide off into a ditch — gave me incessant giggles for the first hour. I don’t think I was the only one though.

A little background on Doug. He nearly finished medical school when his first wife became ill and he couldn’t complete his education. He found a home with NASA, working with astronauts analyzing the effects of space on the human body. When the project was cut, he bought an old tour bus and started shuffling celebrities around — the likes of Crosby, Stills and Nash, Neil Diamond and David Hasselhoff. Ten years ago, he started Off-Road Adventures, based in Southern California’s Big Bear. He not only offers tours in Big Bear, but also in Baja California in March and April, where participants can reach out and touch the Grey whales. And, to Alaska, where you can get close to Grizzlies — but, wouldn’t want to touch them (starting Memorial Day weekend through mid-September).

Plowing through the big snow pileOn with our surreal adventure. About half way through the tour, Doug came to a mound of snow in his path. Unsure if he wanted to go through it, he got out of the van to check the situation out. After poking and prodding, he climbed back in and announced: “I think we can make it through.” He proceeded to put Big Foot in gear and plunged forward. All of a sudden snow is flying outside, water bottles are flying inside, and seatbelts are getting a workout as we’re sliding this way and that way, and then wham — we abruptly came to a stop! Yes, we were stuck.

No problem, we have our backup. Eric, Doug’s cohort, pulled the old workhorse out of the snow bank. Doug hopped back in and said cheerfully, “OK, let’s try that again!” But, first we need to back up and get a good running start…then BAM! “What was that?” asked Doug. “A tree,” replied one of the passengers, blasé like. (Just another bump along the “road”.) He put Big Foot into gear once again and burst through the snow mound. Then, a mere 50 feet further we pulled over to get out, stretch our legs and see the most astounding view from the mountain summit — the Mojave Desert. We were told that on a clear night you can see the lights of Las Vegas, some 280 miles away. I believe it.View of Nevada from Big Bear Lake CA

 As we all piled back in, they told us that some could move into Eric’s cool military vehicle. After all, we were packed like sardines in Big Foot. There were no takers. Eric may be a fantastic tour guide and may have the cooler vehicle, but no one was willing to give up Doug.

Along the way back, Doug aptly guided Big Foot onto untraveled roads and continued to “go for it” time and time again, not missing a beat in his narrative, except for the occasional, “Oh, I don’t know if Eric’s going to make that one…Anyway, in 1858 the miners…”

So, if you’re bored, it’s just a short trek up the mountain to Big Bear and you too can have an off-road adventure! Want to learn to drive like Doug and Eric? Driver training is also available in addition to tours. Or, already an expert, but would love to drive one of these extreme off-road 4X4s? Available! To inquire about  Big Bear Off-Road Adventures, call 909-585-1036 or email them at info@offroadadventure.com.

I’m sure he’s going to live to 103 at least.  Is his secret living on the edge and taking chances?

Bonanza set location in Big Bear Lake

Bonanza set location in Big Bear Lake

About the author

TD Hollis