Editor’s Note: A special article from our friend, Tom Severin, President Badlands Off Road Adventures, Inc.
A recent trip on the Rubicon trail showed the value of radio communication. We experienced multiple incidents from a fire chasing us to an overturned Jeep with injuries and a request for spare parts.
Forest fires continue to burn in dozens of locations in the western U.S. Yet four-wheelers still want to – and should – enjoy their hobby. Of course, no one would drive into an area knowing that a fire is raging nearby.
But let’s say a fire occurs while you’re off road. How will you hear about it and stay informed? A cell phone helps, as long as you’re within range.
If you’re on or near the Rubicon Trail, ham radio could be your lifeline. I learned firsthand during a recent excursion through the Rubicon Trail.
Small fire gains intensity quickly
Our trip began as planned on Monday, Aug. 16. It was designed to last five days on the Rubicon Trail.
I had hoped to spend the entire five days on the trail. Even though we were forced to cut back to three days, we successfully completed the entire Rubicon Trail.
What is now called the Caldor fire began near Grizzly Flats, California, on the morning of Aug. 14. It quickly devoured that town as it spread mostly east and north. As I write this, the Caldor Fire has consumed more than 219,000 acres and is just 67% contained. At one point it reached the southern edge of South Lake Tahoe, forcing the evacuation of all 22,000 residents.
Whipped by high winds at times, the Caldor fire was really moving. In one day alone, it moved 8 miles in one direction and 7 miles in the other.
We began our trip in South Lake Tahoe. At the junction of U.S. 50 and Ice House Road we turned north. From there we proceeded to the trailhead at Loon Lake. Passing the South Gatekeeper, we entered the heart of the Rubicon Trail.
We couldn’t see the fire that first day (or at any time). It was well over 25-30 miles away (as the crow flies) with lots of granite rock and a major highway between us, but the sky was constantly hazy. We never saw the sun, as far as I recall.
Our destination on Aug. 16 was the campsite at Little Sluice.
The second day, Aug. 17, started ominously: My tent was covered in ash. No fire in sight; the sky still had that hazy, smoky appearance but no one smelled smoke.
Over coffee, several in the group asked me if I heard the people running by our camp site yelling for help about midnight. No, I had slept through it.
Getting vital information via ham radio
Normally the ham radio is fairly quiet during this excursion. But this day the radio was really active.
The first conversation was from a local resident asking if anyone had eyes on the overturned vehicle and to confirm its location. They needed to plan what resources were required to recover the vehicle the following day.
It suddenly became clear what the cry for help was the night before. If they had stopped, we could have assisted with communication via ham radio.
When we reached the location of the accident, we used ham radio to confirm the exact location and other details to the rescue team. They felt they could do the extraction with minimal difficulty.
Unfortunately, another vehicle was also abandoned in the middle of the trail with a winch line deployed to the overturned Jeep, delaying us several hours.
Throughout the day I heard reports that residents were evacuating south of U.S. 50. Local Hams checked in about routes, which roads were open, and the location of open evacuation centers. Some operators speculated that the fire would hit the intersection of Ice House Road and U.S 50 effectively blocking that as a return route.
I don’t think that happened, but the fire did cross U.S 50 farther east four or five days later. U.S. 50 was eventually closed because the fire was too close to the road.
Near the end of our second day, I heard on ham radio that the Forest Service had closed the Eldorado National Forest. About an hour after that I hear that Eldorado County closed the Rubicon Trail. (Though it skirts national lands, the Rubicon Trail is a county road.) A volunteer fireman and ham operator on the trail behind us estimated we had a few days before the fire would reach our area. Yet he suggested we leave the trail as quickly as possible.
By that time, we had arrived at our planned campsite at Buck Island.
At this point we’re two days into what was originally scheduled to be a five-day excursion. We planned to camp for two nights at Dirty Dozen campsite at Rubicon Soda Springs before completing the trail. As our friend Bruce said “Why would we rush through the trail just to go back to Los Angeles?”
The next morning, Aug. 18, we held a drivers’ meeting. I wanted to make sure everyone was informed of our situation, especially since only half in our group were ham radio operators. Because we had more than half of the trail left, we agreed to make the final decision when we reached Rubicon Soda Springs and the turn off to the Dirty Dozen campground.
Beyond that is Cadillac Hill, a very difficult part of the trail. Driving up Cadillac Hill in the dark is not a good idea. If we made good time and had plenty of daylight left, we would continue through Cadillac Hill. If not, we would camp another night
An hour or so after leaving Buck Island, we received a call on ham radio from a group looking for parts. A Jeep had thrown an idler pulley. Unfortunately, the spare we gave them did not work.
At the last major obstacle before reaching Rubicon Soda Springs, we permitted a small group to pass us. While passing, they rolled one of the trucks on its side, dumping the contents on the trail and completely blocking the trail. Another hour-long delay in our goal for an expedient exit. Guess what – this was the same group that rolled the Jeep the first night.
Thankfully, we arrived at Rubicon Soda Springs with at least five hours before sunset. We pressed on. Helping our decision was that the temperature was 69 degrees, and the campsite was mired in a blanket of smoke. Not an appealing location to set up camp.
We arrived in South Lake Tahoe at the end of the day on Aug. 18. Tired and weary, yes, but everyone had completed the Rubicon Trail. Time for beer and pizza first then think about a shower.
About the repeater arrangement
Ham radio operators driving the Rubicon Trail can take advantage of a repeater located near Spider Lake.
Operating at 444.9875 MHz (+5 MHz offset). Transmit with a CTCSS (tone code) of 156.7 Hz, and you can cover all of the Rubicon Trail except east of Barker Meadows OHV trail. This system is often referred to as the Rubi repeater.
Flip to a tone of 107.2 Hz, and now you’re operating through Rubi +. Your signal will link to the 2 meter 805TAH system serving nearby communities. This option should be used only if you want to talk with someone outside the Rubicon Trail area.
This is an open repeater; hams are encouraged to use it while on the trail.
The Rubicon Trail offers many challenges. One that newer drivers need to be aware of is that there is no cell coverage along the trail. It’s imperative that at least one driver in the group be able to communicate outside the area. That can be with a satellite phone or VHF/UHF amateur radio equipment.
Operating ham radio equipment requires a license, but the written test isn’t that difficult. A ham radio friend can guide you through the study process and help with on-air procedures.
Of course, you can use ham radio equipment to communicate any time. But it sure comes in handy while on the Rubicon Trail. I am so glad I was monitoring back in mid-August. Hearing those reports helped us immensely in our day-to-day operations. I can say unequivocally that ham radio played an indispensable part during that adventure.