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OHV Recreation Area near Gilbert draws traffic

GILBERT -- The mud hole looks like someplace where animals in Africa would gather to wallow and cool off. Its shores are barren brown earth, baking in the midday sun. The water is a thick slurry the color of red clay.

But the only creature wallowing here at the moment is Jeff Erickson of Spooner, who is standing atop the seat of his Honda Rincon four-wheeler.

He's bent double at the middle with his hands on the machine's handlebars. He's standing on the machine because the water is already up to his fenders, and it appears the four-wheeler could go deeper into the chocolate soup at any moment.

This is just what Erickson and three companions have come to find at the Iron Range OHV Recreation Area at Gilbert, the only facility of its kind in Minnesota. The men are up for a couple of days of trail riding and "mudding" at the 1,200-acre former mine dump operated by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

They know they can push the limits of their machines here.

"The whole point of this weekend is to get to where you say, 'I shouldn't have done that,' " says James Radtke of St. Paul, watching Erickson's snail-like progress.

The OHV (off-highway vehicle) park, which opened in 2002, is approaching its fifth anniversary. Users of ATVs, off-road pickups and off-highway motorcycles say it's just what they're looking for.

"This is like my 20th time here," said Tony Baker, 45, of Andover, Minn. "I've been on every trail here, and I still enjoy it. There are still places in here challenging enough that even the most experienced rider could get himself in trouble if he wanted to."

Baker is astraddle his Honda Foreman 450 ATV watching the action at the mud hole on this Friday in July.


The park is built on iron-ore pits, ore stockpiles and tailings basins. The area was mined until 1981. What's left is a rugged landscape full of hill-climbs, rock gorges and irresistible mud holes.

In short, everything an all-terrain rider or driver is seeking. ATV maker Polaris has taped a television commercial in an unforgiving valley of rock called The Gorge.

As long as machines pass the state's decibel limits and riders come with the right registrations and safety certificates, they can ride the park's 40 miles of marked trails to their content, said Bob Chance, who has supervised the park for the DNR's Trails and Waterways Division since it opened.

"Most people aren't used to being in a place where they can do whatever they want," Radtke said.

Sixty machines buzz through the park on this weekday, and up to 200 per day enter on weekends, Chance said. About 10,000 riders a year come to the park, 65 percent of them with ATVs, 20 percent with off-road trucks and 15 percent with off-highway motorcycles. Most users come from outside the area, many from the Twin Cities.

While ATVs and dirt bikes can find places outside the park to ride, off-road trucks have few such opportunities, Chance said.

"People with trucks who come here, it's almost like a relief that they have a place to go. They can come here and not worry about hurting anything," Chance said. "You're not going to hurt a mine dump. But be careful. It can turn around and hurt you."

The park has recorded one fatality in five years. Several injured riders have been evacuated by ambulance, Chance said.

Love the Hills

Dirt-bikers Cory Peters, 15, of Zim, Minn., and Paul Voss, 14, of Fayal Township near Eveleth, are taking a forced break at the brink of an overlook. Peters cracked the gas tank on his Yamaha YZ400F cycle. The boys, their riding clothes spattered with dried mud, love riding at the park.

"I like to ride to the top of the hills and jump," Voss says.

"It's a blast," Peters says. "The jumping, the hill-climbing, the mudding, the trail riding."

Down at the mud run, Jeff Erickson completes his successful ATV run through the heart of the mud hole, his tractor-tread tires throwing thick arcs of muck.

"How's that for muddin'?" says Baker, looking on.

Erickson's run inspires Radtke. His Can-Am Outlander 800, a massive ATV, crawls through the slop and comes swerving back to his buddies on high ground.

"Yee haw!" he shouts.

Tommy Chido, 38, of Sarona, Wis., plows his Honda Rincon into the hole. It slows to a crawl, sputters and dies. No problem. Everyone here has a winch on his machine, and Chido is hauled out within minutes.

Tough Trucks

But wait. The whine of big gears can be heard behind the four-wheelers. Enter the off-road trucks, in particular a red 1981 Toyota pickup body riding high above four balloon tires. This would be Erik Baldwin, 35, of Biwabik.

Baldwin nearly buries the truck in another mud hole, churns ahead and clambers up a gravel embankment like some metallic amphibian. The truck idles. Muddy water slides back into the murky pool.

"I'm here every other week," Baldwin says.

While he's happy to explore the mud, it isn't his first love, he says.

"I'm a rock guy," Baldwin says.

With that, he forges through the malt-like liquid and emerges to climb an irregular mountain of boulders. He rocks and bounces the truck along at less than 1 mph, picking his way up and over the mountain. Nearby, driver Craig Shaver, 41, of Zimmerman, Minn., has bottomed out on the same rock pile, causing himself a problem.

"Hyper-extended driveshaft," he says.

He crawls under the rig to repair it.

Baldwin, not yet satiated, attacks the boulder Matterhorn for a second time, this time meeting his match. Near the apogee of the ride, the truck leans wildly to one side, then simply falls over. In off-road trucking, this is called a "flop," Baldwin says. He has flopped four times in four days. He's uninjured, seat-belted into his windowless vehicle.

Baker, the ATV rider, snaps photos of the flop on his camera phone.

Another driver routinely hooks his winch to Baldwin's truck and rights it. Baldwin fires up the propane-powered Toyota and completes his rock-hopping.

Baker is loving it.

"Unbelievable," he says. "It makes our four-wheeling look boring."

Only until someone gets to the point where he says, "I shouldn't have done that."