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Finding Minnesota: Driving Off-Road In The Iron Range

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(credit: CBS) Bill Hudson
Bill Hudson has been with WCCO-TV since 1989. The native of Elk Rive...
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GILBERT, Minn. (WCCO) – If you’re looking to blow off a little steam, it helps to let out a little air.
Pressing on the valve stem of his Jeep’s tires, Lynn McCann says that letting out pressure help’s his Jeep gain traction.

“It lets out the highway pressure and stops at 10 to 12 pounds. That gives me more flex in the tire and more grip,” he said.

McCann was in the parking lot of the Iron Range OHV Recreation Area. Sitting just east of the town of Gilbert is the former iron ore mine.

It’s a 1,200-acre parcel of rough, rocky terrain that off-highway vehicle owners flock to.

“We’ve got a lot of hills, a lot of rocks and a lot of red mud for a unique experience — not like your typical trail ride,” said Allen Larsen, a park supervisor.

Far from it – this ride is for the adventurous, like Mark Filanowich.

“This is an older Jeep, it’s a 1981 Scrambler. It’s a CJ 8,” Filanowich said as he jumped behind the wheel.

He operates a business called Iron Range Off Road, which holds classes to teach SUV and off-highway vehicle owners how to enjoy the challenges of four-wheel drive vehicles. And most importantly, he teaches how to drive them safely and responsibly.

“A lot of people that have a four-wheel drive vehicle say they want it so they’ve got that sense of security that they can drive in the snow,” Filanowich said. “I think it’s equally important to understand what that four-wheel drive vehicle is capable of.”

The area’s 30 miles of rugged trails challenge the most die-hard four wheeler. Its acres of rocky and wooded terrain make getting stuck or hung-up on a big boulder a sign of courage.

“If you don’t get stuck occasionally, you won’t get the opportunity to practice extracting safely,” Filanowich said.

Out there, heavy tow straps and power winches are vital safety tools. In reality, it’s the teamwork of buddies that will get you back to civilization.

The recreation area’s trails are rated for their level of difficulty, much like a downhill ski slope. Green circles are the easiest while blue squares are a bit more challenging. But it’s the black diamond trails that should be tackled only by the most advanced four-wheeler.

One such trail is known as the Gorge Rock Crawl. It’s called that for obvious reasons. Huge jagged rocks appear to be impenetrable. The trick is to carefully select where the wheels and axels line up, proceeding cautiously will prevent a driver from going home with broken equipment.

Busting an axel or ripping open an oil pan can leave a driver stranded in the woods. That’s why Filanowich teaches his students how to read the rocks and pick a path.

To him, the trick is keeping the fun in four wheeling.

“When you successfully climb a hill or go through a mud hole or climb over a rock obstacle, the looks on people’s faces — it’s priceless,” Filanowich said.

For more information on four-wheeling, go to the DNR’s website or ironrangeoffroad.com

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