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Weekend at Bernie’s

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Posted: Thursday, September 26, 2019 9:00 am

The sun is coming up over the scrub hills at the far end of the Lake Arrowhead Airport. A dirt runway, horse stables and a few outbuildings are located at the very end of the Squint’s Ranch Road jeep trail, about two and a half miles from the cushy north shore.

It feels like it is later in the morning than it is, even though it is only a little after 9 a.m. Tents stand beneath scattered pine trees and populated the empty spaces between scant manzanita bushes and piles of desert sagebrush. In the middle of all the action are thirteen highly modified offroad vehicles arranged in a squashed circle of sorts, and attended to by their owners, who take their time securing straps and blasting test static from their CB radios. The breakfast food was running out in the box trailer outfitted to serve as the camp’s kitchen by this point. The hash browns, assorted meats, and cheesy eggs cooked in a crockpot had already cooled to the ambient temperature of the warm breezes blowing across the dusty chaparral as the sun climbed higher over Little Shay Mountain in the distance.

Bernie Kerkvliet — wearing a pastel purple button-up shirt — gathers a group of about two-dozen and a half guys all wearing matching blue “Weekend at Bernie’s” t-shirts near a small tree in the far corner of the dry, two-acre pond that makes up a good portion of the campsite. Kerkvliet is currently building the pond for the property owner; it will eventually be a few feet deep, be big enough to jetski on. It will ultimately contain a working waterfall fed by one of the property’s five wells. Apparently, the owner of the property wants to be able to fly home from where he works at the San Bernardino Airport and ride his jet ski after work. This shouldn’t be a problem for Kerkvliet, who is a local business owner of Skyline Ponds, and a master certified aquascape contractor.

 It is the sixth annual “Weekend at Bernie’s” corporate training event and there are guys here who have come from all over the U.S. to attend. The weekend retreat of his is designed to unite the two-dozen or so certified aquascape contractors in attendance in a plant-based educational weekend of fun activities industry insight, and practical skills building.

“All the drivers are here to give these guys rides,” says Kerkvliet, “We have guys here from Pennsylvania, Washington state, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado, and Arizona. This is the sixth year we’ve been doing it. It’s a weekend retreat for certified aquascape contractors and a teaching weekend. Teaching them how to pull boulders out of the ground with a tractor safely, without flipping the tractor. Teaching them about edible and medicinal plants,” says Kerkvliet, “My first love is plants. I could probably talk about plants for three years and never say the same thing twice. Plants are a building tool. Let’s say you’re a contractor and you have to build a house. If you have to build a house just using two-by-fours, it’s going to be a funny-looking house. Some of it will be too strong, some of it won’t be strong enough. Same thing with working with plants as a landscaper. You need to know everything you’re working with. I believe in building an edible landscape but also one that’s medicinal. That’s sorta what this weekend is about. Get all these guys together and share some of that knowledge with ‘em. And at the end of the weekend, we go on an offroad trip. Some of these guys have never been Jeeping before so these drivers come out from all over and volunteer to give everyone a ride.”

Kevin Soergel is a bearded guy wearing a trilby hat with a huge feather sticking out of it. He’s in a Jeep club in Pittsburg.

“I’ve been Jeeping since I was sixteen, and landscaping since I was 10. Family business,” Soergel says, “I’ve known Bernie for a long time. He’s been telling me about this event for years, but this year is the first year I’ve actually come out.”

Soergel says he’s been subcontracting with Bernie for the past couple weeks due to some unforeseen slowdown in business back East.

“I’m not driving today, just riding along,” Soergel mentions.

Paul Holdeman, a certified aquascape contractor from Arizona, is thrilled to be back, “This is my third year at this event and it’s something I look forward to all year,” he says, “Yesterday, Bernie taught us how to drop a 77-foot burned-up tree,” said He teaches everything, from living off the land, to how to safely strap a five-thousand pound boulder to the back of a tractor and pull it out of the ground.” 

This morning, though, Kerkvliet is teaching a different lesson involving a tree. The small cottonwood looks to be a few years old, not a sapling but also not big enough to require a whole lot of effort if you wanted to cut it down. On its branches are large, clear plastic bags; in the bottom of which have accrued an amber-brown liquid that looks like rainwater that has collected in a birdbath full of leaves. Bernie explains that he has tapped the tree for drinking water, a process which is extremely simple and produces interesting results.

“You can tap any plant that isn’t poisonous,” Kerkvliet says, using his pocket knife to slice open one of the sagging bags hanging from the nearest low cluster of branches, allowing the liquid to pour into a plastic cup he’s holding,

“I wouldn’t tap an oleander. Or poison oak. Or Jimson weed, but cottonwood is fine,” Kerkvliet says as he doles out samples of the liquid into smaller plastic shot glasses to pass around the crowd. Everyone takes a tiny taste and the result tastes something like eucalyptuses tea brewed inside of a 300-year-old grandfather clock.

“It’s good, different, but good,” someone says. Nobody seems to disagree.

“It’s like tea,” says Kerkvliet. “Except with tea, you’re steeping leaves in water. This is moisture that has actually been let out of the plant. You can do this with any plant, all you need is a clear plastic bag and it’s a good, good source of water if you’re out in the wilderness. These bags have been on the trees since Thursday afternoon.”

After the brief demonstration, the itinerary for the morning is laid out. The plan for the day is to drive out to Deep Creek to surmount the first obstacle — a dry rocky waterfall — and then continue up through Crab Flats. After that, it’s on to Dishpan Springs — another dry waterfall — for lunch and then a bit of offroading on the Jeep trail that connects with Highway 18 past Arrowbear. The final evening of the weekend was to be capped off by a barbecue and celebration with live music and beer.

“There’s a lot of people here who are passengers,” Kerkvliet announced. “So if you’re a passenger, stand next to the vehicle you want to ride in and see if you can get a ride with that driver.”

The group disbands after this — drivers heading to their vehicles and passengers looking for vehicles to ride in.

Brian Salzer walks up to his modified Toyota Land Cruiser and kneels near the base of the machine’s huge, rugged tires to begin the process of “airing down” — a necessary measure required to allow the already huge tires a “bigger footprint” so that they can really “hook up” with the jagged surfaces and odd angles of the rocks being tackled.

“Otherwise you’d be hoppin’ and skippin’ all over the place,” Salzer explains as there is a long, hissing blast of decompressing air and the huge 4x4 slumps down like a tired boxer.

All around the camp, tires are being let down and it appears that the camp is divided into two distinctive schools of thought. There are the ‘Yota’ guys, who all seem to drive heavy modified late-model Toyota Land Cruisers, and the ‘Jeep’ guys, whose preference in offroad vehicle is pretty self-explanatory.

Manny Najera’s ’86 Toyota 4-Runner is something out of a zombie apocalypse movie. It has tires taller than most six-year-old kids and the fenders have been sawed off to accommodate the huge flex allowed by the heavily modified and lifted suspension. The front bumper, grill, Rea bumper and mudflats have all been removed. To get into the passenger seat, you need to put one foot high up on the huge back wheel, grab onto the metal roll cage inside the cabin and half-hoist, half-launch yourself the rest way in. The transmission has been modified and there are four shifter knobs of varying sizes sticking up in a little cluster, controlling a total of nine gears. The thing roars to life when Najera toggles the ignition switch and fiddles with some wires beneath the steering wheel.

“This thing’s built for the rocks. Right here is like pebbles for this truck,” says Najera as his truck joins the 13-vehicle convoy and heads down the beaten trail to the first obstacle. It’s hard to believe that anything can work so well as the huge, roaring convoy of 4x4s as they kick up dust and flatten sagebrush on their way along a road that’s so extremely deteriorated, that if you were to try to drive a regular street-legal car on it, you’d undoubtedly snap an axel or lose something huge, metal and expensive from the undercarriage.

It takes roughly twenty minutes to cross the bouncing landscape to Deep Creek, then the trucks slowed down to pass fisherman lined up near a municipal lot. The lot is formed of a single slab of raw, weathered concrete where the federal access road terminates. Next up, the trucks make a dust-kicking hike up the hill, then descend the other side into a green valley where large boulders flank green trout pools shimmering with golden mountain light. Gnats and hoverflies abound in the dusty columns of sunshine streaming down through the knotty green branches of the pine boughs. A group of kids on dirt bikes sputter past on their way up the hill and the convey lines up at the base of the first obstacle.

The hill is steep and sandy, but the first few trucks make it over the thick spar of jutting rock with no problem. Salzer powers up the roiling fold of stone with almost no discernible effort and his wheel placement technique is highly skilled. Next up, he hitches his winch to the bumper of a standard, red Jeep Grand Cherokee with a handicapped license plate that is idling at the bottom of the hill. Salzer yanks the Grand Cherokee over the rocky outcropping. Riding in the unmodified Jeep is Salzer’s father, who is coming along for the ride.

Standing off to the side, observing all this, stands Kerkvliet next to his son and two small grandsons, who are playing some sort of game in the dirt at the bast of a huge rock. Kerkvliet drives a Jeep Wrangler. Under the hood, he’s got two alternators, two batteries, a welder and a special outlet that allows him to hook up a metal grinder for repairs on the fly when things inevitably break down.

“Do you know about the Jeep wave?” Kerkvliet asks. “When you’re driving around up here and you see another driver in a Jeep, they’ll wave at you when you pass. One of the reasons I like Jeeps is the community.”

There’s a bit of trouble when one of the trucks gets its rear differential hooked on a snag of rock and everyone has to pile in together to stuff boulders under the back tires to build up traction. It’s a problem that’s soon fixed and the convoy moves on up to the road leading through Crab Flats.

“It’s a super-strategic form of driving where you have to know exactly where to put your front tires so you don’t snag your rear diff,” Naveja says.

Around noon, the offroaders arrive at the main obstacle — a dry waterfall called Dishpan Springs. Like in skiing, at the head of each trail there is a placard explaining the difficulty of each route: green circle, blue square, black diamond. Dishpan is a black diamond, and it’s easy to see why. No person driving a non-heavily-modified offroad truck would even consider Dishpan Springs a road. Because it’s not. It’s a channel for flash flood waters that has been rubbed raw by thousands of scrapes and dings inflicted by countless 4x4’s, dune buggies and dirt bikes as they power their way over the exposed granite to make it to the top of the hill.

“Holcum Creek, Cleghorn, Gold Mountain in Big Bear, John Bull…” Kerkvliet lists off, “Those are some other ones nearby if you want to go offroading around here.”

The first of the trucks begins to crawl the rocky slope.

A Jeep Rubicon with custom metal doors that have been cut to look like American flags waving in the wind gets stuck at an odd angle atop a channeled precipice and its driver ends up breaking something in the steering column that is crucial to communicating the demands of the steering wheel to the direction the tires are facing. Luckily, most of the guys on the hill have copious welding, fabricating and mechanical expertise, so the problem is fixed by jerry-rigging some straps to the broken part so the wheels will turn when needed.

After this setback, the party rolls onward up the hill. At the top of Dishpan, the terrain levels out and the convoy rolls past the odd group of ATV or dirt bike riders. Upon passing each group Najera makes a fist out the window.

“When you’re the last guy in the group, you make a fist so the people you’re passing know you’re the last one in line,” Najera explains.

About an hour of beaten down roads later, the 13 trucks are back on the roadside of Highway 18, airing-up their tires again and re-attaching mudflaps. It’s another hour from the top of Arrowbear, back through Arrowhead, to the dirt landing strip. 

Back at camp, the barbecues are already going when the final truck pulls in. Two kegs of beer on ice are there to dole out refreshment to anyone who wants to get the trail dust out of their throat. After a dinner of barbecued steak and marinated fish. The evening concludes with ax-throwing at sunset and a competition to see who can light a fire without matches the fastest after the stars have come out. The night ends with a bunch of tired dudes sitting around the campfire with draught beers listening to a live acoustic set of Tom Waits covers as the International Space Station passes overhead in the form of a single white ball of uninterrupted, unblinking light.

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