Off-road, on target

'Wheeling Warriors' take veterans on a snowy, four-wheeled backcountry adventure as a way of saying thanks

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While wheeling with the North Idaho Trailblazers United States Army veteran John Schirmer of Post Falls weathers the cold as a group clears the trail of obstacles Saturday on private land near Mullan, Idaho. Schirmer served in Iraq as a medic for six years and is now a nurse at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in Spokane.

John Schirmer didn't break a sweat when his 2000 Jeep Cherokee popped out a ball joint.

He didn't even seem worried about the driver's side outer axle breaking.

Besides, how else are you supposed to have fun crossing snowy trails in the winter?

"Now we're headed out in three-wheel drive," he said with a slight smirk.

Schirmer, 32, of Post Falls, is an Army veteran. He was in the Reserves for six years, ending his enlistment in 2010. He served as a medic in Iraq and is now a nurse for the United States Veterans Association.

"It gives me an opportunity to be merciful," he said. "This world needs more mercy."

Schirmer and several other veterans met at the Pinehurst/Kingston Lions Club early Saturday morning for "Wheeling Warriors," a day-long four-wheeling adventure hosted by the North Idaho Trailblazers to honor veterans of all ages and abilities.

"It's showing them that we care, that we are really concerned about them," said 1982 Jeep CJ-8 Scrambler driver Jim Hopkins of Sagle. "We're here to support them, because they supported us. It's time for us to support them."

The 9 a.m. meeting was followed by the distribution of about 40 people into more than 30 vehicles. Members of NITB fired up their Jeeps, Toyotas, Suzukis and other off-roading rigs as guest passengers and some canine companions took their seats inside the cabs.

Drivers split into multiple groups that headed to snowy paths on permitted private and U.S. Forest Service lands in the Mullan area. The temperatures stayed in the teens, the winds drifted ice and snow across trails and the snow was piled high in some areas, but despite the impending winter storm warning, Trailblazers and their guests still had fun.

"The outdoors is very therapeutic," Schirmer said. "I think the vehicle you drive says a lot about who you are as a person too, a lot of times. So by coming down here and being in the elements, being outdoors, and pushing your vehicles to the limit, it's really like a sport. It is a sport."

Mark Tihonovich of Coeur d'Alene is one of NITB's founding members. He has been with the club since 1983 and said he grew up "in the back of a Jeep utility wagon." His dad was a Marine during the Vietnam era, and Tihonovich said he felt like "Wheeling Warriors" was a way for his club to give back and share the sport.

"It's a reason to get out and have fun," he said. "It's always cool to take new people out. It gets them out of the house, and all that too. It's great."

Four vehicles were in Tihonovich's group, including his white 1965 Jeep CJ-5, a custom-built buggy and Schirmer's Cherokee. The entourage began the journey slowly climbing a hill with snow at least three feet deep. Within a half hour, tow ropes were hooked to bumpers as the drivers worked as a team to ensure each vehicle could make the ascent.

"Part of what's really cool about this is you get to test your vehicle and see what it can do without breaking stuff," said Schirmer, who has enjoyed off-roading since he was a kid. A few hours later, Schirmer and the others in his group huddled around the front of his Jeep while fixing his ball joint. The vehicle was straddling a stream in the midst of the hushed winter forest. The team worked swiftly to fix what they could to make the vehicle mobile again.

"That's half the fun and the challenge," Tihonovich said.

"Wheeling Warriors" is a combination of NITB and Project Reveille, which involves veterans in fun and motivating events. NITB will be presenting a fundraising excursion, Cabin Fever, on March 29. For information, email president@nitrailblazers.org.

John Schirmer walks back to his 2000 Jeep Cherokee after driving it over an embankment, popping out a ball joint and breaking the front axle, while wheeling with the North Idaho Trailblazers Saturday on private land near Mullan, Idaho.

 

Army veteran John Schirmer lets out air from his tires to increase traction after struggling through snow Saturday on a trail near Mullan, Idaho during an outing with the North Idaho Trailblazers.

 

Mark Tihonovich drives with a convoy of Jeeps on a trail near Mullan, Idaho Saturday. Two of the vehicles carried United States veterans for an event put on by the North Idaho Trailblazers that aimed to show vets a good time and break up the slow pace of the winter months.

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