When It's Wet, They Go Wild : Recreation: Rainy weather gives four-wheelers a chance to push vehicles to limit, but boy's death points to need for caution.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Jason Stokes was looking for a good slick road Thursday, preferably muddy, hilly and treacherous.

Stokes, 19, of Rancho Santa Margarita, and dozens of others in mud-spattered trucks gathered at the opening of Trabuco Canyon to drive down the narrow, slippery road that runs through Holy Jim Canyon. The site is popular for off-roaders any time of the year, but the torrential rains, swollen creeks and sinkholes of mud made it especially appealing Thursday.

The site also is where 11-year-old Carey Dean Burlew died Tuesday while trying to cross the rain-swollen creek after four-wheel driving in the area with two adults.

Tom Cepek, 49, who instructs Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies on off-road driving hazards, called the death a tragedy and one that could have been avoided.

"You don't go driving up one of these canyons when it's raining buckets," Cepek said.

But to Stokes, who has been off-road driving for two years, bad is good and the peril involved doesn't outweigh the adrenaline rush he and his friends get when behind the wheel of a vehicle that can climb mountains.

"I went every day last week. It gets bad when it rains. This whole place becomes a river," Stokes said. "I have a roll bar. I'm not scared."

In front of him, 21-year-old Brian Johansen's truck jerked through the road with his mother and a friend, Fred Ruiz, 53, aboard.

For Johansen, four-wheeling is an escape. "It's about just seeing new things and having fun and getting away from reality. You get to see the creek and all of this," said Johansen, 21, of Rancho Santa Margarita, waving his arm out the window to indicate the soaring mountains, their tops wreathed in fog.

"It's a sense of freedom," Ruiz added.

There is often an element of competition in the four-wheeling excursions, with drivers trying to beat one another's maneuvering.

As Johansen perched precariously on a hill of mud, Stokes laughed, "That's part of the game. If they do it, you've gotta do it too." He twisted the steering wheel as his truck began to roll backward. "You've just gotta get it right."

When they came to a creek crossing, Johansen teased Stokes, "Go ahead, you're the man. Did you see how deep that thing was?"

"Yeah, but he (another truck) made it. Let's go by it slow," Stokes replied.

As he splashed through the creek, water sprayed up, spattering the windows, and steam rose from the engine, fogging the windows.

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The daredevils' spirits were buoyant as they reached the end of the road, marked by a rusted metal gate.

But as Johansen's red Toyota tried to cross a five-foot-deep creek bed on the way back, his engine stalled, the panel lights flashed, and there was nothing but the sound of rushing white creek water pounding against the door.

Penny Johansen sat back calmly while her son and Ruiz got out of the truck to inspect the damage.

"We're not going anywhere," she said. "This is the first time we've gotten stuck, but I'm not worried. I love it," she said.

An angry cabin owner nearby swore at the Johansens. "They haven't got any sense," he said. "They don't know how to drive. I have a cabin and all they do is tear up the road. They don't know what the hell they're getting into," said the man, who would not give his name.

Angry residents are not uncommon. Signs labeled "no trespassing," one with a picture of a gun on it, line the road.

"Trust me, you stay out. They mean it too. I've heard some stories. One guy went in there anyway and some guy showed him his shotgun," Stokes said. "That's why I carry this," he said, lifting his shirt to reveal a red-pepper spray can attached to his belt.

As efforts to start the engine failed, Stokes attached a tow rope to Johansen's truck. "Good thing we brought these," he said. Attempts to call for help on Stokes' cellular phone failed because the dense trees prevented the phone from operating.

The Toyota was pulled through the creek, but shortly after, the ropes broke. Stokes remained upbeat. "This is what four-by-fouring is all about," he said. "It's a good thing it's not raining." His truck restarted.

As night fell, the trucks cruised down hills, stopping to attach the tow ropes and slosh through creek crossings.

The trucks passed others who were stalled by the side of the road. At one point, a group gathered by the stalled vehicles, sitting on the hoods and drinking from cans of beer.

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The four-wheeling enthusiasts said the thrills outweigh the hazards of the road, but Orange County Sheriff's Lt. William Francis said he would advise against planning trips into Orange County's backcountry in foul weather.

"Four-wheel or not, it's still not a wise thing to do, especially in the rain," Francis said.

Emmy Day, Orange County Fire Department spokeswoman, who was at Trabuco Canyon when Burlew's body was recovered, said bad weather makes recreational canyons into "lethal canyons."

Cepek, whose father, Dick Cepek, helped start the off-road sport in Southern California in 1959, said the market for the popular sport utility vehicles is now nearly equal to passenger cars.

"Yet, nothing or very little is done to instruct these new off-road drivers," Cepek said.

Manufacturers pay heavily to produce popular, television commercials that show professional stunt drivers doing the impossible, Cepek said.

"Then you get some young guy who's 17 or 18 and he goes and buys, say, a Toyota 4-wheeler, sees Toyota on the TV commercial flying over mountains and rivers, and then that weekend he goes up into Azusa Canyon and kills himself," Cepek said.

"These guys who buy them don't have any idea of what it will do," Cepek said. "They only know that if they put it in four-wheel-drive they believe it will cling to any mountainside."

But for families like the Johansens, four-wheeling excursions are a cherished way of life. Penny Johansen said she began riding about 25 years ago because she did not want to be left behind while the men in the family went driving.

"I didn't want to be left at camp," she said.

Now, she is a dedicated fan. "It's a rush just to charge down that mountain. It's unbelievable. It doesn't bother me," she said, as the truck jerked through the road. "It's fun. Once you know how things go, it's a ball."

At the mouth of Trabuco Canyon Road, others prepared for the journey, undaunted by the many stalled vehicles that had slowly emerged.

"I'm just here to try out four-wheel-driving in my new car," said Ed Carney, 24, of Laguna Hills, as he sat in his mud-spattered white Pathfinder. "It's a rush. It's kind of like driving a car fast."

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Tips for Off-Road Driving

* Go slow your first times out. Get to know the vehicle's capability, and, more importantly, your level of driving ability.

* Get lessons. Instruction in off-road driving is available. It can be expensive, but cheaper than getting stuck, stranded or worse.

* Join an off-road club. Groups provide vehicle owners the chance to swap information at meetings and rallies. Contact the California Assn. of Four-Wheel Drive Clubs in Sacramento, (916) 332-8890.

Source: Tom Cepek, president of Dick Cepek Inc. of Garden Grove, an off-road outfitter

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