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jeep junkies

Because they can ... Dickson and Krakowski take their Jeeps through water in an abandoned gravel pit.Grant Black/The Globe and Mail

Gannon Ward doesn't bother to take his Jeep off-road unless it's going to get his adrenalin flowing. That's why, on this day, he was talking on the phone from Moab, Utah, where he'd just completed one of the most thrilling rides of his life.

"I climbed up a rock face I'd say that was 80 degrees," he says. "It gets your heart going."

Eighty degrees. How is that even possible? "That's nearly straight up," he acknowledges. "The rock here is limestone; different from back home. The tire just grips like it's sandpaper."

"Back home" is Alberta, where Ward – a 34-year-old chiropractor – belongs to an exclusive club of off-roaders who enjoy nothing more than beating the living crap out of their highly modified Jeeps. Every weekend, members of the Jeep Junkies club head out in packs to climb over impossibly large rocks and crawl through mountain-fed creeks as they follow old logging trails and seismic lines deep into the wilds of the province.

Often they go until they break something. Then they fix it. And then they go out and break it again.

"I didn't come out here looking for a highway," says Len Coad, a public-policy researcher who brought me out for a tour of McLean Creek, a popular off-roading area about an hour west of Calgary.

On this late-summer Saturday, just a handful of trucks, ATVs and off-road motorcycles are hovering around the parking lot as we prepare to head down some "trails" – suggestions, really, more than paths. Coad's vehicle has just been decked out with a three-inch "lift kit" for greater ground clearance, 4.5:1 differential for more low-end power, and fatter tires.

Job 1 is to undo the sway bars that keep his year-old Jeep Wrangler from tilting in turns on the highway. You need the extra axle travel on paths we'll be following, he explains.

As we head off-road, it's like entering an alternate universe – a mile in, we come across some campers who are trap-shooting; a little further along, two young guys who somehow managed to get their beat-up Sunfires up the side of a hill. Further still, an old desktop computer that has been used for target practice.

A lot of off-roaders have been heading to the hills all their lives. Ward started with a 1985 GMC Jimmy in Twin Falls, Idaho, where he grew up.

Treavor Schlosser, 31, a service manager at a local auto dealership, got into off-roading in a serious way three years ago. He grew up in Medicine Hat, Alta., where his dad "always had a four-wheel drive."

Right now, he's between vehicles because he found he couldn't afford to use his Jeep both off-road and as a commuter. Too often, it was broken by the time the work week came around. A year-full of weekend abuse on his 2013 Wrangler took its toll: five sets of idler and tension pulleys, two alternators, two release bearings, an entire front end assembly, two tires and an e-brake were among the casualties.

"The final straw was my rear differential," he says. "Fifty per cent was my fault, and the rest was the mud. All my repairs are due to the mud."

Statistics Canada does not keep separate numbers on the number of off-road vehicles in Canada, but they tend to be concentrated in Western Canada. Calgary-based Jeep Junkies has about 200 active members, and, as the name implies, they are attached to one brand of vehicle. "It's an addiction," says Ward. "We love anything about Jeeps." Although he's owned four of them, his brother has gone through 13.

"Jeeps are by far the most capable off-road vehicle out of the box that you can buy," says Schlosser. "At the price. Maybe a Land Rover would be better, but it's what? $80,000?"

Of course, the Junkies don't just take them out of the box.

Ward has put an estimated $20,000 in aftermarket parts on his 2013 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sahara. He's added a 3.5-inch lift kit, bolted on fat 37-inch tires, added Fox racing shocks to the suspension, changed the gear ratio to 4.56:1 (stock is 3.21:1), added a light bar, replaced the plastic bumpers with steel, added a winch kit and put "rock sliders" on either side – metal shields that minimize body damage. And to make sure he stands out as a serious off-roader, the piece de resistance: a snorkel air intake that reaches above the roof line.

"That means in theory, I could go through six feet of water," he says. "Really, though, I wouldn't take it past five." About the only part untouched is the stock 3.6-litre V-6 engine and six-speed standard transmission.

Although off-roading inherently involves danger, the Junkies emphasize safe practices, such as riding in groups and using proper winching protocols. But there are still heart-racing moments, like an incident Ward experienced the day before the interview. He was riding in a group of eight rigs up a steep, rock-strewn path. When he tried to follow the line of the driver ahead of him, he slipped sideways, high-centred on the front differential and had a tire hanging in the air.

"I was at an angle where I felt I could've rolled," he says. His teammates, however, pushed and coached him out of his bind.

Schlosser worries more about damage to his vehicle.

"We definitely damage our Jeeps. Absolutely," he says. "But in the safest way possible."

My guide lets me take the wheel of his beloved Jeep and coaches me through some relatively easy routes. As we head out, Coad shows me the standard Jeep wave (hand at the top of the wheel, two fingers up) as we meet brothers-in-arms.

It's a camaraderie that instantly identifies strangers as friends. "Jeep owners are in a league of their own," says Schlosser.

Off-roading is not without controversy. In Alberta, concerns have been expressed about the damage some off-roaders do to waterways. Legislation in Ontario states off-road vehicles are not to be operated in a way that will "disrupt or destroy … fish habitat, property, flora or fauna." Environmentalists argue that firm geographic limits are needed.

But Ward says off-roading allows him to experience parts of the Earth most people don't get to see. "People go on Sunday drives. Our drives are through the hills."

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