Gallery: Four Wheelers play in the mud at Azusa Canyon OHV
ANGELES NATIONAL FOREST - Sergio Verdusco unhitched his four-wheel drive K-5 Blazer from his flatbed truck just inside the Off Highway Vehicle Area when a couple approached him for a ride to the San Gabriel River mud flats.
"Sure. If it starts," he said, without looking up.
With a few twists of his wrench, he ignited the Chevy 454 horsepower engine. A deafening roar filled the canyon. He tugged on his gray wool cap, slid behind the wheel and skillfully steered the vehicle over loose gravel, between granite boulders and through multiple river crossings at right angles, attempting to avoid the threatened Santa Ana sucker fish.
Verdusco pulled up next to the other four-wheelers parked in a row as if on a stage backdropped by a curtain of canyon walls and blue sky.
Sweatshirt-wearing spectators lined the river bank, some sitting in pickup beds or with legs dangling from SUVs, hands fishing into bags of chips and sipping refreshment from a can of Dr. Pepper. Others stood and watched, their black rubber boots stained brown with dried mud, their eyes peering down river for a glimpse of the next wreck or rescue.
On a typical Sunday, as many as 400 off-roaders make their way up the winding State Highway 39, beyond the Morris and San Gabriel reservoirs and north of the East Fork Bridge. Men in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s convene a ritual that's one of the most unique and controversial in this "Land of Many Uses" that's also the backyard to 16 million Southern Californians, thousands of animal species, as well as a source of drinking water for 1.8 million San Gabriel Valley residents.
Every year, about 23,900 people participate in the mud rodeo at this site, one of the most popular off-roading locations in California, according to Nathan Judy, spokesman for the U.S. Forest Service. They come from Palmdale, the San Fernando Valley, the San Gabriel Valley, Los Angeles and the Inland Empire for a chance to ride quads, dirt bikes and 4-by-4 monster trucks in the fresh mud of the San Gabriel River.
Off-roading clubs form rescue squads. Fans videotape hotdogging runs for future YouTube posts. Others learn gold mining techniques, which also involve hydraulics and off-road survival. Many are escaping the doldrums of their otherwise mud-free lives in the flatlands.
"Down in the city, all you have are bills, or your wife or girlfriend nagging at you. Here, in Azusa Canyon, it is the one day to get away from all that and just have fun," said Karl Knoll, 52, of Highland Park.
Like Knoll who brings his 27-year-old daughter Karla, some fathers bring sons and daughters. SoCal couples find romance. "Some have even gotten married here," said one spectator.
And this year, just the right mixture of river water and silt make for some of the best conditions ever experienced by these high-octane mud-worshippers, while the existence of the Santa Ana sucker fish hangs in the delicate balance.
"This is our Mud Church," Verdusco said.
Ryan Jenkins, 27, who works on TV production sets in Hollywood, says there's a lot of guys who can't compete with the Sergios of the world. Instead, they watch. They oooh and ahhh like bleacher spectators at a demolition derby.
"This is one of the largest redneck sports," Jenkins declared.
And those whose vehicles get rescued, those tattooed men who by day are mechanics or welders, don't they feel humiliated when they drive their jacked-up trucks straight into the gnarly mud slop only to wait for a hitch?
"Nah," Jenkins assured. "It is part of the love."
It is part of getting saved at "Mud Church."
Can you spare a winch?
"I think I see a winch coming out," said an excited Robert Gonzalez, spectating a safe distance from the giant wheels of the monster trucks that spin mud clumps like cotton candy balls.
"When they use a winch, they usually use a supporting truck (as an anchor)," he explained.
Rescues are the most entertaining, tantamount to spinouts and crashes on a NASCAR track. "I trip out on these people who come here," Gonzalez said.
Crashes happen. "I've turned over a couple times. Yeah, people get hurt really bad," Verdusco said.
On a recent Sunday, a yellow rock crawler was no match for the river's oozing mud. A blue Silverado pickup 50 yards away sat half exposed to the frigid, canyon air, the other half buried in mud.
No one was hurt. Except for maybe the drivers' pride.
Knoll, with his trusty 1983 Toyota pickup, would come to their rescue in time. He always does. He's like the minister performing mud-river baptisms.
"I remember one guy who was up to his waist. I had to rescue him. Sometimes I rescue trucks; sometimes I rescue people. You never know," he said with a chuckle.
Knoll performed his first rescue at age 13.
As a teenager growing up in the rough and tumble suburb north of downtown L.A., he was watching his father work on the family car when his dad went to the neighborhood bar and didn't return.
"My dad was an alcoholic. My dad was too drunk to fix the car (that day). So, I fixed the car," Knoll recounted nearly 40 years later. "It was a 1967 Dodge van."
The emotions from recalling the story coursed through Knoll's body. Two large tears rolled down his ruddy cheeks.
Knoll's life has been a series of on-again, off-again employment, a marriage, a divorce, and now, he lives with his mom. Less than two years ago, he got laid off from his mechanic job.
"This past year was the first year ever in my whole life I didn't have a Christmas tree. I didn't buy any presents," he said.
Just getting to the canyon that Sunday in January required bumming gas money off his mother, he said. But he wouldn't miss Sunday-go-to-muddin' for anything.
Standing in the center of the chaos, the unemployed mechanic calmly spoke about winches, ropes, torque and rescuing 4-by-4 trucks from the unforgiving mud. He enjoyed speaking about his role, sometimes manifesting as boasts, but always followed by a hearty guffaw.
"This is Karl's Winch School 101," he announced to no one in particular. "We've had to pull trucks off the sides of mountains," he added.
Knoll also preached preparedness as in getting ready for the end of the world. On the website of The Few, www.thefew4x4.com, an off-road club he founded, he warned about the Mayan apocalypse of Dec. 21, 2012 for months.
"It's better to be prepared. Like at my house, I have a generator and a backup generator," he bragged.
On the river, he comes packing a special rope, hooks, extra pair of boots, tools - tucked away in his rebuilt 1983 Toyota pickup that he calls his "super puller."
Suddenly, he's driving the jalopy in reverse toward the stuck truck, lining up his back bumper with the stuck truck's front bumper. But the stuck truck's rear passenger wheel was so deep in viscous mud it needed special attention. Knoll pulled a long-handled shovel out of his pickup truck and began clearing away the thick mud.
"Yup, I carry shovels with me. Now, when I go to the winch again, hopefully that tire will pop out," he said
Crossing critical habitat
It's no secret that the off-roaders are looked upon askance by environmental groups. That's because illegal off-roading can tear into the canyon's habitat and cause erosion, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
The Santa Ana sucker - which lives near the OHV area and in Big Tujunga Creek further north and west - is listed by the federal government as a threatened species. It is one of only three native fish in the entire Los Angeles basin. The Forest Service also declared portions of the wild San Gabriel River as critical habitat for the tiny fish.
That means the off-roaders have to follow certain rules to protect the fish.
"By crossing the river at a 90-degree angle and not allowing vehicles to travel down the middle of the river, we are limiting the potential for vehicles to directly crush individuals and detrimentally affect the water quality/habitat due to spills," Judy wrote in an email.
Steve Evans, wild and scenic river consultant for Friends of the River, a statewide environmental group, said the Forest Service is doing a good job limiting crossings and damage to the sucker population.
"Most of them are found further upstream," he said. "Undoubtedly there are some impacts."
Scientist Jonathan Baskin, in an article in Cal Poly Pomona's Panorama Magazine in 2010, said saving the fish is critical: "It forms an important link in this very fragile ecosystem of our local streams, which are so heavily impacted by human development."
Evans said he is concerned with sediment, oil and fuel from the vehicles reaching the local water tanks. But that water is treated before reaching homes so contaminants are removed.
In an article in Sierra Magazine in May 2010, former Angeles Forest Supervisor Jody Noiron said the biggest threat to the natural environment comes from illegal off-road riders who degrade hillsides and habitat.
Still, Noiron credited the off-roading clubs with helping newbies abide by the rules.
"I'm kind of like the Godfather of the four-wheelers up there," said Knoll.
Only once every five or 10 years are conditions in San Gabriel Canyon as perfect as they have been this winter. The county Department of Public Works and Flood Control District have released nearly all of the water from the San Gabriel Reservoir, leaving the mushy, silty banks as an optimal four-wheeler track.
"It doesn't get any better than this," Knoll said.
Knoll doesn't do much actual four-wheeling. He almost exclusively frees stuck trucks using his skills. His act - like clowns at the rodeo who coax broncos back into their stalls - is as entertaining as the monster trucks themselves whose tires whirl mud like mini Ferris wheels.
"I go where no truck goes," Knoll said.
Can mud-TV save him?
Knoll has never made a lot of money from his hobby, he said.
He has a knack for fixing cars and trucks. He learned how to use a wrench from his dad and later went to auto mechanic trade school. He went on and worked for General Dynamics in Pomona as a fabricator.
Ever since losing his last mechanic job, he's fell on hard times. He scrapes by doing odd jobs such as towing Rose Parade floats and selling truck parts to the mudders who break an axle or need a new gasket.
Even when he was a mud racer, back in the `90s, he couldn't get a sponsor so he became his own pit crew. "I ran a mud pit in 6 seconds," he interjected.
His last hope for cash is a reality TV pilot on four-wheeling he's been working on since being unemployed. "We are still in negotiations for the TV show," he said.
If he makes it big in Hollywood, he'll keep coming to San Gabriel Canyon's "Mud Church" because it's part of the ritual, he said. "I've been coming up here since 1981. I'm committed."