My Experience at 36 Hours of Uwharrie
Every year in the middle of the heat of August in the middle of North Carolina, there is an event that brings out the best of the four-wheeling community. 36 Hours of Uwharrie is an event held in the Uwharrie National Forest surrounding Troy, North Carolina. Started 3 years ago, this event is a competition that puts two man teams up against the weather, environment, some surprises, and each other. The event is put on by Path Less Traveled Offroad and is overseen by the commandants, who are current active duty and retired Marines and Navy personnel. The event is points based, with scoring being based upon your performance in a multitude of different “missions” that are all weighted differently and have different goals for each one. This year there were 23 teams that put themselves, their machines, and their relationships with themselves and other teams to the test.
This event has piqued my interest from its inception- what’s not to love about an event that has canoeing, shooting, hiking, camping, and off roading all in one place? I decided last winter that 2018 was the year that I was going to compete. In the months leading up to the event, it seems like I completely rebuilt my truck to get it ready. The parts list was long, the bills were expensive, and the nights were late in preparation to go 600 miles from home and hopefully put up a fight.
One of the most crucial parts of the event was your partner. You had to pick someone you could trust, who was reliable, and isn’t afraid to get dirty. After thinking about it for a while, I decided to ask my brother if he wanted to come with. After a couple weeks of persuasion, he finally caved and decided to make the trek. My brother is the type of person who hates losing, doesn’t take no for an answer, and is 100% focused on the task at hand- something that would help out in the long run. Plus, we had been wheeling together for a long time and have spent most of our lives in the outdoors, so that was another key factor. We both started mentally and physically preparing ourselves for what was sure to be an adventure.
As August got closer, it was time to focus on the gear to bring as the competition requires you to be 100% self sufficient; whatever you brought in on your vehicle to check in was what you could use. No outside assistance was allowed, which meant we had to pack 3 days of fuel, food, clothing (most importantly socks, but I’ll get to that later), and the checklist of required equipment that was set forth by the event organizers. Driving into the event, we had things stashed all over the place. It looked like a scene out of Sanford and Sons with my old Chevy piled high with junk pulling into the Uwharrie Off Road Training Center with a 16 foot canoe on top. Little did we know, things were about to start with a bang.
After we moved through check in, which involved getting stickered, going over checklists, and registration, we moved to a holding area. We were Team #11, Team Too Tall. There were ten teams in front of us, and 12 behind us. There was a mix of really cool rigs- everything from JK’s and JKU’s to flatfenders Willys, Land Rovers, an Isuzu and a Lexus. The field was formidable- 8 or so teams had competed in the event before and knew the kind of Hell that we were about to be put through. This was when we got our first introduction to the commandants- the three overseers of the event who would be in charge of making our lives as difficult as possible over the next three days. It was important to listen carefully to them as they would occasionally drop key details about what was about to happen and how to get ready for it. After scrambling around like a bunch of wild men (and women) to get into a formation for the first time is when it dawned on me that this was going to be something that would be a test from start to finish. After getting all the teams together and doing some PT, it was time to move into the FOB.
The FOB (Forward Operating Base) was the place that would be our home for the next three days. It was where we would sleep, have chow, prep the vehicle and plan our attack. As we moved into the FOB, we lined up the rigs in a line that was seemingly perfect- until you get a Marine with an eye for detail who tells you exactly how to do it. After we accomplished this, it was time to set up our tents, and it had to be the same way as the vehicles- straight, neat and orderly. After some required safety briefs, it was time to start the missions.
The first mission was on the Uwharrie River, which meant getting in the canoe. This was something that I was dreading, being a big guy and having a light canoe and not having a lot of experience in the canoe in a river was a recipe for disaster. We convoyed to the river in a 23 rig motorcade and proceeded to unload the canoes and put on our PFD’s and get in the water. The mission was a two mile paddle upriver where we would reach a checkpoint and turn around and paddle back downriver. Sounds pretty nice right? Well, if it weren’t for the fact that it was 100 degrees, the rapids that popped up every ¼ mile, and the fact that you were paddling like a Viking trying to make it to the mainland before a storm, it was awesome! The upriver slog was pretty straightforward, as we had to portage a time or two to get up some harder rapid sections, but we made it through without much of an issue. Checking in with the volunteer at the checkpoint, we turned the canoe around and started moving down river. The first mile or so was fine, and then we came upon one of the harder rapid sections. After conferring with my brother, we decided to try and shoot the gap and run it. Bad idea. Inexperience, a fast river, and 280 pounds of tail weight in the canoe led us to getting high centered on rock. Not a big deal right? Well, in a fiberglass canoe it was. We wound up putting a hole in the canoe. On the first mission. Of a three day event. There goes our chances, right? We were able to get back down the river without many more issues, but the fact that we wrecked the canoe on the first event seemed like a bad omen for the rest of the competition.
The last two events for the day were axe throwing practice (yes, you read that right)
and an obstacle course that was NOT fullsize friendly. We did pretty well in the obstacle course considering I had the biggest, widest vehicle there so we were feeling good. Axe throwing was an adventure. My brother threw axes for a little while in college, and it was clear his experience was paying off. By the end of the five minute training period, I was able to stick about 50% of my throws. Now it was dinner time, and we hustled back to the FOB to get some dinner. We had from 8-9 for dinner, and we wasted no time in cooking some burgers on our little camp stove to get some food in our bellies after a long day.
Halfway through dinner, out of nowhere, gunshots started coming out of nowhere and mortars were being launched. The commandants came out of the woods guns blazing (with dummy rounds) and we about jumped out of our pants. We were under attack, and we were to immediately break camp and report to our vehicles for night missions. After scarfing down a burger faster than I thought was possible, we assembled at the truck to receive our orders for the night ops. We had two hours to complete two tasks- more axe throwing, and a picture challenge. We had to get a picture of the rig on an RTI ramp and email it to an event organizer in order for us to achieve points. We were able to accomplish this pretty easily. The two areas were right next to each other in the FOB, and we successfully completed both missions. We were able to retire to the FOB and after prepping the truck for the next day, it was time to fix the canoe. Luckily, I had some RTV and duck tape, and we slathered the silicone on hoping for the best. Only time (and water) would tell if we would stay afloat. We turned in around midnight, with orders to be up at 6 for reveille.
The next morning, 5AM rolled around to mortars and yelling. Time to get up! After scrambling to get dressed and get coherent, we rolled out to the truck for a morning meeting. Today was going to be the marathon. Over the course of 13 hours, we had 22 missions to complete. There was no way to complete them all, so we had to figure out where our strengths lied, what missions were critical, and managing our time. The highlights of the day included another obstacle course, another canoe paddle (it didn’t leak!!!), a Tread Lightly! trash cleanup, a 3 gun shoot, and driving all over the forest like mad men to get to the different coordinates that the missions were held at. At 2000, we reported back to the FOB for chow, refueling, and foot maintenance. After wet boots all day Friday, and most of the day Saturday, my feet were SCREAMING. The moisture was wrecking my feet, and the commandants pulled me aside to check me out. They ordered me to get some fresh socks, dry boots, and air. They also gave me the option of dropping out of the competition or the night missions we had. There was no way I was driving 600 miles to drop out and disappoint myself and my brother. I put some fresh boots on, clean socks, and some powder and embraced the suck and pushed onward to the night missions.
The night missions consisted of another 2 hour session. We had been given six coordinates and were tasked with photographing 6 individuals at these specific coordinates. This was more difficult than it sounded. The combination of not knowing the area, the darkness, and the exhaustion of two days in the Carolina sun and heat had us running around like chickens with our head cut off. After following a group for most of the night, we decided to split off on our own and try to get the pictures. We were able to get four out of six, which was decent, but we could have done better. Upon returning to the FOB, we went to bed about midnight, with the promise of a 6AM wake up (which was true this time). The event was coming to a climax, and Saturday was the day that we were waiting for.
Saturday came around, and we were given some missions to complete in the morning. It had rained torrentially the night before. The trails were sloppy, and the morning was starting off foggy and steamy. We did a few challenges that morning which included a NASTY hill climb that we had to winch up, and helped another team get up as well. This was part of the event- teamwork. We teamed up with the guys from Team 5 most of Saturday morning to get the challenges done, and we did pretty well and made some friends in the process. Now, it was time for the Final Assault.
The BF Goodrich Final Assault was a series of four events strung together. They included axe Blackjack, a canoe carry, a backwards driving course, and a blind driver course. The first event that we decided to attack was axe Blackjack. The goal was to get 21 and not go over or under, and you had the option of getting a 50 point bonus if you stuck the two handed axe in the bullseye. With my brothers skill at axe throwing, I left this up to him. We had ten throws to land 21, and on the last shot, he nailed a perfect score! Now it was time for the bonus round, and we had three shots. The first two didn’t stick, but the last one hit dead center and we got the 50 bonus points. We had achieved a perfect score on our first event, and now it was on to the next challenge.
The next challenge that we decided to do was the canoe carry. This one was going to be brutal. We had to unload the canoe and put about 75 pounds in it and drag it around an obstacle course. In the 100 degree heat and humidity at 3 in the afternoon, this was no picnic. After horsing the canoe around the course, we were spent, but the next things on the list were the driving events which would give us a little bit of a well needed break. We went to the backwards driving course. This was a really fun event- if you’ve never driven through the woods backwards as fast as you can in 4-low, try it, and tell me you didn’t have a blast. For a beast of a vehicle I thought we did pretty decent, and now it was time for the blind driver course. In this event, you were given blacked out sunglasses and had to rely on your spotters verbal instructions to get around the course. The night before, we had given a team some fuel (remember you have to be self sufficient) as they were super low and we had about a half a tank left. After the marathon of driving Friday night and Saturday, we were down to about a quarter tank. Up until now we were fine, but without any extra fuel we were on the limit of the tank. We started the next obstacle course, but unfortunately with it being very very off camber and steep, the truck kept stalling out and I couldn’t keep it running. Unfortunately we DNF’ed on this event, and had to run back to the FOB for our closing ceremonies The Final Assault was finished, and so was the event. Or so we thought.
Competitors in the previous events had warned us what was about to happen- an unlisted mission in the challenge book. Luckily, Team 18 (thanks fellas) was nice enough to lend us 5 gallons of fuel to get us to the next mission. We knew it would be a canoe mission, as it was on the shores of Badin Lake. What we didn’t know was exactly what was in store. We offloaded the canoes, and were promptly told to turn into our paddles. This caused some confusion, as we weren’t quite sure what was going on. The commandants then told us that we needed to come up with paddles using only the equipment on our trucks. Now, a lot of the teams had Maxtrax or shovels that could be used as paddles, but unfortunately we had no such thing. After thinking about it for a minute, we decided to use what we had available, which were two six gallon water jugs that we had strapped on the truck. After dumping the water out, we headed down to the lakeshore to see what was in store.
After scrambling to get in line with the canoes, we marched down to the lake shore where, lo and behold, were our paddles! We were getting them back! In a sick, perverse way of a complete morale killer, the commandants told us they were for emergencies only and that we wouldn’t be able to use them unless we were told to. Then we were told that we had to paddle to the island in the middle of the lake- about a half mile in the distance. This was going to be brutal. No shade, hot sun, and lack of energy was about to be a role player. We got all lined up, and we disembarked on our Field Expedient Paddle mission. This was hard work as we couldn’t really get a grip on the jugs and we couldn’t get a lot of momentum with them as paddles. We started moving out to the island with a flock of canoes that looked like the Spanish Armada of old. We were one of the last teams to make it to the island, but once there, they told us we could use our paddles. At this point, we turned and started hauling back to the boat launch as fast as we could. We made it back without issue, and then loaded up the truck for the last convoy back to the FOB.
After three days and nights in Uwharrie National Forest, our time in the competition had come to an end. The closing ceremony was done in memory of Scott Fields, who was a pioneer for the Uwharrie trail system and one of the leading minds behind the event who had suddenly passed away a few months earlier which left the off road community stricken due to its loss. After speeches by everyone involved with the event, it was time to find out the winners. While my brother and I did not do as well as we had hoped, finishing the event was a feat in itself. It was, without a doubt, the most challenging gut check that I have ever done. I proved to myself that I had what it takes to complete one of the hardest off road events in the United States right now. This is an event that I would recommend to anyone who feels that they are an off roader, outdoorsman, or crazy enough to go spend 3 days with former drill instructors in the heat and humidity. I am thankful that I was able to experience this with my brother- we came back stronger and better and more confident than before. Thanks to everyone who supported us- the OK4WD crew, especially Jim, my parents, and anybody who helped me turn a wrench on the truck in the past 8 months. Uwharrie was awesome to us, and this is an event that should stick around for a long time.
All pictures are courtesy of John Byrd.