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2007 Jeep Jamboree Story

The First Alaskan Northern Lights Jeep Jamboree

by Sue Mead

Motoring in the frigid cold and snowy depths of Alaska in a Jeep is nothing new for Mark A. Smith and Tim Stigens. In fact, the two were team members on the famed Expedicion de las Americas. The five-month, 21,000-mile-long journey, that began in 1978, took Smith and Stigens, who was 19 at the time and the youngest member of the group, from the tip of South America to Prudhoe Bay—and through the impenetrable Darien Gap.

Jeep Jamboree Driving Experience

The pair joined up again recently to put on the first Alaskan Northern Lights Jeep Jamboree. Smith, who is now known throughout the globe for his four-wheeling adventures and his 4WD Jeep Jamboree USA program, and Stigens, who is a paramedic and firefighter in Alaska, hosted this three and-a-half day event for everyday enthusiasts, all of whom hailed from the lower 48. Stigens, a trail mechanic on the Rubicon for two decades before moving to Alaska, drove his ’78 CJ7, one of the five vehicles modified for the tip-to-tip trip.

“We planned a winter event keeping in mind the variability of weather and chose places that were safe and scenic,” explained Stigen, who kept the attendees busy during the six-plus hours of daylight, but allowed for personal exploring and family time after the sun set.

Rather than hard-core four wheeling, Stigens, and his son, Mike, set up an itinerary to help participants imagine what life was like in the days of the pioneers, before we motored in Jeeps, with heated seats and four-wheel drive traction. Activities gave the opportunity to learn about the rigors of horse-drawn sleigh travel while being pulled by a team of Percherons; to experience the thrill of dog-sledding tucked into a musher’s sled along a portion of the Iditarod Trail; to get up-close-and-personal with the ice-faced Matanuska Glacier; to hear the cry of the wolf at Wolf Farm USA; and then to climb into Jeep vehicles and drive through snowy woods and across frozen lakes.

“You haven’t seen—and truly learned about—America until you’ve been places only your Jeep 4x4 can take you,” quotes Smith, on the jacket of his book, “Driven by a Dream.” Smith would know. “The Father of Modern Four Wheeling” not only knows the backcountry of America, but he has been a 4x4 pioneer around the world. His four wheeling exploits and adventures earned him the accolade “Four Wheeler of the Decade” in 1986, and memberships in the Off Road Hall of Fame and The Explorer’s Club.

Motherlode Lodge, Hatcher Pass, Alaska

The new winter Alaska event was headquartered at The Motherlode Lodge in Hatcher Pass, approximately one hour north of Anchorage, on the Wasilla Fishook Road. Originally a wagon trail that followed the Little Susitna River to its head waters in Hatcher Pass, the area was known as an outpost and supply region for the gold fields of the Willow Creek Mining District. The first trail was rough and followed the path of least resistance. Now widened and paved, it's still rugged and takes travelers by the remains of Independence Mine and deep into the passageway to Parks High-way, with majestic views in all directions.

“For us, winter is foreign,” pointed out Alan Travis, a Jeep owner from Phoenix, Arizona, who came with his wife Mary. The pair have ralleyed in Jeep events and had explored Alaska in the summer, but had not experienced winter off-roading. That was the case for others, most of who had attended other Jeep Jamborees and hailed from New Jersey, Texas, Illinois, Florida and California.

"What brought me here was the appeal of Alaska; plus, I’m an off-road kind of person," said banker David Gary, who joined friend Terry Heater, the owner and manager of automobile dealerships in Texas, who also sells Jeeps. "I’d never been to Alaska and I thought the wintertime would be fun," said Heater. "I’d met Mark Smith on the Rubicon and thought this Jamboree would be more intimate," he added.

For Bruce and Heidi Wolfson, of Livermore, California, who home school their children, the Jamboree became another great educational experience Matthew, 8, Madeline, 6, and Elizabeth, 5, were able “to see a different part of our country, and learn many new things.”

Jeep Jamboree Driving Experience

The natives called Alaska, Aleyska, The Great Land. A new campaign calls it “The Big Wild.” No matter what you call it, Alaska offers something for almost everyone and whether you head north or south out of the gateway city of Anchorage, you will discover a great playground for the young and the young-at-heart during any season. Jeep Jamboree USA has other events in Alaska. (Check current scheduling for details.)

The Jeep Jamboree Story
Mark Smith is often considered the modern-day father of four wheeling. He has also been called Mr. Jeep and the John Wayne of Jeeping. Now that this 4WD expert turned 80, a new title, the Silver Fox of Four-Wheeling, has been added to the list. Smith does for a living what most others do for a hobby: he four-wheels America’s—and the world’s—fantastic frontiers.

Before Smith joined the U.S. Marines, he had already fallen in love with the Jeep, which he first saw in a newsreel at the movies. Once in the service and behind the wheel of a real Jeep, he began a relationship with this incredible machine that has now lasted for more than 60 years.

In 1952, Smith and a small group of businessmen and friends got together to talk about a way to support the sagging economy of their area in northern California. The idea of a Jeep trip across the famed, rugged Rubicon Trail was born. One hundred and fifty-five “Jeepers” and 55 Jeeps made the first trip across the 22-mile boulder-strewn trail to Lake Tahoe, near the Nevada border.

The craze caught on, and today more than 200,000 Jeep enthusiasts have driven across the trail and attended Jeep Jamborees, now held in locations throughout the country, and internationally as well. The family-oriented 4WD outings begun by Smith are designed for all levels of expertise. Beginners and seasoned off-roaders participate and are given instructional guidance over trails that are rated on a scale from 1 to 10 for difficulty. The Rubicon is a 10.

The two-day events (some are longer) are held in a variety of locations in America’s backcountry, with destinations selected for scenic and historical value as well as 4WD trails. The Rubicon and the Jeep Jamborees are only part of the Mark Smith story.

“I was looking for something more exciting in an off-road adventure when the idea of a trip crossing the Darien Gap came up,” explains the tall gentle giant. The dream started in 1965, when Smith began thinking about the possibilities of an adventure deep in the heart of the Darien rain forest between Panama and Colombia in Central America. Seven years later, a British Army group tackled the nearly impenetrable gap in a successful crossing, an ordeal that took 100 days and 250 men.

“This made me envious of their accomplishments but it did nothing to dampen my desire to try,” says Smith, whose office walls are adorned with photos from 4WD expeditions around the world. “In 1976, I made a first exploration trip to the Darien, along with some friends. We felt the odds were against us, but felt the desire and need to conquer this feat.”

The Darien, a snake- and insect-infested forest, became an obsession for Smith. He again explored the gap and the Great Atrato Swamp in Colombia a year later. Soon after their return, Smith and his friend and colleague, Ken Collins, picked a group of men and ordered their Jeep CJ7s. “We worked the bugs out of them on the Rubicon Trail. You see, the Rubicon Trail and the Jeepers Jamboree had given us the background and experience to embark on one of the greatest 4WD adventures ever taken.”

Jeep Jamboree Driving Experience

After 12 years of dreaming and three years of planning, the Expedicion de las Americas began in 1978. The five-month, 21,000-mile-long journey took Smith’s group from the tip of South America to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. Smith described the expedition. “The trip was a tremendous experience and gave us a wonderful feeling of accomplishment—especially crossing the Darien Gap. On an average day there, we would make two or three miles. One day, we worked for nine hours and only moved 500 feet.”

The group had to literally live off the land while carving out a trail in the dense forests. According to Smith, they ate whatever they could find. “The catch of the day, which was caught, trapped, shot, or snared by Indian hunters who accompanied our group, included turkeys, alligator[s], scarlet macaws, iguana, and a large variety of fish, along with native fruits and vegetables.”

Now on record, Smith’s Darien Gap crossing covered a total of 110 miles through this primitive forest. It was completed in 30 days by 14 North Americans, 3 Colombians, and 25 Central Americans.

Smith’s credentials support his reputation as one of the foremost 4WD celebrities in the world. Today, he is a consultant to the Jeep Division of Daimler Chrysler Corporation and has designed and built the 4WD test facility at the Daimler Chrysler proving ground in Chelsea, Michigan. He has developed special training for the U.S. Army Special Forces and has built more than 60 4WD test and demonstration courses in the United States and around the globe. Smith is also a member of the Off-Road Hall of Fame and the Explorers Club of New York. In 1986, the United Four Wheel Drive Association named him the Four Wheeler of the Decade.

In addition to supporting the Jeep Jamboree USA program, Smith continues to share his expertise around the world, conducting special 4WD training schools where he teaches safe, common sense off-road driving techniques. It's estimated that he has trained over 2,000 law enforcement officers from 20 different agencies, including police and sheriff’s departments throughout the United States. California’s Department of Fish and Game and the U.S. Forest Service have also benefited from his training.


For further information about Jeep Jamboree USA programs, contact (530) 333-4777.  To receive a free 2007 guidebook, call (800) 925-JEEP.  The Jeep Jamboree USA guidebook, with event dates and details, is available on-line at

Alaska Airlines, Delta, Northwest, and Continental all fly from gateway cities in the lower 48.

The Motherlode Lodge is located one hour north of Anchorage, 
on the banks of the Little Susitna River in the pristine wilderness 
of Hatcher Pass.  The lodge is open year round; individual overnight guests and groups are welcome anytime by reservation. 

1150 S. Colony Way #3 PMB 183
Palmer, AK  99645
Phone: (907) 745-6171

Tim Stigens (4WD guide): 907-770-2863.

The MILEPOST Alaska, a bible of North Country travel, is an invaluable resource.  Mileage designations with route and local information are provided in an easy-to-read format. Order yours at for $28.