St. Helen a hub for ORV recreation

Quad riders on the trail near St. Helen.

July 3, 2013

The first thing Paul Hittie does, when he gets to his destination at the Motorsport Area near St. Helen, is let air out of his tires.

"To play on the rocks, I'll run it down to 10 pounds," he said, noting that he usually runs 44 pounds of pressure in his street-legal Jeep.

Playing on the rocks, as Hittie puts it, is one of the main attractions for hard-core, four-wheel-drive enthusiasts who come to St. Helen, the unofficial off-road vehicle capital of Michigan. On this day, he's going to try to climb one of the more difficult of the six rock-crawl courses in the area. Quad riders take a break on the trail near St. Helen on an autumn day. (Image on the right.)

The township campground is a headquarters for ORV enthusiasts at St. Helen.And so Hittie begins, slowly, climbing up a 100-foot stretch of boulders in an otherwise natural sand bowl at the area. He drives carefully, picking his way up for 10 minutes until, halfway up, he's lodged a tire between a couple of big rocks. At that point he has to get out of the vehicle and use the winch attached to the front of his truck to get out of his predicament. By the time he's done, he's spent nearly an hour going roughly 100 feet. Par for the course, he said.

Open since 2010, the Department of Natural Resources' Motorsports Area is the crown jewel of a treasure trove of off-roading opportunities around St. Helen, in Roscommon County. Between the rock crawl and trails, the St. Helen area offers just about everything a four-wheeler could want.

The rock courses range from doable by a good driver in a standard four-by-four pickup truck to darn near impossible for even veteran off-roaders in a custom-built ORV, said Pat Kinne, a 45-year-old self-employed metal fabricator and past president of the Great Lakes Four Wheel Drive Association (GLFWDA). Kinne, from Midland, sat on the advisory committee when the DNR first proposed, and then built, the area. He visits it a handful of times a year.

Pat Kinne, of Midland, takes a break from climbing the rocks at St. Helen Motorsport Area."I'd come up every weekend if it wasn't for graduations and weddings and stuff," Kinne said. "This whole area is pretty important; it's the first stop for guys from southeastern Michigan who want to put it in four-wheel drive."

Gary Greenway, who climbed a course in his 2008 Jeep Rubicon recently, says he's a semi-reluctant rock crawl participant. He prefers to simply get on the trails and ride.

"There are different breeds of wheelers," said the 56-year-old retired auto worker from Fenton. "Some look for the biggest obstacle they can overcome. I'm past that. I've been out in the woods a long time - snowmobiles, motorcycles, quads - I just like to ride trails now. A lot of people don't understand - we just like bad roads.

"But every now and then I'm goaded into doing something stupid."

And that's the allure of the St. Helen area. ORVers can make it as simple - or as difficult - as they like. Enthusiasts with quads or off-road motorcycles can get on the trail system and go all the way to Harrison or Prudenville on DNR ORV trails. Or they can play on the rocks.

The scramble area and the trails are important to the local economy, said Bev VanMeter of the St. Helen Chamber of Commerce.

"As a business owner and president of the chamber of commerce and as an ORV owner - I own a dune buggy - it's huge," she said. "Since we've allowed the ORVs to come to the St. Helen area, business is up for everybody. It's worked out well for our community."

Cheryl Lyttle, who - along with her husband (Jim) - owns St. Helen Powersports, a business that services ORVs, says ORVs are "pretty critical" to the St. Helen economy.

ORV club members hold a dinner at the community center at the campground near St. Helen."You need some tourism," she said. "Anything that gets people up in our area is important. I'd say having ORVs in this area is good for the entire community - the restaurants, gas stations, hotels and motels - even babysitters. It's the trickle-down effect - good for everybody.

"Four-wheeling is a three-season - and sometimes even four-season - sport."

ORV enthusiasts account for the bulk of the campers at the Richfield Township Campgrounds, located just a short (but bumpy) drive from the Motorsports Area.

"When we started building a campground on our property about five years ago, the DNR turned part of their property into a joint snowmobile/ORV project to connect to the trails because probably 80 percent of the people who stay here are riders," said Dennis Shunk, who runs the campgrounds. "They can go directly from the campground to the trails and people stay here now because of that.

Pat Kinne, left, and Gary Greenway help guide Paul Hittie's Jeep up the rocks."As soon as the snow melts, people switch over to ORVs and they start calling about camping in February. Come May, it fills up for every holiday and major event. This is a recreation-oriented town; if it wasn't for outdoor recreation we wouldn't exist the way we do today."

Major events include the St. Helen ORV Jamboree, slated for Aug 9-11 this year. A festival designed for all ORV enthusiasts, the annual event features a sand run, a mud bog, an obstacle course and an ORV/ATV pull as well as basic all-terrain vehicle training. It attracts more than just participants.

"We drew about 1,000 people to the mud bog event last year as spectators," said Jim Lyttle.

For Kinne, trail riding may be okay, but it's the challenge of rock crawling that gets him going.

"I grew up trail riding with my grandpa and grandma in a two-wheel-drive truck," said Kinne, who has an on-board welder in his Jeep for emergency repairs. "But there's a certain romance to Jeeping. You can swap axles, you can swap engines, you can modify the suspensions - you can take ownership of it.

Gary Greenway makes it to the top of a rock course at the St. Helen Motorsport Area."It's almost a lifestyle - people plan their vacations around it."

Most of the money for the Motorsport Area came from a DNR grant from the Off-Road Vehicle Trail Improvement Fund, which is financed by the purchase of ORV stickers. But both ORVers and the St. Helen business community chipped in to help pay for the rock crawl area, which has traffic every weekend, said Hittie, a member of the What Lies Beyond Jeep Club and vice-president of the GLFWDA.

"The association put in $1,500 to help buy the rocks, and virtually every club donated," he said. "I think, all told, we put in $8,000 above the original grant."

The St. Helen ORV area is a prime example of where the DNR wants to take its ORV program.

"This is an important component of our state trails management plan," said Steve Kubisiak, the DNR's Recreation and Trails Program coordinator. "Among the items in the plan was to develop trails and ORV opportunities that reach out to local communities. This is a very successful example of that."

For more information on Michigan ORV trails, visit www.michigan.gov/orvtrails.