Off road ATV
Photo by Denis Prisbrey
Up where trees are sparse and views are high, wide, and handsome, Allie enjoys a break from rocky roads and high drop-offs.

Nieces and nephews can be just about as much fun as grandkids. Borrow or visit them, spoil ’em, play with ’em, wrestle with ’em, get ’em dirty and all riled up, and then leave ’em to their parents to clean up and calm them down. We’re quite close to my wife’s sister and her family, among whom are two nephews and one niece, and we’ve babysat, done birthdays together, sleepovers, fire-pit sessions in the back lot, and numerous other joint activities since the kids were tiny.

As they grew up in their urban home in the Salt Lake City Valley, I’ve let the boys drive our ATV up the hill behind our small town near SLC on the border of Utah’s West Desert country during visits here in the summer. When spring arrives I start hearing things like, “When can we come out and drive your…uh, when can we come out and visit you again, Uncle Denis?”

Since I actually enjoy having them around, during the year each gets equal one-on-one attention for individual outings as time permits and we’ll set aside a day just for each one. Shooting and the ATV are always good bets with the boys. When we do an outback expedition nowadays, I’ve provided them with basic emergency equipment of their own and they’ve learned how to use it in case of a breakdown or if something happens to me and they’re on their own.

But finding activities that a distinctly un-cool grey-bearded old fogey and a bright and outgoing teenage girl in middle school can enjoy together has been a challenge. Aside from a day hike we took together a couple years back, she’s not expressed much interest in the outdoors. But finally, after two expeditions with her brothers this summer her “day” rotated around again, and in desperation for ideas I asked her parents if they thought she might like to try a mountain trip in the four-wheeler if I offered one. I really shouldn’t have been surprised at the answer; earlier this year she’d chosen to go shooting for one of our afternoons together. But when her bosses said yes, and she later said, “YES!” I realized I’d made a much-too-common error in stereotyping. I should not have assumed that just because she wasn’t one of “us guys” she wouldn’t want to do a “guy” kind of trip in the wilds.


Allie is 14 years old, a 9th grader with a 3.8 grade point average. She currently plays the clarinet after recently switching from the cello. Her dad is a retired cop, and her mom is a former police dispatcher (mirroring my wife and I), and Allie is the only child who ever asked me nonchalantly (and loudly) while carrying her through a Las Vegas casino at the age of five on a vacation trip with her family, “Uncle Denis, are you wearing a gun?” As a working cop at the time I, in fact, was; she was so accustomed to her father and I doing so it was just everyday business with her, and I still recall what sounded to me like deafening silence all around us, but I’m told nobody else noticed what she said.

Allie is otherwise your typical teenager complete with cell phone, iPod, Facebook account, and BFFs to hang out with. She loves her music, has an interest in photography, and thinks scary movies are fun.


Her day was finally set in early October and she was duly delivered one Saturday morning by her regular chauffeur (AKA Mom). I gave Allie her new Esbit pocket stove and spare fuel, a blaze orange Matchcap match safe loaded with “strike anywhere” kitchen matches, cotton balls in a double Ziploc baggie, a high-visibility blaze orange knitted watch cap (for warmth when not wearing her helmet and to help avoid being mistaken for a deer by early season bowhunters) and a blaze orange handkerchief (to help signal search parties if needed), a plastic whistle with a GI P38 can opener on it for pocket carry, a Heatsheet survival blanket from Adventure Medical, a stainless steel Glacier cup, and a Light My Fire ferro rod as a backup to the matches. The ATV’s breakdown bag duplicates those and always carries enough additional emergency items for two people to survive for at least three days, but the idea with Allie, as with her brothers before her, was to get her set up with her own essentials for future outings.

After checking her out on the ACR personal locater beacon that rides in the ATV’s glove box, we stowed her pack in the cargo bed of the Yamaha Rhino, and drove the truck and trailer to the staging area for the Jacob City Loop 30 miles south of where I live and unloaded the ATV. On the way there, we went over the basic rules of mountain adventuring such as how to handle cougar encounters (she surprised me by already knowing) and to stay put in case of medical disaster or breakdown. After that it was time to hit the dirt.

Jacob City in Utah’s Oquirrh Mountain Range was a mining town founded high up in the hills in 1865, and at its peak boasted a two-story hotel and a population of 300 inhabitants. Today, the mines are long closed and most of the structures are either gone or collapsed, leaving the occasional ore chute and grated-off tunnel entrance dotted among the aspen and pine on the hillsides. A scenic route and county-maintained ATV trail loop, there are numerous side roads and trails to explore from the main dirt road, and even though I’ve been up there several times it’s still a favorite ride, and it was all new to Allie as we wound our way up narrow and rocky roads cut into the mountain with sharp cutbacks and steep drop-offs below us. We were a little late in the season for any reds, but yellow aspens against clear blue skies painted beautiful contrasts.

With diversions at mining sites and an old log cabin along the way, at roughly 9,200 feet we stopped for the view on both sides of a ridgeline and then dropped down into a section used sporadically for a small cattle operation. Another quick stop for Allie to get a cell phone shot of six range cattle lounging under the shade of a tree for her Facebook page, and then on to the aspen grove hollow where her father and I had encountered Ghost Knockers on a previous excursion. Attempts to raise them by whacking a fallen limb against a tree trunk (the same exact sound the Ghost Knockers make) failed, which was disappointing, but the sun was steadily heading West and we were getting hungry, so we buckled ourselves into the ATV and retraced our back trail to a protected spot under the trees where we hauled out the makings for lunch.


For Allie’s introduction to gourmet cooking at 9,000 feet we kept it simple: water and Ramen noodles. As it happened, besides being easy we both like Ramen noodles. We set up her Esbit stove, and I showed her how to fold a section of aluminum foil as a wind shield around the sides to help concentrate the heat output straight up instead of blowing flame out sideways. Then it was a short course in match lighting, and yes, that’s easy for those of us who grew up with the old wooden matches, but takes a little practice by those who didn’t.

Allie quickly picked it up after she found the right striking stone and didn’t break a single matchstick. In fact, her uncle was the only one who did when he borrowed the stove. (“Strike it on the other side of the rock, Uncle Denis, it works better there.”). Thanks, Allie; nothing like being beaten by a total beginner. Once the solid fuel tab was lit inside the stove, her Glacier cup was filled about three-quarters full of water and set on top.


While waiting for the water to heat up (three successive fuel tabs at that altitude in 40-degree temps), I gathered some deadfall twigs and limb sections to set the foundation for a fire. After laying out five finger-thick sticks on the ground together and then five at 180 degrees on top to get the flames up off the dirt and promote airflow from underneath, Allie donated three of her cotton balls that were flattened and laid on the top platform layer. A small downed pine nearby provided smaller twigs for a teepee above the cotton (pine needles are great fire-starters, but they burn fast and you need to have the other fuel prep done and ready before they burn out). Then it was time for Allie to make fire.

Ferro rods come with a protective coating that doesn’t produce sparks very well until it’s scraped off, sort of a break-in process that can be discouraging to new fire-makers with a new rod. I loaned mine to Allie to use on this outing because it was well broken in, and positive reinforcement in the form of actual results is important in learning any new skill. She had no problem creating a shower of sparks, and the biggest challenge was learning the right distance and angle to direct the sparks onto the target tinder without accidentally knocking the fire-to-be over. In about four minutes she had it it down pat and produced a nice blaze. This is no small thing; Allie now knows that if she has her ferro rod or matches along she can build a fire in the wilds for warmth, cooking, and signaling. She’s off to a great start.


After fire school we baby-sat the Esbit till the water was boiling, broke the noodle “brick” into halves, dropped them into the cup, and waited till the boil came back to add the flavor packet. A couple more minutes and they were done. While Allie blew on hers to cool it down, I fired up her stove again and set my own cup on it. In the thin and cold autumn air such a simple thing as a hot cup of noodles can be surprisingly tasty. The birds cheerfully kept us company. You can’t buy moments like that.

But, the cold was starting to get to Allie’s feet and hands, so once lunchtime was over we made very sure the fire was thoroughly out, then packed up our gear and battened it down to make a run for it out of the trees and down the mountain while there was still sunlight. Back at the staging area an hour before sunset, I offered Allie a choice: I could drive the ATV onto the trailer, or she could drive it around one of the dirt trails down on the flats. Guess what she chose?

Altogether a great day on the mountain, with great company, and I’ll never again make the mistake of pigeonholing Allie or anybody else who happens to be a non-male when it comes to suggesting outdoor time. There will be more of these trips with her, and we’ll work on other skills when it warms up again. She’s already talking about spring; a fine time for Knife School, with a side course in Desert Exploration. There’s a reward in itself in passing on a love of the outdoors.

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