July 24, 2006

Oh Canada... Zook Style

What better way to celebrate the birth of a Nation than to get out there in the thick of it and do a bit of 4wheeling for the day? At least, that's how keen Zook-driving Canadians like to celebrate their Canada Day. The July 1 weekend plays host to SuziCan, an offroad event run and hosted by the Ottawa Valley Offroaders club, but attended by a loosely-organised but very tight-knit group of Canadian Zooksters.

The Suzuki offroading scene in southern Ontario seems to be largely organised through www.zookpower.ca, a forum-based website that lets Suzuki owners stay in touch with each other, share knowledge about modifications, and organise outings together. It's not actually run as a club, but rather as a meeting point for like-minded people. Various forum members take the initiative to run trips and those who want to attend just turn up. It's pretty casual, but it seems to work really well. For the past five years, an event called SuziCan has been held at Calabogie, about an hour from Canada's capital city, Ottawa.

I was fortunate to be able to attend this years SuziCan as a guest, and after a few navigational "guesses" coming in on the back road from Cloyne via Griffith, I eventually arrived at the site. I'd negotiated my visit through the Zookpower website, and was made to feel very welcome by Mudlite (aka John), who said I should just turn up and he would try to make sure I had a seat in one of the vehicles for the day. I arrived and found him marshalling cars into teams, and was greeted with a cheery "You must be the Aussie! Welcome!" True to his word, John quickly found me a seat with a nice young bloke called Logan. In fact, Logan owned two Zooks and had brought them both to the weekend, so he introduced me to Todd, a mate of his that was driving his other Zook. And what a beast this other Zook was! Todd expertly drove me around all day in this very extremely capable little car. It started life as a Samurai (Sierra), but had evolved into a collection of barwork and weld that sort of vaguely still resembled a Suzuki. It had a 1600 EFI Sidekick (Vitara) motor hooked up to an auto trans, feeding into two transfer cases - one from the Sidekick, the other from a Samurai. This was all fed into 5.1 Toyota diffs (well, one was a 5.1, the other was 4.something - a victim of a previous weekend of wheeling and not yet fixed properly). The back diff was a CIG locker, the front was a detroit locker and it ran 38 inch Boggers. The whole vehicle was wrapped in buggy style barwork and it had obviously been on its roof more than a few times. But this was a car built for fun... :-)

The day started with a game called Capture the Flag. I'd heard the term "capture the flag" before, but had not seen it played this way... the "flag" was in fact not a flag at all, but a board with a plastic circle on which was printed everyone's vehicle number. Each car was issued with a holepunch attached to a metre of string. The rules were pretty simple... the string had to be tied to the front of the vehicle, and in teams of three cars the goal was to use the holepunch to punch your car number out of the plastic circle, effectively proving you had been to that "flag". Of course, in order to do that, you had to get the nose of your vehicle within at least a metre of the flag in order to be able to reach it with your holepunch, and some of the flags were no so easy to get near! They may have been placed in a deeply wooded area with several large logs or stumps in the way, or on top of a pile of rocks, or halfway up the side of a cliff, or in a swampy boggy area. There were apparently 37 flags in total and points were awarded to the team of three vehicles that got to punch their numbers onto the most number of flags during the day. You could use whatever line or technique you liked to get to the flag, including winching onto it. It was simple game, but interesting, lots of fun and a good way to spend the day.

Of course, there was usually a group of people waiting at each flag point to have their turn, so it was a good opportunity to have a chat, share thoughts about zooking and soak up the warm Canadian day. The course we were following for the day basically followed underneath some powerlines, so it was not an environmentally sensitive area.

The vehicles driven by the canadian guys tended to be a little wilder than the average zook back home in Australia. Of course, there are plenty of examples of Suzukis in Australia that have been fairly radically modified, but the regulations in Canada about what you can and can't do in terms of modifications seem to be a lot more open to interpretation. Although every vehicle has to undergo a safety inspection in order to be road registered, there is not a strict need to have an engineering certificate for modifications, so the mods tend to be a bit more "anything goes". The other factor is that, unlike Australia, an unregistered vehicle can still be driven on the trail... so most people just trailer their zook to the track, drive it all day, and then trailer it home again. There are two implications of this... one is that the modifications can be as extreme as you like since it does not have to pass any tests. The other is that these guys tend to drive their vehicles pretty hard... if it breaks they only have to get it back to the trailer and not all the way home.

Rust is also a major factor for the vehicles in Canada. Due to the salting of the roads in winter, the bodywork on older vehicles tends to be pretty severely rusted out, as you can see in the photo below. Suzuki no longer make Sierras (or Samurais) for the North American market, so whatever cars that exist out there right now is it. Once they are gone, that's it, they're gone. Combined with the fact that the bodies rust out and are virtually impossible to replace with new ones, and that there are very few rules about what you can do to keep them going, a lot of the vehicles seem to get pretty radical body makeovers. The blue vehicle in the picture below is a good example.. it started life as an LJ80, but the only thing still remaining of the original LJ80 is the foot pedal assembly... everything else has been replaced, remade, refabricated. The chassis has been changed, the axles and drivetrain have been replaced, the body has been completely redesigned and rebuilt using tubular framework and checkerplate. The compliance plate still says it's an LJ80. :-)

The final obstacle for the day was a very steep incline up a rockface (the photos below don't really do it justice). Todd was determined that he was going to get up the cliff and, expecting the near-inevitable rollover, made sure he put is helmet and harness on. After a few pretty serious attempts at getting up the hill, he eventually accepted that he was missing the horsepower and the grip to succeed... so instead he went around the hill and tried to drive down it. Of course, gravity eventually won, and the zook flipped nose-over, rolled (very hard!) twice before coming to rest upside down at the base of the hill. Todd emerged unscathed, they flipped the zook back onto its wheels and had a good laugh about it. The two upper control arms on the rear diff snapped in the impact and the whole rear diff had to be strapped into place in order to drive it back to camp. However, within an hour of returning to camp, the control arms had been replaced and the zook was good to go again. No trouble.

While Logan and Todd fixed their zook, I wandered around the site checking out some of the other cars and talking to a few people. There were actually three flags right at the campsite, so I watched for a while as a very funky-looking Vitara (Sidekick) climbed some very serious-looking rocks to add yet another flag to its hit list. I'd promised John a few photos from the day, so I returned to my car, downloaded the photos from my camera into my Mac and burnt them all to DVD for him on the spot.

I contemplated staying overnight and hanging around for another day of zooking, but I'd left Donna and the kids back at a cottage about 150kms away and I was keen to spend the next day with them. Reluctantly I left the SuziCan site, but I'd had a really good day out in the Canadian bush. It was surprisingly similar to a day out 4WDing in Australia... the people were friendly, we shared the same interests and spoke the same language. There is definitely a commonality of the offroad experience regardless of what country you happen to be in, but at the same time it was really great to hook up with the Canadians and see what they get up to, and experience things from a slightly different perspective.

It's all good, eh!

Chris Betcher

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