BETHEL — The Maine Mountains Jeep Jamboree USA, which comes to Bethel this weekend, got its start 25 years ago with an off-road ride in a Ford Bronco.
Mark Smith of Georgetown, Calif., who established what would become a nationwide Jeepers Jamboree more than 60 years ago, came to Bethel through a business connection with Dick Rasor, owner of the Bethel Inn, off-roader Geoff Gaudreau of Bethel said.
Smith wanted to find a new location for his Jamboree, which at that time had about 10 sites nationwide.
“Looking for someone who knew the local trails, he came and talked to me about it,” said Gaudreau, who also owns Gaudreau’s Repairs.
“At the time,” Gaudreau said, “I didn’t have Jeeps. I had Broncos.”
He took Smith on an off-road tour of Greenwood, East Bethel, the Sunday River area and other places. “Just about everywhere,” Gaudreau said.
Smith apparently liked what he saw, because he came back and the Bethel event was born. Bethel’s jamboree had its inaugural season in 1989, with about 60 vehicles and Gaudreau as the sole guide.
The off-road ride took place on a spring weekend with the Androscoggin River flooding, he said. “There was one lane of traffic out of town,” he said, and the trails were pretty wet.
But it was successful enough that the event grew and, after a few years, took place in both spring and fall.
In the early years, Doug Wilson of Greenwood also become involved, helping with trail repairs. Two years into the Jamboree, they formed the Western Maine Mountain Jeepers Club, which has coordinated the local jamborees ever since.
Gaudreau also built a close relationship with Smith, traveling all over the country and to Australia with him, scouting out trails and making arrangements with landowners for other Jamborees.
Today, Jamborees take place in more than 30 states, Wilson said.
After about 10 years, the Bethel Jamboree was scaled back to just the fall. The ice storm of 1998 devastated the woods and trails, Wilson said, and Western Maine Mountain Jeepers decided to focus on the autumn run. Foliage season also provides the best scenery and the trail conditions are generally more predictable than spring, he said.
Wilson said for many Jeepers, the draw of the annual event has been the adventure, the family focus and the hospitality of the Bethel area, along with the great trails.
“It’s a way to get out in the woods,” he said, and for some people with disabilities, it’s the only way to get into the woods with their families.
“We had a 90-year-old go out,” Gaudreau said.
Wilson and his wife, Jodie, took over the Bethel Jamboree coordinator job from Gaudreau in 2000.
They are responsible for communicating with the seven landowners who make their property available for the jamboree, and for making sure the land is well cared for.
The Wilsons and club members cut brush and put out pole bridges and rocks to aid in crossing streams. After the Jamboree, which takes place on a Saturday, they head back out Sunday morning to do cleanup and also hay and seed any areas that have been disturbed.
Today’s Jamboree draws about 120 vehicles and about two dozen guides from all over the country, and helps fill local lodging places for the fall weekend.
On Saturday morning, a parade of Jeeps travels from the Bethel Common down Main Street before they head out for the day’s trail ride. The Bethel area has about 20 miles of trails available, including in Upton, Greenwood, Bethel, Newry and Albany Township.
One of the more popular rides, Wilson said, is what’s known as the Chili Trail ?because of the fabulous homemade, chili-based lunches prepared by a resident in Mason Township.
Two of this year’s ride participants, Dave Aho of Warren and Todd Landers of Massachusetts, were there for the first jamboree in 1989 and haven’t missed one since. Landers will be bringing the same Jeep he used the first year.
The Jeeps vary widely in their capabilities and design, depending on their owners. Some Jeepers come with enough equipment —? such as welders — to take care of any trail mishap that may happen. Gaudreau often works on the Jeeps that come for the jamboree at his garage.
Gaudreau bought his own first Jeep, a Willy that had been used on a farm, in three pieces and put it together. Although that Jeep is now gone, he still has a late ’70s Jeep, dubbed “Alice,” that he built from several pieces.
Wilson said Jeepers put their vehicles together specifically for trail riding. “Jeeps aren’t bought, they’re built,” is a popular saying among Jeepers, he said.
Wilson has two Jeeps, a 1954 CJ 3B he got in 1991 and a 1970 Jeepster Commando he got in 2006. He put both of them together, with Gaudreau’s help.
Both men drove their children, in car seats, in the early jamborees.
One of Wilson’s sons, now 21, is a trail guide and will drive the 1954 Jeep .