Take It Off-Road

River Rising

A truck camper can go anywhere a truck can go.  That said, there are some places a truck should not go.  This is what happens to a truck camper when a river runs through it.


Tom Hanagan, President of Four Wheel Campers, recently emailed us a link to a story that we almost couldn’t believe.

The underwater camper belongs to Gary Handsher.  Once we saw the story, we immediately contacted Gary to find out exactly how this happened, and how he and the truck camper are doing now.


TCM: Tell us about your river adventure.

Gary: On January 1st, 2009 I was parked on the gravel bar near the main channel of the Smith River in Oregon.  It was a nice sunny day and I fished the bulk of the day.  At about four o’clock it started getting dark, so I pulled up next to the river near the bank.  It was ten feet from high ground on the gravel bar, about 300 yards from the main channel.

That night I had dinner and went to sleep at 9 PM.  At 4 AM I had to go to the bathroom and woke up.  When I stood on the floor I was standing in a foot of water.

During the night it had rained, but not that hard.  The warm rain melted the snow on one of the tributaries up the river and the water raised up nine feet overnight.

TCM: That must have been a scary feeling.

Gary: I was in about four feet of water when I got out of the camper.  I tried to start the engine, but it wouldn’t start, so I put my waders on, grabbed my wallet, my cell phone, and my Brittany spaniel, Gracie.

When I stepped down into the river, I was waist-deep in the water.  I deliberately left the lights on in the camper so that I could see it.  At that point, it was still dark.  Gracie swam to shore, I waded to high ground, and called 911.  My main concern was saving the rig.  I didn’t want to see it floating down the river.

At that time I was thinking that maybe I can save some of my stuff out of the camper.  I have expensive fishing rods and tackle.  So, I waded across and got about five feet towards the camper.  The water rose up near my shoulders in just twenty minutes.  I was afraid to get to the camper because the water was coming up so fast.  In the process, my cell phone got wet and was ruined.

So then I waited for help to arrive out on the road.  It was a two-lane county road where I was able to flag down some cars.  I was thinking that if I could get some rope, I could tie the truck to a tree.

TCM: Unbelievable.  What happened next?

Gary: I kept looking for the camper lights.  I had a great feeling of trepidation about whether the camper was going to stay there or not.  I was facing upriver, so the camper never washed away.

About an hour later, a highway patrolman came.  It was not his jurisdiction, so he stopped to help, but couldn’t get me out.  Then, a county sheriff came and he didn’t have a rope.  Another sheriff came and no rope.  They called a tow truck called Fat Eddy who was as slippery as a snake.  He told me, “I can get it out the river, but it will cost $500 for this and $200 for that and $100 for storage in my yard.”  So, I told him no because I realized that we weren’t going to be able to do anything but wait for the river to go down.

The day before this event, I was camping a mile down the river at the county park and met the caretaker at the park.  I hiked down there and told him what happened.  He recommended a guy who is into four-wheeling.  The caretaker called the guy and he showed up in his four-wheel drive truck.  He said, “We can get you out, but not until the river goes down.”  He told me that he would meet me at 8 AM the next morning and he would get me out.  The river crested at about a foot from the top of the camper.

At that point, I got a ride into town to the Hertz rental place.  I only had the clothes on my back, so I went to Walmart to get some clothes, had breakfast, and found a hotel.  Then I went back to check the truck and it was still there.


So, how did you finally get your truck camper out of the river?

Gary: At 8am the next morning, January 3rd, the water was at the hubs of the truck.  They brought two four-wheel drive trucks.  The son backed his truck into the river in front of my vehicle and hooked my truck camper to the frame of his truck.  He slowly pulled the truck out to the road that led to high ground.   He got my rig into the sand, but couldn’t pull it himself, so they clipped his dad’s truck to his truck and there was a three-truck caravan to pull my rig out.

TCM: I bet that was a show.  What condition was your truck camper in when they pulled it out?

Gary: It was a mess!  The four-wheel guy and his father owned a car repair shop in Crescent City.  The tow truck towed me to their garage and the guy charged me ninety bucks.

I had to empty everything out and hose out the entire camper to get the mud and muck out of it.  It was nasty!  The guy drained the fluids out of the engine, the transmission, the gas tank, and the differential.  He flushed the transmission three times.  He drained the fluids out of the gas tank and, because gas is lighter than water, the water came out first.  When it started to change to pure gasoline, he was able to save half a tank of gas.  He put electric heaters under the dashboard to dry out the electrical.  He charged me $1,200 after twelve days.  The engine started and I was able to drive back to San Francisco.

TCM: That’s amazing.  So, how did the ride home go?

Gary: I didn’t have any instruments; no speedometer, odometer, or gas gauge.  I did have my headlights and tail lights.  I left about 4 PM and drove about halfway and stayed in a hotel.  I made it into town the next day.  My primary concern was to get the truck running well.  After all this, all I had to do was replace the instrument panel and computer parts for the airflow so that the engine would run right.  I also had to clean all the electrical contacts to get all the corrosion out of them.  Now it runs fine.


TCM: That’s one tough truck.  How’s the camper?

Gary: The only damage to the camper was the door that covers hot water heater controls came off because of force of water in the river.  I had to clean the telecoupler, which is the device that turns on the water heater.  Everything still works; the three-way fridge, the heater, the propane, the two-burner gas stove.  Even the inside cabinetry was fine.  It’s plywood and was not affected by the water exposure.

While it was all happening, I didn’t know what to expect.  I knew the Four Wheel Camper was for off-road use.  I took them for their word.  I went to the factory to get the cover for the hot water controls which was thirty bucks and it just popped right on.   Other than that, I didn’t need anything for my camper.

For several months the camper was in the garage opened up so that it would air out.  I went through it and cleaned it up.

TCM: That has to be one of the most incredible stories we’ve covered here at TCM.  I’m so glad you and your dog were okay and the truck and camper survived.  Let’s backtrack to before your river experience.  How did you get into truck campers?

Gary: I took a job as a sales representative in Florida back in the mid-70s and I was driving a van with a pop-up top. The van actually had an outside shower with a sliding mechanism on top of it.  I traveled in the southeast.  That was my first experience with car camping and it resonated with me.  It was fun to be completely independent and not to have to sleep in somebody else’s bed.

Since then I’ve had several cabover campers.  One day I saw a Four Wheel Camper on the road and asked the guy about it.  He told me how it worked and how it was designed.  The used ones were so much in demand.  There was actually one that was advertised in San Francisco just a little while from my house and I looked at it, but a guy from Santa Cruz got there before I did.

So, I went to Four Wheel and bought a brand new one and I’ve been in it ever since.  I’ve gotten my money’s worth out of it because I use it a lot.  I play senior softball and travel to tournaments twice a month.  I also use my truck for work.

When I’m ready to use the camper, I just back up under it and go.  It takes me about a half-hour to put the camper on and twenty minutes to take it off.  The Four Wheel Camper is also useful for salmon and steelhead fishing in Northern California and Southern Oregon.  When softball season is over I do that type of fishing.

The joy, for me, is to park right on the river bank.  Once the sun goes down people leave and I have the place to myself.  With my truck camper, I can get to remote areas and, at the end of the day, I don’t have to drive back to civilization.

TCM: What was the experience like at the Four Wheel Camper factory?

Gary: That was an interesting experience.  At Four Wheel Campers, you get an opportunity to decide what accessories you want and how you want your camper laid out.  I actually had them build an extra storage compartment and put in a 17000 BTU forced air furnace.  I also had a three-way refrigerator put in it.  I got to decide where I wanted the air vents and the type of lights that were going into my camper.

It was a great experience!  The people were really nice.  I got exactly what I wanted and they worked with me.  My camper is seven feet long.  I have a Nissan Frontier with a six-foot bed, so I leave the tailgate down and it’s about the same length.

TCM: Where are some of your favorite places to truck camp?

There are a number of rivers I like to fish at starting with the south fork of the Eel River, the Mad, the Vandusen, Red Wood creek, and the Smith River.  In Southern Oregon, I like the Chetco a lot.  The Smith and the Chetco are my favorites.

TCM: Will you go back to the Smith River to camp?

Gary: Absolutely!  I’m just not going to camp on the gravel bar.  I’m going to camp on high ground.

TCM: Is there anything that we didn’t ask you that you’d like to add to your interview?

Gary: I just turned 69 and because of an enlarged prostate, I woke up at 4 AM to go to the bathroom.  If I had slept until seven, I wouldn’t have gotten out.

TCM: Here’s to enlarged prostates!

To visit the Four Wheel website, go to fourwheelcampers.com. Click here for a free Four Wheel brochure.


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