“About ten years ago I had a Jeep, and I drove it back and forth to the Metro North train station, and that’s about as far as I went,” says Scott Trager, founder of Northeast Off-Road Adventures (NORA). “I was about to get rid of it, and my oldest son said, ‘Before you do, could we try going off-roading for once?’ I said, ‘Sure.’ So in 2007, I got involved in a Jeep Jamboree out in Pennsylvania. Took my two oldest kids, and we got stuck a lot! And it was fun! It was exhilarating being out in the woods, out away from the office. It was just amazing. I came back, and the engineer voice inside of me said, ‘Let’s put on bigger tires and do this again without getting stuck.’”
Trager explains some of the modifications to the suspension and drive train that he did on this vehicle before heading out to another Jamboree in the Catskills. “Then I joined the Hudson Valley Four-Wheelers, which gave me access to private land and, more importantly, people who know what they’re doing. I started going out as much as I could – twice a month for several years – and became an officer of the club. I realized over time that this is what I’d want to do when I get out of my corporate life.”
This is the short version of how Trager turned his passion into a reality when he invested in the purchase of 68 wilderness acres at the top of a hill south of Ellenville and turned them into a successful business: an off-road driving school and adventure tours. The longer version of the story entails six months searching for the right property, then a couple of years getting through the permit process with the Town of Wawarsing.
“In order to do this, you can’t just go before the Planning Board and say, ‘Hey, I want to open a driving school.’ You have to own the land first. It’s a huge gamble. The Planning Board was receptive, and then they set up a public hearing in the Town. And for the next year-and-a-half, there was a lot of organized opposition.” People were worried about the noise and degradation of the environment, even the potential harm to indigenous species in the area. Through it all, having to hire more lawyers and engineers and satisfying everyone’s concerns, Trager was determined.
“This is my dream, and I wasn’t about to let someone falsely shut me down. We are an off-road driving school, not the truck-racing, beer-guzzling fiends that they talked about. Now, in the years we’ve been in operation, we’ve helped out local charities, and it’s all good. The insurance was killer at the beginning. I got in touch with Sprague and Killeen here in Ellenville, and they helped us. It was expensive at first, but as the years have gone by and they’ve seen our track record – we’ve trained over 800 students without incident – our insurance keeps dropping.”
He says that it was a “family-and-friends effort” finally to open in 2014. “The first year was sort of tough; not too many people knew about us. But even if we had one student, we’d run the class. The second year we started marketing and word got out, and it picked up. This year has been phenomenal. We’ve got 68 acres with GPS-accurate trails throughout the property to train anyone from beginners to advanced skills – training such as how to use recovery gear on a vehicle, a high-lift jack, a winch, recovery devices. Recovery as in, ‘I’m stuck, and I need to get unstuck.’”
Trager and NORA’s vice president John Mapes are certified by the International Four-Wheel Drive Trainers’ Association. In fact, Trager says that there are only 80 or so individuals in the world who have been certified. “The process culminates with a 200-question examination that goes in depth in terms of your understanding of off-road vehicle operations, mechanics, safety, terrain, all aspects of vehicle recovery and principles of adult education. When we have really big events, we can pull from this high-caliber group of individual trainers.”
Typically, NORA runs classes for up to 25 vehicles, breaking that number into multiple groups. “We have a staff that loves doing this,” says Trager. “Our focus is providing quality education and experience. In addition to the off-road driving school, we’re an adventure company. We offer themed events, and we’ll take people in our adventure club to different locations and do barbecues, take them out for a night ride, which is pretty cool.”
“We are extremely mindful of our terrain. What we teach are techniques to maintain traction at all times. It’s not about pointing and shooting, or flooring it. We go as fast as necessary, but as slow as possible. We don’t want to rut up our trails. We trim back the trees so that expensive vehicles that come out will not be ‘pinstriped’ by branches.”
NORA has also trained Federal Emergency Management Agency teams. “They are the true heroes that go out to keep things running,” says Trager. “To be able to train them to do their job is just a great feeling.” He hopes to offer classes in wilderness medicine, too.
Trager’s enthusiasm for off-roading is infectious. “What we’re doing here is giving people the skills to do these adventures. To be able to have a mechanized vehicle to help you – and it’s so easy to get stuck and panic. You can break stuff when you panic; you strain your components and your drive train. We teach vehicle preservation. We want you to come out of those woods with your vehicle intact, and be environmentally conscientious about it.”
Trager is a computer scientist and electrical engineer with a Master’s degree in Management Science. “I’ve done all these engineering-type things, which are very cerebral. I needed some outlet, aside from sitting down and calculating stuff. So getting out in nature sounded good, and I got totally hooked on it. This is a passion-based business, one that offers the freedom of being outdoors. You can’t always be on; it’s stressful and so unhealthy.”
Northeast Off-Road Adventures is located on Tempaloni Road in Ellenville. For more information, call (845) 514-9895 or (845) 514-9896, or visit www.nyoffroaddriving.com.