TRD Off- Roading: My Invite to a Toyota PR Event on Ontario’s French River

The water almost comes up over the hood as I bomb the Toyota 4Runner through a beaver swamp and I feel a rush of adrenalin sweep over me. It’s a lot deeper than I expected. I step on it, and I take a deep breath when I’m back on dry land moments later. I’m at a Toyota TRD Pro event just off Ontario’s French River. I was invited to the event by a PR person who thought I’d be a good inclusion in the festivities. I’m guessing I got the look due to my modest social media following, my media partners such the magazines I contribute to, and of course, the notoriety I gained from winning ‘Alone’ season 4, but I still feel a little out of place. Hours before I drove into the beaver swamp, I’d left my private cabin to paddle a 35’ replica Voyageur canoe on the French River. It’s very fitting as the French is a historic fur trade route where thousands of massive birch bark canoes passed in the 18th and early 19th centuries. I’m part of a small group of editors, and influencers, most of which seemingly come from higher up the chain than I when it comes to driving short-term media visibility.

“It doesn’t look that deep”…About to bomb through this Beaver Pond in the 4Runner.

It’s my first time at an event like this and coming into it I didn’t really know what to expect. From what I can see, the idea behind it is to show content creators the new line of Toyota vehicles in a setting that will allow an interesting story to develop around them. Influencers are lured by the festivities, accommodations and content opportunities. The end goal is to create a win-win collaboration between the brand and media people in order to spread the word about their vehicles.

The organizers planned well when they chose their base for the event as The Lodge at Pine Cove near Noelville, Ontario, it’s a perfect setting. The lodge consists of a large, rustic common building adjacent to a spattering of quaint cottages nestled into the rugged Canadian Shield granite that the region is so well known for. To add to the allure, it’s late October and the surrounding forest is displaying brilliant fall colours.

Alex Strachan sterns this 35′ Canot Du Maitre, a replica Fur Trade era canoe as we paddle on the historic French River.

Not long after our arrival on the previous day, we were loaded into a large boat by the lodge’s owner, Alex Strachan and we then cruised through a myriad of rugged islands that dot the many pristine lakes which make up the French River. The outing even included a hike on the Dokis Indian Reserve to view the spectacular Five Finger Rapids. Throughout the tour, Alex regaled us with stories of the regions deep, fascinating history.  One interesting story that stood out for me was that of the Voyageurs and their diets. Did you know that the Voyageurs ate Bison hair-laden pemmican that was rancid, and often crawling? The hair was intentionally added for fiber as, next to hernias, constipation was their biggest concern. It would take the average Voyageur’s gut two years to adjust to the pemmican, so before that they ate salt pork. The problem with salt pork though was that the owners didn’t like it because it took up too much space in the canoe. Six pounds of pemmican per day each gave the Voyagers the energy they needed to complete seemingly superhuman feats. In fact, a single 35’ fur trade canoe, paddled by roughly 12 voyageurs would routinely course all 107km of the French River from Lake Nipissing to the Georgian Bay in a single 18-hour day.

The Dokis Indian Reserve includes a large Island on the French River and Five Finger Rapids is part of a small braid of the French River often referred to as “The Little French River” which runs along the north side of the island and the mainland.

Put it in “crawl mode” they told me. I’m at the top of the steepest hill I’ve ever considered descending in a vehicle and the ground below me is a muddy quagmire of slippery tire ruts. Not long after our 3km paddle in the replica Fur Trade canoe this morning, we drove a short distance from the lodge to the off-road course we’re now in the midst of. I reach up to initiate crawl mode in the Toyota 4Runner TRD Pro that I’ve coaxed to the edge of the drop. I take my foot off the break and the vehicle starts moving on its own as I hear the sound of the ABS brakes working to control the vehicle as we move down the steep hill. I’m sitting beside photographer Roland Bast who instinctively braces his hands against the dash, it’s a little scary at first but before we know it, we’re safely down the hill and onto the next obstacle. Over a corduroy of logs, through a deep ditch, over boulders, a mud slick and down another steep, uneven hill we go. We were a little nervous on our first time through it all but soon, we start having good old-fashioned fun as we test the Tacoma and the Tundra 2019 TRD Pro vehicles on the course as well and even push the envelope a bit on our second and third passes. I’m sure that, compared to what serious off-road enthusiasts take their vehicles through, this course is fairly light. But I’m having a lot of fun and I don’t think I’ve personally ever been on such a spirited off-road adventure before. It gave me a feel for what these vehicles can really do when put to the test.

About to descent a steep hill in the 4Runner TRD Pro

The Tundra is a full-sized pick-up, it’s the best out of the tree for towing, and though it has great off-road capabilities, the 4Runner and Tacoma outperform it in that category with the 4Runner being the most off-road capable and the Tacoma giving you a little bit of both worlds. The Tacoma TRD Pro comes standard with a snorkel, and in general it’s a really cool looking truck. Finished with the test driving, everyone starts asking each other – which one do you like best?  I currently drive a 2006 4Runner so I’m a little bias but it still took a bit of time to decide on the 2019 4Runner. Making things even more interesting, Yamaha has teamed up with Toyota to promo some of their new machines and, now finished with the TRDs, we test drive some new Yamaha ATVs and side-by-sides too. Naturally, this served as a very nice bit of icing on the cake to cap off an exciting couple of days.

Jim Baird bombing through a mud puddle in a 2019 Yamaha side by side.

Back home I edit a couple of short videos and pictures and I post about my experience on my social media channels. I also reach out to a couple editors to gauge their interest in running a piece about the event.  The Voyageur canoe video gets good reach and my followers seem to enjoy the off-road pics. Being outdoors people, many of them are familiar with the vehicles and have good input which spurs a conversation. It’s good for me, good for Toyota, and engaging for my followers too. So, maybe in the end, I am indeed the right person to have been included in the event. As a brand, it can be hard to find authentic people with real followings whose interests are truly in line with the brands. And as your average person, it can be hard to trust the authenticity of a given influencer on whether on not the products they push are actually things they use and like. The best content engages you and hopefully teaches you something interesting and it doesn’t hurt if that take away is on a product that interests or excites you. When these things connect properly despite the current climate of fog and saturation, it creates synergies for everyone, and stronger, more trusting relationships are molded all around. It’s all about trust, and that’s one thing that has never changed. These connections can be particularly beneficial for the bigger picture in the outdoor space where the engagement, increased interest and industry growth can serve to protect the wild places that we all cherish.

Toyota’s line of 2019 TRD Pro Vehicles. From Left to Right: Tundra, 4Runner and the Tacoma.

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