Christmas Breakdown

Its a late hunt for the Big Cypress. A weekend just a few days before Christmas. The water levels are abnormally high. Usually at this time of the year the water has receded and there are just a few muddy spots to get through. This year the water level is still high, with only the pine islands being dry. Our weekend hunt has been pleasant, the weather cool during the day and cold at night. Although we haven't been successful in harvesting any game, we have enjoyed the weekend. On this trip is Tony, Dom (Tony's Dad) and myself (Steve). Dom has just in the last few years started to hunt with his son Tony. Dom is 75 years old (at the time of this story) and new to swamp hunting. His hunting experience is in Pennsylvania, a completely different terrain.

Our swamp buggy on this trip is the "Muckin Mercedes". Its a hand built swamp buggy, made from 1940's CJ-2 jeep differentials and a 1967 Austin front wheel drive motor and transmission. The frame is made from 1-1/2" square tubing to make it light. The tires are big, much bigger then most people think the axles can take, and on this trip I begin to think they are right. This buggy was put together in 1974 and now has 20 some years of hard swamp use on it.

The swamp is a harsh environment for a buggy. The wet high water washes the grease from places it needs to be. The water tries to sneak in and around all the seals and its a constant battle to keep everything lubricated. The ground varies from slick mud to metal crunching coral rock. A tire spins and slips on the mud, digging down until it catches on rock with a jarring jolt. Only the strongest axles can stand this, helped along by a gentle throttle foot and an understanding by the driver of what is going on where the tire meets the ground.

The trip from camp to the hard road begins after our Sunday morning hunt. We eat breakfast and load up our gear, ice chest and ourselves. This puts an additional 800 pounds of weight on the buggy. Christmas is just two days away and we are hoping for an easy trip out and a swift trip home to be with our families before Christmas. The morning is cool in the 60's, as we head out on the buggy trail at 11 or so in the morning. We travel the high pine, dipping into the low swampy spots that mark the area around camp. This soon opens into a prairie that we call "Buckskin". Its a long grassy area that's easy to travel if you avoid the low and worn areas of the trail. After 2-1/2 miles of "Buckskin", we are approaching a pine ridge that separates the upper end of the trail from the lower end. We call the crossing of the pine ridge "Bruce's Coon Holler". Others call it "Woodrum's Wood Pile", the names coming from events of the past that took place at the crossing.

I hear a small "cracking" sound, this is a sound that experienced woodsmen dread. Its the sound of metal separating. A half revolution of the tires and the back of the buggy drops to the ground. The right rear tire is laying over in the mud, no longer attached. "Broken axle" is my first thought and the right one. Our pleasant easy trip has just ended. Its not the first time this has happened. but each time it does, I hope it is the last. I carry a variety of spare parts, but I don't have a spare axle and its not something you can repair, you have to replace it. Dom is now very nervous, he hasn't experienced anything like this before. He's tired from the weekend hunt and can't walk 12 miles of mud trail. We have no choice but to get this buggy moving again.

We use a high lift mud jack, to lift the back of the buggy. A quick look at the axle tells us it is not going back together. After a short discussion we decide to wedge a log under the axle and in the frame to act as a crutch. While I remove the rear drive shaft to get it out of the way of the log, Tony and Dom select a 8" diameter pine tree and start cutting it down with an axe. This tree will give its life to save our own, while I am not really afraid our lives are in danger, I know we have to switch into survival mode. I am thinking, we have melted ice for drinking water, some food, a cell phone that is out of range of reaching the out side world and a 75 year old man, that probably could not walk a half mile in this swamp. All of this considered the buggy needs to carry us.

Tony and Dom finish cutting the pine tree down and start cutting the upper side of it to get a ten foot length. That's a lot of chopping on fresh pine and it takes a little while. A green pine log is not very light and its all Tony and I can do to drag it over and lift one end up into the frame. I tie it in with a cable and we lower the buggy and remove the jack. It all seems to work, but we still need to put a 200 pound tire up on the front of the buggy. We can't leave it or we would never see it again. Like a lost puppy, some other woodsman would adopt it as their own.

We are now ready to move again, but the situation of wounded buggy is very different from a well one. We only have front wheel drive and the friction of a log dragging on the ground. This means we will have to stay on firm ground as much as possible. The buggy will no longer make sharp turns, the dragging log just will not allow it and you can not back up. The point of the log is pushing into the ground. It will go forward but not back. A two foot wide and 4-1/2 foot diameter buggy tire now sits on the front of the buggy blocking the drivers view of the trail. Turns have to be started early and the right arc to miss obstacles. All in all, its a very difficult situation. So we load up and start.

Swamp Buggy breakdown Story continued: