By: Randy Tucker
Pat McManus was once asked what the most thrilling part of outdoor adventuring was. He promptly answered, “Getting stuck.”
The season of mud comes every spring in the Cowboy State, but it can find you when you least expect it. Its discovery creates a quick inventory of shovels, jacks, and makeshift equipment, back-breaking work, and often, a little ingenuity.
Much of Wyoming’s mud is unique to the rest of the United States. Mud is loosely defined as the mixture of earth and water, but that doesn’t do justice to the slick, gray ooze that covers the ground throughout the Big Horn Basin and in many other spots across the state.
There isn’t a slicker naturally occurring substance than good old bentonite-laced mud. Wyoming is blessed with abundant bentonite deposits, creating a vibrant mining industry in drilling mud and kitty litter. Even the deepest tire treads are no match for the organic slime that waits silently for the unwary traveler or off-road enthusiast.
I spent a three-day weekend with three friends fishing on Union Pass in western Fremont County. It was the 4th of July weekend, but we were high above Dubois in the Fish Creek drainage, and it didn’t appear to be mid-summer at that altitude.
We were fully equipped with all the standard outdoor fare. We had one shovel and a small hydraulic jack, but we didn’t think we’d need those tools, since we were driving a ¾ ton Chevy 4x4.
We bought a map of the area from a fly shop in Dubois, the kind of map that lists the species of fish you could expect to catch in certain lakes. The more interesting lakes claimed to contain grayling, but we could see from the snowpack that they were still out of reach in mid-summer.
We settled on one that listed lake trout as its main species and set out.
Two tracks led into a fast-flowing creek, no more than 30 feet wide. The tracks continued on the other side. We didn’t bother to get out and check the depth of the stream.
The bow wave that crossed the hood and crept up near the windshield was the first warning that this might not be the best weekend we’d ever spend in the wilderness. We didn’t stall out, but the water was a little over four feet deep. I could feel the bed of the truck start to float, but the front wheels held firm, and we barely made it across.
Just a few minutes later and we were stuck for the first time. The road was washed out, so I turned onto the bank and promptly sank up to the bottom of the frame. The shovel handle snapped on the first load of earth, and we were seriously stuck. The jack just pressed into the earth, and we couldn’t find any big rocks to support it. The nearest timber was about a half-mile away, so we set out to get enough wood to lift the truck back to terra firma.
A scant three hours later and we had the front wheels out of the muck and onto a makeshift road of pine and fir branches. I gunned the truck in reverse, and we were out. Just in time to catch a couple of brook trout for supper, and then off to sleep by a fire made out of the wood that rescued us.
We woke up early on Independence Day with two inches of snow covering our sleeping bags.
We were a little gun shy, so we hiked the last four miles to the lake. We did catch a few mackinaw, but the biggest surprise came on the way out when a couple of guys in a 2-wheel drive panel truck with HBO written on the side passed us as we walked back to the truck. The real insult came when a car passed us just a few minutes later. Did they take the same road?
We did our version of Moses crossing the Red Sea with the truck and the flooded creek on the way out and set our sights higher up the pass above the Fish Creek Bridge.
The road into the basin was a good one, a solid rock base with a few shallow washouts and just a little dirt. The fishing got better the farther we went in so nobody noticed the grayish section of road ahead. It looked like a shadow from some of the neighboring trees but a shadow doesn’t’ make the sickening sound that only mud sucking around tires can. We had an instant low rider. The driver’s door was in the mud and I had to crawl through the window to get out
It was the worst I’ve ever been stuck, but we did have plenty of wood nearby. One of the guys suggested making a jack out of a trunk of lodgepole pine. I asked him where he got that idea and he said, “On Bonanza, I watched Hoss pull a wagon out of the mud with a couple of poles.” If it worked for Hoss, Little Joe, and Ben, it would work for us.
Archimedes was right. You can move anything with a long enough lever and the correct fulcrum point. It took three of us to lean on the end of the pole and the other guy put wood blocks in the holes under the tires. We did the wheels one at a time and laid other blocks behind the tires to make what was called a corduroy road during the Civil War.
We backed out and didn’t go any further. Two axle settlers in two days were enough.
Schools are always looking for "real world" problem-solving exercises to prepare students for life after academia. My suggestion for a viable experience involves a truck, a handyman jack, some chain, and a small shovel. Put these materials in the right circumstances and you have a uniquely Wyoming method of testing your problem-solving skills.
Enlightening and exciting, a great combination in the great outdoors, nothing beats getting stuck for pure unbridled excitement.
Randy Tucker is a retired history teacher and freelance writer from western Wyoming. He has a lifetime of experience in farming, ranching, hunting and fishing in the shadow of the Wind River Mountains. Contact him at email@example.com.