D.S. Pledger: Early ATV ride a bumpy one

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D.S. Pledger
Sunday, February 23, 2014

While doing some research on caribou hunting back in the early days of bowhunting, I came across an interesting story in a vintage copy of Archery Magazine.

It described how some archers from California had come to the wilds of Alaska in 1955 and ridden to their remote hunting camp on the tundra—a distance of some 50 miles—on an all-terrain vehicle.

Wait a minute—they didn't have those things back then, did they?

Well, not the kind we have today, but some enterprising outfitter had “invented” one to get hunters to distant camps by means faster than horseback. This early ATV designer was an Alaskan guide named Mert Marshall who cobbled up something he called a “swamp buggy.”

Marshall's hunting camp lay a distant three-day ride on horseback from civilization. The out-and-back total of six travel days took a considerable chunk of time out of his client's hunts, so since necessity, as it is said, is the mother of invention, he came up with a way to make the trip in a single day.

Marshall started with a Model A Ford engine and built everything around it. The frame was welded 4-inch steel pipe on which he hung a body of heavy gauge steel plate. He mounted 17-by-21-inch airplane tires on the front axle, while those on the back were even bigger earth-moving truck tires. Since a conventional battery system wouldn't work in the watery places the vehicle often had to travel, it had a magneto-ignition system.

According to Roy Hoff, the article's author, riding on the thing was quite a challenge.

“After experiencing 8 hours on this conveyance,” he tells us, “it was the consensus of opinion among our gang that the best way we could compare it was a combination of which the worst part was like riding a Brahma bull bare-back; the average as that of riding a pack horse with the stirrups too short; and the real smooth portion as that of riding on a lumber wagon over a cobble-stone road.”

The reason for this unforgettable ride was most likely because the otherwise ingenious Marshall had failed to include a suspension of any kind.

Although it was supremely uncomfortable for the passengers, the swamp buggy was pretty much unstoppable.

Hoff recalls:

“Many times on this trip up the Nelchina (River) the engine was almost entirely submerged. Actually we went through water holes so deep and over boulders so huge it didn't seem possible that a motor-driven vehicle short of an army tank could accomplish the feat.”

The big-wheeled buggy did have a weakness, however. It worked well under normal conditions but snow and ice were something that its gargantuan tires couldn't seem to handle.

With three days left of their hunt and their caribou tags still unfilled, a mass of polar air dropped into the region, plummeting the temperatures to near zero, and the rapidly flowing Nelchina started to freeze over.

The party was forced to break camp and head back while they could still get out.

In the end, the swamp buggies that initially had saved them four days of travel wound up costing them the three last days of their trip. One has to wonder if bouncing around on a machine for 17 hours was worth the extra day they had in camp.

If there's a lesson here, it is that reliance on any kind of machinery in the back country always poses a risk. It's great while it's working, but if it breaks down or is adversely affected by the weather, you're up a creek—or a river, in this instance—with no way out other than walking.

Maybe that's why I've never been too excited about relying on technology in the field.

D.S. Pledger is an outdoors columnist for The Gazette. Email him at maus16@centurytel.net.

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