" For a few brief moments, I feared I wouldn’t come out the other side. "

Trapped in the mud – off-roading in the Black River State Forest

Mud… it sticks to everything, steals your shoes and traps your legs. I’ve never liked mud. I still don’t.

It had started out fine. Even the stock TJ Wranglers, the smallest Jeeps in our little convoy, would make it through the muddy trail unscathed, or so I thought.

Then, with a sudden stomach-churning drop, the front end of my Jeep came crashing down into a sticky, black mud puddle.

For a few brief moments, I feared I wouldn’t come out the other side. Momentum, more than anything, carried me up and out.

As my tires returned to solid ground, I reached up to sound a warning to near stock TJ Wrangler’s following close behind. “Don’t bother, you won’t make it,” I thought breathlessly, reaching for the radio.

Raising it to my mouth, I glanced back and realized it was too late.

The first of the two TJs had already reached the mud hole. The driver had obviously seen my Jeep come crashing down into the mud and carefully moved to avoided the worst of it.

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The second TJ wasn’t so lucky, it plunged into the mud too slowly for momentum alone to carry it through to the other side and sank to its axles. Behind it, exhaust gasses bubbled from the soupy waters.

A trail day in Black River Falls

This was back in August when I joined the Winona Area Jeep Club for a trail ride to Black River Falls, Wisconsin.

The local group of Jeepers organized a handful of trail rides each year. Due to the topography and local laws, there aren’t really any 4×4 trails nearby, so a trail day was often just scenic ride along dirt backcountry roads.

I wasn’t expecting much more than a leisurely drive through the Black River State Forest. I certainly hadn’t expected any trouble. That’s the thing about trouble, it sneaks up on you where you’d least expect it.

“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.”

– Yvon Chouinard

Our group met outside the local Jeep dealership in Winona about 11:30 a.m. We were a pretty small group. If my memory serves, we left Winona with nine Jeeps, but due to what I believe was a botched axle repair, one member was forced to turn back just 10 miles into the trip.

After about an hour long drive to Black River Falls, we were joined by our guide and another member at Culver’s, where we stopped for lunch.

The little town of about 3,600 is the largest city in the county. It’s nestled right along the beautiful Black River State Forest, which features miles of forest roads to explore.

Hitting the trail

Driving off road how to cover

After lunch, we made our way a short distance to the trailhead, a narrow, one-lane forest road that snaked through the dense foliage. It was beautiful.

For the first mile or so, the driving was easy enough. The sandy road clutched at our wheels as we rode on, but four-wheel drive wasn’t necessary.

It didn’t take long before the road turned muddy. In the next clearing, we pulled off the road to discuss our options. We could take a left and move on to another trail or continue on into the mud and the unknown.

Not to be discouraged by a little dirt, we decided to press onward.

We lined up our vehicles, placing the most experienced and capable vehicles in the front and least capable in the back. In the rear, we had a Jeep equipped with a winch and big 35-inch mud tires just in case. If anything went wrong, he was ready to swoop in and drag us out.

Things didn’t start getting rough until we rounded a bend and were confronted by a deeply rutted section of the trail.

Heavy rain had really done a number on the region and some of us were beginning to question whether this was a good idea.

Despite our better judgment, we continued on our path. The two most capable Jeeps, a heavily modified Wrangler TJ and a lifted Grand Cherokee ZJ, led the charge.

Trapped

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A few minutes later, and we were back where I left off. A TJ blocking our retreat, we were trapped by the mud. It was clear our enthusiasm had only managed to make things worse.

Now, this was an adventure I suppose.

Ahead, we learned our guide’s four-door Wrangler had high centered between the deep ruts left behind by the lead Jeeps. His Jeep was sitting on its frame rails now, spinning its tires.

That left four of us, including myself, stuck right in the middle of the two stranded vehicles. We were essentially trapped until we could free our friends.

Pushing forward was out of the question. Even if we could free our guide, we couldn’t continue. The trail ahead had turned into a swamp of mud and ruts too deep for even the best of us. Our only choice was to turn back.

Freeing our friends

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Ahead, our new friends worked to free our guide, while I joined the others to pull the stranded TJ Wrangler free of the mud hole.

Without a winch, we were forced to resort to using tow straps to drag the Jeep free. This is when I learned there is a difference between a tow strap and a snatch strap. I guess that’s anther thing I can put on my Christmas list.

Our first two attempts to pull the Jeep forward and out of the mud hole were met with failure. We just couldn’t get enough traction to recover the stranded vehicle.

I was convinced something we couldn’t see was preventing the Jeep from being pulled free. It seemed the only way we were getting it free was back the way it had come.

With our attempts to pull the Jeep forward failed, the leader of the Jeep club, in his red JK Wrangler, backed up to the hole and hooked a snatch strap to the stranded vehicle.

The little green Jeep popped up and out of the mud pit as it was dragged backward. The way out was clear. That left our guide.

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Sunk to its frame rails in mud, our guide’s Jeep spun its wheels helplessly in the deep ruts.

Fortunately, our guide had installed a winch to his Jeep just for occasions like this. Unfortunately for us, it wasn’t working.

Yet again, our only choice was to use a snatch strap to drag our new friend free of the mud.

And, like before, after several attempts to free the stuck Wrangler, we enlisted the help of the leader of the Jeep club to drag the stuck vehicle out.

Big tires, the right equipment and a wealth of off-road experience made easy work of the recovery.

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With everybody free, we turned back ready to move on to something a little less muddy.

On to the sand tracks

By this point, the day was drawing to a close. We’d spend more time digging out stranded vehicles than actual driving, but that’s part of the fun I guess.

I still hate mud, but I hated it a little less surrounded by such good-natured people.

Our last stop before heading back to Black River Falls to regroup and wash up was a short drive along a sandy forest road.

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I was a little worried we’d sink another vehicle in the soft sand; no one had bothered airing down before we hit the sand tracks. Airing down probably would have helped in the mud too I thought — We’d made some mistakes.

While a little short lived, I really enjoyed wrestling with the sandy tracks a lot more than the mud. After all, sand is easy to clean up, mud is not.

Toward the end of our ride, we stopped to hand out water and take a few pictures.

We may not have known each other all the well when we left that morning, but we were all friends by the end of the day.

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Thoughts?

  • What would you have done differently?
  • Have you ever been stuck in the mud? How did you get free?
  • Which is worse? Sand, mud, something else?

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3 Comments

  • usathroughoureyes

    What an experience. Thank you for sharing from your corner of the world so we can keep building our bucket list.

    February 2, 2017 - 9:31 am Reply
    • tobiasmann

      The Black River area is beautiful but sparse. I am looking forward to camping in the Black River State Forest this year during our 4-day overland journey across Wisconsin on the Trans Wisconsin Adventure Trail overland route.

      February 3, 2017 - 10:37 pm Reply
      • usathroughoureyes

        That sounds like an awesome trek. Please share the adventure with us. We traveled route 2 to the north through WI. So your travels there will no doubt add another pegman to our bucket list.

        February 4, 2017 - 8:06 am Reply

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