The 2 200 kg metal beast pitches me forward as it lurches to a stop. A couple of metres below, swamp water sloshes in front of our 1,2 m-high tractor tyres, rousing an alligator that wriggles away for cover. I ease the accelerator forward and begin to move, feeling my way across the submerged potholes. It’s like riding a swaying, noisy metal elephant.
There are reasons to take things slowly – vehicles have vanished into the sucking mud of the Everglades. “It’s an extreme environment,” says Gene Van Schaick, 70, the builder and owner of the behemoth I’m piloting. “It’ll kick your ass.”
I’ve met up with Van Schaick to experience the landscape he loves best – the wetlands of southern Florida – aboard the machine he’s most passionate about: the swamp buggy. Most people tend to associate “swamp” with words such as “stagnant” and “malaria”, and think of swamp buggies as dirt-flinging hot rods that race up and down mud wallows. But Van Schaick’s swamp buggies are slow, utilitarian vehicles, and as for the swamp – well… “I don’t know what people think of when they trash-talk swamps,” he says. “I love the swamp. I love the views. I love the smell.”
One point he’ll concede: the swamp is hard to navigate. In recent geological time, the area was limestone and coral reef, and it’s still so flat that the torrential rains of summer and fall are slow to drain. For all but a brief dry season, waterlogged marshes and open water predominate. Anyone trying to hike in has to contend not only with the sheer physical exertion, but dense vegetation, hungry alligators, clouds of mosquitoes, and four kinds of poisonous snakes.
For all its rigours, the backcountry has much to offer in the way of recreation; though an easy drive from Miami, it’s full of game to hunt, as well as exotic specimens to lure the bird-watcher and flora enthusiast. To tap those opportunities, intrepid Floridians began a century ago to retrofit Model A and T Fords with big wheels and extra-low gearing. Today, a small but passionate subculture of builders – including a group founded by Van Schaick in 1990 – carries on that legacy.
On a warm day in early February, Van Schaick takes me to the edge of an airstrip halfway between Miami and Naples, Florida. Some two dozen beefy, hard-driven machines are lined up, each one unique, having been designed and cobbled together – mostly out of plate metal and parts of other vehicles – by one of the 65 members of his club. Van Schaick, a retired carpenter, spent six years building his behemoth, Gray Ghost. The Goodyear tyres yield 65 cm of clearance. The solid-steel tie rods are behind the axle for protection against cypress knees, the club-like growths that sprout from the roots of cypress trees. (If the knee hits the axle first, it won’t be able to take out the tie rods.) The engine is a 2,8-litre V-6 from a 1982 Chevy Citation, without the fuel-injection system – Van Schaick stripped it out and replaced it with a carburettor. “Everything needs to be rugged and simple,” he says, “so you can fix it while standing in a metre of water.”
Van Schaick and I clamber on top of the buggy, which, from up here, looks like a boat – fitting for a vehicle that can negotiate water at the depth of a tall man. I fire up the engine and we head out. Past the parking lot are 9 800 ha of county-owned land. Although the landscape is nearly identical to the federally administered Big Cypress National Preserve next door, there are fewer restrictions on its use.
Soon, we’re axle-deep in muddy water, moving across the cypress prairie. The landscape looks like something out of Dr. Seuss, an expanse of twisted grey trunks garlanded with bushy bromeliads bearing spiky red flowers. Further on, the road becomes hemmed in by a forest so dense it feels like we’re driving through a tunnel. Our wheels churn up mud the consistency of brownie batter. We never move faster than walking pace, and after an hour-and- a-half we’ve covered only 8 km.
Van Schaick takes the wheel and gives me a tour, from the high ridges and islandlike hardwood hammocks that remain partially dry year-round to the sediment-filled saw-grass ponds that during the wettest months become, as he puts it, “bottomless”. Van Schaick has seen lots of things in these wetlands over the years. Once he surprised a panther while on foot. “It was less than 10 metres from me,” he says. “It went straight up, turned in the air, and headed the other way.”
I’m surprised at how pleasant it is. There’s no oppressive stench; the water in the Everglades isn’t stagnant, but part of a broad, slow-moving flow. Snakes and alligators thrive here; so do deer, wild hogs and turkeys. Without buggies, much of this verdant wilderness would be all but inaccessible. “It’s uncomfortable for hiking, and it’s easy to get turned around,” Van Schaick says. “Anyone who doesn’t know the area well isn’t going to be able to penetrate the interior.”
Nevertheless, the machines have their detractors. “They are detrimental to the environment,” says Matthew Schwartz, executive director of the South Florida Wildlands Association. “The ground is very fragile, and when you put that much weight on it, the soil doesn’t recover. It erodes right down to the limestone.” Schwartz’s group wants to keep motorised recreation from expanding within Big Cypress. But Van Schaick counters that most of the soil eroded by swamp buggies is replenished during each yearly cycle of flooding.
As we stop at a saw-grass pond and kill the engine, we can imagine that except for the machine under our butts, there is no sign of civilisation. We could be in some remote wilderness, not an hour from one of the East Coast’s biggest cities. A breeze moves across the tall green stalks of the saw grass, bearing a sweetly resinous tang. Overhead, two hawks coast, circling stiff-winged on the warm air. “I love the tranquillity of this place,” Van Schaick says. “Apart from the buggy tracks, it’s just the way it’s been for hundreds of years.”