Louisiana Muddin’ with Gorilla Axle 0
“Man down! I’ve been bit! MAN DOWN!” I screamed as I watched the thick red blood spouting from my punctured appendage. The gator, unperturbed by my shrieking, gazed menacingly up at me, mouth stretched in a wide, toothy grin. He looked rather pleased with himself. As my life-source continued to seep out of me and the pain started to dull, I realized how cool it was going to be to tell my friends back home that I got viciously attacked by on alligator in a Louisiana swamp. It was so backcountry badass that I could barely contain my excitement. A fresh gushing of blood brought me back to my impending death by crocodile consumption. Do they even have doctors here? My Yankee mind was worried, and my California-born companion, Nick Nielson, looked equally grim. As the gator took a slow, stealthy step towards me, I began to think that maybe, just maybe, this trip was a bad idea.
Three days earlier, I met up with Nick at the Schreveport airport, a typical tiny airport that caters to puddle-jumper flyboys. Nick was the associate editor of the now defunct Quad mag, and his boss had sent us down here to meet up with the bayou’s famous Gorilla Axle boys to do some hard-core mud riding. We had never met before, and all I knew about Nick was that he made the podium in some major quad races, including the Baja 500 and 1000. As far as I knew, we were both mud virgins.
After arriving, I scanned the small terminal and found Nick at the airport bar sipping on a tallboy. I liked him already. So this was a guy who was willing to follow me into the deep murky swamps of the Louisiana bayou with total redneck strangers. We shook hands, he threw back the rest of his beer, and we were on our way. As we walked through the double doors into the bright southern sunshine, the theme song from “Deliverance” started playing softly in the back of my head. I hoped we knew what we were getting ourselves into.
The next day I found out that all that worrying about the pillaging our anal orifices was completely unfounded—the guys at Gorilla Axle weren’t hardcore rednecks at all. Well, hardcore, yes—but they were some of the most professional and passionate businessmen and quad riders I’ve met. Don’t get me wrong, they weren’t so out of control that they wore business suits. But these guys live, work and ride in some of the harshest conditions around. There are few, if any, motocross tracks and there are no cushy sand dunes to tear up. Their passion is for mud, and lots of it. All they have here is miles and miles of swamp, and they devote their time to creating monstrous quads that can tackle the deep mud pits that rule their terrain. Riding an ATV at slow speeds, breaking parts, getting winched out of holes and being neck deep in mud are all parts of a typical riding day for the Gorilla guys. That, and pushing the capabilities of their ATVs beyond their physical limits to create a machine that redefines the boundaries of the sport.
For those of you not familiar with Gorilla Axle (and you should be) they are an aftermarket ATV Company specializing in heavy-duty axles and lift kits for utility quads and side-by-sides. These guys are out of Monroe, Louisiana, right in the heart of the bayou. They take every mud ATV event on with authority.
Owner Jason Shanas gave us a tour of the facility that finished off at a warehouse filled with about 25 of the largest ATV’s we had ever seen. Nick and I both thought of ourselves as relatively accomplished riders (more Nick than I), but this was the moment when we realized we might be a little out of our league.
We asked Jason how he got into the business of building monster quads and he explained that he used to own a small automotive shop specializing in front end repair. Local customers bringing in their ATV CV axles for repair led to him designing his own HD axle that would hold up to the big tires and lift kits that people in his area were running. He soon found that his axles were able to withstand higher loads and greater CV angles, and that led to the development of Gorilla Axle suspension lifts. The ATV market quickly took over any time that he had for automotive business, and they are still growing today.
After a pep talk and a shower, we all headed downtown to a small roadside shack for Nick’s first experience eating crawdads. It goes without saying that people in Louisiana can eat. But the boys from Gorilla Axle take their eating about as seriously as their mud riding. As soon as we had our food, Brandon, the smallest guy in the group, proceeded to annihilate everyone in what appeared to be a race to the bottom of our 5-pound buckets of mud bugs. I’m proud to say I held my own, finishing before two of the locals. Nick finished last. Photographers 1, editors 0.
Early the next morning, we met at the shop—not even the slightest bit hungover—and made the quick 15-minute drive to the secret Gorilla testing grounds for some swamp riding. I saddled up on a mostly stock Can-Am 800 with pretty much nothing but big oversized mud tires and a complete Gorilla Axle snorkel set-up. We started in on a loop through what seemed like a dense forest with a trail system wandering through numerous quad-swallowing mud pits and swamps. As we wound through the murky swamp, I started to get a little nervous. The crawdads I ate the night before were making their comeback, leaking out of my butt in little puffs of gator-baiting mud bug essence. Don’t alligators eat crawfish? I hoped I wasn’t sending the reptilian bastards the wrong message, and I kept a close watch on my peripherals for flashes of hungry gators licking their chops.
Halfway through our loop we stopped so I could grab some quick shots. After I had finished, we continued our ride through the forest and back to the truck, only to find that the keys to our truck were missing. Apparently, during the ride they had fallen prey to one of the countless muddy abysses that we rode through. Right then we learned rule #1 of swamp riding: If you plan on answering your phone multiple times while romping through the mud, don’t put your keys in the same pocket as your cell. After a brief delay a spare key was delivered and we drove to our next spot. The next location was a friend’s house that backed right up to the bayou. I used this chance to take some more killer shots, and then we played around a little on the quads at the edge of the bayou. At some point, one of the locals, Hoyt, decided he was going to take his lifted monster straight across the bayou. I have to admit that I took one look at his planned route and assumed we’d be fishing the guy out of the swamp in pieces by the end of the day. But, the guys from Gorilla assured us that this kind of behavior was completely normal.
Sure enough, Hoyt proceeded to run his quad out about fifty yards until you couldn’t see anything but the handle bars, and then it died. When it comes to deepwater ATV riding, it’s pretty much a fact that the last thing you want is for the engine to die. The snorkels keep the intake bringing in dry air until very deep water, but the exhaust coming out is the only thing keeping the water from coming in through the muffler. Of course, for these guys this was no problem at all (I’d learn by the end of the trip that not much was a problem for these guys), and after a brief boat rescue and winching adventure, we had him back on dry land.
After another huge late-night dinner and some barley pop at a place called Cooters Corner, our day was over. I was pretty proud of myself, but I knew I hadn’t really sampled true deep-water, Gorilla-style mud riding yet. I made up my mind to sack up.
The next morning we met super early (or at least it felt that way) to head out to tackle the deep stuff. According to the Gorilla guys, this day’s riding location was top-secret, and I knew I’d be gator-bait if I printed its whereabouts. All I can say, though, is that it was different from the first and filled, constantly, with much deeper water. If you want to ride out there, you need to contact team Gorilla so they can decide for themselves if you’re worthy of their turf.
Instead of the stocker Nick and I rode on the first day, he got to saddle up a Can-Am with a monster lift. Being the lowly photo-geek, I had to ride the same stock rig that always got stuck. As soon as Nick felt sorry for me and let me try his rig, I realized why these guys are in business. The thing could pull you through water so deep that a normal quad would be completely underwater, and it wasn’t even a challenge. The Gorillas’ swamp beast has a 14-inch lift and 29.5-inch tires, but I still managed to get in water deep enough to test the snorkels. Swamp riding is different—you’re never going as fast as you would in other terrain—but the whole experience is a blast.
The last day brought me to where I am now—stranded near a swamp with a feisty gator and a bloody wound. In case you were wondering, here is how it happened. Before we left, we decided to get some cool Louisiana-style shots, so we cruised over to an alligator farm. The owner plopped three 4-foot gators on the ground right in front of us and walked back to the slaughtering house, leaving us alone with the hungry reptiles. The only thing between us and their throats was a thin piece of electrical tape keeping their jaws clamped shut. After a few shots, I decided, in my infinite wisdom, that the modern dinosaurs would look more ferocious without the safety of the tape wrapped around their bone crushers. I cut the tape, grabbed it firmly in my hand and yanked if off. As a slid my hand away, that’s when it happened—my plump, juicy finger snagged a craggy tooth and suffered a massive puncture wound! Okay, so it wasn’t that massive, but real blood did come out. And as far as my story goes, the whole trip was an experience I’ll never forget: I lost my mud virginity, wolfed down five pounds of crawdads and got mauled by a gator in the Louisiana bayou—and lived to tell about it! And hey, if I’m lucky, I might even have a scar on my index finger to prove it.
Deep mud riding tips
You will quickly learn to take it easy on the throttle and don’t let up; otherwise, you will bury the tires and get stuck. Don’t worry though, if you’re not getting stuck, you’re not riding hard enough.
This ain’t prom night, boy! Don’t be wearing all your fancy brand new moto gear. It will get ruined, and you will look like an ass. Waders and an old shirt are the only way to go. Gloves become worthless once they are covered in slippery earth ooze and goggles are for sissies. Here’s to mud in your eye.
Bring a cooler. It gets hot in the swamps and dehydration can happen fast when the humidity is up. You know when a mud hole is going to be hard because you see a bunch of empty beer cans lying around it. Team Gorilla does not imbibe on barley pop while riding, so we picked up the empties to make the swamp look more like the backcountry than my backyard. I suggest that you always carry out more than you carry in to keep riding spots open.
It might be smart to bring a heart defibrillator when you ride down here. The extra fat in everything makes the food taste great. I personally gained 5 pounds in one week while in Louisiana. Crayfish, crawfish, mudbugs or crawdads, are like the shorter cousins of lobsters. Rip their little heads off, pinch the bottom of the tail and suck the meat out. They are spicy down south; so don’t rub your eyes after eating them. They say gator doesn’t taste like chicken. I couldn’t tell though, because everything tastes the same after you deep-fry it and dump tons of seasonings on it.