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Getting Unstuck

unstuck1One very cold mid January morning in northern British Columbia, in a fairly remote area known as the "Lakes District", my oldest son and I got ourselves into trouble… but with good common sense we managed to reverse the situation. We had ventured out in search of a 160-acre parcel of land that was on the market for sale at a very attractive price. When we left our home the day before, the weather had been clear, sunny and crisp with a temperature hovering around 28 degrees below zero. When we first left our vehicle and let out a breath, it seemed like we were in our very own miniature cloud. It had snowed quite heavily during the past six days and now there was just over a foot and half of snow on the ground, ten inches of which was fresh powder. At the time we were driving an older Ford Bronco equipped with a second hand, eight thousand pound winch that was mounted to the front of the vehicle.

We had stayed the prior night in a tiny, very cold, drafty motel in a small interior logging town, four hours drive west of our home. The town had only four small motels and two restaurants. Both restaurants we learned closed at nine every evening, so unless you got there at eight-thirty you didn’t eat. We had missed that nine o’clock closing, so we had to settle for going to the only beer parlor in town, where we bought some Polish pickled sausage and beef jerky, both of which we washed down with some beer.

Next morning we rose early and, after a breakfast of bacon and eggs, set out to find the property. We started from town driving a well plowed but very winding road, which for the most part was extremely slippery, with some sections of glare ice. About two hours from town, following our maps for directions, we came to a three-way junction in the road. We looked at the map and saw that the road we were on headed north, had been plowed and quite passable… but the road heading due west, where the property was supposed to be, had not been plowed at all that winter. This meant the road would not be usable until next summer. I stopped the Bronco and we both got out, walked to the unplowed road and into the soft, powdery snow where we saw that the snow was not quite two feet deep.

We got back into the Bronco, put it into gear and pushed the front end of the truck onto this unplowed road. We then got out of the Bronco again and saw that the snow was just below our bumper. We both decided that it would be risky, but as long as we kept up a fairly good speed we thought we could make it to the property. The worst thing that could happen would be to get stuck and have to winch the vehicle around and come back on our same tracks. We have had to do this numerous times in the past and did not think it a problem at all. I looked at my son and said to him "do we go for it, or do we go back?" I knew what his answer would be before even asking him. "Let's go for it, Dad".

With that answer, we locked our hubs into four-wheel drive, backed up as far as we could and tromped on the gas. We hit the snow… and took off down this road flat out. The big four tires were throwing hunks of snow off both sides. I found as long as we maintained a fairly good speed we were fine but if I slowed down, we started bogging down. At a fast speed, with all four wheels turning hard, we sort of floated on the snow and felt like we were in a boat, skimming across a lake. A couple of times I had to slow down for a corner and each time the vehicle bogged down and came to a stop. Once stopped, we became stuck and couldn’t go any further. To get unstuck we would have to back up several times, punch it forward until I couldn’t go any further, then backup and repeat this procedure until I had some speed to continue forward again without having to back up. We got about 15 miles in from the main road when the road started having some snowdrifts across the road. We had gained some altitude so by this time the Bronco was working very hard and I just about had full pedal to the floor at all times to get through the drifts. All our four wheels were just churning through the snow and spitting out chunks on both sides.

We decided that the snowdrifts were getting deeper and that we would not be able to continue much further with our vehicle. So we decided to look for a place in the immediate area with a wide shoulder and some trees so we could turn around, and if we did get stuck turning around we could pull ourselves with the winch. Still maintaining full speed, we looked for such a place but after another two miles we still had found nowhere suitable.

Then we came around a corner and saw that the roadbed had been built up considerably because of a low area, thus forming deep ditches on both sides of the road to about 25 feet below the roadbed. We had to make a fast decision while still going flat out. Do we stop and risk getting stuck and not being able to turn around because of the ditches on both sides or do we keep pushing through, looking for a wider place on the road to turn around? We had seconds to decide, but we both agreed.

At the same time, just as we came around the corner, we hit another snowdrift and I couldn’t straighten out the Bronco. I did my best to keep control and stay on the road but because I was in floating motion on top of the snow, I had no control. Without control of the Bronco we veered to the left for the embankment, which was 25 feet down. I knew that we had to keep the nose of the car pointed down to land in the snow bank. The other possibility was that we could land sideways, roll the vehicle a number of times and possibly be injured. So as we went over the bank I punched the gas pedal to the floor, cranked the wheel hard and put the nose down first. It worked… down we went, nose first, down the steep embankment to the bottom. We landed upright at the bottom with a big pile of snow all around us. The motor had stopped and the only noise I heard was some gurgling of water in the motor. The second noise I heard was my son saying "How are we ever going to get out of here?" I said "I will figure something out - let's have a look around".

unstuck2We had difficulty getting out because both doors had snow pushed up against them but with some maneuvering we managed to get out through a window to have a look at our situation. It didn’t look good. The road looked a long way away above us. I knew we would be in trouble trying to walk back because I figured we were about 18 miles out and from our vehicle in 28 minus weather could be challenging. So I knew I had to come up with some emergency plan - and fast. I thought it would be better trying to get the Bronco out first than trying to walk out.

The first thing we did was take our winch line and tie it to a tree to see if we could move the truck at all. My son took the line, crawled up the steep embankment over the top of the road to the other side and tied it around a tree. When it was securely tight I got into the bronco, started the motor and locked it into gear. With the winch pulling and all four wheels churning in 4 wheel drive reverse, I got the vehicle moving about 2 feet back and forth.
I thought we were doing fairly well gaining about 6 inches each time when all of a sudden there was a puff of smoke and a terrible smell. I immediately realized the motor on the winch had burnt out. It was now about 2 o’clock in the afternoon and darkness would come at around 4 o'clock. We both knew that trying to walk in a very narrow track for 18 miles in 22 degrees below zero weather to the nearest road would be a very difficult.

I believe that to be a very good outdoors man you have to have common sense. Common sense will get you out of more situations than experience. So we had to come up with "plan B". The first thing we did was take a power saw and an ax and make two shovels from a tree. We took these shovels and started shoveling snow away from the Bronco both in front and at the back. We then managed to get the Bronco moving back and forth about 10 feet, but we both knew that it would never go up a 25 foot steep embankment all by itself. We sat down and looked at the situation and came up with an idea, this being "plan C".

 We took the winch line from the Bronco still attached to the burned out winch, up the embankment then across the road to a bottom of a large tree about 50 feet in the bush. My son then climbed the tree carrying the winch line with him. About ¾ of the way up this tree he tied the line securely and tightly around the tree, but leaving about 20 feet of slack. He climbed back down and I then took the power saw and felled four other trees into the tree with the winch line. We now had one tree standing upright, but very bent and straining in the opposite direction of the Bronco, and four other trees leaning against the upright tree also pushing against it in the opposite direction. I would never advise anybody to do the next step - it is total suicide - but if you have to choose between freezing to death and an extreme measure, you might remember it. You have to decide which choice is best.

I now asked my son to get into the Bronco, start it, point the nose up the 25-foot bank and when I cut the tree, put the pedal to the floor and hang on. I walked to the bottom of this tree and made an undercut facing the opposite direction to where the Bronco was. I then tramped out a very good path, which I called my running path and started cutting the other side of the upright tree. My son at this time was sitting in the Bronco with the motor running, in 4-wheel drive, ready for action. I cut the back of the tree and heard a small crack. I dropped my power saw and ran down my running path as fast as I could go, then dived behind a tree. The force of the four trees pushing against the upright tree that I had cut caused it to snap where I cut it, and all five trees started coming down in the opposite direction from the Bronco. It only took seconds for the 20-foot slack on the cable to tighten and when that happened, the trees just kept going and the Bronco started coming out of the ditch straight up the steep incline slope and right onto the road. Just before the vehicle started going down the other side of the ditch the trees hit the ground and the Bronco stopped.

I looked at my son who was just sitting there staring straight ahead with an expression on his face I'll never forget. I imagine the expression on my face must have been the same. It worked - we were out! The trees had landed and the Bronco was on top of the road. We untied our cable, wrapped it around the front and took off down the road.

That evening over a cold beer and a steak sandwich at the local beer parlor (because we had missed the restaurants again) we both laughed at our experience and agreed that common sense was a very important factor when being in the bush.