By Graham Osborne, Nature Photographer
Whatever you do, don’t get caught in the rain out here without a four wheel drive,” my habitat biologist guide reminded me. I nodded halfheartedly, knowing that we were in the heart of oil and gas country and 4×4’s were a mint to rent for the day. And besides, I had heard these sorts of warnings before, and felt that if I was vigilant, it was not likely I would get caught out in the rain. Or so I thought…
I called Robin Rivers at The Nature Trust to discuss logistics. Four wheel drives were close to $1,500 per day. Five days would leave The Nature Trust with an $8,000 bill, just for a vehicle! Ouch!
Through all my years of assignment photography, clients have appreciated my concern for staying within budget, and I was determined for this not to be an exception. “Get what you need,” Robin insisted as we discussed options. But I felt confident I could pull this shoot off in a car.
Fast forward to the last day of the shoot. Everything had gone without issue so far. But the weather was challenging that final day, and darker clouds threatened to put an end to the evening light I needed for my last location.
I was so engrossed in framing up my final shots that I barely noticed the drops of rain that started to splash down. Eyeing the light band of sky on the horizon, I hoped for a last burst of golden light to flood the landscape. But it never came. Instead, the rain intensified. Disheartened as I watched the last hope of sunlight fade behind a thunderhead, I gathered my gear.
Suddenly, it hit me like a jolt of lightning: rain! I broke into a sprint as I covered the last yards to my car. But as I hit the dirt turnaround I had parked in, a sickening feeling swept over me. The dry clay road had turned into oil. I slipped and skidded my way to my car, skiing down the last few inclined yards and thudding into the side of my vehicle.
I pulled myself along my car, barely able to stand in the mud. I winced as I recalled the words of my fellow biologist earlier that week. But now what? I quickly started the car up as the rain continued.
Exhausted from long days of photography, I was ready to head for my hotel in Dawson Creek and see my family and relax. But that was not to be. Little did I know, I was about to embark on an epic night…
As I eased the gas on, the car did not budge. I could hear the slop of tires spinning in the slime. I started popping the car in and out of reverse, trying to rock a little traction into the mix, but the car responded by sliding sideways. But then I caught a little traction in some shoulder weeds and started snaking my way towards the road.
As I approached the main road, I knew I had a problem. It was in no better shape than where I had parked, and the hill turning south to town was too steep to negotiate. I was forced to turn north and slither up a gentle grade. But as I crested the hill, I broke into a sweat. It was almost as steep as the southern route – and the hill was two miles long!
I put the car in third gear and gently rode the brakes down the hill, crawling an inch at a time. But the car quickly started to toboggan down the hill. I pumped the brakes, and tried to skid the car straight with the emergency brake, hoping to catch an inch of traction.
I noticed the shoulder of the road looked rough, and had a few weeds growing along the edge. Maybe I could use the weeds to catch a bit of grip. Feeling the first vegetation under the tires, I gently pumped the brakes. Nothing! But then I caught a few larger shoulder stones and they were enough to bring my speed down, allowing me to ease to a full stop. I breathed a sigh of relief until the car started sliding on its own! I steered into the slide with no effect, and braced for the four foot drop off the bank of the road. But miraculously, the car straightened out, and as I plied the brakes, I came to a stop.
Dripping sweat, I sat assessing the situation. I looked at the scrub forest twenty feet from the road and had an idea: “Branches!” I eased the door open and slid out of the car. I scrambled for the forest, grabbing as many branches as I could carry. I scattered them in front of the driver’s side wheels, intending to keep the passenger side wheels in the rougher shoulder.
Then I noticed the barley field beside me had been cut. I grabbed my big equipment dry bag and started shoving handfuls of straw into it, scattering it down the hill in front of my wheels. Easing into the driver’s seat, I held my breath and shifted the car into gear. The tires bit into the sticks and straw, and for the first time, I thought I might pull this off.
But then a crunching sound came from the front of the car. Upon inspection, one of the bigger branches had broken and jack knifed into the steering rods of the car. Not good. Tugging and pulling, half-laying in the clay mud, it took me 15 minutes to get the branch free.
The remainder of the hill traverse was grueling, but uneventful. I found myself back on flat road. The car still slithered in the slime, but I managed to limp another mile to the main gravel crossroad. Finally some traction!
I breathed a sigh of relief and started the drive back to the hotel. But my celebration was short lived. As I brought the car up to speed, the steering wheel and front end started to shudder violently. The branch must have damaged the steering. I slowed to a crawl. Tired and discouraged, I eventually hit pavement and began the long shoulder drive back to town – 30 km/h and four way flashers on the whole way. As I drove, I had lots of time to contemplate the craziness of the day. I had saved the Nature Trust $8,000, but left myself with an expensive repair. But then, a thought came to my mind. Clay was glued to the underside of the car. What if that clay was pasted on the tire rims and had left the wheels unbalanced? That might explain the vibration.
So, close to 1 am, I rolled into a 24-hour power wash station in town. I examined the rims and they were plastered with clay. I pried at it with sticks and screwdrivers. Then I turned on the pressure washer. Despite the jet of water, the clay was stubborn, and took several attempts before I got every bit off. Finally, I climbed into the car and took it for a test drive. I eased it up to 40 km/h and no vibrations – then 60, 80, and finally 100 km/h. The steering was perfect!
I turned for my hotel and rolled in after two am, exhausted after a week of intense photography, but overjoyed to see my wife and tuck my little boy into bed. I slept 3 hours and woke early the next morning to catch a flight home… just a little bit wiser than the day before…