As part of my job duties I inspect dams to ensure that they are in decent shape and maintained. I am trying to be vague as I really don’t care to divulge what I do for a living or for whom. The inspections are visual and generally take about 45 minutes for the field work each depending on the size of the dam. I was out yesterday and got four done (just the field work) and it was around noon. I had one more that I wanted to tackle before settling down to write up my reports. It was about an hour away and like to get my field work done so I postponed lunch and headed toward the dam.
It seemed (and it was) a very long dam and several time I thought about heading back because doing this one probably meant getting back late and not getting my paperwork done. But as I got further I knew that I had to push through and get-er-done. I use that purposely as I was quite far away from any city or town or houses for that matter. My trip was punctuated by a four mile descent down a steep, winding road that lead to no one’s door. I turned into the dirt road that would take me to the dam and as often happens with some of these remote facilities the “road” got progressively worse.
The puddles turned into big puddles ending in a very large one as the dam came into view. Both the dam and the puddle were much bigger than I expected. The “road” curved past the puddle and the road was so narrow that I felt that I had to push through to the other side. In hindsight that was bad. I had four-wheel drive and I had a big truck so I thought it better to go forward. The puddle was not so bad, but as I rounded the curve the “road” went up a steep slope for the entire height of the dam (it is listed as 76 feet). I engaged the 4×4 and gunned it up the slope. I was doing okay; only sliding a little as I crept up toward the top until about ten feet from the peak. By the way I realized as I climbed the hill that I had no idea what I would find at the top. Not my brightest moment.
Fate, however, delayed my finding out about that as I began to find out that 4×4 works better if you actually have good off-road tires. I had good general purpose tires and they decided that they could do no more and started to spin as I was sliding backwards. As I jammed on the brakes I noticed that they really weren’t stopping me right off the bat, but seemed to dig in after what seemed like 100 feet, but was probably 20. I just sighed now as I sighed after successfully stopping my truck on a very steep slope.
As they say I had nowhere to go but down so I started to SLOWLY back down the slope and was doing fine. Fine until that puddle. I am used to using my side mirrors to navigate when I back up and proceeded through the curve puddle system until I noticed that my ability to steer was no longer an option. That puddle seemed to have turned into a sucking fissure and I slid off of the road. I’d like to say there was a ditch that I slid into, but it was more like an embankment leading to a somewhat large stream. As I tried to work my way free I seemed to keep sliding towards that abyss. I know that it was not an abyss, but it sure felt like one to me.
It was time to take a visual assessment of my situation from outside the cab. I didn’t like what I saw and what I saw was the big hole that I was in. I thought that I might be able to make a ramp out of rocks that were strewn about so I set about placing them under and in front of my tires. The rock ramp seemed like it could work and probably would have except the puddle was probably a puddle for a long long time and the mud was very very deep and slippy (slippery for those of you outside of the greater Pittsburgh area) and the rocks either harmlessly slid away or were just pushed into the mud when I tried to go forward.
Here I was in the middle of nowhere with no cell phone service and a truck stuck. I don’t know if I mentioned that no one really knew my itinerary so no one really knew where I was. I decided to hike to the top of the dam to see if anyone would be able to hear me then. As I stalked back and forth looking for an area that would give me just one damned bar I started to think of a contingency plan (pretty much walking until I found another human). I kind of got one shimmer of a bar and placed a call to my boss…no answer, but I left a message about where I was and what my situation was. I tried other numbers, texts, and even emails, but had no ideas whether they went through so I carefully walked back down to the bottom, took some photographs, grabbed my stuff and started to walk.
I did pass a house (probably more of a hunting camp house) on my drive in and tried knocking at the door. I wonder sometimes about people who live below one of these large dams and in such a remote area. No one answered so I continued walking. As I approached the road (it was paved) I noticed a white roof far off to my left and thankfully in the opposite direction from the four mile hill climb. I had seen a white truck go by on the road before I got to the house, but no other life forms were visible as I walked. I passed a sign for the next county which is rather known for its remoteness and my confidence waned. As I got closer to the building there were actually two, but they both seemed empty.
They were! But I did hear a faint noise further up the road like some equipment being used. I continued and searched ahead for some movement and was treated to the sight of some bright green hardhats ahead. I made my way over to the men and walked up to them as they seemed to be discussing their project. It felt a little like a stranger walking into a neighborhood bar when they all just stopped talking and turned toward me. I explained my dilemma and asked if any of them had a phone that worked. They chuckled knowing that cell phones didn’t work down where we were. The crew leader said that he often had to drive to the top of the hill (my four mile hill) to get any reception, but before I could ask him to take me he decided that they would get me out.
He certainly had the equipment and said they were just waiting for some concrete to set up so they had some time to help me. I know that this may seem dramatic, but a great weight was lifted from me. It was Friday and getting on close to 4:00. Homey (that’s his nickname) started giving directions to his crew and we drove over to where my truck was stuck. I warned him about the “road” so he stopped, turned around, and backed in. An impressive display of driving as he explained that they did this all of the time. Soon after the rest of his crew showed up (another truck and a wheeled loader). There were whistles and a joke about me getting a Ford stuck in the mud, but they quickly got to work first digging around my hitch to hook me up to the loader.
Here were complete strangers kneeling in the mud and digging around trying to get me unstuck. They finally got the truck hooked up and got the loader in place carefully not getting themselves down into the puddle. The operator lifted my truck out of the hole and started to shift it toward the “road”, but as he started to set it down it just slid back so he was going to move it further, but was concerned about knocking some trees with his bucket. He was able to maneuver enough to set the truck down on more solid ground and the trees were barely nicked. Homey offered to back my truck out as the loader pulled and I was grateful for that extra bit of help. My off-road confidence was a bit shaken.
Homey was the first to leave then his loader. The second truck waited to help me turn around and make sure that I got out. As I pulled past them they had pulled off too far and gotten stuck though they were not on the stream side. I drove after Homey and told him about the other truck and he laughed and got back in his truck. He told me to take off and that he’d take care of it. I felt weird leaving, but there was nothing that I could add to the situation and was probably just getting in the way. I shook their hands, took down their names, thanked them again and headed home.
Perhaps as Homey said that this kind of stuff was all in a days work for them, but they really came to my aid and for that I am grateful. So it all worked out okay and I only got home a few hours late, but exhausted. My wife and I skipped our planned anniversary dinner (it was earlier in the week, but we were going to celebrate it that night) in favor of my long, hot shower and a fairly early bed time. The bad news is that I never got the damn dam inspected and I have to go back next week. You can bet that I’ll be parking far away and walking in.