Through the river and over the woods

I've used a four-wheel-drive pickup to get where I needed to go or to do work I needed to do, like hauling wood from the timber where a two-wheel drive won't go, but I never wanted to use a pickup to drive around for fun. Except that one time.

I had invested in getting our recently acquired four-wheel-drive pickup into good mechanical shape, and a storm dropped almost two feet of snow on the ranch we took care of in northeastern Oregon's Blue Mountains. Gerrit, my brother, came out from Sumpter.

"We could cross the river and drive up the meadow," I said. "I'd like to see how this pickup will do in this much snow. I could haul more wood out and sell it, if the truck gets around OK."

I drove into the river and broke up the thin ice that covered the shallow ford. I'd been crossing there to cut and haul firewood from dead lodgepole along the west boundary of the ranch. The river's current pushed ice under the thick ice below the ford.

I drove up the riverbank onto the meadow, leaving differential marks between deep wheel tracks in clean, new snow. I thought I knew where my road to bring out wood lay under the snow covering the meadow. I drove through the open gate in the division fence, angled left, and drove up onto the bench ground above the river, pushing powdery snow with the front bumper. I drove past the first hay yard, then gently left again, heading for the timber beyond the meadow.

I said, "I'm probably the only one who could drive across the meadow like this, without seeing the road, because I know the meadow better than any living person." WHAM! Both front wheels fell in a ditch obscured by snow, to remind me that I seldom know as much as I think I do. The truck was stout enough to take rough use, and it had power and traction. I dropped it into lowest gear, eased across the ditch, and drove through snow at the edge of the bench as it curved parallel to the river.

I said, "John told me a bunch came up here one spring when the river overran its banks and spread out across the meadow. They rode their horses through muddy water almost up to their stirrups. The guy John had hired to take care of this ranch back then said, 'You'd better let me take the lead through here, 'cause I know this meadow and the way the river banks run through here. I can keep us out of trouble....' And immediately he rode his horse off the riverbank into deep water and swift current. He was washed about a half mile downstream before he could guide his horse into shallow water and then up out of the water. John said the caretaker stayed real quiet the rest of the day and let whoever wanted to take the lead."

I turned down the riverbank and faced the lower ford in the river. It hadn't been used all winter. Willow bushes laden with snow reached out over the small river. I said, "I've been wondering if that ice is thick enough to support a pickup. What do you think?"

Gerrit said, "I don't know."

"The water under the ice is less than a foot deep. I think I'll try it."

Into gear again, down the steep bank, and slowly onto the river. CRUNCH! CRACK! THUD! The answer was definite. The ice would not support a pickup. Nor would the truck propel itself backward or forward, even in four-wheel drive in the lowest gear. Broken pieces of ice, four or five inches thick, jammed under the thick ice just downstream of the pickup. The water rose and ran over the top of the ice. Gerrit and I looked at the frozen river around us and the water running close around the pickup, and we agreed: Four-wheel-drives sometimes get severely stuck because their drivers abandon caution to the belief that their machines will go anywhere.

I said, "Well, that's what the winch is for."

I stepped from the pickup across cold running water onto intact ice. I pulled cable from the winch on the front, waded through snow on ice, and crossed the river. I hooked my cable low around a grandfather willow bush, walked back, got into the pickup, and operated the controls. Slowly I winched the truck across the river - breaking thick ice all the way - until we were free from the river's ice and up on the opposite bank.

I rewound the cable, and we four-wheeled through two feet of snow to the county road and up the road home. Distance covered: about four miles. Elapsed time: more than two hours.

I could have been stuck in the river, wishing I'd never started down the bank. After that adventure, I used the four-wheel-drive and the winch to get firewood from difficult areas, and the pickup became good transportation for my family in country where packed snow often stays on the highways for months at a time. But I never again drove anywhere just to see if the four-wheel-drive and the winch would power me through.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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