Several times in our travels this summer, my husband and I drove past a big sign advertising THE CENTRE OF ALBERTA – 3 KM. The sign always intrigued us, and we kept saying one day we’d stop there, but we were usually under a deadline or driving past after dark.
Finally, a few weeks ago, we were approaching the sign once again. Sunshine was awake, it was mid-afternoon, and we didn’t have to be home at any particular time.
“Let’s stop,” I suggested, thinking we’d walk the short 3 km, but when my husband saw the trail, he said, “Let’s take the Jeep.”
Poplar trees dotted with the occasional evergreen surrounded the trail, which was dirt and grass and more than wide enough for the Jeep. We hadn’t gone far when we hit the first mud hole and I balked.
“Do you want me to drive?” he asked, and we switched places.
He popped the Jeep into 4×4 and we bounced through that mud hole, then another one. The third one made us wonder whether maybe we should turn around, but neither of us said so, and the Jeep made it through. We figured it was late enough in the year that the mud had dried up and frozen over. Sunshine wasn’t quite so sure about the bumpy ride she was getting, but my husband and I were having fun.
My husband paused just before the fourth mud hole, which was big but didn’t look as bad as the last one we’d been through. So he drove in, but not out. The Jeep stopped halfway through.
“Shoot,” he said, flipping it into reverse.
The Jeep didn’t move. He tried drive again. No response. We were stuck.
We got out and surveyed the situation. No winch. No shovel. The mud apparently wasn’t entirely frozen, so the Jeep had broken through the crust and sank up to the frame in gooey, sticky, black muck. We got branches and tried digging. We stuffed branches under the tires to try providing traction in the mud. We tried pushing the Jeep forward. We tried pushing the Jeep backward. Sunshine wailed. Nothing worked.
There’s no cell reception at the centre of Alberta, and even if there was, we were a couple hours’ drive from anyone we knew. We started thinking of friends we knew with a 4×4 and winch. It was a short list, and all of them were too far away.
We put Sunshine into her baby carrier and walked back out to the highway. It took us five minutes. At the highway, we flagged down the first truck that passed. A dad and his son were happy to give us a ride back into Fort Assiniboine. At a restaurant there, we began asking if anyone in the area had a 4×4 and a winch and wanted to make some money pulling our Jeep out of the Centre of Alberta.
The two hostesses spent half an hour calling all their friends and family. (You know it’s a small town when they have the numbers for half the people in town memorized.) A few people wandered in and out, who either didn’t have a 4×4 or didn’t have the time. One fellow named Larry said he’d be happy to help us, but his 4-wheel drive didn’t work. Finally, as we were about to give up, the hostess got her nephew on the phone. He had a Ford Power Wagon and a winch, and wouldn’t mind helping.
Larry drove us out the Centre to meet the Power Wagon. We started down the trail in both trucks, until we hit the first mud hole. Larry looked at it and said his truck wouldn’t make it. So he and my husband piled into the Power Wagon, and I was left with Sunshine in Larry’s truck. I watched their headlights bounce off down the trail and then disappear. The green lights of the clock showed 6:30. Outside the truck, it was completely dark.
Ten minutes passed while I played with Sunshine, tried not to watch the clock, and wondered if they’d gotten to the Jeep yet. Then, as I pictured them pulling the Jeep out and driving it back, a thought hit me: I had the keys. I’d turned it off and pulled the keys out when we went for help.
A sick feeling settled in my stomach. I stared into the darkness, and thought of the black bear and moose we’d seen while driving this highway, and rumours I’d heard of cougars around here. Then I dug through the back seat of the truck and found a flashlight.
I hopped out of the truck, got Sunshine into her baby carrier again, and started down the trail. Once past the truck’s headlights, however, I discovered the flashlight was next to useless. I couldn’t see the trail at my feet, much less anything else. I knew there was a fork in the trail somewhere ahead, and if I got lost, I’d be no good to anyone.
So I returned to the truck to wait.
Another fifteen minutes passed before a light appeared in the darkness, and materialized into a bouncing flashlight carried by the boy from the Power Wagon. I went to meet him and handed over the keys, then watched as his flashlight disappeared again. Then I waited, counting off every ten minutes of the clock. Sunshine fell asleep. I wished I could. I stared into the darkness, then at the clock, and prayed they would get the Jeep unstuck, that the Power Wagon wouldn’t get stuck, that everything would be okay.
The clock was reading 7:30 when headlights appeared again. I almost cried for joy, then held my breath until I saw the second set of round headlights behind the first. I muttered “Thank God!” several dozen times as the Power Wagon came down the trail, fishtailed through the first mud hole, and pulled up beside Larry’s truck. The Jeep bounced through the mud hole without a problem, and I went to meet them. The men all had a smoke as they laughed at our adventure, and recommended we get a winch before we do that again. Then they refused any money for their help and drove away.
As the mud spun off our wheels on the highway, my husband told me what had happened. The Power Wagon had gotten stuck in the second mud hole and had to get winched out. Then it got stuck in the third mud hole too. The men asked my husband how many mud holes we’d gone through. They said they wouldn’t have taken quads back there—hadn’t we noticed the quad trails around the mud holes? All of them knew people who had gotten quads stuck back there.
They got the Jeep winched out fine, but then both the Power Wagon and the Jeep got stuck in the mud hole going back again. On the next mud hole, the Power Wagon men told my husband just to take it easy and when he got stuck they’d pull him out. But he drove through that one without a problem. They were quite impressed with where we’d taken the Jeep, and will probably laugh about it for quite a while.
And so our adventure ended harmlessly, with the resolution that next time we do something like that, we’ll make sure we have some friends, a map, and a winch. But we have a good story to tell about the time that we took our Jeep somewhere a Power Wagon couldn’t go.