Getting stuck in the mud without pants

Fieldwork is a wonderful thing! It allows me to get outside in beautiful places and study animals in their natural habitat. It can be one of the most rewarding experiences, but because very little is ever in your control – weather, animal’s behavior, animal’s presence etc. – many things can and often do go wrong. Sometimes they are entirely my fault, like when I was at Lake Tahoe and I drove to Reno to pick up my field assistant when she had actually flown into Sacramento (3 hours away….), but other times field work fails are not my fault at all. Today’s story, is a mix of both, but mostly not my fault.

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A view of the San Francisco Peaks from my field site near Flagstaff, AZ.

For my first hummingbird fieldwork trip, I spent the summer (2014) in Flagstaff, AZ working on broad-tailed hummingbirds. It was such an amazing trip, and I learned a lot about working on hummingbirds during that time. I also learned some of the difficulties of working in the American Southwest. One of my field sites was a pretty remote area, where I had to travel several miles on a not-so-great dirt road:

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And, as you might have seen in my previous blog posts (here and here), late summertime is monsoon season in Arizona, and that is when I was doing this work. Typically at this remote site, I had a commanding view of the surrounding land:

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which meant I could usually see when storms were coming from a distance, like so:

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This was a good thing, because monsoon storms can be very intense with lots of rain or even hail. Whenever it rains on the dirt roads I was on, they become mud roads and very difficult or dangerous to drive on:

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This photo does not even capture the worst parts of the run. Some parts of the road were completely underwater while others became more like a river. 

My story begins one day when I was at this remote field site. I was busy getting some work done, when suddenly I notice a storm coming over the mountains towards me. I quickly tried to pack up all my stuff, but I got caught in the initial downpour. I got completely drenched but managed to get everything in my car without damaging my equipment. Because I was completely soaked, I figured I would take my pants off while I drove to avoid getting my seat wet. In retrospect, not the brightest idea.

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The storm fast approaching my field site.

As I started to drive off, the road got really slick and muddy. I had some minor fish-tailing but was mostly getting out ok. However, when I was only a few miles from getting to the gravel road, my tires start spinning in the mud. Cursing, I got out of my car (without my pants on) to check out the situation. One of my tires was completely stuck. At this point, I only had a 2-wheel drive SUV, so this was not ideal. I tried to pry the mud out from between my tire and car, and then wedge things under my tire to get it going. I managed to get out of that mud slick, but also managed to get my legs covered in mud. Turns out getting on your hands and knees in the mud without pants on is a terrible idea… After epically failing to keep my car seat dry and clean, I drove a bit further down the road but got stuck again. This chain of events happened two more times before I finally was completely stuck and caked with so much mud. I actually broke a PVC pipe trying to dig the mud out from between my car and tire because it was so tightly packed in there. Oh and did I mention I was supposed to give a talk to an undergrad class that evening?

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A broad-tailed hummingbird, which was the species I was studying in Flagstaff.

Well there I was pantless, covered in mud, car completely stuck in the mud, and many miles away from the field station. And annoyingly, the rain had stopped, so I could not even clean my legs in the rain. I called the instructor of the course to tell him the situation (leaving out some details), and luckily he was very understanding and sent help. However, this help could not get to me because of the road conditions; they could only get to the edge of the gravel road, which was still two miles away. So, I got all my gear, which included a 2x2x2 ft. mesh cage, put my soaking wet pants back on – over my mud caked legs, and hiked out the two miles. I ended up with several inches of mud on my shoes, which was not really an issue since I was already covered in mud both on top of and under my pants. When I finally got to my rescue party, I must have looked completely ridiculous. I was able to go back the next day to retrieve my car, and then I spent the next several hours chipping mud from underneath it and from my tires. Afterwords, I was much more careful of monsoon storms and never took my pants off in the field again.

Morals of the story: 1) do not get caught in monsoon storms when on dirt roads, and 2) if you do, don’t ever take your pants off!

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