Editor’s note: Another installment of adventures from our field assistant, Avery Shawler, who is out inventorying Lands with Wilderness Characteristics in South Idaho.

Another month has gone by and summer is in full swing. I hope everyone survived the heatwave that swept through the state. Luckily, I was only in the field for a little bit of it since I did my most of my fieldwork at the beginning of the month. During the first week of June I was in the Cotterell Mountains southeast of Burley, and in Sawtooth National Forest land south of Murtaugh.

The Cotterell Mountains

The Cotterell Mountains are a small mountain range surrounded by agricultural land. This unit is unique because once you get to the top of the escarpment it plateaues out and is relatively flat. The Cotterells have some really scenic views of the rock formations that formed on the escarpment.

In the units on Sawtooth National Forest land, I had some fun wildlife encounters and a nearly disastrous situation. First, the fun wildlife! I must have seen about 10 short-eared owls while I was inventorying those units. Most of the ones I saw were perched in a tree or a bush and would stare me down as I went by. However I did find an owlet in the middle of the road and it did not move as I drove up to it.

I got out of my car to take a closer look. It appeared to be sleeping, so I gently poked it to wake it up and move it out of the road. There must have been something wrong with the little guy because it woke up and was not afraid of me. I gently picked it up and moved to the side of the road into some sagebrush where it would be out of sight of predators. I couldn’t believe how yellow its feathers were and snapped a quick picture before I moved it. Owls have some of the softest feathers of any birds because their feathers have a downy fringe on the edge, enabling owls to fly silently and sneak up on their prey.

This owlet was one of the softest-and youngest-owls I have ever handled.

The Bennett Hills

My second stint in the field last month was in the Mount Bennett Hills north of Gooding and Bliss, and south of Fairfield and Hill City. This area is truly unique. It has hundreds of hoodoo formations (vertical, separated columns which are formed and shaped through wind and water erosion) in the locally famous Gooding City of Rocks. This area is also known for having the highest density of petroglyphs in Idaho.

There are numerous volcanic rock formations which early Native Americans and Basque sheepherders found to be great places to carve petroglyphs. I did not find any while I was out there, although this week I had an ICL member point out a few secret locations on a map where he knew some petroglyphs to be. So I will probably be back to check those out!

Then the Road Got Even Steeper

So back to the story of my near disastrous situation. This happened in the first week of June when I was in the Sawtooth National Forest land south of Murtaugh. I was driving out of the unit and going downhill on a steep but (seemingly) manageable two-track. I was about a mile down and realized I had gotten to a point where it was impossible to turn around or back up. The route suddenly got very rocky and sandy, and even steeper. This section of the two-track that had washed out through erosion and it sloped to one side. My poor car started sliding on the sand, which prompted the traction light to come on. The slope was so steep that my car slid fast enough to lodge the right side of the front axle on top of a boulder.

I soon realized that in this action both of my right wheels were now in the air and my car was stuck. I got out to assess the damage and found that some cable connecting my front right tire to the axle had snapped. At this point I knew that I was in some serious trouble.

I got my shovel out and started to dig around this boulder to see if there was any way I could move it. After about an hour of digging I realized that not only was this boulder way too big to move, but also that it was surrounded by other huge boulders that were blockading it in. So digging it out was not an option.

At this point I decided that I should call ICL’s Jonathan Oppenheimer to let him know that I may be needing some assistance to get out of this situation. Luckily I had cell service where I was and right away Jonathan began contacting towing services. Although that was somewhat of a relief, I knew in the back of my head that getting a tow truck out there was going to be very difficult and I wouldn’t be out of there until after dark. I told Jonathan not to send anyone yet and that I would give it another shot for an hour.

I racked my brain for ideas and decided that I should pull out my car’s jack and see if I could get my car in a better position. I knew this was going to be risky because there was no level ground to put the jack on, but I decided to try it anyways. I first tried jacking up the left side of my car to see if I could get my right tires on the ground. When the jack was about half way up my car slipped of the jack, back into its same spot-so I tried a different approach.

I decided to put the jack under the center of the front axle. The idea was to get the axle completely off the boulder. I was completely aware of how dangerous this was and made sure to not put any of my body under the car (I was not looking to win a Darwin Award here).

I jacked my car all the way up and luckily the jack stayed put. The left wheels of my car were also elevated, but everything seemed to have leveled out. I then grabbed my shovel and dug out a bunch of rocks and stuck them under my tires to give them something to grip on. I then brought the jack back down and took it out.

I gingerly got into my car hoping that the rocks under my wheels would stay put. I put my key into the ignition to start it, but the key wouldn’t budge. I panicked for about a minute, thinking that I had busted something else that I didn’t see yet, when I realized that I had engaged the anti-theft locking steering wheel mechanism. Luckily this had happened to me earlier this year when I was visiting my brother, so I knew exactly what to do. I slowly turned the wheel and simultaneously turned the key with even pressure, and thankfully my car turned on.

I very slowly started to back my car out and by some miracle I got my car off the boulder and back to the top of the hill from which I had initially slid. Since I still couldn’t turn around, I decided to very carefully go off road into the sagebrush on this steep section.

It took me about an hour to get to the nearest gravel road, and then another hour to limp my car to a mechanic in Twin Falls. Turns out I had broken one of the suspension cables and luckily the mechanic had the part and was able to get me back on the road in two hours.

Luck, Skill and Grit

In those five hours I went from not believing how unlucky I was to be in that situation, to feeling unbelievably lucky that I managed to get myself out of that situation and was able to get my car fixed relatively quickly. Having a challenging situation like that made me appreciate the kind of skills I was gaining from working in the field alone. It forced me to be creative and use my problem-solving skills to come up with a way to get myself out of there. Being alone out there I had to do some serious decision-making and evaluating whether or not I could carry out some of those attempts safely. Situations like these also help me develop some grit. I was quite determined to get myself out of there and had many opportunities to give up. It is uplifting knowing that I am capable of handling these difficulties on my own and I can totally apply this knowledge to other aspects of my life.

That being said, it wouldn’t be a true season out in the field without at least one vehicle mishap- so I am glad I got that out of the way early! All of this reminds me of one of my favorite Edward Abbey quotes (it’s also my email signature and probably one of his most well-known quotes):

"May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds."
– Edward Abbey

Until next time,
Avery Shawler