A Kennewick man and his young stepsons walked for miles in the stifling heat Wednesday after their car sank into the sand at the Juniper Dunes Wilderness in eastern Franklin County.
By nightfall, their water supply nearly gone, cellphone long dead and unsure of their location, Mitchell Slaugh, 30, Aydn, 9, and Daymon, 10, settled into a clearing.
They built a fire, partly to keep warm in the night cold. The boys also cared for Black Jack, the small chicken they'd originally brought to hunt for Mormon crickets for fishing.
Then, at midnight, Slaugh woke to the sound of a four-wheeler nearby. Weak with exhaustion and dehydration, he roused the boys and urged them to throw sagebrush on the fire.
"Pretty soon the fire was 10 feet in the air and the (rescuer's) lights flashed," he said.
Law enforcement officials said the group likely could have survived the night, despite getting lost in the wilderness on the hottest day of the year for much of the Mid-Columbia, But such rescues aren't unheard of when it comes to the dunes, a vast expanse of open terrain where temperatures soar during summer days only to drop precipitously at night.
"There's people lost out there all the time," said Franklin County Sheriff Detective Jason Nunez.
Slaugh, an Eagle Scout and ex-Marine, told the Herald he and his stepsons headed out to the dunes in his Mitsubishi Lancer at about 4 p.m. Wednesday.
The plan was to send Black Jack, who had been purchased to provide feathers for Slaugh's fly fishing lures, out from the vehicle on a string and then pull him in whenever he snagged a Mormon cricket.
Slaugh had never visited the area before and used directions provided by a cousin to get to the area, which is only accessible through private property. The group drove further than they initially planned, he said. While he had driven his car in rough conditions before, the terrain discouraged him from turning around.
He was driving on the shoulder of a road, trying to avoid soft sand in the roadway, when his vehicle got too close and began sliding and sinking at the same time. Nearly on its side, the vehicle was lodged into the sand and wouldn't budge, he said.
They stayed near the vehicle for up to 45 minutes after getting stuck, managing a call to Mary Slaugh -- Slaugh's wife and the boys' mother -- before the signal faded. He told her to drive out to Peterson Road near the dunes and wait for them to hoof it back the way they came.
"It was a considerable distance but we thought we could make it," Slaugh said.
They couldn't stay in the road because it provided no shade, Slaugh said, so they went out into the nearby brush, taking advantage of whatever shelter the terrain provided.
But they were quickly going through the little more than one gallon of water they'd brought along and the heat made walking for longer than 10 or 15 minutes at a time difficult. Temperatures got as high as 107 degrees Fahrenheit at the dunes, according to the National Weather Service.
"Occasionally, the heat would hit me hard and I'd have to lay down and take a nap for five minutes," Slaugh said.
The boys hiked up a 25-foot rise early on and managed to get a weak cellphone signal. Aydn briefly spoke with his mother again about 6 p.m. but the call sapped what was left of the battery. Mary Slaugh also gained little from the call.
"In a panicky situation it makes him even harder to understand," she said.
They continued hiking, stopping at times to build brief piles of stones as signs of their passing through in case someone else came through the area. The boys also held on to Black Jack, lowering him to the ground at times to eat a Mormon cricket. The group attempted to stay close to the road but drifted east, eventually ending up in an area known as Smith Canyon.
Slaugh said Aydn and Daymon cried at times during their ordeal and became scared once nightfall came, but otherwise "they handled it like troopers."
"It was pretty hard," Daymon said.
The phone call had alarmed Mary, and when her husband and sons didn't show up to where she was sent, she called Slaugh's father and brothers, who contacted law enforcement.
Two deputies were sent out at about 9 p.m., then a few more as the night went on, followed by help from the Franklin County Fire District, Nunez said.
Slaugh and the boys were dehydrated when they were found but otherwise not injured, officials said. The Lancer was pulled out with the help of a resident and sustained minimal, if any, damage, Slaugh said.
"If not for the fire, they wouldn't have found them," said Don Slaugh, Mitchell's father.
Deputies are dispatched to the dunes at least two to three times a year because of 911 calls, Nunez said. People often have to be airlifted out, such as when dirt bike riders crash and get injured.
Slaugh and the boys weren't at risk from animals in the dunes, Nunez said, but severe hot and cold weather is amplified in the area. Sand radiates heat during the day but cools quickly at night.
This won't be the last time rescuers have to visit the area this year. Waves of people visit the dunes around this time hunting for crickets for fishing, Nunez said.
He advises people to make sure they have plenty of water on hand and don't ever get out of sight of their vehicle while looking for the insects.
"You can get lost pretty quickly out there," he said.
Slaugh and his family are thankful for the help they received, he said.
And there's no need to ever go back to the dunes for fishing bait, as there are plenty of Mormon crickets in more accessible areas nearby.
"I'll take the minivan and park along the (Pasco-Kahlotus) road," he said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; email@example.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald