There aren’t too many things that scare me while hiking in the mountains. Lightning, of course. And, more recently, out-of-control mountain bikers on narrow, downhill trails. But, that’s about it. I almost never worry about wild animals. Oh. And water crossings. Water crossings still scare the heck out of me and for reasons that have nothing to do with the crossing itself. It is residual fear from the time when I first started backpacking seriously.
I was reminded of this today when I watched this excellent short film, The Road From Karakol, by Kyle Dempster, an adventurer traveling by himself across Kyrgyzstan. At one point, he has to cross a river and he takes a couple of minutes to videotape his last thoughts to the people he loves. He isn’t sure he will make it without drowning. I know exactly how he feels. I had similar thoughts, although no video recorder, as I stood beside a spring-swollen creek in Glacier National Park in 1974.
I had gotten myself into this situation by being stupid, of course. I had completed a 400 mile hike, my first backpacking experience ever, in Oregon the summer before. And although I had done everything wrong and made numerous bad decisions on that hike, I somehow managed to survive with the idea that I knew something about backpacking. I pretty clearly didn’t, because now I was standing by myself in the middle of the Glacier National Park wilderness with a huge, uncrossable river to the left of me, an enormous snow-covered mountain to the right and behind me, which I was certain I could not climb back up after glissading down it, and this damn swollen creek in front of me. It was a warm afternoon in late May and the snow and glaciers all around me were melting fast.
I usually managed to finesse my way across creeks. In general, it wasn’t hard to find a tree blown down over a creek and pick my way carefully though the branches to get across. But, this particular creek was straight and scoured. I walked a quarter mile upstream and down and could find nary a branch across it. At the trail crossing, the stream looked to be about thigh high and maybe 20 feet across, but it was fast moving water, and as cold as the glacier that spawned it.
I had received clues all morning that maybe being here by myself wasn’t the brightest idea I ever had. As I descended from the pass by ramming my heels into the snow and plunging down, sliding more than walking, I had observed numerous avalanches on the opposite slope. One big one had reached and covered the trail I was aiming for. Then, when I reached the trail, there were fresh bear tracks so big they accommodated my entire boot, with room to spare. I had been singing a jaunty tune as I walked along, to let the bears know I was there, until I was silenced by the sight of the creek.
“Shit,” I whispered to myself. I was a good kid, brought up in a Christian home, but I had taught myself to swear the summer before in Oregon. This was clearly the time and place to use these seldom used language skills. I thought about returning the way I had come, but that seemed about as impossible as crossing the stream. I looked around for a stick to brace myself with, and found something suitable nearby. I unhooked the waist belt of my pack, took a deep breath, and plunged into the stream.
The cold literally took my breath away and I realized I had to hurry if I was going to get across before everything under water was numb. About halfway across, I was knocked off balance, and I set my stick into the creek to check myself. The stick snapped in half, and in a blink of an eye, I was face down in the stream, my pack pushing me to the bottom. I rocketed down the creek, crashing into rocks, trying to turn over. I believed I was going to die. In seconds (I guess), I washed up in shallow water on the far side of the creek, where the creek made a slight bend.
I could barely breathe, and I had a hard time getting to my feet. My right knee had been bashed on a rock and it would swell to about twice its normal size in a matter of minutes. I quickly got out of my clothes and with shaking hands built a fire on the bank to warm myself and dry out.
A day or so later, I dragged myself out of the forest and onto a road near a store. I couldn’t even walk the 50 yards to the store. I just put my pack down beside the road and stuck my thumb out to hitch a ride back to East Glacier and my car. That was as close as I’ve come to killing myself hiking, and I remember it every time I have to ford a stream.
If you need to ford a stream, here is some good advice from an expert hiker for doing it safely. Recent floods in Colorado have washed a number of bridges out over backcountry trails. Be especially careful when the creeks are high in the spring. The Rawah Wilderness, in particular, has some exciting creek crossings when the snow is still melting.