So, this is the real McCoy. My previous blog was written for fun during my furlough.
If you hike long enough in the backcountry, you will inevitably have to do a water crossing. It may be on a log, stepping on rocks, or fording through it. Over the past several years, I have done quite a few crossings and learned a lot along the way.
Honestly, I didn’t know much about the topic beforehand so I researched the Internet, read about it in my backpacking field guide and various articles in Backpacker magazine. I’ll share my experience crossing various bodies of water including an ocean inlet, streams, creeks, brooks and rivers. By no means am I an authority on water crossings – it’s mostly common sense. If crossing over or through water intimidates you, you are not alone – it’s very common. With a little planning and will power, you can conquer this.
My first real water crossings were on the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. This remote part of the Appalachian Trail has plenty of water. There were two of us and we used the buddy system on some crossings.
Methods for crossing (Fording the body of water)
Always – Put on your water shoes, roll up your pants. Loosen your backpack straps and unbuckle the sternum and waist strap. This may help if you slip. A pack can pull you under.
Solo – Facing upstream, use hiking poles. side step and try to keep three points in contact with the bottom at all times.
Two or more – Couple of methods here. You can face upstream, lock arms and side step your way across. You can also form a single file and face upstream. The person in the front forms a barrier. Place the weakest at the back of the line where there is less resistance to the current.
Swollen, fast current. This is a judgement call. My general rule is if the current is fast, I don’t usually cross if it’s higher than my waist. It’s difficult to keep your footing in a strong current with a slippery bottom.
Obstacles. Never cross upstream close to logs, tangles or debris in the water. If you slip, you may end up getting sucked under the obstacle.
Rapids, bends, waterfalls. Avoid crossing near these if possible. Water flows faster in curves and bends. Rapids are full of hidden hazards. Slip near a waterfall and well, you know…
Temperature. A cold mountain stream will numb your legs and feet within a couple of minutes. It can be shocking and cause you to panic. Move as quickly as possible to avoid cramps.
Some thoughts here. Did you know in Maine (other parts of New England as well) a brook is what most of us would call a stream or creek? A stream can be a large creek or what many out west would call a river.
Crossing over on a log
This is challenging if you are afraid of heights. The sound of rushing water just adds to the fear factor. I find it easiest to hold my poles out like a tightrope walker as it provides a bit more balance. One foot in front of the other and keep moving. If you are with others, it may help to carry the pack of the person who is struggling. That 30-40 lb pack lets you know that it’s there. Unbuckle the waist and sternum, loosen the shoulder straps. If you do fall, roll out of the pack to avoid getting pulled under.
Crossing on rocks, boulders
Choose your stones wisely. Most rock crossings are on shallow streams and creeks. I often use my poles for more stability and have slipped off many rocks. Your best tool here is a pair of hiking shoes with sticky soles like the Camp Four 5-10’s. Avoid moss-covered ones and test to see if the rocks are wobbly. Boulder hopping with a full pack is tricky. Lean to far and you’re going in. Believe me, I know.
While I’ve done a few, it’s a bit sketchy. Always use a headlamp and test the water depth with your hiking poles.
Equipment: You really don’t need much, but here are some ideas.
Water shoes – A good pair of waterproof shoes provides traction and forms a barrier between your feet and a rocky bottom. Hiking shoes with good soles for rock hopping.
Trekking poles – Gives you that third or fourth leg for added stability. Also can be used to pull you out if you fall.
Paracord – If you need to fasten it to your buddy, it can provide some assurance.
Extra socks – It’s no fun to hike in wet socks.
My hardest water crossing was an unplanned one. On a beach hike, my wife and I crossed a tidal inlet to a lagoon at low tide. On our return, the tide was rushing in and the 10 foot crossing at 1 foot deep became a 50 ft. wide crossing up to our shoulders. We put our daypacks above our heads, locked arms and barely made it across. Before and during the crossing, I briefed her what to do if we lost our footing. Fortunately, the current was coming into the lagoon. If the current had been going out, I doubt we would have risked it.
We’ve run across many solo hikers in the backcountry where there are an abundance of water crossings. It’s all the more important to understand the hazards when you are alone. Find the safest place to cross and never cross at night when you’re alone, it’s just not worth it.
Some final thoughts. Hike long enough and you will have to cross water. With the proper gear and techniques, it’s just mind over matter.
If you hike in the backcountry long enough you will eventually come across a brook, stream, creek, river or ginormous mud puddle. You will be faced with a decision. Do I cross it, go around or turn back?
I once came upon a large mud puddle filled with the smelliest black mud ever on the Appalachian Trail and noticed half of someone’s hiking pole. Wow, that was a run-on sentence. I wondered, where the other half was and if the person fell into the bog. Actually did meet the owner of the broken pole at a lean-to later. I did make it across the bog and learned how to do the splits that day. Now, I can sing tenor.
Most of you will cross the creek, especially if there is a bridge. I’m sure there are some out there that even have bridge phobias. Kind of like driving on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and realizing midway that 23 mile long bridges with little or no guard rails scare the crap out of you.
What if there isn’t a bridge when you come upon that creek that is swollen to twice its’ size due to the thunderstorm that just occurred? No fear, the purpose of my blog is to help you. Actually, blogging just gives me something to occupy my time during my government furlough and keeps me from writing angry letters to my representatives.
Let’s assume there are no bridges, logs or rocks to step on to cross this creek. You have many options, most require some prior preparation. Still, you always have options in life. Unless you are a congressional representative up for re-election that is.
Your first choice for crossing is this:
Of course this method requires rope or a homemade hemp vine found only where they grow marijuana in the national forests of California.
The next method still involves rope, but it must be fastened to something on both sides of the creek. Once, there was a rope strung across the Little Wilson Stream in the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness, but it was too high to reach. Very funny.
Hiking with a friend certainly makes it easier to cross water, especially when you have to ford it.
The buddy system, while loads of fun when doing chicken fights in the neighborhood pool can be especially treacherous with 40 lb. packs. Always remember to loosen your straps and unbuckle those waist fasteners.
Sometimes, the body of water requires something more than rope and a friend. There are places in the middle of nowhere that require a boat ride to get to your resupply. Why do they always put it on the other shore? And why can’t you blow the horn more than once to get picked up?
I mean, really. Who gets off the trail to resupply at some resort? It’s only 40 miles to the next town.
So, there you have it. The most common ways to cross water. Why is it in Maine that a brook is bigger than a creek and a stream is wider than a river? Everywhere else it’s not that way. Well, maybe in other parts of New England. But, they were here first, so I guess they can call it what they want. Ayuh, that’s wicked cool.
P.S. – I must be passive aggressive because the WordPress grammar checker always underlines my writing and accuses me of “passive voice”.
First half slideshow of our hike:
The continuing story of our northbound JMT section hike…..
By day 3, we all had our trail legs. You know what I mean, the steadiness that you get after a few days of stepping on, around and over stuff. Backpacks have a way of changing your center of gravity. Bend over a bit too far to smell those lupines and you’ll see how blue they really are. The night at Thousand Island Lake was amazing. The sound of the distant snow-fed waterfall created a peaceful nights’ rest.
At Thousand Island, it was a bit difficult to find a private place to do your business. Sorry for bringing it up, but it’s just one of those things that you have to do. One could write an entire blog about it, but I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say that sometimes you have to venture out to find that secluded spot and hope that the nearest trail is out of view. It is arguably one of the most challenging yet natural chores in the backcountry. Mosquitoes present a significant challenge with this, so you may need to apply some repellant where the “sun don’t shine”. The cathole shovel, tp and antiseptic wipes are essential gear. However, in a pinch so are a stick, leaves and some handfuls of dirt. Let’s leave it at that.
We admired the view from our campsite and did the usual tasks. Filtering water, making breakfast, tearing down camp and repacking those packs. The last task was usually the biggest pain. Packing around those bear canisters is like emptying a sardine can and then stuffing them back in. The climb out of Thousand Island Lake was steady and hot. The views over our shoulders of Banner Peak were ever-changing and dramatic. As we rounded a ledge, a fat marmot sat perched on a rock and it looked like a good place to stop. This is their territory and the scat is enough to prove it. Pausing occasionally to catch our breath, we would hunch over to shift the weight of the pack and lean on our poles. It was a funny sight for sure. Island Pass was like something out of a movie. Little archipelagos of grass seemingly floated around us. Birds were abundant here as were so many varieties of flowers. This area made me regret that we had to cover 10 miles today.
We descended into an area near Wough Lake and heard rumblings of thunderstorms. The skies to the north were menacing and I kept an eye on the direction it was moving. We discussed what our plan would be for inclement weather, especially if caught out in the open. Things like avoiding meadows, tall trees and shallow caves if lightning is nearby. Lightning is a strange and dangerous occurrence and you should have a plan whether you are alone or hiking in a group. In a group, it’s a good idea to spread out so a stray bolt doesn’t take everyone out. If possible, find a clump of medium-sized trees for shelter. The tallest and shortest trees are not advisable. The position for protection is simple. Sit on your backpack or sleeping pad with your two feet touching the ground or pad. Don’t lay or stand up if possible. If in a tent, do the same and don’t touch your tent frame. Enough of the morbidity, you can do some research on hiking and lightning. It is “enlightening”.
We would cross several streams over single logs perched 6-8 feet above rushing streams and creeks. It requires a sense of balance with a pack and if you are unsteady should consider having a mate take your pack across for you. Something about a skinny log, sights and sounds of roaring water can unnerve almost anyone.
We passed through a canyon and ran into a large group from Tennessee. They proceeded to tell us how they were pummeled by hail and rain for 1 1/2 hours. I must say, God protected our little group because we avoided bad weather all week. Either way, be prepared. We started the steady climb up Donahue Pass and a 80% cloud cover made it much more comfortable as we were totally exposed. The trail is well-defined and there are plenty of boulders to take breaks on. We ran across a couple of SoBo’s (southbounders) who provided upcoming trail conditions. We did the same. It’s very common to briefly stop and chat to discuss weather, trail conditions and experiences. People who are out here most often share our appreciation for the outdoors and generally are friendly with good attitudes. While I still scratch my head when we come across solo female hikers, they are safer out here than in their urban neighborhoods.
We would also run across a PCT thru-hiker who was disappointed that he wasn’t going to be able to walk 30 miles today. Man, I thought we were doing good at 10 miles per day.
Reaching the Pass, we would tread across the last remnants of snow fields and cross into Yosemite territory.
The trail becomes a bit hard to follow on the north side of Donahue as you cross more snow. Some cairns indicated the general direction.
We quickly descended into the beginnings of Lyell Canyon. The landscape, ever-changing was devoid of all but the hardiest of vegetation. The hiking poles made the descent easier as we snaked our way down. Forty five minutes later, we reached a wide creek and realized that we would have to ford it. Two hundred feet downstream was a waterfall and cascade, so no crossing there. We put on our water shoes and stepped in the cold creek that would become the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne. Here, underneath the snow of Donahue Pass, the water was a chili 40-45 degrees.
I crossed without incident, my wife mentioned that her feet were getting numb within 30-45 seconds. When fording water, it’s best to unbuckle your pack in case you fall since it can absorb water and drag you under. It took a bit to warm up from the creek as I imagined what it would have been like if there had been a heavy snow year.
We would cross countless tributaries to this creek as we ventured further in the valley. Some streams were cutting across the trail on a ledge that was five feet wide. Rock hopping was common and we definitely got better at it. We would also cross the creek twice more before finding a campsite. At the last crossing, we did it in our hiking shoes. My shoes, while excellent on the trail, were not waterproof.
We made camp around 100 ft. from the water in a beautiful stand of pines within earshot of the cascades. The sun was setting quickly as we ended a tough day on the trail. Dinner was spicy beef stew. We slept like hibernating bears. Tomorrow, July 3rd would be a race to Tuolumne Post Office to retrieve our supplies.