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How to Cross a River

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Cover image: A hiker and her two trail dogs make an early-season crossing of Bear Creek in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, Montana. All photos: Aaron Theisen

Late June in the 1.5-million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex in north-central Montana is still solidly springtime, despite what the calendar says. The rivers run high and murky with the silty snowmelt of shrinking glaciers.

Not that such considerations had factored into my trip planning for a two-night, 30-mile loop out of the popular Sun River portal of “the Bob”—it was 90 degrees in the foothills, after all.

By our third knee-deep crossing of the West Fork Sun River and its tributaries since breaking the first night’s camp a mile back, my backpacking companions and I had committed ourselves to continuing the trip; whatever mountain hazards lay ahead couldn’t be worse than retracing our sodden steps.rivers3

Backpackers make an early-summer crossing of Flower Creek in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness, Montana.

Switching out her shoes for dollar-store flip-flops for this final crossing, one of my companions debated whether to stash her shoes in her backpack or carry them.

“Just throw them across to the other side,” I suggested. “It’s no more than ten feet across.”

Having already shouldered her heavy pack, she agreed. So, my friend windmilled her arm for the pitch—and slipped.

A good rule of thumb to test the river’s current is to throw in a stick and see if it outpaces a brisk walk. Watching, shocked, as a hiking shoe disappears from view illustrates the point rather more vividly. So does skittering in flip-flops across early-summer snow gullies for twenty miles.rivers4

A backpacker negotiates the Salmo River in the Salmo-Priest Wilderness, Washington.

Water crossings often account for some of the most time-consuming—and potentially dangerous—obstacles in mountain travel. They pose particular danger during the melt-off months of spring, which, unfortunately, coincide with the hiker’s early-season itch to get to high places.rivers5

The South Fork Teton River, Bob Marshall Wilderness, Montana.

However, a couple of river-crossing essentials can help ensure that you—and your hiking shoes—return home safely.

Before you cross

  1. Assess the flow. Water churning above the knee has the potential to pull you off your feet. Keep in mind that, during, spring run-off, the river will run higher later in the day as solar radiation melts high-elevation snowpack. Time your crossings for the morning, and factor in this increased flow if you’re doing an out-and-back day hike.
  2. Pick your crossing. Look for the widest spot in the river. Narrower spots may tempt travelers with shorter crossings, but the flow will be deeper and swifter here than in a broad channel. Avoid crossings with downstream obstacles such as fallen logs; these can act as “strainers” that, should you fall in, can trap you under water.
  3. Unbuckle your pack’s waist and chest straps. If you fall in, you need to be able to quickly ditch the pack, which can act as ballast.
  4. Keep your shoes on or switch them out for a pair of sandals (like the Campster). Take off and stow your socks.
The East Fork Bull River, Montana.

Crossing the river

  1. If the current is slow, angle downstream at about the same rate as the current. Otherwise, face upstream, lean into the current, and stab an ice ax or trekking pole upstream for a third point of contact. Probe the river bottom with your leading foot, moving your trailing foot only once the former has found secure purchase.
  2. Multiple people can cross together, taking turns securing each other while the other hiker moves into a new, stable stance. Groups can link arms in a flying-V formation, with the point of the V upstream and the group simultaneously moving sideways across the river.
  3. If you fall in, float feet forward and paddle hard for shore. If you approach an obstacle such as a large tree, point your head downstream and paddle hard, using the river’s momentum to hoist yourself atop the obstacle.
The East Fork Bull River, Montana.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to turn back if conditions look unsafe. The mountain will always be there, but high river flows won’t. 

Aaron Theisen is a professional writer and photographer based in Spokane, Wash. Follow him on social media: @whiskeygingermedia.

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