Flooded streams and rivers present a formidable barrier to wilderness travel, and except for desert country, there is the likelihood that hikers will be confronted with fording. Fording requires experience, and it doesn’t worth putting your life at risk if you don’t know what you’re doing.
The water barrier encountered in the wilderness could be an easily crossed mountain rivulet or a torrential river. Only foolish people attempt fording without proper forethought and preparation. However, broken bones and drowning occur yearly to hikers, fishermen, and boating enthusiasts who misjudge the power or moving water.
My first time fording
The twin ford at converging Granite and Canyon Creeks, their green currents swollen with glacial run-off, formidably bar my access to the North Cascade Highway. Six days of climbing around Crater Mountain have left me 30 pounds lighter and considerably weakened. My exhausted condition doesn’t help clear thinking as I stare into the swiftly moving depths. It’s either trek several miles downstream to Ruby Creek Bridge or attempt this dubious ford.
I don’t have any rope so my walking staff will have to do. Leaving the waist strap loose and shouldering my heavy pack, I step into the icy cold rushing water. The boulder-strewn bottom is slippery, and the increasingly strong current rises to thigh depth. It becomes difficult to move forward despite my staff; suddenly, an especially strong surge knocks me over. I barely get a chance to surface for breath as the gripping torrent, and my now waterlogged pack drags me under and downstream over the rough bottom.
I’m totally in the tributary’s power, but I somehow manage to control rising panic and kick my way to the opposite bank. Although the same experience awaits me in the other ford, I make it to safety unhurt.
This chastening experience could have been avoided by finding one of several logs that span these creeks upstream; however, I was subject to extreme fatigue, the woodsman’s worst foe. This was my first real fording experience; with the proper knowledge, I could have avoided what might have been my own drowning. Fortunately, forest service bridges now span the Granite-Canyon Creeks ford.
The dangers of fording
Never commit yourself to a major crossing without considering possible consequences and alternatives first. Always check the water temperature to see if it is too cold. Cold water can quickly cause cramps, temporary partial paralysis, and hypothermia.
If the proposed ford site is cold, rough, and very deeps it’s better to try finding another means of crossing. Try felling smaller trees across narrow streams; perhaps there are dead-falls or log jams which form a natural bridge. Be careful if it’s been raining, or if the logs’ surface is wet from early morning dew and frost conditions.
Mossy surfaces get very slick, and a person could take a nasty fall. If it’s determined that fording is necessary, find a spot where the stream course and opposite bank can be clearly observed. The ideal ford site is a level stretch where the channel is both shallow and broken into smaller rivulets. Sheer rock walls and heavily timbered canyons indicate rapids and deep channels. Locate a spot where the opposite bank facilitates easy access to safe travel conditions.
Your first option
Wading, swimming, and rafting furnish the primary means to tackle even the worst water obstacles. If the creek is relatively shallow and not flooded, simple wading with a walking staff for support will suffice. Sharp rocks, wood stubs, and human litter can cause severe cuts, so remove socks to keep them dry and wear boots during the crossing. Use the staff on the upstream side for stability, to feel potholes, and help cut the current.
Try to cross at an angle upstream. Never ford with a buckled pack waist strap. It’s very difficult to shed a waterlogged burden once you fall, and this mistake has caused a lot of drownings. Deep pools, rapids, waterfalls, and rocky places are all bad sites to ford, so try to locate spots below them — Cross where there is an easily reachable sand bar or shallow bank if a fall occurs.
Keep away from rock outcrops and log jams, because it is easy to get hurt or sucked under if you’re swept into them.
Related reading: 8 Dangerous Hiking Mistakes Most People Make
Before this article continues let me state this: Moving water can possess titanic strength that dwarfs that of man.
Flood conditions produce muddy water, concealing plunging deadheads, snagging root wet, and unstable boulders that can be clearly heard rumbling along the channel bottom. Whirlpools usually occur in canyons areas and can easily suck a swimmer or rafter under. I had friends who drowned while attempting a raft expedition down Oregon’s wild Illinois River gorge during winter flooding.
Without experience, rope or natural bridges, consider turning back! The subject of rope, a lightweight 100-foot line, of several times a person’s weight test, is an indispensable wilderness tool. Simple raft construction and shore-to-shore safety lines render it possible to tackle major water obstacles. Also, backpack contents compose precious gear which a person can ill afford to lose to a raging stream; waterproof the contents with plastic garbage sacks! Don’t attempt a flooded ford without first anchoring to a solid shore hold.
Your backup option
The bowline and clove hitch provide two simple though reliable knots for tying safety lines. Both are extremely secure and easily manipulated when wet; however, use only a bowline when attaching line around yourself. The clove hitch will not slip from its anchor point, but under pressure, the knot does constrict.
If a proposed ford site is narrow, a weighted line can be tossed and snagged around solid objects on the opposite shore. Coil the line in a spiral manner, so it uncoils smoothly as the weight is hurled. Attach a bowline about your waist and use the walking staff while crossing, if you fall, pull yourself across.
Safety lines are especially helpful if several people with heavy packs are involved. One member sheds his load, and ideally his clothes, then crosses swimming if necessary to secure the line on the opposite shore.
The team now begins ferrying their loads across with confidence that they have a good handhold even if they lose their footing. The last man to ford unties the anchor point, ties in, and is pulled over by his companions. If a person can’t swim and fording is absolutely necessary, pants can be inflated to help buoyancy. Tie the pant leg bottoms, close the fly and whip the waistband hard over the head into the water. Enough air is trapped to help keep the body afloat.
Swimming when fording
Employ the back, side, or breaststroke when swimming in strong currents because they are less tiring than other styles. Paddle with the current toward the opposite shore; however, don’t swim head first where a head injury could happen against a solid object.
Go downstream on the back, feet first, in shallow rapids and stay away from converging currents that could suck a swimmer under. Any variety of floatable items can be utilized for buoyancy in slower currents, but lashing together a raft often provides the safest means to negotiate large waterways, particularly if several people are involved.
This ancient method of transportation is great once the raft is constructed, and frequently offers a viable alternative to walking on shore. It is very time-consuming work locating the necessary buoyant poles, and then trimming and lashing them into a float. Any wood that floats will do, but I’ve always preferred pine and spruce logs because of the lighter weight and considerable floatation.
Make sure that all the poles float before lashing them together. Raft building is relatively simple with a knife, axe, and some rope. I prefer the pressure bar raft because the device is simply held together by the rope which lashes cross members tightly to notched main timbers. Always begin construction either on the skids or in the water; log rafts are extremely heavy!
One other important point: Make sure the craft is large enough to handle the planned load.
Before launching, climb to a vantage point and study the river ahead for hazards and favorable currents. Maybe the back eddies in a wide bend can help pull the raft to the opposite shore. Knowing what lies ahead will be just as important as competent pole work once the raft is launched.
A tightly constructed float can handle some pretty rough water but keep an alert lookout downstream. The idea is to travel with the current without getting sucked into the rough ripple central to any big rapids.
Quick pole work will help stave off a collision with obstacles and aid the raft past back eddies and whirlpools. If it looks like the river enters a canyon region stop and reconnoiter the course below before proceeding.
Fording is wet, sometimes dangerous and hard labor; however, it certainly adds to a wilderness outing’s adventure. The pioneers who explored North America perfected the simple techniques illustrated in this article, sometimes committing their families’ lives and belongings to a major raft trip down a formidable river. We survivalists can learn from their experience and learn to handle fording with confidence.