Friday, September 5, 2014

Mossy Mom's tips for crossing creeks in the Olympics

Patches crosses the Wynoochee river in the winter

When I look online for tips on how to cross rivers, I find that many of the tips just don't mesh with my real life experiences while hiking solo in the Olympics.  So, I have decided to compile a list of my own tips and tricks for getting across the river and down the trail in the often soggy and sometimes slippery Olympic Mountains.

Mossy Mom’s tips for crossing creeks and rivers in the Olympics in no particular order

1)      Don’t always cross the stream where the trail crosses it.  Trails can cross streams in some of the worst places.  This is because often  trails cross creeks in spots where old bridges used to stand.  The best place to build a bridge is not always the best place to wade across a creek.  Also hikers and horses can wear a ruts into the stream bed making it deeper right where the trail crosses it.  River topography often changes as well, so the spot that was once the best place to cross might not be such a good place anymore.

2)      Look upstream for a good place to cross.  If you have a choice, upstream is usually a better choice than downstream, creeks get smaller upstream and they get bigger downstream.  If you can cross above where a major tributary comes into a creek or river you will have a much less water to deal with.

At 4:30 in this video you can see me using this strategy:

3)      Look for log jams and other hazards downstream of where you intend to cross.  If you fall down, is there a chance that you will you get swept into a rapid and under log?  If so, find a better place to cross.

4)      Log jams can be very dangerous places to cross, logs in the river are unstable and slippery, and some will sink when you step on them.  I generally avoid walking on log jams if I am hiking alone; there are many hidden hazards in a log jam.

5)     Don’t cross on narrow logs.

What's wrong with this picture?

6)    If you feel that you must cross on a narrow log suspended above the river don’t look down! If you look down and see the water moving under your feet you can quickly become disoriented and fall into the river. I learned this one the hard way. 

That's more like it

7)      Don’t be afraid to get your feet wet.  Often it is safer to just take the plunge and get your feet wet than it is to try to cross on narrow logs and slippery rocks.  I like to take off my shoes and cross in socks and then put dry socks on after I have crossed the river.  Creeks in the Olympics can be excruciatingly cold and they often have really sharp rocks in them, so I like to keep my socks on to protect my feet.

The safest way to cross here was to wade with shoes on
The woman took her shoes off but the man has his shoes on

8)      If you know there is a big creek to cross, think about bringing extra shoes just for crossing the creek in.  Crocks can be used for crossing rivers and the weight penalty is small.  If there is only one creek to cross and you are doing an out and back hike, leave your shoes hidden in the bushes after you cross the river and then put them back on when you return.  That way you won’t have to carry them for your entire hike.

Staying safe is more important than keeping your feet dry

 9) Use two trekking poles.  when I cross a fast and scary creek I cross with two trekking poles and I make sure I have three points in contact with the ground at all times, that is two feet and one pole or two poles and one foot always on the ground.  With just one pole you cannot do this, you really need two poles, so you can form a proper tripod and have three points on the ground at all times.

10)   Rocks in the Olympics are often covered in slippery see-through algae, so even when rock hopping across a river keep three points on ground.  Chances are good the next rock you hop onto will be so slimy that it's  going to try to pitch you headfirst into the creek .  See number seven above and don’t be afraid to just wade in and get your feet wet.  I’d rather have wet feet than risk having broken bones.

11)   Don’t be afraid to turn back and try again another day.  In the Olympics we don’t get flash floods, but dry creek beds can turn into raging torrents after a few days of rain.  The trail probably isn’t going anywhere, so come back later when the streams are lower.

River Ford?  Nope, not today, the river is too high.

12)   Be extra cautious at creek crossings when hiking alone. 

13)   Hypothermia is a very real danger in the Olympics.  Remember the formula for hypothermia is Wind+Wet+Cold=Hypothermia, so try not to fall into the river or go in too deep.  If it is cold and or windy and you have gone too deep into a river and your clothes are all wet, you should keep moving and take no breaks until you get to your car or your bus stop. 

     Sometimes the only way to stay warm is to keep moving.  In Washington state all fith graders in the public school system go to outdoor education camp.  I will always remember the tip that I was taught in my fifth grade outdoor education camp.  "When your feet get cold, put on a hat."  You lose a lot heat through your head, so when you nearly freeze your feet off in a river,  think about putting a hat on your head.

In this blog post I got too wet and was in risk of hypothermia so I continued hiking with no breaks until I got almost to my car.

14)   Your skin is waterproof.    To avoid getting your clothes wet, you can cross a deep and slow river like the Wynoochee in  your birthday suit.  I find it’s better to not have to worry about being caught naked; I need to focus on crossing the stream safely and slowly. So sometimes I cross a deep and slow river like the Wynoochee in my raingear. Think about stripping off all of your clothes, and crossing the river in just your rain gear.  It does not matter if your raingear gets soaked.  Once you have crossed the river you can shake out your rain gear and put your dry clothes back on. 

15)   You should always have full raingear in your pack when you hike in the Olympics.   By full raingear I mean a rain coat with a hood and rain pants.  Even in the rare event that it does not rain on your hike in the Olympics, your raingear is still useful. Your raingear can save you from getting soaked while crossing condensation covered brush in the morning.  Raingear is also useful for blocking wind and mosquitoes and if you get really cold at night you can even sleep in your raingear, so your rain gear is not extra dead weight to carry, it is actually extra insurance against hypothermia.
16) If your water loving Springer Spaniel is afraid to cross the river, you should also be afraid.

Patches crosses "Dry Creek"
17) Look ahead, what does the far river bank look like?  Try to cross the river or creek in a place where it looks like you can make it up and over the river bank on the far shore

An example of snow on the far bank making it hard for Patches to get out of the river bed..

18)  Snug your pack down to your back before crossing.   I know that this is contrary to popular advice, but you don't want the momentum of a loose swinging pack to to knock you into the river.  My primary goal is the cross the river without falling.

Yes, I know the theory that if you fall and you can not get your pack off, your pack will fill up with water and drown you.  Well, if the river is so fast that there is any chance that you are going to drown  then in my opinion you have no business crossing the river! Turn back and cross it another day.

If you are really sure that your pack is going to drown you what the hell are you doing crossing that creek?

19) Tie your hiking boots together and drape them over your neck or tie them to your backpack. Why? Because it looks really kewl and every one will know that you're a real backpacker and not some poser.  Never mind that this means you will have horrible weights pulling your head from side to side as you try to cross the river and when that weight makes you fall down, your boots will go rushing down the river never to be seen again. I put my hiking shoes in my pack when I cross a real river and I carry them in my hand when I cross a little creek.

I hope you enjoyed reading these tips.  If you have more tips please post them in the comment section.

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