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High Water

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High Water

Postby Mike M. » Fri Apr 08, 2011 6:33 pm

Because of this year's big snowfall, we can expect to encounter swollen streams in the backcountry well into July. For that reason, I think it might be a good idea for those of us with experience under our belts to share some tips about how to deal safely with high water.

I often hike solo, so if I screw up, I'm on my own.

Here are some of my personal rules for crossing creeks and rivers when the water is higher than usual:

1. Wear your boots. Do not ever try to cross a rapidly flowing stream in your bare feet -- you're likely to lose your balance and fall in the water. Boots give you traction. So what if they get wet? (I remove my socks, except for the liner socks.) Sandals or river shoes are better than bare feet, but they are no match for boots, with their rugged soles and rigid ankle support.

2. Log crossings are fine, but great care is needed. Wet logs can be slippery, and you could fall. What would happen if you did fall? If the risk/reward ratio is too high, don't cross. If a fall would put you in water that is unsafe, and there is risk that you might fall, don't cross. If, on the other hand, a fall would get you wet but would not put you in danger, give it a try.

3. I don't hike with trekking poles, but they can be very helpful crossing swollen streams. Just don't let them give you a false sense of security.

4. When the water is really high, look for a broad area of calm water. An example of this is the river crossing at the mouth of Evolution Valley. Often in early season the crossing on the JMT here is high and swift and uncomfortable for many hikers. The solution is to hike a little ways upstream, where the valley broadens and the stream spreads out. You'll get wet, possibly even have to walk in chest-high water, but it's safe.

5. Sometimes you can't find a safe way across. That's when you have to go around. Sometimes you have to hike upstream for miles until you find a place to cross. That can get you into some wicked bushwhacking. The further upstream you get, the fewer tributaries there are, so the creek/river becomes easier to cross. (They say if you follow it far enough upstream, you can jump across the Mississippi somewhere in northern Minnesota!)

6. Sometimes you have to reroute entirely. Backtrack, find a bridge, go high and seek a high cross-country alternative. The higher you go, the less likelihood you will encounter streams that can't safely be crossed.

7. I have read stories of foolish souls, traveling in groups, using ropes to help them cross places like Bubbs Creek during the spring runoff. This can be very dangerous -- people have become tangled up in the rope and drowned or they have been separated from the rope, swept away, and drowned. This is not a safe practice. Better to go up and around.

Mike



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Re: High Water

Postby rlown » Fri Apr 08, 2011 6:44 pm

Mike M. wrote:1. Wear your boots. Do not ever try to cross a rapidly flowing stream in your bare feet -- you're likely to lose your balance and fall in the water. Boots give you traction. So what if they get wet? (I remove my socks, except for the liner socks.) Sandals or river shoes are better than bare feet, but they are no match for boots, with their rugged soles and rigid ankle support.

Umm. Never. Tevas are best for stream crossings. I love my boots. they get strapped to the pack.

3. I don't hike with trekking poles, but they can be very helpful crossing swollen streams. Just don't let them give you a false sense of security.

Seen this first hand. I dislike trekking poles as well. I've done crossing locked armed with my friend. Solo, well, that's a choice.

4. When the water is really high, look for a broad area of calm water. An example of this is the river crossing at the mouth of Evolution Valley. Often in early season the crossing on the JMT here is high and swift and uncomfortable for many hikers. The solution is to hike a little ways upstream, where the valley broadens and the stream spreads out. You'll get wet, possibly even have to walk in chest-high water, but it's safe.

Go upstream until you find "safer" water. It's been my approach. I can deal with mid-thigh water, but more is just bad.

Mike
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Re: High Water

Postby maverick » Fri Apr 08, 2011 7:18 pm

All great points Mike.



1. Wear your boots. Do not ever try to cross a rapidly flowing stream in your
bare feet -- you're likely to lose your balance and fall in the water. Boots give
you traction. So what if they get wet? (I remove my socks, except for the liner
socks.) Sandals or river shoes are better than bare feet, but they are no match
for boots, with their rugged soles and rigid ankle support.

I too use Tevas, and have never had a problem.


2. Log crossings are fine, but great care is needed. Wet logs can be slippery, and
you could fall. What would happen if you did fall? If the risk/reward ratio is too
high, don't cross. If a fall would put you in water that is unsafe, and there is
risk that you might fall, don't cross. If, on the other hand, a fall would get you
wet but would not put you in danger, give it a try.

To this I would add, that I all ways look for a way out up stream, a branch, a log, if
for some reason I lost my balance and fell in.
It is better to have a back-up/emergency plan than trying to figure out something
while you find yourself in some rapidly flowing river.


3. I don't hike with trekking poles, but they can be very helpful crossing swollen
streams. Just don't let them give you a false sense of security.

I do agree that there are some flimsy, unreliable poles out there, but I would trust
my BD Poles.
Having more points of contact the better for your balance.

Add ons

8. Drowning is the number one cause of deaths in SEKI, so be careful, use common
sense, and most of all respect the force of mother nature, she can be unforgiving.

9. Try to time your crossing for the morning hours when the water levels are lower
and speed of the water is slower.
HST= Wilderness Adventurer who knows no bounds, except for their own imagination.

Have a safer backcountry experience by using the HST ReConn Form 2.0, named after Larry Conn, a HST member: http://reconn.org
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Re: High Water

Postby Wandering Daisy » Fri Apr 08, 2011 8:01 pm

I would agree with the "boot" concept, except closed-toe shoes would be a broader description. I never wear boots. For those who use Tevas, fine until you cut a toe.

Be careful of what is downstream. If you do fall in, tangles of logs and brush can trap you underwater. Getting a foot stuck under a rock is bad- the current will simply sink you.

With two people a good way to cross is to have one upstream, second downstream, both facing upstream, downstream person firmly holds the upstream person, downstream person is in the upstream person's wake, they cross in unison. A friend of mine uses this method in Alaska and says it really works well. But one should practice this method first if you plan on using it.

I use a rope for a hand line. In a large group this is good for the weaker members. Weight matters. The heavier and taller person may be able to cross something that a smaller person would have trouble with.

In snow-melt your feet can quickly become numb and it is really difficult to function with numb feet. You can put plastic bags over your feet, and then put feet plus bags in shoes. This acts like a wet suit for your feet. I will also keep on a pair of wool socks. This becomes important in wide crossings or walking through flooded areas.

Be leary of snow bridges. I have gotten on my belly before to slither across a snow bridge (late season in Enchanted Gorge). First check to see how deep the snow is. Some snow bridges are quite safe, others are not. I only use a snow bridge if it is to cross a stream that if I were to fall in, I would get wet, but not a big enough stream to be drown or washed away.

I am never too proud to get on my butt and inch across a log rather than try to walk it.
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Re: High Water

Postby LMBSGV » Fri Apr 08, 2011 8:25 pm

I use a pair of old Reebok Classic running shoes for crossings and to wear around the campsite. They can also double as walking shoes on some trails. When I was younger, I would confidently tightrope on a log over fast running water, but as my balance became a bit less reliable after I turned 50, I'm more inclined to wade. I always use a trekking pole on crossings, but only one. That gives me a free hand for balance on logs and rocks.
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Re: High Water

Postby maverick » Fri Apr 08, 2011 8:43 pm

Oh, I forgot one of the most important things, unbuckle you waist belt and sternum
strap so you can ditch the pack if you fall otherwise it will pull you under.
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Re: High Water

Postby Shawn » Fri Apr 08, 2011 11:40 pm

A few years ago I watched in horror from afar as a young woman made a difficult crossing of the inlet to Lake Ediza in early spring - with an infant strapped on her back. I was somewhere between dismayed and terrified to watch from above, but too far away to do anything about it. Blissfully she made it across.

On another occasion a we witnessed a guy fall over while crossing Bubbs creek enroute to East Lake. He was a big guy and had a big pack n his back at the time. He made it up and out after a few long minutes of struggling in the water, his pack was not on his back as he climbed onto the bank of the creek. The next day my friend and I returned from East Lake and camped at the designated location nearest the Bubbs Creek trail and talked to the guy. He was still collecting his stuff from the creek and drying it out.
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Re: High Water

Postby TehipiteTom » Sat Apr 09, 2011 6:35 am

This is a great (and really important) thread, and all of these points are worth keeping in mind. Thanks for posting this.
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Re: High Water

Postby SPeacock » Sat Apr 09, 2011 6:47 am

I've given up on keeping track of and carrying the extra foot coverings. Before wading in, I take off my boots and socks put the boots back on, tightly laced. Wade across with the things I've really become accustomed to working and feeling with. Other side I take off the boots, dump out the water and towel out the boot, put on new (fresher) socks and get the boots back on. Within a 100 feet or so my boots are about as dry inside as they were before I went into the creek and the 'old' socks are getting a breather on the pack. Lots of moisture in my boots usually on hot days any way. I get a change of socks, feet feel good and boots cleaned out of accumulated salt and debris plus no rock bruises, jammed toes or extra weight carrying feet coverings.

Before you cross big water listen to it for awhile and see if you notice some odd sounds. Those are larger rocks being carried down by the current. You don't want to cross there.

Most times there is a stack of sticks on both sides for use as a third 'leg' for crossing. Use those 'tokens' on the up stream side. I prefer treks if I have them. Usually only use one for stability - both hands with a white knuckle grip on it. My balance has always not been up to par in water. A tripod is very stable.

In deeper crossings shuffle along. There is a chance if you pick a foot up too high, the current will catch it and try to turn you like a cork screw.

No matter how full and heavy your pack is, it will float. If it comes to that, use it as an aid on your way down stream. As another has said, be ready to ditch it if you have to. A few have said they rather have it on to provide protection against rocks you may encounter down stream. My (internal) reply is maybe I wouldn't want to cross there anyway.

Even slow moving deep water is a problem. Some where right about around when the water gets crotch deep, you begin to loose traction with the bottom because you start to float. Be aware of the shorter people in your group. Women are more buoyant anyway. Relatively speaking there is usually more of them from the belly button down than there is on men.

If it seems like the only way across is using a rope, then more than likely this is not the place for you unless you are very practiced and skilled in how to set it up and how to do it, including belay from the far side. There is a technique, takes practice and training, and it is not without risk - like anything else with ropes. Make sure there is a safe landing area down stream free of flood debris and flooded bushes. Always a good thing to look for even without a rope.

Have somebody up stream a bit looking for flood debris coming down toward you. I thought I had it made on a more or less routine crossing until a log and I took a ride.

If you get dunked in very cold water, you will have an automatic, uncontrolled gasp for air. Just know it is going to happen.

If somebody gets an unplanned frigid bath, it probably is not smart to laugh too loud or too long You could be next. No need to increase or extend the embarrassment. On routine, less than knee deep crossings, don't panic and injure yourself trying to keep the person from falling. Enjoy the 'technique': slow pirouette, and temporary look of horror and fate on their face as they finally, eventually just loose it and splash. Most will someday. Which explicative they choose says a lot about their composure too.
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Re: High Water

Postby BSquared » Sat Apr 09, 2011 10:59 am

maverick wrote: Add ons

8. Drowning is the number one cause of deaths in the wilderness, be careful, use
common sense, and most of all respect the force of mother nature, she can
be unforgiving.


Excellent points, everyone! Maverick, I didn't realize drowning was the number-one cause of backcountry deaths, but I can't say I'm really surprised (I'll bet hypothermia is a very close number 2).

Good point about the snow bridges, WD! Most of us on the board have probably read Blehm's The Last Season and realize that even the most seasoned veteran can get done in by a snow bridge.
Last edited by BSquared on Sat Apr 09, 2011 3:37 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: High Water

Postby tightline » Sat Apr 09, 2011 12:21 pm

A lot of excellent information. Hopefully a lot of people read it, especially for this year. Great info from experienced hikers. I too was unaware that drowning was the #1 cause of death in the back country.

All the discussion re people going down and getting wet while crossing (I've been on trips where it happened -- once we were in a place on a cold rainy day where I could start a fire for the guy that went in--everything was soaked and he was shivering good even with my dry clothing until we got the fire going good), makes me think that it would be a good idea to put a change of clothes in something somewhat waterproof, like a sealed up garbage bag or something if you did go in . If it was a real cold windy day and everything was wet--and if it was late in the day--you could be in trouble. I guess if you were with other people who crossed successfully you'd be ok but if you were alone it could be a tough situation. I've never waterproofed my clothing at questionable crossings but I think I'll start.
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Re: High Water

Postby Mike M. » Sat Apr 09, 2011 12:43 pm

Good point. I always take care to safeguard my sleeping bag, so if I fall in the water it won't get wet. I'm not so worried about my clothes, but I'd hate to spend a night in a soggy sleeping bag. Fortunately for us here in the Sierra Nevada, high water tends to occur when our weather is at its best -- long, warm, sunny days that make hiking with wet boots and clothes less uncomfortable. On most days, you'll be dry again in a few hours -- unless you have to cross another high creek!

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