Water Crossing in the Winds

Wind River Range
Wind River Range

I slowed my pace and tilted my head slightly to the side, catching my breath momentarily as I listened to the low roar ahead of me.  Late afternoon was not a good time to cross a snow fed stream in the Wind River Range.

Early Season Snow in the Winds
Early Season Snow in the Winds

I did not recall a large stream or river on my maps, but I was on the Continental Divide, and sometimes found myself “misplaced” due a to a lack of trail signage or markings.  I was also attempting a higher route, on a piece of trail that was less used.

The trail ahead of me disappeared into dense brush.  Pushing through the branches, I looked down to see a dark turbulent stream with boulders peeking through the froth.  I looked at the black, roaring water, and could literally feel the power forced through that narrow creek.

The sun was sinking low and it was late.  I turned to look around and behind me.  There really was no good spot to set up my tarp.  I stepped closer to the edge of the water and leaned forward, looking through the thinner screen of bushes on the other side.  Under a group of conifer trees was what appeared to be excellent camping locations – flat with a thick layer of pine needles.

“I can make this,” I murmured to myself as I stared at the rushing water.  The stream was about ten yards wide at most.  One more obstacle, and I was home free for the day.  As I stood watching the water, I unbuckled my waist and chest straps on my pack.  The last thing I needed was to fall and be drug down by my pack weight.

The bank dropped off sharply.  I sat down on the edge and lowered my legs into the rapidly moving snow melt.  I gasped and gritted my teeth.  The water was frigid!  I felt the tingling that preceded numbness begin almost immediately.  I needed to get across before my legs began to stiffen, so I planted my hiking poles in front of me, gritted my teeth, and stood slowly, turning to face the current.

I faced up stream and began to shuffle my feet slowly, leaning forward.  I was surprised at the strength of the current.  The water attempted to pull my legs from under me, and I could barely hold my hiking poles in place as this stream tried to rip them from my hands.

The bottom of the stream was lined with slick rounded rocks, and I gasped several times as my feet slipped from rocks while I struggled to regain my already precarious balance.  I was almost half way across when the water level began to move further up my thighs, the intensity of the current noticeably increasing.  I had misjudged this crossing.  I would return to where I had started, and wait for a slower flow in the morning.

I began to slowly turn, and found myself stepping down into a hole.  The water rose suddenly and my legs shot straight out from under me.  I did not have time to regain my balance.  I shot down stream, and sunk like a rock under my 40 pound pack!

I briefly panicked, fighting to regain my footing.  I should have immediately gotten out of the pack, but in the few seconds it took me to realize this, I tumbled end over end slamming up against a boulder.  The water shoved me hard from behind, and I was not able to push far enough away from the rock to get the pack off my shoulders.  I thrashed and fought wildly for a few seconds before slowing in exhaustion.  The cold water was numbing, and I found myself settling against the rock, momentarily resolved to the situation.

Images did not flash before my eyes.  I did not think about family and friends, pondering what “should, could, or would have been.”  I only felt a sudden rush of furious anger.  I had allowed this situation to occur.  I had made a bad decision in an environment that did not tolerate bad decisions or allow for “maybe’s.”  I did not feel fear, but saw the fear on the face of the woman looking back at me…and I fought the water again, straining with all of my strength against the current and the rock.

Suddenly, the current seemed to shift slightly, and I rolled to my side.  I managed to get one leg under me, and then the other.  I strained hard, and pushed to the surface where I was able to grab low hanging limbs from out stretched branches.  I was half way out of my pack now, but still had a strap over one shoulder.  I pulled hand over hand, dragging the pack along on my arm, until I reached the bank and shoved myself face first up onto the mud and leaves.  I dragged up the pack and laid their gasping.

I gripped sticks, dirt and leaves in both hands as my breathing slowed.  As adrenaline drained from my body, the cold and pain began to take it’s place.  I rolled over and stood slowly.  My water logged pack now weighed about 60 pounds, but I heaved it up and headed for the cluster of trees.  The sun was dropping, along with the temperature.  I needed to get into dry clothes and a sleeping bag before I got too cold.

Fortunately, my compactor bag kept my sleeping bag and clothes dry.  I also had all of my food in zip lock bags, so it was mostly dry also.  Wet gear could be a killer out here, especially hiking solo, so I was pretty serious about making sure I kept critical gear packed well.

Settled in for the night, I lay staring at the top of the tarp.  I was banged and bruised, and would be sore tomorrow, but I still held onto a slight sense of exhilaration.  I smiled and laughed softly, knowing I had cheated a very bad conclusion.  As I listened to the rushing water nearby, my smile faded and tears slowly flowed through the creases left behind.

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