Water crossings on long distance trails have been some of my most dangerous experiences. The one below is probably one I should not have attempted.
The roar grew louder as the trail began descending from the side of the mountain. This had been a day of roaring as I traveled alongside the raging Hiawassee River, walking under waterfalls and picking my way across small turbulent streams.
In several sections the Hiawassee had overflowed it’s banks and I was basically in the river which had led me to considering camping early and waiting for water levels to drop. But the pull of more miles is strong on the trails and I continued hiking.
Over the roar I heard voices, and as I peered through the trees I saw white frothy water and colored clothing. As I approached angry Loss Creek a hiker walked towards me looking a little anxious. He asked me if I was going to cross and said his wife and friend were trying to cross.
I walked to the edge of the creek and looked down. “Holy Crap” I muttered. The creek described as “a rock hopper” in my Guide was about 20 yards across and a series of brown swirling angry rapids. There was no way I could cross. On the other side were two other hikers pacing up and down through the woods trying to find a safe way across.
The hiker on my side had shimmied across on a large fallen tree. The tree tree lay at an angle across the creek, half of it out over a waterfall where a pile of debris had gathered. Neither side touched the bank but the end on our side was close, and you could wade out and climb up on the other side. The dark wood looked wet and slick.
Eventually the other male hiker started swimming in what looked like a less turbulent area just ahead of the log jam and waterfall. Half way across the current grabbed him and he started thrashing, barely making the shore before tumbling over the Falls. His eyes were huge as he thrashed his way through the water to shore.
After he climbed to shore both guys went down to try and stabilize the tree so the first hikers wife could shimmie across. She was tiny and the tree still swung back and forth as she made her way across. The large tree was basically perched on the edge of the Falls like a big pendulum ready to roll over.
I probably weighed twice what she did with my pack. I was swimming.
Originally, I had planned to camp and try to cross the next morning, in hopes the water would calm down and lower a little. There were other hikers here now though, and I would much rather cross with others to help if needed.
Lowering myself into the waist deep water I pushed my buoyant pack out ahead of me until I reached my toes and then began swimming hard. The pack slowed, and I began pulling it, but that only lasted a few strokes before current grabbed me and yanked me under water. The water had looked fast but not this strong. I let the pack go and swam as hard as I could, glancing over to see the log and waterfall approaching quickly.
I told myself not to panic and swam harder, with my clothes and shoes dragging me down. Over the roar of the water I could faintly hear the yells of Frisbee, Stubs and Middle Brother urging me on. At least I think I could.
Suddenly the current lessened and just in front of the log I was able to break lose and swim hard. I felt rocks under my shoes and pushed hard, leaving the current and collapsing to my knees in the quieter waters near shore.
I paused for a minute and turned to see my pack wedged against the tree. Holding onto the large tree I waded out and grabbed the waist strap, dragging the now 100 pund water logged backpack back to shore.
The hikers on the other side cheered as I dragged my soaked, wet rat self ashore and I turned and gave a slight bow before waving goodbye. They could not see the tears of relief in my eyes.
It was late afternoon and temperatures were dropping fast. The water had been frigid and I needed to MOVE. I hiked About a half mile, fast, allowing my clothes and hair to dry a little. Then I stopped to assess the water damage to the pack.
The backpack itself was completely water logged. I swear it felt as if it weighed a minimum of 50 pounds! I learned that against a river well sealed freezer bags and gallon bags are NOT waterproof. Hyperlite Pods are also not waterproof, and finally a compactor bag is only about 50 percent resistant to a raging river.
Basically, the only thing that stayed dry was my Outdoor Research (OR) food bag. I can always count on OR.
I needed to dry out. It looked like it was going to start raining again and it was getting cold. I pulled out my Guide and saw there was a state highway in about 4 miles. I of course had no signal so I climbed up to the ridge and called a small motel that agreed to pick me up at the next road crossing.
If I could do it all over, I would not try that crossing again, regardless of whether other hikers were there or not. I should have waited another day or two for water levels to drop. There were other small streams before that one that were moving fast too, although none like that stream.
Too many things could have gone wrong and it is not worth the risk. I’m not a young whipper snapper anymore. I have definitely hiked enough to know when to take a calculated risk and when not to. Risk is part of long distance hiking, but not dumb risks. I love a good adventure as much as anyone, but that was just stupid.