View Full Version : River Crossings

08-11-2003, 18:50
For those that have thru-hiked, what was the worst river crossing that you faced on the trail? Is this something that should concern me?

I am reading "Walkin' on the Happy Side of Misery" now. J.R. Tate describes one of his river crossings where he got dragged underneath the water with his pack. He said that signs suggested taking the blue-blazed trail to avoid the river during heavy rains. He elected to cross the river rather than fight a long overgrown blue blaze trail.

In another section of the book, he talks about getting attacked by two loose dogs.

He also references several times when shelters were full and he had to walk MILES to find a suitable tenting spot.

Maybe the book provides a jolt of reality---(overgrown trails, dangerous river crossings, loose dogs, days without seeing other thru-hikers), but I must honestly say that it is giving me doubts about whether a thru-hike is something that I really want to do.

08-11-2003, 19:35
Maine is the only place you have to worry about fording rivers. In 2000, there was a drought in Maine (not the other 13 states) and the deepest ford was knee deep. Some years it is much worse. It all depends on the snow pack, and the annual rain fall.

I wouldn't worry about it unless you're doing a SOBO thru-hike after a very tough winter. If you're hiking NOBO, you'll have it all figured out by then.

08-11-2003, 20:40
Isn't a big deal. There are really no unbridged river crossings until Maine, where they are virtually ALL unbridged, but entirely manageable.

Don't get wrapped around a post on this stuff. Book writers make money by selling books, you sell books by adding a bit of drama. If you are worried about your pack trying to drwon you, when crossing rivers, unbuckle the waistbelt so you can dump the pack fast. The military uses inflatable "rafts" to float their packs when fording rivers. Since military packs frequently weigh in at over 75-100 pounds, a little help is a good thing. A small inflatable like a kid's float ring or something will deal with it.

Of course there isn't any need for it, but if it makes you feel better, go ahead.

Papa Bear
08-11-2003, 21:12
Although the common wisdom is that you only need to worry about the Maine river crossings in Spring, this summer has been so wet in New England that some crossing are higher now than in an average Spring.

When I crossed the East and West branch of the Piscataquis (south of Monson) in early July they were calf deep. Last week they were waist deep and this weekend it was even worse. Here is a real-time USGS chart of the Piscataquis about 30 miles south of the AT: Piscataquis water volume (http://waterdata.usgs.gov/me/nwis/uv?format=gif&period=31&site_no=01031500) The sudden increase in level around July 26 and Aug. 10 is phenomenol. Notice in particular the 100 year average flow shown in the second graph. The third graph showing the rainfall says it all. Not a good year for thru-hiking.

So don't freak out, no one is drowning, but be careful.


08-11-2003, 22:12
Sometimes, river crossings do freak me out. I do not have extensive backpacking experience. But, I have had some problems with crossings in the past. Somehow, my sleeping bag became detached from my pack during a tough river crossing in the Grand Tetons. I was alarmed watching it flow down the river, since it was getting late in the day and the temperatures were really going to drop--it snowed later that night. By some miracle, another hiker (who I hadn't seen) stepped out of the woods about 100 yards downstream, went into the river and was able to grab my bag. An incredible spell of good luck! Fortunately, I had enough sense to have my bag wrapped in a plastic garbage bag, so it was dry and kept me warm and dry that night.

I'm hoping that I've learned a few things from all of the stupid backpacking mistakes I've made in the past.

Lone Wolf
08-11-2003, 22:30
Crossing the Kennebec is a lot of fun. Everyone should do it.

08-11-2003, 23:42
We hit them after 4 straight days of heavy rain. Little and Big Wilson were pretty deep (waist deep for me, im 6'2). Long Pond Stream was the worst. It was a wide cross and very fast waters. They installed a rope to help get across altho i really think it makes it more dangerous.
I hiked Maine with a girl named Poptart who is 4'10. She handled it, anyone can. But shes a trooper. You will be too once you get that far.

08-12-2003, 01:27
http://members.impulse.net/~mlynch/fn_str_x.html Heres an article on stream crossings in case anybody is interested. Streamweaver

Papa Bear
08-12-2003, 11:02
Good advice in that article.

Here is another bit of discussion from another bulletin board: Kennebec Discussion (http://www.viewsfromthetop.com/forums/showthread.php3?s=&threadid=1357&highlight=kennebec) .

Of particular interest is the last note by John Swanson. He is a very experienced hiker. Note several things he mentions that I never thought about: face upstream, lean into the flow,

Read it carefully especially as regards the water's affect on your weight (i.e. "lifting" you off your feet).


Red Hat
08-12-2003, 11:44
I love Warren Doyle's stories about crossing the Kennebec. It seems he will wait for a backpacker to use the shuttle canoe/boat, then go a hundred yards or so upstream and cross with the water knee to crotch deep. It always makes them feel really dumb about using a shuttle. As Warren says, fording the river is part of the experience.

08-12-2003, 12:55
I've forded enough rivers to know that when an alternative is available (the canoe shuttle for instance) it's probably a pretty good idea to take it.

I like and respect Warren Doyle a lot, I've shared quite a few long conversations with him and walked some miles and shared some shelters with him, but some of his ideas are more than a little unconventional and even risky.

It's one thing to know how to ford a river and practice it from time to time. But fording a real river is serious business and has killed more than a few people. The Kennebec is a SERIOUS river that can rise in depth and volume at ANY time. I've crossed rivers like the Kennebec on several occasions, and it can be an awful lot of fun, it can also be extremely harrowing.

I crossed a more narow stream in Baxter State Park one July. It was a good fifty to 60 yards wide, but deep, turbulent and FAST. I crossed that stream 7 times shuttling other hikers and their packs across. By the time we all got across, I couldn't even feel my feet or most of my lower legs to my knees. Took a good while to restore the warmth while hiking. That water was COLD snowmelt. Many of the smaller women in that trip were in a near panic crossing that stream.

Now the Kennebec, when the dam upstream is not releasing water, is a long but simple enough ford, but if you get caught half-way across when the dam is releasing, you could be in some trouble. But by the time you get to the Kennebec, you'll have crossed a few smaller streams and will know how comfortable you are with the process.

Again, don't get your knickers in a twist over it. By the time you get there you will be several orders of magnitude more sure and confident on your feet than you were when you started, and you will have very different ideas of what is manageable than you do now.

Moon Monster
08-13-2003, 23:26
There have been a couple close calls in the Kennebec this year (and probably are every year) with hikers who shunned the canoe ferry. I figured that since the MATC expanded the ferry's schedule, conventional wisdom (like facing the current or walking upstream 1/2 mile) on how to ford the Kennebec or rivers in general became lost with most thru-hikers. Still, a ferry is available there and it has been designated by the ATC as the "official" way to cross the Kennebec for those who care to remain official about it.

I agree that the published narratives play up the drama over what is typically experienced. Looking at your list, I experienced all of those, and I could spin each into a great story to wow my city slicker friends, but you as an experienced backpacker would find them tame. The Trail is intermittently overgrown enough to trip you or soak you or make you mad (but not enough to loose you). I had a fit with the E. branch of the Pleasant River in Maine after heavy rains (but if I'd fallen in only my pride would have been hurt). I had to throw rocks at angry dogs in Tennessee (but that worked and they backed off). I had dozens of days without seeing other thru-hikers (but I saw hundreds of section hikers and was never close to being alone).

08-14-2003, 02:57
Illininangel - I wouldn't worry too much about the areas you mentioned from The Happy Side of Misery. I and many of the other hikers that successfully complete the AT are hiking novices like yourself.

Water crossings - some years are worse than others. 2002 was a very dry year on the east coast. However, there was an area in southern VA where all of the streams were flooding, and there was a blue blaze bypass trail that I hadn't seen and didn't find out about it until I had forded all of the streams. The lessons I learned here were;
1) read the guidebook (so you don't overlook high water bypass trails) and,
2) If you have to cross a flooded stream pick your crossing points carefully and use your hiking poles to steady yourself before putting your full weight on your
legs and,
3) if you are uncertain about crossing a swollen stream or river wait until another hiker comes along and you can support each other to find the best way across.

The only other water crossing for me of note after VA was the Kennebec where I used the ferry service (which is the official AT white blaze route).

Dogs - During their hike most hikers seem to get bothered by a dog somewhere. It's here that your hiking poles become a great defensive weapon. When I've been confronted by dogs they have always retreated when faced with a hiking pole. Again it's no big deal as usually their slack owners shortly come along and restrain them.

Full Shelters - Yes this can be a small problem from time to time if you are hell bent on staying in a shelter. Myself, I probably stayed in shelters about one third of the time. My preference was to tent as I sleep more soundly am more cosy in a tent (it's much quieter away from the snorers). I never used to make up my mind whether I would stay in the shelter until I actually reached the last shelter of my day. However, whilst hiking along at the end of the day I would start looking out for good tenting sites so I could always double back a short way if the shelter was full or if there were no flat spots for my tent at the shelter area. Also if the shelter is full it pays to ask those there (southbounders if you are a northbounder) if they spotted some suitable tenting sites not too far north of the shelter. That can save you wasted time.

These things add a little variation to your hike and in post-hike reflection I'm sure you'll agree that they added a little more interest to your trip.

Blue Jay
08-14-2003, 08:27
Keep reading the forums, you'll find tons of stuff to worry about. There is one thread about giant man eating plants. Another about hikers attacking each other. Some hikers are sooo scared they are carrying guns. The fact is the vast majority of hikers have had no problems outside of being frequently cold, wet, tired, dirty and hungry. I worried about freezing to death on Mt. Washington the WHOLE way from Georgia. When I got there it was 71 degrees. Worry is a waste of time. If you want to worry about something worry about driving, which is far more dangerous.

08-14-2003, 10:15
Believe it or not, I agree qwith Blue Jay on this one. Don't worry about it, it's all manageable, and by the time you get to Maine or Georgia (depending on your direction of travel) you'll have it all pretty well sorted out.

08-15-2003, 02:54
Although fording rivers shouldn't be taken lightly, I find them very exciting and fun. I don't recall getting my feet wet from crossing creeks anywhere along the AT between Springer and Killington with one exception, and that was in early spring with extreme snowmelt in NJ. Can't comment on Maine cause I have never hiked it...but the only concern I would have would be the Kennebec...and I would definitely ford it.

warren doyle
09-08-2003, 19:53
On fording the Kennebec (how it was done by hundreds of thru-hikers from 1965-1984).
Cross early (before 8am recommended).
It is relatively safe if rock bars extend 50-66% of the way out into the river channel from the east bank (about 300 yards north of the canoe ferry). The strongest current will be for about 20' near the west bank (Caratunk side).
Wear your boots/hiking shoes; undo your waist belt (and chest belt); loosen your shoulder straps and have a good hiking stick and ENJOY! the sensation. Use your animal strength.
"Learn wildness, and you don't fear anything except people afraid." Thoreau
I have forded the Kennebec about three dozen times. My children forded it when they were 5 and 7 y.o. I have also swam across it (without pack of course) when it was flowing full. Nice body surfing.
But then again if you believe in orange alerts, duct tape w/ plastic sheeting, 'duck and cover', star wars, and the boogieman, it would be best if you wait and take the ferry across.

Lone Wolf
09-08-2003, 20:09
Damn Warren. I thought I was cool at 8 crossings.

Moon Monster
09-09-2003, 00:57
I met this bevy of beautiful French Canadien girls on the banks of the Kennebec once. I tried to explain to them that they were not cool if they waited for that sissy ferry. I told them they were just being afraid. But, they didn't speak much English and they couldn't understand me. So, I offered to at least carry their packs accross for them. After doing that, I crossed with my own pack. I gave the girls a wink as I left them on the other side, and as I waded away, I caught a little English from one of them wishing me adieu. She said something like "Thoreau almost wet his pants on Katahdin; you must be a god." I replied, "No, just a purist."

(a little HYOH satire to counter that preachiness. On a serious note, Warren, your practical advise is valuable. I wish every forder had it, but sadly there are a few cavalier ones each year who ignore such sense and try to cross in their own unprepared way and get in trouble for it.)

TJ aka Teej
09-09-2003, 17:45
The AT was originally routed to this point to take advantage of existing ferry services. This point was a jump off from Caratunk to Pierce Pond and other sporting camps. Early hikers all used the boats provided. To do the Kennebec in the traditional, old school manner, is to cross by boat.
The ATC considers the canoe ferry to be the official route. Purists who wish to follow every white blaze need to ride in the canoe, with the blaze paint on the deck. If you ford, you've missed a white blaze!
The hiker whose drowning prompted the ATC and the MATC to establish an official scheduled ferry service was Alice Ferrence.
So far this year there's been only one reported near drowning. In August a fording hiker was swept off his feet and carried downstream several hundred yards. A local resident spotted him clinging to a rock in midstream and rescued him via powerboat, and delivered him to the Caratunk House quite shaken.
It's quite a sight to see the wave come downstream as the river rises over eight feet in less than ten minutes. Hikers waiting for the afternoon ferry have been seen panicking as they scramble up the far bank back into the trees as the river surges.
Can you ford/swim across the Kennebec? Probably.
Should you? Probably not.

Lone Wolf
09-09-2003, 18:02
BS. It's very safe if done properly. As far as "purism", MOST so-called thru-hikers who reach the Kennebec have blue, yellow blazed, skipped , missed trail anyway so have some fun and ford!

Highlander II
09-10-2003, 17:02
I attempted to ford the Kennebec in 1991 (the first 3/4 of my section hike) and almost drowned.

I forded at about 6 pm (I don't know the exact time as I had lost my watch) after a 20 mile day. I thought I was invincible (being 19 years old does that I guess). I got about 3/4 of the way across before I was swept off my feet and swimming. I was fortunate that someone was fishing in the river and got him to pull me to the side of the river.

This year I took the canoe on my 2003 thru-hike even though I was not too pleased with the canoe hours that early in the season. Though the ATC would probably not be too happy, I would have crossed even if the water were high and the canoe wasn't there just to be able to do more miles in the day. I believe that most other thru-hikers would do the same.

Also just to be clear, I did not blue blaze (not even taking the short way out from shelters), yellow blaze, skip sections, etc. I met quite a few who were doing the same. Doing any of these things is the same as cheating which is wrong (assuming the intention is to file the 2000 miler form with the ATC).

Incidentally the guy at the Caratunk hostel said that the first NOBO for the year forded the river at about 6pm and was swept downstream about 300 yards before he was able to get to shore. That ride shook him up enough that he stayed the night in Caratunk instead of hiking on.

09-11-2003, 01:28
Even though I ran into Warren the day before I crossed the Kennebec and got his expert advice, I wussed out and took the ferry... What was I thinking? :-?