View Full Version : Fording rivers

10-14-2012, 10:49
Hey guys, I just have a quick question about the dangers of fording rivers on the CDT. I had a little incident while hiking the backcountry of Yellowstone NP this year that has maybe me somewhat wary of the dangers of fording rivers. To be more specific a ranger at the backcountry office actually suggested I try to ford the Yellowstone river to avoid crossing private property but I ended up 100 yards downstream- on the same side. I reported the ranger at the next office and he was incredulous that somebody would tell me that. Turns out she was a volunteer.
I'm just wondering how bad the rivers get on a regular year. Is it worth taking trekking poles just for the river fords? I hear the Gila has 100 crossings, how hairy does it get? I'm 6 foot 2 inches so I probably have to worry less than most, I'm just being a wuss :p

10-14-2012, 11:40
I belive it all depends on how swifty the water is moving. It doesn't matter how big or heavy you are, swifty moving water has a lot of force behind it and unless you have something to hold onto, like a rope strung across the stream, your not going to stay standing for long.

My hiking group got turned back by a raging stream of snow melt in Glacier this summer. The water was moving way too fast, looked way too deep to safely cross and of course was ice cold. The fact the air temp was about 50 and it was raining was also a factor. Plus, we were only 4 miles from one of the park lodges where it was warm and dry :) Had it been warm and sunny like all the other days we were there, we might have searched for a better place to cross.

A lot of the trails have horse fords, where the stream or river is wide and shallow. Unfortunetly, in the above example, we were not on a horse trail, so no shallow ford. And yes, I would have poles. You will be also be traversing a lot of snow fields, for which poles are very helpful.

Wise Old Owl
10-14-2012, 11:54
There's a clear technique to this... Just like getting out of a bad undertow at the beach. A human will not have enough strength to fight water pressure. You move the contents of the pack inside a garbage bag and trap the air for buoyancy.
What needed to happen is you swim upstream pointing your body at an attack angle towards where you want to go the water pushes you over to the other side.. Yes you will end up down stream, but on the other side.

The most important is picking the right place - looking where you want to end up.

10-14-2012, 13:10
The most important thing with swift moving water is to look for "Strainers" which is a tree partially submerged under water. A strainer is about the most dangerous thing in a river because you cannot pull yourself out of it against the current. Moving in swift water is about using the flow of the water to your advantage and planning an angle that flows with the current. Look for a calm area below you in case you go swimming.

Spirit Walker
10-14-2012, 17:21
Like everything to do with the CDT, it really depends on the year. When we did our southbound hike, we were early, hiking in a very high snow year, so the rivers in the Bob Marshall were very full. Twice we ended up detouring to avoid bad crossings. Some days we had a dozen or more creek crossings there. Biggest issue was that it was snowmelt and very very cold. When we were northbound, the same section had water that was knee deep at worst, and usually ankle deep. They had built a bridge over the worst of the crossings. In the Gila there are well over a hundred crossings, 200 or more on some routes, but usually only one is mentioned as being potentially bad in the spring of a wet year when the snow up high is melting: the Sapilla junction with the Gila. Most of the crossings are rockhops or ankle deep. On our NOBO hike that crossing was less than knee deep for us, but we were there in a drought year. On our SOBO hike we did a different route that avoided the Sapillo junction. On that hike the problem was simply that it was so cold at night our soaked boots froze solid. There is a place in Yellowstone where you cross the outlet to a lake. If you cross where the trail goes, it can be shoulder deep. If you go upstream or down, it may only be thigh deep. In the Winds there are some crossings that can be deep at the right time of year - but usually not too bad in August, when most of us get there. People following the Sweetwater River in WY (instead of the road) have had problems there in some years, but it wasn't an issue when we hiked. If you go NOBO and have early season snow in southern CO, if you take Trout Creek instead of going over the Knife Edge, the creek has a lot of very cold crossings, but nothing dangerous.

I do hike with a stick, which helps a lot with most crossings, and my husband and I usually cross difficult streams together, arm in arm. You learn to scout alternate crossings and pick ones where the force of the water is less. What I learned with my hiking stick is that if I have a hard time putting my stick into the water, if it gets swept away, then the water is probably too deep. And you need to be prepared to do an alternate route if the situation just seems too dangerous.

In any case, we never had as risky a crossing as the ones in the Sierras.

10-15-2012, 07:00
On those glacial melts I would not cross in the stream when the force is very swift and you hear thudding or booming sounds. These sounds I believe are from rocks being swept downstrea. Imagine one hitting you while you were in the water. The water is usually not see through.

10-15-2012, 07:57
Thanks that's some useful info. I wish I'd chosen a calm place when I tried to ford the Yellowstone. For some reason I thought it'd be a good idea to do it right before some rapids. Luckily my bag and bag liner were waterproof so they helped keep me afloat. I'm going SoBo so it looks like Glacier may be the biggest problem.

10-15-2012, 09:45
I'm going SoBo so it looks like Glacier may be the biggest problem.

It depends on when you start. By mid July all the bridges are in and all the trails open. If you want to start in June and they have even a "normal" snow year, you might have to skip the park all together.

10-15-2012, 16:34
"Like everything to do with the CDT, it really depends on the year."

Ditto that, but nothing in the Sierras in June 2008 was anywhere close to "creek" crossings in Montana in June of 2011. Bridge decking not in place in GNP yet, Bob Marshall creek crossings were crazy too. My hiking partner was swept off his feet on day two crossing the Belly river.

"I'm going SoBo so it looks like Glacier may be the biggest problem."
Per someone above, the Bob Marshall is tough too for creek crossings. In a high snow year this is really life threatening stuff. My hiking partner and I ran low on food in the Bob, overestimating in advance how fast we could move in various types of snow, and just getting out of there was tough given unknown (but certainly very high) creek levels in all directions.

In a high snow year creeks are the big danger for either SOBOs or NOBOs. In a more normal snow year I would expect them to just be "very tough" and "somewhat dangerous". But they can be worse than that (!).

If you're going SOBO then once you're through the Bob, you should be fine for creeks. I have no idea what the Gila area is like for NOBO crossing again and again. As a SOBO going through in Oct it was just kind of cold in the mornings, but not any sort of danger.