Alaska River Crossings
Alaska creeks and rivers are big, cold, and fast. Crossings are often the most challenging and dangerous part of a backpacking trip, and the #1 cause of backcountry mishaps. It's important to be patient when searching for, evaluating, and testing crossing options, and to always be aware of the current's strength and depth.
Varying Water Levels
It's common in Alaska for creeks and rivers to be fed from glaciers and/or mountain snow. This results in both frigid temperatures and fluctuating water levels. Heavy rains or hot summer sunshine can raise the water level quite a bit; the lowest level is often found in the early morning hours. Interestingly, winds off the glacier will cause glacially fed rivers to rise more than rain. Non-glacier creeks follow a more expected pattern—it's rain and runoff that cause their water level to rise. You can look for clues to the level of fluctuation on creekside rocks or along shorelines.
Picking a Spot
It's important to spend adequate time searching up and downstream for crossing options. It may take an hour or two—or more—to find the right place to cross. Braided and/or wider parts of the waterway may be shallower. Pick a spot with good downstream options for getting out of the water, in case you fall or have to swim. This means avoiding steep banks, dense trees, or rapids below your crossing point. Having easy entry into the water is also important.
Test the current's strength and depth first without your heavy pack. You can probe to investigate the bottom with a trekking pole or stick. An initial test crossing is a good role for the strongest member of the group. Tossing in rocks and listening for them to hit bottom is another way to gauge the depth at various points in the channel.
Frigid water temperatures can be quite painful on your feet, and is a good reason to wear boots instead of sandals. Minimize time in the water and take breaks between crossings and/or attempts. Rub down your feet between each braid of a creek, and take off your shoes after the crossing.
Accept the possibility you may not be able to safely cross a creek or river. The water may be too deep or the current too strong, the river may be technically difficult, or you may not find a safe spot to cross. Consult a map; you may find an alternate route. If not, you may have to hike back to where you started. Either way, pay attention to your gut feeling.
Essential Safety Tips
- Facing upstream can help you read the current and prevent the force of the water from buckling your legs.
- Try each foothold before using it, and be wary of holes.
- Glacial silt in the water results in zero transparency, so you'll want to wear stable footwear such as hiking boots, sneakers, or sturdy sandals. Assume your feet will get wet and have backup socks and/or footwear for after the crossing. Packing a sleeping bag and set of clothes in a watertight bag ensures something dry and warm to wear if you end up swimming in frigid water.
- The goal is to maintain a stable stance and keep your balance. Trekking poles or walking sticks help. Move only one pole or foot at a time, keep your feet close to bottom, and take small but aggressive steps.
- Unbuckling your backpack straps is a MUST, as the heavy pack can drag you down if you fall. Attach a cord/rope to your pack, and keep the other end wrapped (not tied) around your hand. This prevents losing your pack for good in case you fall and have to swim to shore.
How you react to a fall will largely depend upon the particular crossing you are attempting. You may simply have to regain your footing and continue across, or you may have to swim to shore.
A few tips to consider for if/when you take a plunge:
- Be prepared to free yourself from your backpack so it doesn't drag you down, prevent you from standing up, or limit your ability to swim to shore.
- Don't panic. Remain calm enough to refocus on your footing and re-stabilize yourself.
- In choosing your spot to cross, heavy rapids and/or dangerous exit points should not be an immediate consideration after a fall. You should (ideally) have time to reach shore.
- If forced to stay in the water for a prolonged swim, release your backpack, keep your head above water, and keep your feet pointed downstream.
Crossing with Others
Linking arms with a partner can increase stability in the same way as a trekking pole or walking stick. Lock elbows and wrists, with the stronger person on the upstream side. The weight of the group linked together creates a larger mass that's harder to topple over. Linking together also helps support smaller group members.
If you have 3 people, forming a triangle with the strongest hiker up front is one well-tested method. Other hikers prefer crossing in a straight line with the strongest person in back, helping to stabilize the leader as he takes the next step. Practicing the motions before crossing helps avoid confusion once in the water. If possible, it's always safer and more practical to have someone on shore to help if necessary.