Nearly all of my outdoor knowledge comes from trial and error. I was taught at a young age that a little common sense can go a long way in the absence of real knowledge and to be quite honest, it's this single concept that has kept me safe throughout both my time spent in a combat zone and also in the backcountry. That said, not every backcountry experience is a success and sometimes you just have to learn the hard way. With this in mind, I'm going to begin writing a reoccurring post called "Backcountry Blunders" where I tell you all about how I've screwed up and what I now do to avoid making the same mistakes. First up, "water crossings."
In 2014, I planned out what I thought to be a glorious rifle elk hunt. I would take my friend and I down through a steep drainage, out through a nice meadow, and onward to an awaiting vehicle a few miles away. This drainage was incredible; steep, wet, quiet, and full of elk sign. It was just a matter of time before we would bump into something and sure enough, halfway down the drainage, we jumped a herd. We didn't see any bulls right off the bat, but we knew we were in the right area.
As we made our way down the mountain, we came to that point on the map where those topographical lines actually begin to mean something. To put it lightly, we spent the last couple hundred feet sliding on our asses down to the valley floor. Everything was working out perfectly until we arrived at the bottom of the drainage and found ourselves boxed in on all sides with steep cliffs and a swollen river.
I immediately began to realize all that November rain was now funneling down into this river from every nook and cranny on the mountain. Duh, right? I had been in this area before and knew that we just needed to cross the river in order to get to the meadow and walk out, but to be truthful, I'd never visited the area in the fall, but rather only the summer.
Neither of us planned on crossing an actual river that day. Being from the Northwest, we always plan for some sort of creek crossing, but this was no longer a creek. The river bed that is bone dry in the summer was now a healthy obstacle and we were in no way prepared for it. Crossing the river was the only way out of the canyon so we decided to suck it up and make it happen.
The river looked to be about knee deep at most so I took my boots off, rolled up my pants, and volunteered to go first since I got us in this mess to begin with. I made it about halfway across when the river began to get deeper than I had originally thought. My pants were about to get soaked if I lingered in the river any longer and because I didn't have any shoes on, my feet were slipping on the rocks. I was committed to the crossing at this point and vividly remember running across the remaining half of the river so I could salvage my pants. This was a bad idea. I hurt my foot on a rock in the process, dunked my rifle in the river, and nearly fell face first in the water. When I made it to the other side and turned around, my friend was laughing at me while in the midst of taking his pants all the way off so he could avoid what I had just done. Smart guy.
He crossed the river slower than I did and I remember seeing his body reacting to how cold that water was. He was concentrating on not falling over but as he moved slower, I could tell the cold was really setting in. I had a good laugh at watching him cross this river practically naked and only wished we could replay this entire scene after it was all over. Good thing for us, it was easy street from here on out.
Actually no, it wasn't easy street. We warmed up our feet, put ourselves back together, and walked about 100 feet to find that the "meadow" that I so happily looked forward to had become a lake thanks to all the rain over the past month or two. By lake, I mean a REALLY big lake that covered the valley floor. The view was disheartening as we now found ourselves pinned down in this box canyon with nowhere to go but through the lake or back up the cliff we just slid down. Choices needed to be made but neither option sounded appealing.
Going through the lake or up the cliff was something neither one of us wanted to do so we decided to see if we could go around the lake by side skirting along the edge. We made it about 50 feet before we realized this new plan wasn't going to work because of how steep the banks were. The only realistic option we had was to find our way back up the hill from which we came, but this was going to be no easy feat. It was literally straight up.
I have no idea how we managed to make it up the hill from that lake but we did. It became one of those "every man for himself" moments where we each picked a route that looked manageable and just went for it. We met up about 15 minutes later on the top of a little nob and looked down at where we had just come and immediately realized how steep and sketchy it actually was. Both of us had packs on and one misstep meant we'd have fallen about 50 feet straight down to a pile of rocks and logs. This was one of those moments that you have to laugh at and never mention in front of your spouse until months later.
After that initial climb out of that box canyon, we realized that the smartest way out of there was back up the mountain to the truck instead of going around the lake. We had about a mile and a half to go and though it was straight up, it was better than risking the unknowns about the size of the lake. Up the hill we went and after a few hours we found ourselves back on the road and headed for the truck.
Here's what I learned from this experience…
- What might be one thing during the summer, may not be the same during the winter. In this case, the meadow I intended on passing through becomes flooded during the winter but I had no way of knowing until I got there. I had only visited this meadow in the summer months and the change was striking.
- Crossing a river without proper footwear sucks. BAD. It's also unsafe to do. If you're going to cross a river, make sure you have something on to protect your feet.
- For some dumb reason, I failed to stow my rifle in my pack when I crossed the river. This resulted in the dunking of my rifle when I lost balance.
- I knew the terrain, but didn't KNOW that I was going to put us in a box canyon once we slid down that initial hill. I read the topo lines on the map over and over again but they can really only tell you so much. The reality is that things are different on the ground.
- Rivers are always deeper than they appear to be. I made it halfway across before realizing I should have taken my pants off rather than rolling them up.
- On a positive note, I was wearing merino wool leggings. Though my pants got wet, I didn't lose any body heat. I was wet, but comfortable. If you don't wear merino, you should for this exact reason.
The situation described above was not life threatening by any means, but it could have turned out badly had my friend and I fallen in the river, tumbled down the cliff, or twisted an ankle while down in that box canyon. We were a few miles away from either vehicle and had we been forced to spend the night down there, it could have been pretty uncomfortable. All that said, I think we faired pretty well considering we had to call an audible from a geographically bad situation. We analyzed our situation, our options, and our abilities, came up with a solution to our problem, and found ourselves in a warm bed that night.
It's experiences like these that boost our confidence in the backcountry. We are always at the mercy of Mother Nature so when we find ourselves in a predicament, we simply must do our best to get out of it as safely as we can. The fact that neither one of us had a scratch on us when we fell asleep that night was a testament to our ability to adapt to the situation that day. I look at this adventure as a learning experience so I don't make the same mistake the next time I head into the backcountry. Now when I decide to go off trail for any reason, I consider the time of year, the possible streams that I may have to cross, ensure I'm packing survival gear, and I plan accordingly.
Know the terrain, plan accordingly, and stay safe out there.