in the interest of science . this is an excerpt form my written-but-not-published guidebook on how to walk across alaska.
i have since graduated (aged) to an alpacka raft, and now i just hit rivers where they be lakes, and we avoid all such foolishness.
but ok, yes certainly, things can go bad. i once upon a time rafted (raft a lash-up of empty fuel barrels) under a log jam. it was touch and go for some time under there.
section out of the introduction ... (possible repeat text )
Crossing rivers is required to complete either of the longer walks. We will pick our crossing spot with utmost care; prepare our gear for the worst; do what we can to minimize the risk of being immersed in freezing water (possibly bringing a small raft); and give it 100%. It seems inevitable that on occasion people get knocked off their feet and rolled in the current. The viscious cold quickly sucks the strength out of one’s efforts, and once they do make the far shore, landing on the rocks ensures a surprisingly thorough beating. There are steps to be taken to reduce the risk, but the crossings comprise the highest risk factor of summer arctic travel. The issue of these crossings, primarily the Firth River in the western Yukon, goes as far as setting start dates.
Crossing rivers is required to complete either of these walks. If one gets rolled, a landing on the rocks results in a really good battering. With any shortage of motivation or luck, one will be not only well beaten, but still on the wrong side of the f’ing river. There are steps to be taken to reduce the risk, but the crossings comprise the highest risk factor of summer arctic travel. The issue of these crossings, primarily the Firth River in the western Yukon, goes as far as setting start dates for us. One can swim these northern rivers if pressed to do so and if the risk seems justified. It is hard to imagine this act being enjoyable.
doubled text from first chapter ?
The author has had good results swimming rivers, so far, by performing an elaborate gear preparation ritual ; All that is really desperately required to survive is stuffed into the top lid of the pack. This lid, with the bright yellow parka strapped to it is worn butt-pack style, but in front. Double bag as required, it’s going under water. The pack is adjusted so the shoulder straps are loose, to aid in circulation for the arms, because it can happen that a crossing can be some long time in the water holding extremely hard onto a staff, and any loss of arm strength will precipitate a problem. The hip belt is worn snug to keep the pack high, thusly increasing the fording depth before pack buoyancy becomes an issue. The pack has some very bright strapping on it to aid in locating it underwater should separation come to pass. Experience with the pack volume rolling the authors head under water resulted in the technique of lashing the t-rest to the chest. This provides considerable flotation and balances the buoyancy of the pack. You can find the Kiwi version of this technique at the Aarn.com site using his front bags. If the water is big enough for all this trouble, a staff is in order. 8’ long by 3” around is not excessive. Trekking poles will work, but they are not what one wants in a nasty spot. The staff is deployed downstream, where it will be under compression. The bomber cap is strapped on as well as possible, glasses are secured with a lanyard, and it’s In-We-Go.
Where one crosses matters a Great Deal. The nicest spots are those braided areas which break up the flow into multiple parts. There is a lot of latitude in crossing, in that one can also make way up and down river while in the water, or on midriver islands. There will seldom be need to force a crossing straight across. Second choice is a pair of opposing bends where one can exploit the trailing tongue of one gravel bar, to access the rise of the bottom leading to the bar on the opposing bend. The least depth between a pair of opposing bends usually lies upstream of midway between them. Outside corners are generally the deepest.
Working upstream is more stable, affords better visibility, more options, and is generally
just safer. It is the method of choice on longish fords such as the Killick, and wherever trekking poles will work instead of a staff. However in deep water it won’t work, and there starts a series of reductions in safety as techniques change in the face of adversity. Going straight across allows one to lean on the staff harder, and thusly increases the workable depth. Then comes angling downstream, with it’s attendant bonus in staff compression, and a nasty little reduction in ability to backup out of the situation. Following this is working downstream, but at a much shallower angle, and not stopping between steps ... rather walking With the current, strongly working the staff to safety the moves. Each step bringing one slightly closer to the opposing shore. Soon this will degrade into more of a floating experience as the displacement of body and pack combine to reduce weight and control. With every bounce of foot and staff, bound in the direction of good as much as possible. At this point one will be glad they lashed that t-rest to their chest because sure as god made little green apples somebody is going to step in a hole and voila, they are swimming.
The upper layer of river current has a strong determination to go to the outside of any upcoming bend, and this crossflow is a mortal enemy of one trying to swim across. Aim for the selected gravel bar and put absolutely 100% into getting there. Do not attempt to stand up when making first contact with the bottom, get the legs pointed downstream and claw into shallower water, then roll up onto the shore. There will be bruises.
Fording nippy water will eventually make the legs numb, but this is not a big issue if one first gets their boots filled with water, and then does the gear prep. During the prep the feet will warm the water which results in sort of a wetsuit effect during the crossing. If the water is just up to ones crotch, there is time aplenty to work the crossing. Getting one’s entire body into the water is another matter entirely. The nature of a serious crossing is such that one may not feel cold until on the other side. This in no way means that the effects of freezing are not noticeable within moments of going in. There will be an immediate loss of strength and power. No abundance of character or strength of will is going to make up for compromised abilities. Once you go deep, the clock is running. Move with Power and Confidence. Do Not Analyze. Do Not Dork Around.
At an expense of $60 and 4.3 pounds (with paddles !) one can avoid swimming if they chose to carry the Sevylor Trail Boat. This item is Not an $950 Alpaca Raft, being more of a “pool toy”, but for what they cost, they’re awesome. The author floated the snag infested Reed River in Alaska in one to get around a very nasty swamp. Gear prep is similar, but with the top lid worn very high on the back (as a backrest) with the belt just under the ribs, while the pack sits in the front under ones legs. The hull and floor are quite susceptable to damage from rock and ice. Do ones self a favor and Throw Away the stock black Sevylor cord and subsitute anything else to secure the paddles. One does not need the inflation bag (sevylor). Use the paddles separately, not kayak style. When one is done with it, for what you spent, just leave it in the food drop box and walk away, or burn it. Launching is done backwards off of a gravel shelf, and if one does not attempt to keep their feet dry it will considerably prolong the life of the boat. While allowing for some drift, select crossing spots with the emphasis on the optimal landing spot. Land head in and get the feet wet. One can exit sideways with dry feet, and will hole the floor every time. Only Muskeg Ck, the Firth, and perhaps the Kong justify packing a raft. The Bell is so fast down low, that it is safer to work upstream until it braids, and then stroll across.
In 2011 the author acquired the Alpacka Scout. This inflatable hull is as durable as a proper Alpacka Raft, and weighs/costs substantially less. It is a vastly better, and more expensive alternative to the fragile Sevylor boat. The author has used the Scout to cross open leads in arctic sea ice, and trusts his life to it. No Problem.
A well versed Kiwi in a Whitehorse cafe counciled the author that the “downstream bouncing technique” holds a very real danger in the form of leg entrapment. This is a true fact and one needs to look well at the bottom conditions before committing to the program. The recommended crossing points on the Firth have a bottom of softball sized cobbles. Your mileage may vary.
A related crossing issue is creeks in the early spring. Once thru the snow wall that borders most of them, the water would be no problem if it were running in the bed of the creek, which it isn’t. It is running on a slab of rotting ice that’s laying on the bottom, and easily punched through to a depth unknown. One can usually walk across the stuff on snowshoes, and the author thinks that’s a silly way to die. One may be able to invest a reasonable amount of effort in a walkaround. Or one may just wade on in and hammer a trench as they go. In the middle of such a creek one may see a bush sticking up .. “ and island .. hey ... it will be shallower over there ! “. Sure, it just might be, but the bush will have conducted heat down into that section of ice making it even worse in the deep channels that normally border one or both sides of mid-creek islands. If one removes the basket from their trekking poles in these creeks, they will be able to obtain a better idea of where the real bottom of the creek lies.Oh the joys of early season walking and another good reason to break the BRT into two parts.
i hope ya'all enjoyed that. it's rough, but it works, so i'm not near dead yet.