Section D, Day 3: River Crossings, don't mess with them.
Updated: Aug 7, 2019
I wake early and ford the glacial river without incident. It is raining, so the flow is still pretty high and forceful, despite the early hour. Luckily, someone has laid two fallen trees over the river, so I don't even have to get my feet wet.
Today marks the beginning of the "David Thompson Heritage Trail" which I will follow for a couple of days. So called because David Thompson crossed it once, on a first trading mission to the west, despite it being an Indigenous (mainly Blackfoot) trading route for many generations previous. It is speculated that this is where many diseases first made their way to the west coast, devastating communities.
Despite its shitty history, the trail has an arresting beauty, quite unlike any sections before. A deep and narrow valley leads up to the pass, the banks of which are a deep black rock, and lined with dark black spruce. The river is glacial and filled with chalky white glacial silt, creating an arresting contrast of black against milky grey.
It is still early in the day when I come into a small floodplain on the side of the river and surprise a whitetail doe and two fawns, not four meters from me. When I enter the scene, the doe stays perfectly still. Her fawns gather at her side, they are each a small antenna searching for alarm from their mother, their thin knobbly legs poised, ready to run, their heads dipped back towards their dappled backs. They are a picture of sweetness and fragility. They all stare at me for what feels like an eternity. Minutes, or perhaps it was only seconds, tick by and all four of us hold our gaze, a perfectly still diorama of encounter. I've learned long ago not to even try and take pictures during wildlife encounters. The best thing to do is to focus on not moving a millimeter, and to be very, very present with the moment.
Eventually, the doe decides that I am probably bad news, lifts her white tail in an alarm signal, and bounds off, the fawns silently behind her. I stand for a minute, detailing the mental photograph I've just taken, and smiling. Then continue down the black valley, along the white river.
Low, white clouds thicken in the sky, and the river forms a layer of mist atop it. The diffuse light lends a luminous quality to the mist and the river, as if they were suffused with light of their own. The moisture and light hang in strata: First sun, then clouds, then damp daylight, wet mist, glowing river, and below that, a full water table moving up through spruce roots, boletes, thick wet moss, and my socks. Eventually the clouds lower to mist, and the rain begins, uniting the layers of this valley into one spattering whole. Once again there is only wet, and the sound of raindrops on thimbleberry leaves, false hellebore, and raincoat are the same.
This is another part of why I love thru-hiking: Spending enough time alone in nature to ponder the world, and myself, out of isolation.
* * *
Later in the day, up and over Howse Pass, I am trying to find a safe ford of the thickly braided Howse River when Fireball appears on the scene, looking worse for wear. She tells me, to my dismay, that she had indeed tried to ford that river later in the day, opting to wade rather than go on the logs, and had been swept some 15 metres downstream before she grabbed onto a branch and hauled herself, and her sodden gear, out. She managed to mostly dry her stuff by a fire, but her phone (which was also her navigation) was toast and she had spent that whole morning bushwacking from waypoint to waypoint, half lost, quite cold, not eating or drinking and running on adrenaline.
She is quite young, and had never gone on an overnight backpacking trip before this. Her gear situation is a bit of a mess, and she looks pretty miserable, but I can't help but be impressed with her tenacity. We are over halfway through now, and those first sections nearly took the snot out of me, and this isn't my first rodeo. Nevertheless, I feel quite concerned, and a bit parental and we stick together for the rest of the section, helping with river crossings, navigation and making sure she is eating and warm.
It's a good thing we found each other when we did, because the navigation is tricky for the rest of the day, moving off and on the Howse River floodplain, on old and unmaintained trails, scrambling over downed tree trunks, and crossing more tricky glacial rivers. We hike until the sun has already set behind the mountains, and pitch our tents on whatever flat ground we can find next to a creek.
Fireball tells me that she doesn't use a camp stove, opting instead to soak her single tiny packet of ramen noodles for dinner in cold water before she eats it. I add another pack of ramen to hers for dinner, and some ready crisp bacon and coconut milk powder and warm it up on my stove and she nearly weeps with pleasure and gratitude whens she is eating it. We have a long conversation about the importance of self care after that. It's really nice to have some company.