Section F - Day 3: Crossing Rivers
This next day follows the Moose River all the way to its source, crossing and recrossing it (and simply walking in it) countless times, each a little easier as you move upstream of its many tributaries. I’ve been nervous about the first crossing of the Moose, in Jasper I saw someone posted on the Facebook page that it was chest deep and after multiple attempts forced him to turn back and retrace his steps all the way to Jasper. Considering the bugs and the muck and the slog of the past two days, this is not a fun prospect for me.
But before tackling that first big ford of the Moose, I need to cross Upright Creek, one of its largest tributaries.
In the river crossing course I took in New Zealand (which in typical Kiwi style involved testing us in the end by literally throwing us into rapids multiple times with our packs on until we were blue-lipped, shivering, and thoroughly knocked about), we learned about river crossing methods. It’s always best to cross with others, where the largest and strongest member of a team crosses upstream with others moving in the eddy created by their body. When crossing solo, if the water is moving so swiftly that your front leg gets pushed downstream as you try to take a step and your hiking poles vibrate uselessly in your hands in the push of the water then you need to create your own eddy to move in. This is when you must stow your flimsy hiking poles in your bag and find a large pole, preferably made of a strong young tree or sturdy branch at least the thickness of your forearm to create your eddy. You hold it crosswise across your body and press the end with all your weight into the surge ahead of you and step into the eddy with one foot, then the other, careful as can be and repeat the process (taking as much time as you need) until you safely make it to the other shore.
Thankfully, I am still in the burn zone, so there is no shortage of appropriate poles in the area and when I found the perfect one next to the trail, thick as my calf, sun bleached and strong, I carry it with me until I reach the creek.
If this is what Upright Creek looks like when it’s low early in the morning, then I’d hate to see it high. It’s a thick silty river choked with branches and logs all tangled into jams caught in the big boulders it swiftly gallops over and around. Many people believe that the larger the volume of water (the bigger the river) the more dangerous the crossing - but this isn’t necessarily true. Fast moving water can turn a relatively small creek into a dangerous crossing. In New Zealand I heard a story of a woman who was killed by a sudden surge in a boot-deep creek. And this creek, is moving very fast.
I take my time scouting out the best place for crossing. There are many things to take into consideration when choosing your route, and the crossing right where the trail ends is not necessarily what’s best. Mountain rivers, like all things montane, are mercurial. One big storm, or a particularly hot day melting snow or glacier upstream can rearrange the riverbed, creating sudden depth where there was a flat crossing, or sweeping debris down and under to catch the muddy trail runners of unsuspecting thru-hikers. The channels in a braided river are redrawn season by season: New ones are created and old left dry and exposed only to be inundated once more just as the first few brave wildflowers begin to push up through the round stones.
This time, I do decide that the crossing right at the end of the trail is best, and so gingerly place in my pole, and then my feet, and wade up to my mid-thigh in the rushing water.
I’ll admit that I like the exhilaration of a scary river crossing. The way your stepping foot is blown off kilter downstream, as though you are checking for dog poop on your sole. The feeling of the water rushing through your shoes and pants, scouring your clean. The absolute focus demanded of you by the task, each step a coordinated series of movements, which freezes time. How for that moment, nothing else matters.
About half-way through my outstretched foot hits a submerged boulder. Navigating around a submerged obstacle introduces countless new dangers. Upstream of the bounder, the water pressure is doubled as it hits the hard surface and jostles to find a way around. Downstream of the bounder a lower pressure zone is created and the water is turbulent, cycling around itself until it dissipates downstream like a flowing beard of white. I sidestep awkwardly on the jumble of rocks on the bottom until I make it around the obstacle, and continue on.
I know I shouldn’t idealize adrenaline out here alone, but I can't suppress my excitement. I do not, however, have any fondness for the feeling of walking on the numb stumps of my feet as I struggle back on to land, nor the burning pain and bruising sensation as life seeps back into them and I stumble absurdly along the trail afterwards, swearing. This is a particular affliction of us tall gangly hikers, and earned me the nickname “numbstilts” by my trail friend Snapper Bonanza in New Zealand - a warm blooded hiker whose circulatory system I envied tremendously.
When I reached the first ford of the Moose River some time later, it seems to me much larger than any river I would try if I did not know that others had done it before me. Thankfully it is moving slower than Upright Creek, and after spending nearly 20 minutes testing different spots, I find a ford where it has braided into two wide channels and the crossing is not too deep to be done. Still it nearly reaches my butt in the middle, and I am afraid I will step into a deeper part and lose my footing. But I repeat the pole, step, step, pole routine once more and reach the other bank safely, stumbling and gasping from the cold.
The sun comes out as I gain altitude making my way up Moose Pass along, and sometimes in the water. It is a gorgeous river, with gravel floodplains decorated with pink River Beauty, and marshes filled with sedges and rushes atop glassy brown water. But I am plagued by some of the worst mosquitoes of the whole trip and find it hard to appreciate everything. If I slow my pace for a second they are all over me, viciously biting through my clothing or any part of my head-net that touches my skin.
Later in the day I make my final crossing of the Moose, lightly hopping across and barely wetting my feet (but let’s be honest, my feet are always wet on this hike), and begin the climb in earnest up Moose Pass.
There I am treated to an incredible display of wildflowers, at a similar stage of bloom as they were further south. One of the great things about a Northbound mountain hike, is that you can follow the wildflower bloom as you go. Here I also find an abandoned horse camp with a rusted old wood stove someone left there which squeaks open delicately when I pull at the knob, door threatening to fall off its hinges.
The route up Moose pass is an utter delight with rushing waterfalls, views of glaciers, and a long easy climb above silver turquoise lakes to a high pass washed down on one side by grey talus, and the other by green growth, meeting in the middle to form a magical fairy path to the crux.
I’m still dogged by mosquitoes and moving fast until the wind picks up when I reach the top. And boy howdy. The top of Moose Pass. Now those are some views.
I love mountains where you can see geology in action plainly and boldly. Here, the massive plates of the earth are tipped up at an angle, and you can practically imagine them rising up and out of the primordial earth like a breaching whale. The glacier too cuts a forceful path, snaking down between the peaks and terminating in a perfect outflow river which rushes down and around and into my eagerly waiting water bottle. Never have the subdued reds of these rocks seemed more brilliant and never have clouds seemed so luminous.
I’m sad to leave this pass. I want to camp there, but the pattern of evening storms and cold nights caution me to take shelter below the treeline and I reluctantly hike down from this magical pass to another horse camp down in the trees and mosquitos.
The evenings are becoming less and less pleasant as the cold closes in, but now that I've got my trail legs and am not dead at the end of the day, I’m determined to make the most of that sunset moment when the clouds across the sky ripen to pink and purple and the water bruises dark. I stand next to the creek, shivering for a moment, but before the stars wink on, I can no longer bear the cold and I’m zipped up and asleep in moments.