There is a scene in the movie Wild in which Cheryl Strayed crosses a mountain creek and is literally swept off her feet and winds up crawling out of the creek. This scene reminded me of one particular creek crossing I had in my CCC days.
Del Norte Center. December, 1988. We had been working a habitat restoration project on Hunter Creek, a tributary near the mouth of the Klamath River. Dan Burgess and I were the Fisheries Special Corpsmembers acting as technical advisors on the project. We had been working several sites on the creek with Corpsmembers from different crews. One particular site was up the East Fork of Hunter Creek. To get to this site involved a little hiking up the creek in our hip waders. We had seen several redds, or steelhead spawning nests, on the way up the creek. We were working to protect the steelhead, so we needed to stay away from these redds to avoid potentially destroying eggs or fry. We tied some colored ribbon into trees near them so Corpsmembers would know to avoid crossing the creek near those spots. We also had to scramble up and over a fifteen foot ledge to get above a log jam. Above this jam was our last creek crossing before we got to the work site. Throughout the fall, this has been a nice but easy hike through redwood riparian habitat.
Some storms came through in early December. These storms dumped several inches of rain in a few days. The creeks swelled. We probably would not have gone back into Hunter Creek, but there were some loose ends to secure before we left for the winter. We also had tools that we had left stashed at the work site. We needed to retrieve these. Dan and I took crew leader Todd Schabek and several other Crew One Corpsmembers out to finish up a final day’s work.
The creek we hiked up on this day was very different from the last time we had hiked it. What had been hardly more than a shin deep trickle of water now filled the creek bed banks from side to side. The water was thigh high and forced us to wear chest waders instead of our more comfortable hip waders. The current was strong. We had to use all of our creek-walking skills in the crossing we had below the log jam. If we paused and left a foot in one place on the bottom too long, the current would wash the gravel away from beneath our feet and take us down. If we lifted a foot too high, the current would get under our foot and keep us from getting it back down on the bottom before being knocked down. Creek-walking involved a quick shuffle step, feet flat on the bottom with no hesitation at all. We didn’t stay in the water long in these conditions. We needed to get across as fast as we could.
We got to the log jam, and as we climbed the rocks, what had been a trickle of water flowing down through the jam was now a genuine waterfall, pouring over the top log and filling the air with mist as it roared right next to our route. It reminded me of waterfalls I had seen in Yosemite. We could not communicate in normal voices. We had to shout to each other, even when standing right next to each other.
We got to the top of the log jam. Our last creek crossing was about fifteen yards above the jam…now a waterfall. The creek seemed deeper and faster up here as it approached the logs. Dan, Todd and I huddled up.
Dan shouted, “I don’t know if we can cross here right now.” We could barely hear him above the creek’s thunder.
Todd shouted, “I think you’re right. Let’s look a little further up for another crossing.”
I thought the creek looked high, but not necessarily too high. I shook my head. “I think we should try and see it we can make it over here. I’ll go first and try it.”
Dan and Todd looked skeptical, but nodded agreement.
I started out into the creek. I had never been in water so fast. Mindful of the waterfall just yards downstream, I started hustling my way across. The water quickly came up to my thighs. It crashed into my right leg, my upstream leg, and constantly threatened to push me down. I gritted my teeth and forced my way across, pushing hard against the current and swinging my arms wildly to add to my momentum.
I was just a few feet from the opposite bank when I almost lost my balance. I was almost knocked off my feet, but managed to stay up. However, in regaining my balance, my right foot stayed down just a hair too long. I felt the gravel give way under my foot. My right foot got pushed left, and I started going down over my now crossed feet.
I could see the waterfall in my peripheral vision. Crap!
I threw myself for the bank. I lunged once and the current carried me several feet downstream. Water crashed over the tops of my waders and under my jacket. I lunged again, getting pushed further downstream. My day pack, filled with my lunch, water bottles, notebook, and a few hand tools started pulling me off balance to the downstream side as it got knocked cockeyed. On the third lunge, I crashed into a redwood log on the bank and threw my arms around it. I bounced once, but then had the log fixed in a death grip. I hauled myself up out of the water and onto the bank. My chest hurt where it had slammed into the log. I turned and looked back across the creek. Dan, Todd, and the crew were all stunned. Dan hollered, but I couldn’t hear him. He made a funnel with his hands in front of his mouth and shouted again. I could still barely hear him, and it was partly lip reading, but I could tell he was shouting “Are you okay?”
I flashed a thumbs up, then cupped my hands around my mouth and shouted back, “Yeah…we aren’t going to be able to cross here!”
Dan gave me a thumbs up.
I shouted, “I’m just gonna rest here a minute and dump the water out of my waders!”
Dan gave me another thumbs up. They all started to work their way upstream. I stood and walked farther up the bank to another big log. I slid my day pack off my shoulders and put it on the ground. I took off my jacket, laid it down on the log, and rolled my waders down. Water poured out before I even had them down past my waist. I sat on the log and kicked the waders off the rest of the way. I was soaked…khaki shirt, Ben Davis jeans, socks…everything. I picked the waders up by the feet, turned them upside down, and poured the rest of the water out. I took off my socks and wrung them out the best I could. I had an extra pair of dry socks in my day pack that had managed to stay dry and put them on. I think the help that gave me was more psychological than anything else, because as soon as I put my waders back on, it wasn’t long before the fresh socks were soggy, too.
We finished up the project for the season that day…and used the alternate crossing Dan and Todd found on the way out!