Please Don’t Drown, He Said

In years when peak hiking and riding seasons offer the most favorable of conditions (which, as you know, 2023 does not), fording swollen waterways can still be the most dangerous, sometimes life-threatening, challenge that PCT users face. Even a shallow but swiftly flowing current can knock you off your feet.

The following is excerpted from both I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail (Mountaineers Books, 2013) and Crossing Paths: A Pacific Crest Trailside Reader (Mountaineers Books, 2022). Written by Gail Storey, this account is not a demonstration of the best (or worst) practices for stream crossing, but it’s worthwhile in helping us to put ourselves there, at Tyndall Creek, and feel what can happen. Fortunately, Storey lived to write it. This is not advice on how to cross or whether to even attempt to cross any given waterway. For more detailed information, see our article on stream crossing safety.

Four hundred miles long and sixty miles wide, the High Sierra is the most remote wilderness of the Pacific Crest Trail. My husband, Porter, and I had been preparing physically and emotionally for the Sierra during the first 750 miles of our 2,663-mile hike from Mexico to Canada. In our mid-fifties, we were having our two-thirds life crisis – he as a hospice doctor and I as a hospice doctor’s wife. He craved renewal in the cycles of nature, and I’d come along to make sure nature didn’t do him in.

But nature seemed out to get me in crisis after crisis – injuries, sliding down scree, struggling out of ravines. I never much cared for nature, or rather, thought it okay as long as it stayed outside. Porter was an experienced outdoorsman, whereas I had hardly ever hiked or camped before the PCT.

The deeper we hiked into the High Sierra, the more its silence deepened around us, until we’d hear the distant roar of a waterfall. I’d watch snowmelt pour down the mountain and hope for the chance to redeem myself.

The trail led us through one rushing stream after another. It’s just cold water, I told myself, don’t freak out. I boulder-hopped across streams where rocks broke the surface. From the bank, I planned my route by the width of my stride and the weight of my pack. Once I committed to it, it was best to keep going, rather than wobble on a sharp or mossy stone. Sometimes when I got there, the space between rocks was too wide. I had to search for another or backtrack, waver while my trekking poles sought purchase in the rocky creek bed. If the rushing current grabbed the basket of my pole, or its tip got stuck in the rocks at the bottom, I plunged in and got wet to my waist, along with my gear.

A stream crossing on the PCT in Northern California. Photo by Gail Storey.

We came to a creek so deep no boulders reached the surface. All that was available was a fallen log.

“It’s all about momentum,” Porter said.

I watched in awe as he bounded onto one end, bounced a little to test its strength, then strode purposefully across. He was most magnificent the last few yards, when he ran and jumped to the bank.

I could straddle the log and scoot, but the bark would tear up my pants and inner thighs even if I managed to hang onto my pack as I pushed it ahead of me. So pack on my back, I stepped up with shaky legs.

“What’s the worst that can happen, right?” I called to Porter. “I could fall off, be carried away by the current, and drown.”

“Please don’t drown,” he said.

You got this, I told myself. I took a deep breath and inched across, one foot in line with the other. I kept my eyes on the log’s knots and bark and watched for slippery smooth spots. I tried not to look down into the water, afraid I’d lose my balance in its flowing motion.

Crossing a stream on a log. Photo by Gail Storey.

“You’re doing great,” Porter encouraged me from the other side. I felt him physically will me across. The most frightening moment was the leap from the end of the log to the bank. By then I was exhausted from courage.

He braced one foot on the bank. “You’re almost there.” He reached out his hand and I grabbed it. There was a grace to it, this wilderness minuet, one we’d do over and over again. The love with which he thrust out his arm, the trust with which I took it, would become the defining gesture of our hike of the PCT.

Many of the streams lacked either boulders or logs, so we had to ford them. We stopped first to take off our boots, peel off our socks to keep them dry, then put our boots back on to keep our balance and not cut our feet on the sharp, slippery rock bottoms.

After each crossing, we paused on the other bank to pour the icy water from our boots, dry our feet, and put our socks back on. Our socks still got soaked, so after each ford we alternated to the slightly drier pair airing under straps on our packs.

I had no idea we’d be fording so many streams, up to twenty a day. Twenty!

“The guidebook says Tyndall Creek is ‘formidable,’” I fretted that night at our campsite.

“You’re doing fine at crossing creeks,” he said.

“More formidable than what we’ve been through?” I asked.

“We’ll ford it somehow.”

We had no alternative, this high in the High Sierra.

The next morning we pried open our socks, frozen stiff as boards, and forced our cold feet into them. Our boots were frozen too. Even the laces were stiff, hard to tighten and tie with our freezing fingers.

After cold fords through Wallace and Wright Creeks, we arrived at swollen Tyndall Creek. It looked even more dangerous than reputed. I held my breath as Porter crossed first to test the power and depth of the current.

 “Undo your pack’s hip belt,” he called from the other side. “If you lose your balance in the current, shrug off your pack so its weight doesn’t drag you downstream.”

“And lose my pack?” I hollered back.

“Better than losing your life.”

Frozen on the bank, I stared into the deep rushing water.

Finally I stepped in and lurched drunkenly even with my trekking poles. Facing upstream for balance, I slowly side-stepped across. But my foot got caught between two rocks on the uneven bottom, and the rapids knocked me down.

First there was white, the cold foam of swirling bubbles. I sputtered and gurgled, fought hard to get up, but couldn’t. I thrashed harder, and the water gave way beneath. My legs flailed above me. I sank, butt-heavy.

I landed softly on the bottom, half-reclining on my pack. I watched my sunhat rise above me to the surface. It was bright up there, but deep down here everything was blue. I was drowning in blueness. I bounced in the upwelling, downwelling. I slipped into a blueshift of time running backwards.

But someone was parting the air. He was a shadow, head to water, leaning from the sky. I looked up through web-work under water, saw the fine lace of trees, sunlight latticed through their branches. The world was halved by sunlight.

Porter plunged in and dragged me out, body, pack, and all. I sliced the air with my icy bones. We collapsed on the rocks. Water poured from us in rivulets. A waterfall of snowmelt myself, my teeth chattered like clacking pebbles.

I sat there reeling with stillness. Inside, I felt like the river, a wider, deeper version of myself. My skin tingled from the bracing cold, my eyes opened at the brightness of everything around me. Nature, much more powerful than I, was letting me live.

Excerpted from I Promise Not to Suffer: A Fool for Love Hikes the Pacific Crest Trail by Gail Storey (Mountaineers Books, 2013) and Crossing Paths: A Pacific Crest Trailside Reader (Mountaineers Books, 2022) with permission from the publisher. All rights reserved. All Crossing Paths author royalties are gifted to the PCTA to support our work to preserve and protect the trail and every contributor donated their writing to the project. For these and many other reasons, consider adding Crossing Paths to your collection. To order Crossing Paths or Storey’s complete book, visit an independent bookshop or 

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