Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Day 58: Risking life and limb for a hot spring!

August 6: During the night, there was an extremely light sprinkle, but when I woke up at around 6:00am, things were more-or-less dry. But it wasn't to last. Within a half hour, a steady rain had begun. A cold, wet and miserable rain.

The weather forecast I had seen yesterday predicted rain throughout most of the morning, though, so it wasn't a bit surprise. And I decided to try waiting it out. The weather was expected to improve during the afternoon, and I only needed to hike about 7 or 8 miles to reach my planned destination for the night. Even if I didn't start walking until after noon, I'd still have plenty of time to reach my destination before sunset.

I spent about 20 non-stop hours under the tarp.

Assuming, of course, that the trail wasn't in too bad of shape, but that very well might not be the case. The sign at Heather Meadows suggested overgrown conditions and bushwhacking. I wanted to finish the day at Baker Hot Springs and spend the evening soaking in the warm waters, but it wasn't the end of the world if I didn't make it.

So I read my Kindle for hours on end and practiced reciting all five of the long poems I had memorized to kill the time.

When noon came and went, I was disappointed to see the rain still falling. Another hour passed with no change. But! By around 2:00, the rain had started to taper off. Two o'clock was also my "you gotta get going--rain or not" moment.

So I finally ate breakfast (I hadn't until now, not feeling especially hungry laying around doing nothing) and packed up everything under my tarp. I also packed in case the rain returned, making sure everything that needed to stay dry would stay dry.

And finally, at around 3:00pm, I finally emerged from under my tarp after about 20 non-stop hours stuck underneath it. It felt so good to finally stand up!

Although the rain had finally stopped, the air was thick with moisture and the ground and vegetation was soaked with water.

Swift Creek

I was a bit apprehensive about the trail ahead. My maps showed two potentially dangerous river crossings, but my guidebook mentioned a third one that could potentially be dangerous as well. And it described an overgrown trail that has had little maintenance in the last several years. It might be rough going.

On a nice note, however, the trail I had explored a bit yesterday turned out not to be the PNT at all. In fact, it wasn't a trail at all as far as I could tell. It looked like a trail which is why I followed it, but it ended up petering out into nothing a few minutes up the route because it wasn't an official trail at all. The trail I needed to follow was across Swift Creek and, much to my delight, was obvious.

Which isn't to say that it was in good shape. It definitely was not and was very overgrown in areas and required navigating a multitude of blowdowns, but at least I could see the trail and didn't have to do any route-finding.

The trail was also slick with mud due the rain, and I fell into the mud on more than one occasion. Stupid mud!

The first 'scary' creek crossing, I was relieved, was nothing of the sort. My guidebook warned that it could be "thigh-deep" in a heavy snow year (and it was a heavy snow year, and I was very early in the thru-hiking season since I started at Harts Pass rather than Glacier NP), but I was able to cross the creek by rock hopping. I would say that I didn't even get my feet wet, except they were already soaked from brushing against the vegetation along the trail. (I had, however, put on my waterproof socks which kept my feet warm but not particularly dry.)

The first 'scary' creek crossing wasn't so bad.

But I will say--if the water really had been thigh deep, I would have turned around right then and there because the creek crossing was located at the top of a small waterfall. If you slipped or fell, you'd immediately be thrown over a waterfall to one's death. So I was happy that this crossing wasn't a big deal.

You definitely didn't want to slip and fall
because you'd end up at the bottom of this waterfall!

The second 'scary' river crossing.... was definitely scary. This one crossed Swift Creek which, as its name suggests, was rather swift and generally speaking, about waist deep or higher in most locations. The rain all morning certainly hadn't helped the water levels.

I passed a sign pointing to a ford alternate, and I scrambled down the steep slope to check it out. It looked...bad. I decided to continue on to the main crossing and check it out. If it looked worse than the alternate, I could always backtrack and return to the alternate.

I was stunned when I reached the primary fording location to see a zip line installed! There was a sign warning not to use it because you needed authorization, but it seemed so unfair that there was a safe and simple way to cross such a dangerous creek crossing, but we weren't allowed to use it!

And it's not a matter that I wanted to "follow the rules." It was just that I didn't have the equipment to cross with the zipline. I didn't have a harness or rope that could hold my weight. There was just no way that I could use the zipline to cross the creek with the gear I carried, and I desperately wanted to do that! Why would they go to the effect of building a zipline that nobody can even use? It made no sense to me! It's like they were taunting us!

With the zipline not available as an option, I searched a little bit both up and downstream looking for the safest place to cross and saw something a little way downstream that looked like it had potential.

See the zipline crossing over the creek? It kind of blends in with the trees, but it is visible in the photo.

I waded along the shallow water at the edge of the creek for a closer look, and it still looked like the best option available. It seemed to be no more than about waist-deep at the deepest, and if the current swept me away, there was nothing that looked particularly dangerous further downstream that would kill me. (Such as a waterfall or more difficult rapids.) It was still a dangerous crossing, but I felt confident that it wouldn't kill me. Probably. =)

I did take a few extra precautions, though. I moved my camera and other gear into ziplock bags that were well-secured within my pack. And, most importantly, I took the SPOT device off my pack and attached it directly to myself. If I did get swept downstream and had to ditch my pack, I'd be in a world of trouble. I'd be soaking wet with literally nothing but the clothes on my back. And if I ended up in that kind of situation, having my SPOT device wash downstream with my pack wouldn't do me any good at all. My SPOT device was my lifetime to help, and I'd definitely need it if such a situation developed.

So I attached it securely to myself. I unbuckled the belt on my pack, the better to ditch it if I got swept downstream, then stepped into the river.

The water level grew deeper as I approached the center of the creek. First to my knees. Then to my thighs. The current pulled against my legs, trying to sweep my feet out from under me on the slippery rocks. I faced downstream, the better to keep my balance against the water pushing against the back of my legs.

As the water level deepened, I could no longer see the bottom of the creek through all the sediments and turbidity in the water. I started poking the ground ahead with my trekking pole to get a sense of how deep it was before moving a foot. And I'd make sure my foot had a good, solid footing before repeating the process with the other one.

I was taken by surprise when my trekking pole started vibrating violently, humming. I'd never seen (or rather heard) that happen before. I knew immediately that there was some sort of resonance going on, and images of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge being ripped apart came to mind. It seemed unlikely that the trekking pole was going to fly apart like that, but it would have been catastrophic to lose a trekking pole at this moment and I gripped the trekking pole in both hands like my life depended on it. Because... it did, actually.

There was a large boulder in the middle of the creek, and I maneuvered myself in front of it bringing me relief against the swift current. I was still in thigh-deep water, but the boulder broke the current which surged around both sides of the boulder. I had a chance to release the death-grip on my trekking pole and catch my breath and figure out what I would do next.

I probed the water ahead with my trekking pole, still unable to see the bottom of the creek and discovered the ground under the water sloped a bit, and I had a choice between a shallower route with a faster current or a deeper route with a slower current. I wasn't sure which was the better option but finally decided on the shallower but faster current. It appeared to be about knee-deep and although the current was faster, I felt good that I could keep my footing and make it across. Although the deeper route had a slower current, it wasn't slow. It seemed more likely to carry me off.

I took a death-grip on the trekking pole and stepped out of my safe-haven. I could feel my feet slipping on the creek bottom, and I tried to wedge it into any crevice that my feet could find.

The distance across this fast current of water was only a couple of feet, but it was the most terrifying part of the crossing. I took one step, then another....

And finally, the ground rose and I was through! I took a few more steps behind another large boulder in the river which left a shallow pool of calm water behind it and I shouted with joy. "Yes! I made it! I made it! YES!!!!"

I shouted this, while still standing in the creek. I wasn't actually out yet, but the dangerous part was behind me. At this point, I was standing in maybe 8 inches of calm water. A small kiddie pool of water on the bank of the river.

The shoreline was covered with thick brush and vegetation, so I tried to climb up the large boulder to get out of the creek and found it surprisingly difficult. Eventually I managed, being careful not to slip and fall back into the kiddie pool.

Once I was safely on the other side, I took off my pack and rearranged things again. I pulled out my camera which had been stowed away, and returned my SPOT device to its place on my pack.

Then I continued the hike.


The last potentially dangerous river crossing I wasn't too concerned about since my guidebook said that there was typically a log bridge set up that one could cross on. I hoped that was the case because I really didn't want to do something like this last river crossing again!

And, I'm happy to report, there was, in fact, a log bridge to cross. A cable had been stretched across it to give hikers something to hold onto for balance, but it was a little unnerving to walk across it. The river itself, Rainbow Creek (if I remember correctly), was just as bad as Swift Creek and maybe worse. You definitely did not want to fall into it. But the log crossing was rather high--a fall off of it could potentially be deadly. And the while there was a cable to hold onto, it was very loose and it didn't provide a lot of support. 

I crabbed walked across the log, taking little steps and taking my time. It turned out to be a lot more unnerving that I expected. Not as bad as actually fording the river! But still... not a pleasant experience.

And a short while later, I found myself at the Swift Creek trailhead.

At this point, I veered off trail toward Baker Hot Springs, which was located about 0.6 miles off trail. I normally wouldn't want to walk that much off trail, but for a hot spring, I'd do it!

And I finally arrived at my destination at about 8:00 in the evening. It was by far my latest arrival into a campsite so far this year, but I was a little disheartened with I found about 10 people already soaking in the springs. I passed the trailhead for the hot springs on my way here and there were only two small cars in the parking lot and I couldn't figure out where all these people came from. Surely they couldn't have all fit into two small cars?

Most of them spoke Russian to each other as they drank beer and vaped and I was immensely disappointed. I just wanted a nice, quite evening enjoying the sounds of nature--perhaps a quiet conversation with whoever else was there. Attending a Russian party all night wasn't my idea of a good time.

But still, I was here so I stripped off my clothes and got into the water. Everyone else wore bathing suits, but maybe they'd give me extra space if I were naked. ;o)

Lots of Russians at the hot springs this evening! (Not all of them are in the water when I took this photo, so the group was actually larger than this photo shows.)

Then they pulled out speakers that they attached to a phone and started playing loud music. Ugh.

I couldn't even participate in the conversation with them because they preferred speaking Russian to each other. All-in-all, they basically ruined what could have been an absolutely wonderful evening.

Later in the evening, a few more people arrived to join the party, and a little after it got dark, I pulled myself out and set up camp nearby. Once I was in my sleeping bag and away from the party, my mood improved even though I could still hear the party going on in the distance.

Since it was already quite late at night, I skipped a cooked meal for dinner resorting to a few snacks. Then I brushed my teeth and headed to sleep. I was exhausted!

I took this photo after one of my slips and falls into a puddle of mud.

This rocky section of trail was slow going!

The last 'scary' river crossing at least had this improvised log bridge to help hikers across. A much better option than fording this creek!


Karolina said...

I’m glad you made it safe through all the dangerous river crossings and slippery sections!!!

Jonathan S. Tait said...


Hola, everyone...

After reading several years ago of a couple who drowned while attempting a water crossing (if I remember correctly, while hiking in Mount Rainier National Park), I have contemplated how they might have safely and uneventfully accomplished such dangerous conditions.

While reading tonight of your Pacific Northwest Trail adventure, a possible remedy came to mind: That is, to secure a rope to a suitably sized rock that can be thrown part way, or better yet, all the way over to the opposite side, or even to utilize a small log (light enough to heave the distance required, but big enough to effectively anchor a hiker) that one can hold on to, thus providing much more secure footing and means to deal with the current should a slip occur...

It is my hope that smarter minds than mine will further refine this strategy, ultimately creating a method that is so much safer than the sketchy means often faced when attempting such fast and/or deep water crossings.

Jonathan S. Tait
Gold Bar, Washington State