Madeleine, Mark and I stood staring across Mountain Creek at dusk. We had finally reached a crux in our route we've been anticipating since the beginning. That a tree would cross this river is amazing. But when looking across, every part of me is thinking: "You have to be kidding me..."
Winter snow held in the mountains must melt eventually. This melting process begins in spring and continues until late summer/early autumn. The hydrological release begins most prominently in the lower elevations and these low places also happens to be where water congregates on its journey to the sea. Rivers. To provide a greater background to the ski traverse challenges of crossing the Selkirks last spring, read Valley Schwack. Along with the low elevation challenges of bushwacking, crossing the valleys often meant crossing streams and rivers.
There were various ways that we interacted with courses of water.
But creek crossing weren't always happy dandy little challenges along the way as these pictures seem to illustrate.
At some point we would have to face larger bodies of moving water where no man-made bridge exists and where going around the head of the valley wasn't an option. A lot of uncertainty existed when we speculatively looked at the map. A large valley headed with various big glaciers, a low elevation crossing of the river at 1100m and an abnormally warm spring all compounded to make the story of crossing Mountain Creek and Windy Creek memorable for me. I'm sure everyone on this trip experienced these two river cruxes differently, and so I'll specify that this story is how I experienced it:
Windy Creek has big water. Gurgling in large splashes over the coarse bark. This tree... It's amazing that it spans the river and we're not likely to find anything better. I really wish there was a better option though. We had been following the course of Windy Creek all day. Hearing the rumbling of saltation as boulders bounded around in the water. Our voices muted by the loud cacophony of whitewater roar. To try and follow the water as it moves downstream would be a dizzying experience; in the mountains, rivers move fast. As we travelled upstream I'd been scouring every new corner over the shoulders of my teammates for an ideal crossing. Until finally we came up to this one log.
First of all, whoever named this large vein of water a creek must really think they're funny. I dropped my pack and desperately searched upstream for any better alternative. Mark and Douglas tested the log and their sure-footedness and I meanwhile relinquished to the eventuality that would be our bridge. With no small amount of anxiety and dread, I watched as whirlpools spun with velocity below the slow footsteps of each person crossing Windy Creek, loaded with a heavy. The pack was left unbuckled should someone plunge and have to jettison the sinking weight. Best not to think about the myriad of other problems this would cause. As people got to the middle of the log, the water would be spilling over the persons ski boots. The expressions on people's faces was serious. Steve on the other side stood with rope in hand just in-case. Maybe it was more of a mental thing for the one crossing, to know that a rope could get thrown to you hopefully. If you had to dump into the water, the key part was to jump downstream and not get hung up against the log we were crossing.
With pent up fear, I get ready to start as the last one to set across the log. As I step up with the heavy pack, no part of me felt ready to be successful. I start to inch forward at a veritable snails pace, shuffling my feet centimeters at a time. My poles, gripped tightly in my fists, are placed in front of my feet. They provide little to no assistance to my lateral balance. Only a meter from the bank, with deep rapids below me, I find myself frozen looking at the familiar sight. I was thinking "Not again... I thought I wouldn't have to do this ever again, ever."
When setting out this traverse, Windy creek hadn't been the river we imagined having to deal with but Mountain Creek was always a concern. We climbed up from Rogers Pass knowing that at the bottom of the next valley we'd find our biggest watercourse challenge. Before even reaching the river, the team split up. Douglas had broken a ski and Steve went back with him to Revelstoke to sort out a new ski. The two would continue for over 20 hours of continuous travel before catching up with us the next morning. But that's another story. Additionally, getting to Mountain Creek was no picnic either. The Ursus Creek valley draining north was in a large way a nightmare. By the time we reached the broad valley bottom, the day was late and we were tired. When I first looked upon the water, I couldn't imagine how we'd cross it. Swim across with a rope around my waist? Would we have to go kilometers up-valley to find a narrower crossing? Could we find a natural bridge? Braids to wade? After some discussion, we decided to walk downstream to look for a possible logjam or something that we could use as a crossing. Downstream would mean that the river could only get larger but it was in line with our direction of travel.
Amazingly we found a log crossing. Mark immediately set to work with my snowsaw, nimbly cutting away at branches to make the crossing easier. I was uneasy but I couldn't imagine better luck than this newly fallen log, not yet swept off by the spring current.
Pretty quick, it was time to put the packs on and get across.
When I crossed Mountain Creek, I was terrified. I ended up cinching up my hood and singing to myself for comfort over the roar of water resonating in my hood. I inched incredibly slowly across but I've never been a good slackliner, let a lone crossing logs above rivers with big packs, skis and ski boots. Fear doesn't help either.
I can't imagine Steve and Douglas who arrived at the log late at night after long never-ending travel. They were about to cross and then realized at some point that the crossing would be best to do the next morning with more energy. A safe call.
I put the fear behind me and found my focus. With my body clenched, my eyes were narrowly focused on the scaly bark of this large Engelmann Spruce. When I had crossed, it was an accomplishment I was proud of.
I walked away from that log crossing thinking "Phew, we did it..."
And here I am again in front of Windy Creek. Staring deep into another river with fear like a dragon, swirling in the white waters.
After I stood there hesitating long enough, Mark called across asking if I wanted him to take my pack. I thought about it and I felt I needed the help. That said, I didn't want for anyone to have to cross this Black Cottonwood tree twice more, endangering themselves for my sake. I didn't have an answer and before I knew it, Mark was back across the log willing to take my pack.
Not wanting to be accountable for the camera I was carrying with my pack, he handed it to me. I donned my harness and clipped the camera to my waist. I tried again to cross the river on foot and still my balance made me feel like I'd plummet at any moment into the torrent. Finally, angry with myself, I dropped onto my butt to cross the log au-cheval.
With my center of gravity much lower and my legs straddling for support, the crossing became no problem. I just had to accept water gushing into my boots and over my lap. And then I remembered my camera. I looked over to find it submerged and it felt like a punch to the gut. I flipped the camera over to get it out of the water and crawled along the log feeling full of rage. My failure had now also caused the ruin of my camera.
I ripped branches and snapped things that obstructed my legs and when I stood on the other side I could feel people giving me a wide berth but trying to console me with words of encouragement. "Nice work Sam." My anger wasn't at them, only inward at myself. Dripping wet, I thought my camera was done for. When I checked, I found that the case had gotten soaked but the camera had survived!
We camped on the opposite bank, all of us trying to dry our wet gear despite the light drizzle. We had a campfire and hot drinks suddenly became the most valuable thing in the world. Around the fire that night our conversations would lead to heaps of laughter and I realized the support we all offered each other. That we all had a place and time where we were there for each other. My anger had by now long vanished and I feel grateful to have been able to get across that river, despite the fear, with the support of my friends.
We had finally crossed our last big river and were ready for what still lay ahead.
A big thanks again to those who supported us on this traverse including: MEC, G3, MSR, Battle Abbey, Sorcerer Lodge and the individuals who played no small part in the success, Jasmin Caton, Nick Waggoner, Steve's Dad, Madeleine's Dad, Roger Laurilla, Rooster. And of course, big thanks to Madeleine and Steve who played a very huge role in sorting all the logistics and sharing their dream traverse.