Denali National Park

Hiking River Crossing

Four words: Plan. Pick. Watch. Check. Follow that recipe for safe river crossings in Denali.

Plan... by choosing a careful route and a good technique. The glacial stream currents are swift and cold, and the water level can rise significantly within a few hours, making a slow stream an impassable torrent. In addition, the heavy burden of glacial silt carried in the rivers prevents a clear view of the obstacles along the bottom.

Pick... a route through the widest channels or where there are many channels instead of just one. As water disperses it will run more slowly and shallow out. Spend time walking up and downstream, or climbing to a high point, in order to find a crossing site suitable for the entire group.

Watch... the water's surface while choosing a route, since this may offer the most reliable information about depth and riverbed composition. Don't cross through standing waves. There the bottom is uneven and water is deep. Do cross where there are small, closely spaced ripples. There the water is shallow over a smooth bottom. Keep in mind that glacier-fed rivers are much deeper after the warmest part of the day.

Check... your choice by throwing big rocks into the water. A hollow "ka-thump" sounds in deep water. If the rock moves downstream before sinking to the bottom, or if submerged rocks can be heard rolling downstream, the current may be too swift to cross at that point.

Finally, always include an option for a retreat back to shore should the crossing become too difficult. Never overcommit yourself to one route.

Before you cross, remember: Seal all essential items, such as dry clothing and sleeping bags, in watertight, plastic bags. Do not cross barefoot or in socks alone! Shoes protect your feet from rocks, and allow you to hop along with the current. Release the waist and sternum belts of your pack. Should you fall, you must be able to jettison the pack before it fills up with water and drags you down.

As you cross, remember: Keep your eyes on the far shore. You may become dizzy if you look down at the water. Solo crossings are not recommended; however, if you have no other options, cross downstream at an angle using a long, sturdy stick for support.

After you cross: Congratulate yourself! Although an un-bridged river presents many challenges, it is also part of true wilderness hiking.


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