Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve

Hiking - River Crossing
Hiker in Gates of the Arctic National Park
Hiker in Gates of the Arctic National Park (Teri McMillan/National Park Service)

Plan by choosing a careful route and a good technique. Stream currents are swift and cold, and the water level can rise significantly within a few hours, making a slow stream an impassable torrent. Silt carried in the rivers can prevent 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'll 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 Brooks Range rivers are often deeper after the warmest part of the day due to melting of snowpack high in the mountains.

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 over-commit yourself to one route. Plan, pick, watch, check...

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, 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.

Although an unbridged river presents many challenges, it is also part of true wilderness hiking.

Published: 21 Jul 2009 | Last Updated: 11 Oct 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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