On Rivers, And What We Can Learn From Them

In the High Sierra at the end of May I spent a lot of time considering water. Not in the same way I had to in the desert, where water was scarce and the distance between sources had to be carefully calculated. No, here in the land of soaring craggy granite, water is everywhere. I could hear it constantly in the form of frozen ice crystals crunching under the sole of my boot at 4am. I could hear it in the soggy slush as it made contact with the seat of my rain pants during afternoon glissades to eat up miles of descent. I could hear it in the gurgle of invisible streams under the frozen snow bridges we tiptoed over. And I was deafened by the roar of the massive snowmelt-swollen “creeks” as they carried water down into the valleys.

I have never seen water move as fast as the San Joaquin River on June 1st under the bridge outage at Soda Springs CG.

Going in early

While abundant water means carrying just 1 liter at a time, a relief given that our packs are also adorned with all manner of snow travel and mountaineer gear, it also means we’ve hit peak melt in the Sierra, something I was hoping to avoid by going in early and traveling on snow. Instead, the heat came quickly this year and my group was confronted with multiple intensities: lots of snow on the passes, little to no bootpack ahead, and raging whitewater rivers between us and Kennedy Meadows North.

The portal

A couple weeks earlier, at Kennedy Meadows South, our tramily sat down for a team meeting. We discussed gear, group management and decision making, and risk assessment. We all agreed that we’d travel as a group, make decisions as a group, and keep each other safe. At the time this posts, many will have gone through successfully, but then we were among the first few groups of the season to go in. There were a lot of unknowns. There also was a range of experience levels in the group which meant is was important that we stick together. I have some mountaineering experience and a fair amount of snow travel experience, and also unfortunately have been in backcountry emergency situations, including one years ago where a member of my group was evacuated by helicopter during a mountaineering expedition. I felt confident in my risk assessment abilities. And I also knew I was taking things a lot more seriously than others.

Anyways, we took a day in KMS to plan, gear up, and get on the same page, and then we headed in.

It felt so good to finally get into the high alpine. I’d been looking forward to the Sierra even before getting my PCT permit and it was nothing short of awe-inspiring. We’d wake at 3am and be hiking at 4 in order to get up and over a pass while the snow was still firm. Often we’d be done with our big objective for the day before 9am and the rest of the day was spent slipping and sliding through slush and snow cups, postholing, and finding big, sunny slabs of granite on which to rest and marvel at the mind-blowing views. No matter what anyone says, the Sierra is always at her best, but I think there is something uniquely special about mountains accented by snow fields and waterfalls.

Juice crossing a snow bridge

My tramily crushed pass after pass, a few of us were lucky enough to summit Whitney (with crampons and ice axes, before there was even a boot track), and the camaraderie was strong. We had a lot of mornings with cold, frozen feet and hiking in the dark for a few hours and then through slush in the afternoon can be tough on moral, though the sunrises make it all worth it. But the biggest challenge didn’t come until after we went back in from resupplying via Kearsarge Pass. That’s when we hit the rivers.

The melt

For most of my life when I’ve thought about rivers, I think about finding the best swimming holes. I think about tributaries and watersheds and water as a resource and wildlife habitat. I think about getting down the river in a raft and picking a line through the rapids. But until now I hadn’t given much thought to getting across rivers.

In the Sierra, rivers were an obstacle, and a potentially very hazardous one. They became both a fun challenge and something to be cautious of. Finding ways across became a puzzle. Rivers forced us to slow down, to be patient. Instead of charging across them they asked us to pause, to consider their depth and speed, and walk up and down their banks to find the easiest and safest place to cross. It was worth checking the map, to see if the trail crosses the same river multiple times and we could stay on one bank instead. Or if we could move upstream and cross two smaller tributaries rather than the larger single river. Often, this early in the season and at the higher elevations, we were able to cross upstream on intact snowbridges. It was fun, trying to find alternate routes across that would keep us drier and safer. My excitement at this particular challenge earned me the trail name of “Re-Route.” Being able to read the map, not just the red line, but topo lines and other features, came in handy.

Crossing on a log to avoid the heavy current

To stop and witness a river, the power of the water, especially as I stood balanced precariously on a log or perched on the point of a rock in the rushing whitewater, is a humbling experience. One that made me appreciate just how much we can learn from these rivers.

Finding time for reflection

While some of the river crossings have been stressful, uncomfortable, and even outright dangerous, rivers have also brought me so much peace in this section. Moving with such a large group through this landscape has brought up more of my past backcountry trauma than I was expecting and I’ve found myself turning to the rivers when I need a moment to myself to reflect, meditate, and release.

The day we went over Forester Pass, just a day after I’d summitted Mt. Whitney, we reached camp in the late afternoon. It was a beautiful camp. All of us able to find dry spots for our tents among the long snow patches, we camped along Bubbs Creek staring at these huge granite walls. It had been a long two days so most people turned in early for the night, but I found a big smooth rock right next to a rapid and sat there as golden hour descended on the valley. From my perch I could see a stripe of meltwater running off the granite wall in front of me, the sun’s rays lighting it up into a glistening spray. Further down the creek I could see where it ran off a drop, the oxygenated froth breaking into a million sparkles in the air. I watched as the light changed the patterns of the waves in the river. I sat and let myself breathe with the river, trying to allow my thoughts and feelings of the past week flow through my body the same way the river flowed through the valley. I focused on one specific rapid, trying to watch for patterns, seeing what changed and what didn’t with each surge of water, thinking about what was happening upstream that I could see right here, and what then was happening downstream that I couldn’t, as the water continued on its journey.

I did this again with Mono Creek in the midst of a 10 day stretch. And again with the San Joaquin as we entered the final push through the Sierra. Each time considering the patience, strength, power, and flow of these rivers that I could also feel reflected in myself. These mountains and all they hold toughen you, but they also crack you open. And I tried to use the rivers as a reminder to pause and absorb the experience that is traveling among these massive, awe-inspiring giants, an experience that sometimes felt too big to hold in grandeur.

Finding a line through Matterhorn Creek

I asked some members of my tramily if they had learned anything from the rivers in this section. One said he’d learned a lot about risk. How there is so much room for error when crossing them and he’d had to shift his mindset about how to move and protect his body, something he hadn’t thought much about before. Another said water taught her to trust herself, to trust her footing and line choice and the importance of knowing her route. Another said it had been interesting to see how we’d adjusted our life around water. She was noticing so much about how water influences the topography and the flora surrounding us.

To me it seems obvious how important water is. It’s our life force, the main component of our planet, none of us would be here without it. But I’m learning how much it can help shape us, spiritually and otherwise. So while I entered the Sierra excited about the high peaks and dramatic views, I left feeling so much gratitude for the rivers and what they showed me.

Affiliate Disclosure

This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!

To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.

Comments 3

  • Nephi : Jun 9th

    I read the blogs for anecdotes and pretty pics, this post was exquisite.

  • David Odell : Jun 9th

    Enjoyed your excellent post. Good luck on the rest of your PCT hike. David Odell AT71 PCT72 CDT77

  • Jil Z : Jun 22nd

    After reading your blog post and hearing the stories, I’m glad the Bard skipped that leg and the river crossings that she would have been swimming.


What Do You Think?