Fish Creek Almost Killed Me

Iva Bell Hot Springs to Marsh Lake Trail
(7 miles, +1,900/-700 feet).

Today was, in nearly all respects, another beautiful day with friends in the woods.

But it was also the worst day of my life.

Don’t worry, I will explain.

The morning started uneventfully as we packed up from our lovely campsite.

Wake up!

We started with a nice climb over a ridge to get from the Sharktooth Creek drainage back to Fish Creek where it flows through Cascade Valley.

Devil’s Top
Everyone enjoying the view
On top of the ridge
Ultrashuffle enjoys the moment
Boy that river is raging!

We came to appreciate the name of the valley, as we climbed past one cascade and then another, and another.

Looking downstream
And across the valley
Granite walls tower above

When we got to Second Crossing, the official place where the trail is supposed to go back to the north side of Fish Creek, we could find no safe place to cross.  It was wide and there was no whitewater to speak of, but the eddy near the far bank looked deep and fast.  We decided to stay on the south side of the river and go cross country until we reached another place where the Marsh Lake Trail met Fish Creek, looking for possible crossings as we went.

The cross country was mostly easy.

Wide open cross country
A beautiful climb

But at stream crossings, the going was extremely tough.  Between blowdowns and willows, we easily spent half an hour sometimes going just 100 yards or so.

This is a hard part

Shortly before lunch we crossed a lovely meadow to a granite outcrop at 8228 feet.

Crossing a meadow
Ultrashuffle above us
This looks like a nice place to rest!
Geo on the rocks

I finished lunch first and decided to go scouting for possible crossings of Fish Creek.  And I thought I found not just one, but two!  The first one was a log crossing just downstream of a log jam.  The runout didn’t look great — there were mild rapids — but from above the log crossing looked doable.  And just upstream from there the water looked calm and wide, suggesting a ford might be possible.

I returned to the group and shared the news.  We packed our things to keep them dry in case one of us fell in, and then headed down to the river bank to take a look.

From about 100 yards away we all looked at both options and decided we would try for the log crossing.  But it was really difficult to get to.  One option was a marshy bushwhack through willows, and the other was a teetering scramble down a log jam on the side of the river.  They both took about ten minutes to negotiate, and I arrived at about the same time as Ultrashuffle and Scamper.

And here’s where things got truly awful.

MISTAKE #1.  I did not wait for the rest of the group to arrive at the bank to confirm that we wanted to cross the log.

Instead, I went ahead and crossed.

The crossing actually consisted of two logs, one of which was about ten feet long and slippery, right above the turbid creek, and the second of which was resting on that one.  As I crossed the first log, I actually stumbled and fell onto the second log.  It was pretty scary.  I kept telling myself “you can do this, you can do this” not realizing that if I was scared then this was not a good place to cross.

Recovering from my stumble on the wet log

The second log was easy, but Ultrashuffle saw how difficult and dangerous the first one was and he yelled to me “I don’t think we can cross here.”

Easy enough, then.  All I needed to do was cross back, right?

MISTAKE #2.  I crossed a log that was not crossable in the opposite direction.

I had already stumbled the first time, and it worked out because I fell on the second log.  But going the other way a stumble would mean tumbling into rapids.  When Ultrashuffle said they couldn’t cross, I realized with horror what that meant.  Meekly, I called out to him “Do I have to cross back here?”

We tried to talk about our options, but the river was so loud it made communicating really, really hard.  He told me to check the ford.  I dropped my pack and ran over there, and with my trekking poles entered the creek up to my chest.  And it was still deeper than that.  Definitely not crossable.

I retreated and went back to yelling back and forth with Ultrashuffle.  We decided to head upstream together to look for another crossing.  But I said we wouldn’t be able to stay near the river, since it was frequently fringed with large stands of willows.  So he said they would convene at the rocky outcrop where we all first looked down at the river.

I went upriver where I could see the outcrop.  But no one was there.  I waited.  And waited.  And then panicked.  Where on earth were they?  Or was I looking at the wrong spot?  Later on I realized that they needed lots of time to reverse their tough 100 yards to the bank, but at the time all I could think about was being separated.

I decided to look upstream by myself for another way to cross back.

I knew from my map that we were in a wide spot for the creek, so I was hopeful to find logs or a ford.  But bend after bend I found nothing.  And as I searched I got closer and closer to the roar of a huge waterfall in the river just upstream.  My options were running out unless I was willing to commit to a several hour journey cross country (which might not have been possible) back to the bridge from yesterday or forward until I could find a place to cross.  And then I would have no idea where my friends were.

In hindsight, I should have opted for the longer journey full of uncertainty.  But clearly I was not thinking straight.

Just then, I spied what I thought was a workable crossing.  Below the falls the stream split in two, and the first half looked wide, shallow, and not too fast.  The second half looked the same except for that same damn eddy that ran deep and fast near the opposite shore.  But this time a young tree hung low over the deep part.  I thought I could  make it to the tree and then use that to pull myself across.

MISTAKE #3.  I entered the water by myself.

The crazy thing about this mistake is that I know it so well.  The two PCT hikers who died in the Sierra in 2017 were both crossing streams by themselves.  What in the world was I doing?

But my separation from the group caused a greater fear and kept me from truly understanding the significance of my choice.  It made me overconfident in my ability to ford the river.

The first half of my crossing was just within my comfort zone.  The river was strong but only waist high and manageable as I leaned on my trekking poles.  I made it to the island where the current fell nearly to zero and I geared up for the second half.

Past the island, the first 20 feet were doable, but I was on a downward slope in the water and soon I was up to my chest.  I lunged for the tree and grabbed on.  It bent under my weight as the current pulled me downstream about 5 feet, but I held on and I still felt in control.  I made my way from trunk to branch to trunk.

But the water got deeper and deeper.

And the current got stronger and stronger.

Soon it was so strong that my body was completely horizontal, flailing above and below the water.  I held on, literally for dear life.  But my hat kept obstructing my view, and the flailing was driving the bear canister in my pack into the back of my head.  I tried to continue along the trunk but I did not have enough strength.  I dropped from the trunk onto two branches.  But I could not reach the next branch.

I was running out of strength.  And time.

In a final burst of effort I said to myself, “You can do this.”

And I lunged.

Two hands back on the trunk.

I relaxed for a moment and let the water toss me around as I prepared for my only remaining option.  I would have to move my hands down the trunk one by one, one inch at a time.

The first move was the scariest.  I did not know if I could hold on with just one hand while I moved the other.

But I did.

And then again.

And again.

I was losing my grip.  But I was getting closer to the shore.

At the far edge of the eddy I almost gave up.  I did not have even an ounce of strength left.  But if I let go here, I would not make it to the willows on the shore.

With a final burst of pure desire to live, I lunged one more time down the trunk.

And I made it.

The current lessened and I let go while grabbing for the willows on the edge of the river.  My feet finally touched the bottom and I dragged my soaked and choking body onto the shore.

I was exhausted.  But strangely I did not rest.  I plunged into the willow thicket and with single-minded intensity repeated aloud” “You are okay.  Find your friends.”  “You are okay.  Find your friends.”

I started yelling their names.  But the river was too loud.  I climbed up and up.  But I did not see them.

And finally.  Finally.  I saw them below, about 100 yards away.  I sat down on a large rock outcrop and waited for them.  And when they reached me I burst into tears.

“I’m so sorry.  I was so stupid.”

Ultrashuffle put his hand on my shoulder.

And I cried some more.

Geo said I should eat something.  But I said I would probably just throw it up right now.

I couldn’t believe I was alive.  I didn’t feel alive.  I wondered if I was in some parallel universe to the one where my body was floating lifeless down the river.

And I cried some more.

Eventually I calmed down.  The group said they thought they saw a crossing below.  I went with them to check it out, but it looked a lot like what I had tried to do minus the help of a tree over the deep part.  Of course, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that I was a little biased against any stream crossing at just that moment.  But I suspect that it was objectively not possible to cross there.

So we continued our cross country route up the south bank of Fish Creek.

Every so often I would burst into tears again.  But it was okay.  I was back with my friends.

We crossed through woods and talus fields as we slowly made our way to the Marsh Lake Trail.

Crossing the talus

And we eventually found the trail and followed it down to Fish Creek.

But it is not crossable here either.  In fact, there is no creek here.  Instead, it’s a lake!

Fish Creek?
Or Fish Lake?

On our shore, the lake is at least ten feet deep.

Time to change plans.

We don’t have enough time left in the trip to keep heading upstream looking for a place to cross Fish Creek and ascend to the John Muir Trail.

So instead we’ve decided to camp here for the night and to head up to Marsh Lake in the morning.  If the conditions up there are okay we will do a day hike and the next day we will follow a trail past Scoop Lake back to Iva Bell Hot Springs.

And if they aren’t, we will just go back the way we came.  We know it is safe, which right now sounds pretty good.

A beautiful (and safe) place to camp


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Jaunting Jan says:

    Water crossings are my nightmare. I’ve learned to skip rock jumps as I’ve slipped a few times making the risk of injury higher than getting my feet wet. A couple years ago I took a tumble off a log and I still haven’t regained my confidence. I hate being turned around by water but it’s not worth injury or dying especially I hike 95% solo.

    I’m glad you shared this story. Hopefully it’ll help others take a few minutes to ponder options, especially the retreat option.

    We learn through experiences but we also use up another of our nine lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. James Fowler says:

      Thanks Jan! I’m hoping not to test the nine lives theory… 😛

      Liked by 1 person

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