Crossing to Safety

From beginning to middle to end and back again, one adventure leads to another. So hold tight—it's a long ride

Apr 1, 2000
Outside Magazine

We think we're at the end. We think we've done it. The adventure's over, nothing left but crossing one last little creek. Easy as crossing the finish line. We come thrashing down through the forest. Our skis, once wings for our feet, protrude from our packs and snag on every branch. Our feet—once dry and wholesome, now taped and torn and bloody—punch insensibly through the last snowdrifts. We can smell the barn. We're sliding around an icy outcrop, catching ourselves with ski poles, when we first hear it. We stop. Listen.

"It's raging," Ken says calmly.

As we draw near, dropping from pines into aspen, the roar floods up through the trees. We squeeze into the willows and poke our heads out.

The river is brown, sinewy, convulsing like electrically stimulated muscle. It has boiled out of its banks. Chest-deep along the edges, deeper out in the middle, churning with noise. I toss a stick into the prodigal creek and it's sucked out of sight.

We were warned. A week ago we telephoned a rancher up here and he'd said, "Jakeys fork is runnin' higher'n a horse. Ain't no gettin' over it." We took this under advisement, and then went anyway. We figured we'd cross that bridge when we got to it, bridge or no bridge.

"Think we can wade it?" I say loudly. "Packs on our heads?"

Ken grimaces and rubs a thick black beard. In a former life he must have been a sea captain, perhaps one of those salty 18th-century sailors who chose water over land. In this life he fled the flat dry lake of northeast Texas for the rough, snowdrifted seas of the Rockies. He spent 15 seasons as a river guide. Wildwater runs in his veins.

"Won't happen!" he shouts. "You'll be tumbled head over heels. If you aren't lucky enough to be drowned, you'll be smashed on the rocks." He twists his tall, wiry frame and points downstream to where the roiling current is slamming into a stone wall.

"Think we could maybe swim it? Tied to the rope?"

Ken strokes his beard. He has a mind as eclectic as the library on an arctic sailing vessel, a memory for ingenious outdoor lore, and a knack for the quintessential quote.

"Excellent way to avoid the rocks," Ken yells, "and ensure a mercifully swift drowning."

We drop our packs in the willows and begin bushwhacking up and down the river, searching for a safe place to ford. An hour later we're hunting for a ford of any kind. Upstream the river catapults out of a steep-walled gorge; downstream it vanishes into snaking narrows. After we've traversed a hundred miles of glaciers and granite peaks buried in snow, it's Mother Nature's great practical joke to rimrock us with a river swollen by snowmelt.

Ken and I squat on our packs and share a bar of Swiss chocolate. Across the bounding waves, on the opposite shore, we can see the trail rising out of the water.

"An hour down that trail is the car," Ken says.

"An hour in the car to the Lander Bar," I reply.

As is apropos, we started this journey in the Lander Bar, a classic Wyoming saloon where bloody-knuckled cowboys and climbers, Arapahoe Indians in beads and braids, granola girls in beads and braids, outcasts, posers, foreigners, and cross-country skiers all drink and dance together.

I can taste the beer and hear the band. Ken catches my eyes tracing the arc of a big cottonwood hanging out over the water. Opposite the cottonwood, on the far bank, is a 40-foot undercut cliff that resembles the prow of a ship. A span of only ten feet separates the uppermost limbs of the tree from the edge of the cliff.

"Oh, no," Ken says. "I know that grin."

"We carried that pretty rope the whole way and never got to use it."

He shakes his head and stands up. "I'll do one last recon farther downriver before we commit ourselves."

Everything depends on your perspective. Obstacles look different from different angles. Maybe it's not 30 yards of raging brown water we have to get across, but just ten feet of dreamy blue sky.