A Close-Call Creek Crossing That Changed Me For Good
Our July 2017 backpacking trip through the Hoover Wilderness could have ended much differently than it did; these images still weigh on me. I exited the wilderness at the end of that weekend feeling as though I'd been partitioned: a dividing line separated the part of me that knew everything had turned out okay from the part of me that had lost my family—my dog and the person I love the most.
I also can't say that we didn't see it coming. By early July, we had heard several stories of hikers dying in the Sierras at various creek crossings. With this in mind, the four of us friends who embarked on this trip talked about how to cross a creek properly before hitting the trail (does one unbuckle their backpack first in order to jettison it should you fall in, for example). But imagining it and doing it with a dog in your arms are two different things.
The winter of 2017 brought the largest snowpack to the Sierras in 22 years; by April, NASA's images of Tuolumne Meadows showed last year's snowpack to be 20 times greater than 2015's. We needed that kind of water desperately thanks to a climate-change-induced drought that had killed over 100 million trees across the Sierra. I was grateful, even ecstatic, and the "inconveniences" brought on by the snow, including canceling a couple of trips, were nothing compared to our renewed sense of hope.
One of my favorite guidebooks names this hike the Crown Point Loop, a 22.5-mile, ideally 3-day trip that begins at Mono Village Resort in the Hoover Wilderness and circles through a remote corner of Yosemite National Park. The lakes on this trail are Barney, Peeler, Snow and Crown Lakes, and the Yosemite portion of the hike cuts through Kerrick Meadow. We hoped to do the full loop, but knew that the lingering snow could mess with our plans. Our instincts were right: the massive snowpack made it impossible for us to move at our normal pace, so we made it no further than Peeler Lake at 7 miles. It is no wonder that so many hikers quit the JMT and PCT that summer.
The drive up the 395 was even more dramatic than usual given that we were celebrating July Fourth and the mountains were still covered in white. We arrived at Twin Lakes in the late afternoon, stopped to drink a beer next to the lake, and camped nearby at Paha Campground.
We got a late start the next morning and the sunlight was sharp. Thankfully, the first portion of the hike dives in and out of Aspen groves, and this was perhaps my favorite part of the hike. The Aspens' round, flat leaves shimmered in the gentle breeze like castanets above shaded lilac wildflowers, providing us with cool relief. Clearings in the trees would reveal open meadows covered in yellow flowers.
After a short, steep climb and several insignificant stream crossings, we reached Barney Lake at 4 miles. We stopped to have lunch and watched another hiker's dog retrieve sticks out of the icy cold lake.
Just after Barney Lake, we encountered the winter snowpack we had anticipated, which completely obscured the trail. Alvin immediately began what would become a weekend-long performance of rolling and sliding in the snow.
Then came Robinson Creek. Chris decided to cross first, put his pack down, cross again, and carry Alvin back through the water. I could barely watch.
When it was my turn, I put my trekking pole into the creek first, which felt more like poking a yardstick into a tornado. The creek floor was difficult to stab and the swift water gathered around my waist, seeping up into my shirt. I stepped each foot in front of the other with intense concentration, holding my body up against the current. After a breathless ten minutes, all four had made it safely to the other side and laughed nervously, congratulating each other for not dying. The pictures below don't capture the depth and strength of the creek that day.
We were trying to make it to Peeler Lake that day but our pace slowed significantly due to the snow and we noticed the sun getting low in the sky. We decided to set up camp on one of the few flat areas between Barney and Peeler lakes where someone had previously made a fire ring.
The next morning, we continued hiking to Peeler Lake, which was still frozen over.
The creek crossing that changed me for good happened on the way back.
Robinson Creek seemed even higher and stronger than it was a few days earlier. A couple days of warm weather had most likely caused additional snowmelt; ahead of us, the trail disappeared into a cauldron of white water. Perhaps we should have listened to our gut that told us not to cross, but we did anyway. It wasn't really a discussion.
Chris went first and Alvin stayed behind. Then went Joel. Chris came back to retrieve Alvin, and I watched what happened as if in slow motion: holding our dog in his arms, Chris started to keel over. I could tell that his priority was keeping Alvin above the water, arms outstretched, but both of them were hanging on by a thread against the freezing stream. They were no longer moving forward, but trying desperately to stay up above the water and prevent it from carrying them away. Chris was able to grab onto a rock, but from what I had read previously, it was unclear to me if rocks could potentially save you or work against you as a strainer. You could get flushed against them and drown.
Our friend Joel knew instinctively that pulling Alvin out of Chris's arms would help Chris lift himself up again, so he forded the creek and grabbed our dog, losing his Nalgene in the process. Made it. Alvin was on dry ground. Chris, having the use of his arms again, stood up and walked swiftly to the other side.
It was all over as quickly as it happened, but even as all four of us made it to the other side, I couldn't believe it was okay. Shaking, I hugged Chris and cried. Before this trip, I had always imagined myself remaining unmarried for the rest of my life. I had been in several long-term relationships, but I dismissed the ceremony and the contract as outdated. I assumed that, for the most part, Chris and I agreed on this sentiment even though we were devoted to each other and had been living together for years. But as I hugged him, shaking, I thought about how stupid it was that we weren't married.
I had to take a short break from the wilderness after this trip to recover in the safety of my own home. But luckily, this close call did not deter me from backpacking again—it just made me reconsider crossing creeks in times of great snowmelt. Chris and I are getting married this August.