Alice Ference drowned before I arrived to ford the Kennebec River.
Backpacking southbound on the Appalachian Trail, I had just arrived at the shore of the Kennebec River late on a September afternoon. I took a serious survey of the water; it was clear there would be no crossing that day. The river level was too high.
I withdrew with other hikers to Northern Outdoors, which was upriver. I ate, rested, and spent time considering one of the most important decision I would make during my backpacking trek: whether to engage a ferry boat to cross the river, or ford it on foot?
Word had drifted along the trail about Alice Ference. As I heard it, she and her husband had been hiking the Appalachian trail in sections for a number of years. This year would celebrate the completion of their dream – to complete hiking the Appalachian Trail in by sections over a number of years, thus making them “2000-Milers.” Yet while fording the river Alice lost her footing and was swept downstream. Her body was recovered later. News was her grief-stricken spouse went on to complete the trail, and the Appalachian Trail Conservancy awarded the Ferences with the “2000-Miler” status.
This tragic news affected everyone I met along the trail. It seemed there was no one who had not heard of the incident. The sober and inescapable truth was that, for all its wonder and beauty, hikers and backpackers sometimes lost their lives while hiking the Appalachian Trail.
The Kennebec River is spectacular, and one is the most challenging water crossing of the Appalachian Trail. The year I hiked the trail it was essential that those who chose to cross on foot did so by eight in the morning to avoid the rising water released by a dam upstream, which would make it impossible to cross any time later than nine in the morning.
I was told there should be at least two or three gravel bars in clear view along the riverbed. If they were submerged it was too deep to cross. The morning I forded, three bars were clearly visible. Yet what lay beneath the surface of the river was deceptive; a jumble of various sized stones which slipped and shifted with each step. I was advised to ford in my boots, but without socks. A barefoot crossing was foolish to even consider.
I stood on the bank and undid my pack belt in case it became necessary to jettison my pack. I removed my socks, laced my boots tight, and retrieved an extra stout stick from the bank left by a previous river crosser to add to the hiking staff I carried. Then I took some deep breaths and focused my attention. I did a final cinch of my shoulder straps to stabilize the weight as much as possible. I faced upstream and, slowly and cautiously, stepped into the river.
The water was cold, and within three paces I found myself chest deep in the current. Steeling myself so as not to panic I leaned into the hiking poles and methodically navigated my feet over the riverbed. The stones were like oily ball-bearings, large and treacherous. I allowed each foot to sink down onto and between them. As the stones would separate and my boot would touch bottom I felt some confidence. When I felt my stance planted firmly, I shifted my body weight and moved another foot to the left. Though the water was becoming more shallow as I crossed the river, I never allowed myself less than three points of contact with the bottom. I walked into the current and upriver, allowing the power of the water to stabilize me, to become a substance I could lean into for steadiness. This method worked, along with much patience, and I completed a ford of about seventy yards. I reached the opposite bank, spent yet exhilarated. I had taken my time to move with thought and purpose, negotiating the river on its terms.
The power of moving water is majestic, but it’s also deceptive. Stream and river crossings can be one of the most hazardous situations found on the Appalachian Trail.
Some weeks before I entered Monson, Maine, I was delayed in the 100-Mile Wilderness by a terribly swollen stream whose current was violent with runoff triggered by four days of torrential rain. The width of the stream was less than five yards, but it would have been hazardous to step into it. I waited until the water level subsided and safe fording was possible.
Things to keep in mind when preparing to ford streams or rivers:
Always cross with others if flood conditions are present. Unless the stream is shallow and you can see the bottom it’s wise to have company when making the attempt.
Scope out the river conditions. Try to find a height of land which allows you to survey the water to determine the best and most logical place to cross. Avoid areas where debris, log, brush, or snags are is present.
No bare feet! Wear your boots without socks. You’ll need the stability which stout footgear offers to cross safely.
Be ready to shed your pack if you lose your balance and fall into the current. The waist belt of your backpack should remain undone and chest straps should only be tight enough to stabilize your load. If you happen to be caught in the current, jettison the pack but try and hold onto the straps since it might be useful as flotation gear while you try to swim to shore.
Lastly, if you can, cross at an angle, facing upriver. Use an extra hiking staff or pole for support. “Feel” you way across the riverbed. Take your time and make no sudden movements.