River Crossings – A River Rules My Life

Individual river crossers should use any support that is available. Here Nick Scott uses rocks for balance and support while crossing a small river. River crossings.
Individual river crossers should use any support that is available. Here Nick Scott uses rocks for balance and support while crossing a small river.

River Crossings By Tom Fraser

Keep going, just go with it! Ivor was taking charge. l looked upstream at my three companions to whom I was gripped, and at the look of determination and confidence on Ivor’s face. This quick glance was enough to reassure me that we could cross this damn river! River crossings should always be treated with respect no matter what your level of experience!

This Mackenzie Basin river had the appearance of a Ruapehu Lahar. An hour-long diversion to find a suitable crossing point had found us at this point, a slower-moving stretch of water, yet chest deep and dirty. The river stood between us and three days of fantastic alpine hunting.

A group discussion had ensued on the possibility of a crossing. Eventually, the four of us linked arms and set out to cross the mighty river. Our exit point was a small beach tucked behind a house-sized boulder, and all eyes were intently focused on it. Soon we were waist-deep and then chest-deep, and I sensed the need to abort the mission.

However, the depth remained level and we pressed on. Only when we reached the small beach did my grip on Gus slacken, and I can assure you that there were a couple of relieved fellows who dragged themselves up the bank! We were going hunting!

A somewhat tatty dust cover from A River Rules My Life by Mona Anderson 1965 edition.
A somewhat tatty dust cover from A River Rules My Life by Mona Anderson 1965 edition.

Mona Anderson, the popular author of numerous books, including ”A River Rules My Life”, aptly described how the Wilberforce River ruled her life while living at Mount Algidus Station.

Likewise, rivers rule the lives of many outdoor users. ln many instances, swingbridges and walk-wires allow us to cross these natural barriers. But often the responsibility of crossing rivers rests on individuals.

River crossings can be the bane of all outdoor users. They have the potential to strike fear into the hearts of crossers and are often the reason people keep away from the wilderness.

Each year we hear of people who lose their lives in tragic river crossings. Sometimes these crossings are attempted in shocking water conditions through poor decision-making, yet on other occasions, the crossing appears deceptively easy, with low and clear water conditions.

However, river crossings do not have to be intimidating. With care and knowledge, the risk sometimes associated with them can be dramatically reduced.

In this article I will address the issues associated with river crossings; where to cross, how to cross, what to do if you get into trouble, and what to do if you can’t cross. These issues relate to any outdoor user, but here I will apply them primarily to anglers because our style of wet wading often means rivers have to be continuously crossed.

Upon reaching the river which has to be crossed, there are three important decisions to make; whether to cross and if so… where to cross, and what method to use. New Zealand Mountain Safety Council website.

Whether to Cross

It is difficult to give an outsider’s opinion on whether you should cross because it comes down to collective decision-making and common sense. You must consider factors such as your confidence, swimming ability, river depth, speed and colour, and ensure that everyone knows exactly what to do.

If You Cannot Cross. Stay Put

A feature of New Zealand rivers is that they rise and fall very quickly after rain. Therefore, if a river is too high to cross now, there is a good chance it will be fordable within a couple of hours of the rain ceasing. Take shelter, have a brew and marvel at the power of nature!

Where To Cross

The first and most important aspect to check is the availability of a ‘run-out’. You want a crossing point where the run-out leads into easier conditions, just in case you get into trouble and need a good area in which to land.

The leader needs to assess the river bed because if possible we want an even-bottomed single bed with slow and smooth water. The depth and speed of the water must be taken into consideration. If a river is slow moving you can expect it to be deep, while faster water is usually shallower. ‘

The crossing needs to be made at a point where there are easy entry and exit points. This allows the crossers to get into the river easily, and where the far bank also provides an easy exit.

Three major areas are preferable: Shallow water (up to thigh) flowing over level shingly beds; shallow water, flowing over a bouldery bed, with variable currents; deep and slow-flowing rivers where swimming techniques may be safely used.

Method Of River Crossings

The choice of an appropriate crossing technique is a vital decision, and the method used will depend on the number in the group, experience, and degree of difficulty in the crossing.

If there are two or more crossers, the easiest methods are to link arms at the elbows or reach across the next person’s shoulders and grab the top of their pack. Likewise, the use of a long pole or branch onto which the crossers hold is effective.

Individual crossers often use a strong, wooden pole which can easily be found on a riverbed. You hold the pole in both hands diagonally across the body and push the lower end into the riverbed about one metre upstream of your feet.

The pole can be used as a third leg to help stay in balance as you move each foot forward.

The crossing should be made slowly and with participants moving diagonally with the current. Steps should be shuffled and don’t clutch at underwater obstacles, for they can upset your balance. Any crosser wants as little resistance as possible to the force of the water, so, therefore, keep your body side on to the current and keep focused on the exit point on the far bank.

If In Trouble

If you are swept off your feet, the important thing to remember is don’t panic.

As long as you have chosen a crossing place with a good runout, you should be fine. Do not fight the river but rather use it to your advantage. Use your feet in a walking motion and move diagonally towards the bank. If you have a pack then use it as a lifejacket, by holding it down by pushing downwards on the shoulder straps and leaning back against it. If you lose control of the pack then shed it and try to hold it in front of you as a flotation device.

The use of some extra equipment is advantageous to anglers. These include a wading stick and felt-soled wading boots. A wading stick can be purchased or easily and readily found on the riverbank. Felt-soled boots are often frowned upon by Kiwi anglers who are happy to fish in traditional tramping boots. They are often seen as simply another ploy to further deplete our wallets. However, they offer enhanced traction on slippery rocks and riverbeds. On algal-covered rocks, this can mean the difference between a steady footing and an unpleasant dunking.

The New Zealand Bush Safety Manual says no cautionary words can adequately convey an understanding of, and respect for rivers, nor build the necessary judgement”. This is very true. From my experience, river crossing comes down to using common sense which is based on past experience. If you don’t believe you can safely cross then DO NOT CROSS.

The most delightful trout streams can become too dangerous to cross following rain in their catchments.
The most delightful trout streams can become too dangerous to cross following rain in their catchments.

However, if the crossing is within your ability and you proceed, remember the tips I have outlined. I don’t want to have to see your name in the death notices in the local paper.

Never attempt to cross a dangerous river; be prepared to wait for it to go down, or use an alternative route. Be prepared to spend time and energy looking for a safe crossing place.

Choose a technique that gives a good safety margin. Rivers can be dangerous; never treat a crossing lightly. How to Stay Safe While Fishing – Water Safety New Zealand Website.