One week of induction down and I am officially a Department of Conservation Ranger! I am not sure I have ever been so proud in my life.
Alex gets to go out and save all the birds but my job is pretty cool too. I work in the Queenstown office and my duties are basically making sure people aren’t heading out to the backcountry to get themselves killed. We make sure people have the proper equipment, monitor the weather, organize medevacs and occasionally deal with tourists who are mad at us because it’s raining. Not a bad life at all! We have quite a diverse staff with a German, a Frenchman, a Kiwi, and a half Kiwi half American who calls herself a Yankiwi. They are all fabulous.
By the end of the first week we were both pretty exhausted. Alex has been hiking about 18k a day and is feeling all of his 28 years in his knees. We took it easy on Saturday but because it was a long Labor Day weekend we headed out to Mount Cook with Jake on Sunday. Mount Cook is the tallest peak in New Zealand and is surrounded by glaciers and rivers and an ethereal blue lake.
Snow was piled high up the peak, ready to give way to an avalanche at any time. We didn’t do too much hiking so Alex could rest a bit but true to kiwi form Jake couldn’t be bothered to put on any shoes.
The weekend was nice but it actually felt good to go back to work and have a routine… that is until we woke up to freshly snowcapped peaks and a chilling breeze. It felt like winter all over again but it didn’t matter. We had to proceed with the plans and learn to ford rivers! Drowning in rivers is one of the major causes of death and serious injuries in the back country so all the new hut wardens, Alex as the new biodiversity ranger, and me and another from the visitor center had to jump in the water and learn how to not die. We almost died.
The river is glacial runoff and the afternoon sun did little to warm up the air. Our teacher made us push through, back and forth and back and forth until our feet felt like ice bricks and our shoes were loaded with river rocks. We practiced together, we practiced alone, we practiced with sticks, we practiced without sticks.
Each new technique was attempted in ever deeper water until the glacial runoff began to feel warmer than the forty degrees of warmth outside it. After getting us soaked he also had a lesson in the middle of the river about how quickly hypothermia sets in. All the while he is wearing shorts and herding us off. My toes are now only beginning to recover and it has been around six hours.
Despite the agony, the course was actually pretty good. If I had come across a river like this before, crossing it wouldn’t have even entered my mind. I don’t think we do too much of this in the states but the backcountry of national parks is sort of wander at your own risk and many bridges that are out in the summer are taken down in the winter so they aren’t destroyed by avalanches. If you want to get anywhere, you might have to plunge into a few of these babies so I’m glad I learned how to do it safely since I’m doing my first overnight hike alone in two weeks.
And now if you are wondering hmm… how DO I cross a river? Have no fear, here are some tips!
1) When coming up to a river, stop and discuss before plunging in. Can you see how deep it is? Can you find the shortest way across?
2) If it is flooded, do not cross it. If the rain has stopped have some lunch and hopefully the river will come down. If it is still pouring set up camp. The risk isn’t worth the reward.
3) Test the current speed by throwing a stick into the river and walking beside it at an easy pace. If the stick stays beside you it is at a safe speed. If the stick races past you, it is not safe to cross.
4) If you are alone find a stick and use it as a third point of balance. Place the stick firmly into the river bed in front of you and then move your legs. The more balance, the better.
5) If you are in a group band together. Place your arms between the back and the backpack of your neighbors and grab onto the straps. The strongest person should be at the end closest to where the current is coming from and the next strongest at the opposite end in case you need to turn around and head back. Stay parallel to the current and move in short shuffling steps until you reach the other side.
6) Don’t take off your boots. Wet boots suck. Slipping and being swept away in the river and drowning because you get caught under a branch or fall down a waterfall sucks way more.
7) Use a pack liner. This is a waterproof sack that lines the inside of your pack. If you get swept away the liner will turn your pack into a buoyant lifesaving device that you can keep under you to help you swim. Plus it will keep your sammies nice and dry.
8) Remember that rivers kill a lot of people. Go slow and if the current gets to strong and you start to feel uncomfortable, just turn back. There may be a better place to cross.
9) When you make it safely across, rip off them boots and see what treasures you find!
10) Use a bridge. Don’t be a hero. Rivers are cold.