Swollen with June melt, the Colville River, biggest in Arctic Alaska, hurried past its ten foot banks of calving tundra.
“We can do this, Jason.”
A single look said he was unconvinced.
We’d walked 300 miles to get here – hard, wilderness miles, over tussocks and mountains, past grumpy grizzlies and clouds of bad bugs. We’d waded ice-lined streams and forded big, bullying, chest-shoving rivers with tongue-twisting names like Kukpowruk, Kokolik, Utukok, and Kuna. But the Colville we had to swim.
We feared this swim from the earliest planning days of our unsupported walk -- meaning no food or gear caches or resupply, carrying everything we needed, including all food from start to finish -- to America’s wildest place, 120 miles from the nearest roads and villages.
Lately, hunkered in camp over a small cooking fire or striding across high gravel ridges, the topic of crossing the Colville was as welcome as an unexpected bear encounter. Indeed, Jason had suggested we bog-slog 100 miles from the river’s headwaters to avoid this swim.
We had no packrafts, no PFDs, no dry-suits. We didn’t even have swim trunks. We each wore a skeleton backpack that held a WXtex 65 L Pneumo Dry Sack and wore tight-fitting 6-ounce jackets over three layers of wool and Capilene. Tucking my jacket into wind pants, I shoved my Uber Lite foam pad across my chest as token flotation.
Big winds blew silt high above the Colville’s three channels. We scrambled down the cut-bank and into the river. The first and second channels passed quickly at waist deep, but a hurled stone splashed less than halfway across the third. It would not go without a challenge.
I entered the river for the last time, Jason following a few yards behind.
Groping with our feet we followed a submerged gravel bar. The current climbed quickly past our knees, our balls, our waist, our navel as we moved downstream, going with the flow.
When the water reached my kidneys, it lifted my pack, buoyed by the inflated dry sack. Slipping the pack off my right arm and floating it under my left, I stepped right off the submerged gravel bar and into a strong, deep current, side-stroking for shore in a semi-ferry position.
But the wind blew my pack downstream, towing me with it. I fought to kick toward shore. After one year and a minute of struggle, Jason called out.
“Roman! Stand up! Stand up!”
Toes to bottom I sensed gravel, pushed off, and bobbed toward shore -- once, twice, standing on the third time, stepping, stumbling for shore and Jason’s high-five.
Our hands together said it all. We’d done it. We’d swum the Colville.
Only 300 miles to go.