Crossing Sinking Creek
A retrospective from November 2006
Summing it up:
- Total cost: $800
- Time: 1 week
- When would I need one? If you have
a creek to cross for cheap
- Hints: Rent a bobcat and your
friends will be clamoring to help!
am the daughter of two back-to-the-landers who retreated to the city
when their kids were in elementary school. Up until the age of
eight, I played in creeks, climbed trees and hills, and peered at
wild animals --- and didn't do a lick of the farm work. By the time
my father became worn out from working a full time job then coming
home to fields of tobacco, beef cows, and a vegetable garden, I had
idealized life on the farm and couldn't imagine living anywhere else. I
threatened to run away rather than move to town. In the end I
didn't run away, but as soon as I was able I ran back.
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the crow flies, the land I purchased sixteen years later is only
about twenty miles from the farm where I grew up. Winding on
highways and back roads through mountain passes and over rivers, the
drive takes an hour and a half. I brought my childhood memories
along for the ride and fell in love with the 58 acre property the
first time I saw it. The property's crowning jewel is Sinking Creek
which runs near the eastern border through land which my biology
training calls a floodplain but which my childhood on a farm calls
the perfect place to wade and look at minnows on a hot summer day.
property had been a farm a few decades ago, until the last
inhabitants tired of crossing Sinking Creek and wading through a
third of a mile of mud to reach the one area both flat and dry enough
to support a barn and house. Neighbors tell me that the land had
been on the market for years, every prospective buyer scared away by
the same creek which immediately enchanted me.
perhaps prospective buyers were understandably worried by the
tendency of Sinking Creek to rise from low on a pair of rubber boots
to up above my waist in less than an hour during particularly heavy
storms. Sinking Creek drops out of sight into an underground cave
system a short way downstream from my property, and when the small
opening becomes clogged with floating debris, the creek backs up. To
do Sinking Creek justice, it soon reverts to its mild-mannered ways
and can be crossed without getting my feet wet after only a day or
two of dry weather. Since I work over the internet, I have the
flexibility to use floods as an excuse to stay home and enjoy the wet
chink in my plans arose when I began to consider the realities of
life at Sinking Creek. With no way to drive into the interior of the
property, I would be unable to get electricity and telephone hookups
(both essential for my internet work). Although the barn was in
excellent shape, the house was falling down and building materials
would need to be brought in to shore it up or to build a new living
space. So I began to consider bridging the creek.
upstream neighbors had installed three huge metal culverts to span
Sinking Creek, but rushing water soon washed the culverts out. The
creek is too wide to be spanned by one length of used railroad ties,
and attempting to install a pier in the middle of the creek seemed to
be asking for trouble.
was obviously out of my league, so I asked a professional builder to
come out and give me an estimate on building a bridge. He
recommended buying used steel beams from the department of
transportation, but said that just the beams themselves would run me
upwards of $4,000. The driveway leading up to the creek is too
narrow for a concrete truck to get through, which would create even
more problems. As much as I pushed, the builder seemed reluctant to
even wager a guess at the final price of bridging Sinking Creek.
gulped. Although the land had come cheap, the purchase had wiped out
my scanty savings and I was not inclined to go further into debt to
build a bridge. My goal was to live simply on the land, producing
most of my food and supplementing my income with internet work. Debt
would force me into a full-time job, and, eventually, off the land I
had dreamed of for so many years.
about this time, I acquired a very handy boyfriend (Mark) who shared
my dream of living on the land. Between us we cooked up a way to
cross the creek at minimal expense and with a structure which
wouldn't be washed away in the first big flood. Our plan was to
create a shallow water crossing lined with cinderblocks --- a ford to
drive across with four wheel drive vehicles. Luckily, my property is
only a ten minute drive from a quarry and a cinderblock plant, so I
would be able to get rock and cinderblocks relatively cheaply.
the first step in our venture, we hauled in several loads of
cinderblocks, choosing six inch blocks for their cheapness and ease
of handling. The blocks cost $500 --- the most expensive part of the
project --- and we later discovered that “seconds” (slightly
chipped blocks) were available for about two-thirds of the price.
next step was to get our family and friends excited about coming to
the dirt. We invited as many people as we could think of to come to
a work day that weekend, and four hard workers showed up. We also
rented a bobcat to help us move dirt around --- an expense of $150
which could have been avoided if we'd wanted to do all of the digging
by hand. We rented the bobcat on a Saturday morning, which gave us
two days for the price of one since the office was closed on Sunday
and the machine wasn't due back until Monday morning.
on a chilly November morning, Mark fired up the bobcat and began to
grade the bank of the creek. Sinking Creek's banks were originally
vertical walls of clay about three feet tall, and our goal was to
turn them into shallow ramps which any vehicle could navigate as it
drove into or out of the creek. Southwest Virginia's creeks are home
to many rare mussel species which can be harmed by muddy water, so we
worked to push the dirt up onto the banks rather than down into the
getting the bobcat stuck in the creek once, we decided that it was
best to do any digging in the water by hand. Luckily for our backs,
all we had to do in the creek was to remove a thin layer of creek
gravel so that the blocks would lie just above the level of the creek
bottom. I knew that the weight of driving across the blocks was
likely to cause them to sink slightly into the ground. After
sinking, I wanted the blocks to lie at about ground level so that
they would not impede the flow of the creek and get washed away.
Mark and I had planned to lay the cinderblocks on their sides so that
the water could run through the holes. However, we soon discovered
that the strength of cinderblocks lies in their proper orientation,
with the holes pointing from the ground up to the sky. Whenever
possible, we gained additional strength by staggered the rows of
blocks just like a bricklayer would do.
work party enjoyed digging out the mud and laying the blocks. Everyone
from my sixty-two year old mother to Mark's teenage nephew
had work which was within their physical capability. In fact, they
had so much fun that they continued to beg for more work parties for
weeks into the future.
the end of the work weekend, half of the ford was completed. We had
dug out the bed, laid the blocks, and filled the blocks' holes back
in with bank dirt and creek gravel. Mark and I ended up digging out
the far bank by hand in the next week after returning the bobcat. We
laid block for about ten feet on each approach to the creek, since
these areas had been dug out and were likely to be slippery when wet.
Creek's floods weighed heavily on both Mark's and my minds, so we
decided to add a little further insurance against our ford washing
away. We drove five metal fence posts into the holes in five
cinderblocks on the downstream end of the ford, then mixed some bags
of concrete in a wheelbarrow to pour into the holes and hold the
fence posts in place. We also poured a bit of concrete into the
blocks at the edge of the ford where a slight bend in the creek
forces quickly moving water against the bank.
we went to the quarry and got some gravel to add to the road leading
up to the ford. We also bought rip-rap --- stones about two to six
inches in diameter --- for the price of roughly $5 per small pickup
truck load. One load of rip-rap was enough to pile against the
downstream end of the ford. This rip-rap prevents erosion of the
creek bottom due to the slight waterfall effect as water flows over
the ford and then falls three inches or so to the ground.
told, construction of our ford cost less than $800 and about a week's
worth of our time. Since the initial blocks were laid, we have made
a few minor adjustments to our design. We dug out some more of the
far bank to decrease the slope since our pickup truck's bumper
scraped slightly while going up and down. We also added a bit of
width to the ford to make it easier to navigate.
year later, our ford has survived numerous floods without a single
cinderblock coming out of place. Mark and I now live in a fifty foot
trailer which we dragged across the ford using a bulldozer --- all
without harming the ford in any way. The electric company was able
to cross our ford and hook us up so that I can write this while
peering out at the fifty-eight acres of trees which I have yearned to
live in for so long.
Mark and I consider Sinking Creek to be our moat, a method of keeping
out unwanted visitors. On hot summer days, I paddle in the water,
and our Chesapeake Bay retriever fetches sticks in Sinking Creek's
deep pools even in the dead of winter. The mussel, fish, and snail
populations in the creek seem to be as healthy as ever, as is my
wallet. Although the reality of life on a small farm involves more
work than I recall from my childhood, I am thankful every day that
Mark and I call this bit of land home, and that we decided not to
fight the creek with a bridge and instead went with the flow.