The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

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!

I 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.

The creek before constructionAs 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.

The 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.

Or 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 world.

The 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.

My 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.

I 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.

I 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.

At 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.

As 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.

The next step was to get our family and friends excited about coming to play in 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.

Early 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 creek itself.
Digging out the creek bottom
After 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.

Initially, 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.

My 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.
Filling dirt into the blocks
At 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.
Digging out the bank
Sinking 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.
Mixing concrete.
Finally, 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.

All 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.
Adding gravel
A 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.

FloodNowadays, 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.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Love your blog, so informative. We have a place in S.E. WV. with a creek very similar to Sinking Creek. It really was what sold us on the land. We must cross the creek to get to the RV and barn and the area where we will eventually build our home. We had a driveway and bridge made with two large (5ft) culverts. Worked great for two years and then this spring washed away in a flood. We had it fixed (15 loads of stone-washed into our hayfield). Then this week, a worse flood, a large part of the driveway and all of the bridge are gone again. I was wondering how your cinder-block roadway has held up over the years? We are considering the possibility of a ford, however our creek bed is all bedrock so could not sink blocks. We would just have to drive over the bedrock, but liked your idea of cement block for the ramps in and out. Hope it continued to serve you well since you built it. Thanks again for all of the info you provide. Appreciate any input.

Comment by Jim and Sue Clewell Sun Jun 14 22:37:02 2009

Some of our neighbors put in a bridge that sounds like yours --- 3 big culverts. One of the culverts washed away in a flood, which was one of the reasons we figured it wasn't worth trying that method.

Our ford continues to hold up wonderfully. We did end up having to take out a few of the blocks in the middle since the vehicles pushed down the ones on the sides and made the middle blocks rub up against the undersides of the vehicles (if that makes sense.) It would probably have been smarter to just start out with the middle blocks sunk a bit lower than the edges.

All told, I really recommend the ford approach!

Comment by anna Mon Jun 15 07:35:43 2009
My original Grandfather settled in Sinking Creek in 1751. I would like to know more about the area. Thank you.
Comment by John Eary Tue Sep 27 14:23:23 2011
I wish I could tell you more, but as you can tell from the post, I'm relatively new to the area. Maybe you could tell us more about your ancestor who settled the area?
Comment by anna Wed Sep 28 08:42:46 2011
I built a ford across our creek on the homestead a few years back but it keeps washing out due to the mud and smaller stones I used. Blocks are a terrific idea! Thanks!
Comment by James Mon Oct 3 12:42:49 2011
I highly recommend it. It did take some time and effort to build our ford, but it's held up for five years now through several heavy floods.
Comment by anna Mon Oct 3 14:20:41 2011
I would like to see come current photos of the cinder block crossing. I would be considering doing a similar project in my area. Thank you for sharing your experience; it is helping me formulate a plan for my Animas Creek, NM crossing.
Comment by Dennis Fri Sep 19 10:47:06 2014
Dennis --- This post shows the ford last fall, along with the stepping stones we added to the side for foot traffic. Still works great, although the steeper sloped side sometimes scratches bumpers.
Comment by anna Fri Sep 19 12:23:01 2014

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