Monday, January 14, 2008

Big water on the Smith River, CA

Over the weekend of January 12th and 13th, we had another marvelous SOU Whitewater Club event. Will and Leland came up from Ashland, Tanner, Johnny and I came down from Corvallis, and we met up in the Smith River drainage. The Smith lies is the far northwestern corner of California near Crescent City and Jedidiah Smith State Park. It is the longest free-flowing river system the the state and has beautiful pristine water, even when it gets high.

On Saturday, we left early and ran the North Fork, a 14-mile wilderness run with a 2-hour shuttle drive in. We had fantastic flows on this run and everything went extremely well. We were joined for the day by Todd Merrill, a fellow kayaker from Grant's Pass. The North Fork was running almost 14 feet on the pipe gauge in Gasquet, making it extremely continuous with tons of big holes, crashing waves, and amazing surf. We scouted a couple of the drops and had an altogether beautiful day on the river.

That night we stayed in Gasquet at a friend's house (you rock, Tom!) and woke up early for another run the next day. Sunday Todd came back out and brought his girlfriend Sasha to paddle in the raft. We scouted the roadside run on the Middle Fork and made ambitious plans to combine three separate runs for a total of 14 miles. The gauge at the the river's mouth was reading around 13,000 cfs, so we had plenty of water to make things exciting!

We started things off with the Patrick's Creek run, a six-mile stretch of class II-III with one class IV rapid near the beginning called Cal-Trans. At our higher flows, there were several more class IV rapids we ran without scouting and the run got very continuous!
Will and the raft crew running Cal-Trans rapid

It was super fun and we avoided any carnage. If you wander down here at high flows, be extremely cautious: there are lots of willows growing in the river channel that create strainers. Don't be afraid to scout.
Will punching a hole

As a heads up, the biggest rapids occur just below the first bridge, just above the third bridge, and right after the highway gets cantilevered out over the river for the second time.

The Patrick's Creek run ends at the confluence with the North Fork at Gasquet, where the Gasquet/Mary Adams run begins. These six miles are pretty slow overall with the only flatwater on the whole stretch. Still, a couple rapids kept us all entertained. The calmer nature made for a good rest before we dropped into Oregon Hole Gorge.

The gorge is the final flush of the Middle Fork before it joins the South Fork and meanders its way to the ocean. The canyon gets sheer and narrow and gradient steepens dramatically. We had scouted the run from the highway earlier that day and determined that it was runnable, but looking at it from 200 feet above the river doesn't really do justice to the size of features in there. At this point, our flow was probably between 6000 and 7500 cfs. The run is generally rated class IV, but one guidebook calls it class V above two grand...

The entry rapids to the gorge are normally insignificant, but transformed into long monstrous wave trains with our stout flows. The gorge itself is very short and only contains a half mile of serious whitewater, but four class IV rapids are jammed into that stretch after the aforementioned entrance waves. We pulled over to scout the first rapid and discovered that the first three rapids were virtually indistinguishable from one another. It was now just a single 300-yard long class V cataract with big lateral waves exploding off each bank. the best line involved avoiding a few laterals, punching others, and using the rest to surf you from side to side.

I led the charge and lost track of which lateral I was in halfway through the rapid and got slammed by an unexpected feature. I went over and swirled around for a bit, rolling up just in time to recognize a big feature off the right wall. I avoided it and caught an eddy before the last two holes of the rapid. I looked upstream and, to my horror, saw Todd's boat bobbing along with him swimming 20 yards away. Thinking "people first, gear second," I watched his kayak bob past me knowing we may never see it again. Todd was able to make it to shore himself and I plucked his paddle out of the current. Soaked and exhausted, Todd crawled out of the water on to the bank. Will came down with the raft after a clean run and eddied out just below us.

We were really lucky here, as Todd's boat went about 50 feet further downstream and got stuck in a little pocket against the wall, right below where Will's raft was. With a little rope work and the help of the raft crew, I got a line on Todd's boat and extracted it. No gear was lost in the rescue and once Todd was recuperated, we continued to downstream to face the final drop.

Oregon Hole rapid is the namesake of the gorge and creates a very intimidating horizon line. The scout provides an even more intimidating view. The rapid starts with a river-wide six-foot ledge with massive holes. From there most of the water pushes left into a retentive hole backed up by a rock. Todd was the least excited to see this drop after his swim and none of us saw any particularly inviting lines. After a little pondering, I decided to gamble with a narrow seam that split the two worst holes in the ledge, but would likely flush and position me well to avoid the big hole at the bottom. Once in my boat again, I was reminded of the sharpness of the drop. I couldn't see any features on the ledge, so I went upstream, peeled out, and lined up off the right bank where I guessed the seam to be.

As I gathered downstream momentum and committed to the drop, I picked out a tiny breaking wave that was my marker. One draw stroke later, I was looking down at the deep seam and hauling ass into it. I pulled a delayed boof stroke and dug deep on landing. I came flying out of the ledge barely getting my head wet and traveling toward the lower hole. I turned quickly and paddled hard to make it through the rapid unscathed. Todd followed suit with a great line.

Will loaded up his crew and had a different route. He punched the softest part of the ledge on the far left, then pulled hard back right to avoid carnage at the bottom.
Everyone stepped up for this last rapid and we congratulated each other in the eddy below before paddling the last half-mile to the take out. Another great weekend on the river!

Enjoy the video:


Anonymous said...

Danielle Thurber, you are a S-L-U-T!!! A dirty whorey tramp you are.

Chedder Beer said...

It looks like you guys had a killer time. I think that it is time for the white-water club to get funding for a video camera. A real video camera would truly enhance the performance of Will's video's.

brthomas said...

I haven't been up there for a while, but I have many fond memories of big water boating on the Smith River! Thanks for taking the extra effort to get pictures on a big water boating day when the river was raging.
Smith River Wild and Scenic Whitewater Rafting & Kayaking Guide.