Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Smiths, Day 1: "The Triple Crown" (3.6.10)

After months of trying to put together a Smith River trip, it finally came together last weekend. The Smith River drainage is located in the northwest corner of California abutting the coast and Oregon border. As a plus, it is also located right next to, and in Jedediah State Park, home of a couple of giant redwood groves. I have visited the Smiths many times over the years, and it has become almost a yearly pilgrimage. However, as the group has lost and gained members over the years it has been increasingly difficult to generate the interest to make the drive south for a weekend. This is truly a shame since the whitewater, scenery, and overall atmosphere are top-notch. This particular season proved to be the most difficult of all, and after a couple of months of failed attempts, I decided to give it another try. After a week of selling (and some begging) I was able to put a crew of 4 together. From Eugene we would have Bob Lee, Aaron Loft, & myself, and from Corvallis Eric Emerson would be joining us.

After some brief discussions, we decided the plan of attack would be to drive down Saturday morning, do a wilderness run down the North Fork Smith, camp, and then try to boat all 4 gorges in the Smith drainage on Sunday. The four gorges consist of the Siskiyou, Middle Fork (a.k.a. Oregon Hole), the Lower South Fork, and the seldom run Upper South Fork gorge. Once the plan had been set in motion, it was a mad scramble to gather food and supplies to make it happen. Thanks to Eric, we had a vehicle that could haul all 8 boats (a creek and playboat for each), as well as a full kitchen setup (which he also provided) for camp.

Saturday morning everyone met at my house, loaded up in Eric's truck, and we headed out around 8:30am. Unfortunately things took longer than expected and we got a later start than we had planned (not uncommon). Getting a late start did have some consequences, as a run down the North Fork requires the 3 1/2 hour drive to Gasquet (the takeout), a ~1 1/2 hour drive from Gasquet to the put-in (on dirt and gravel roads), and 14 miles of river running. Since we are still in the short days of winter (and not wanting to rush down the NF) we decided it would be best to call our shuttle driver, "Barefoot Brad", and see if we could shift our NF trip to Sunday. After a quick call from the road and Brad's willingness to be flexible, Saturday turned into the day to tackle the gorges.

On the way down, Eric gave a call to a couple of guys coming from Ashland, OR who were also interested in running the gorges. None of us had boated with (or met) them, but contact had been established through Dan Thurber who was unable to come along on this trip. It was agreed that we would meet them near the Patrick Creek lodge, the takeout for the Siskiyou gorge. After a quick stop for fuel on the way down, we pulled into the meeting area around 12pm and met up with both Chris and Jonathan, the fellas from Southern Oregon. After exchanging pleasantries and discussing plans for the day, it was decided that we would only have time for the "Triple Crown": the Siskiyou, MF, and Lower SF gorges. Chris, who had done the Upper SF gorge on previous trips, he thought it would be a little low and we would also be stretched for time due to its longer length and a 2-mile hike in.

The levels looked like they would be perfect for the 3 gorge, but levels were dropping and we knew that the following day the NF would be running a little low.

Gauge for the Middle Fork Gorge

Gauge for the South Fork Gorge

After a quick change into our boating gear, we headed up one mile to the put-in for the Siskiyou Gorge. This gorge is the steepest and tightest, but also has the least volume of the three. Although it is considered by many to be the hardest, for me it is the easiest, since this is the type of boating I'm used to. Well, that, and I always seem to get more nervous on bigger water runs. With that said, it should be noted that this gorge does have vertical walls and although there are places to get out and scout, portaging and/or walking off would be an ordeal. On that note, both a buddy and I swam out of the same undercut in this gorge when the water was really crankin' (~1600cfs). After losing my boat to the fast current, I was forced to scramble up to the road and walk off (along with the other guy who didn't want anymore to do with the gorge at that level). This was not an easy task, and proved to be quite an undertaking. On this day I would estimate the flow in the gorge to be between 500 to 600 cfs. I determined this by taking the MF reading at Gasquet of 750cfs, and subtracting the flow from Patrick Creek which drops in below the gorge and seemed to have a couple hundred cfs.

From the pullout at the top of the gorge it's a short walk down the trail to a pool above the first drop. After running a short, fast lead-in you are quickly deposited at the first big drop of the gorge. You know you are there as there is a waterfall coming in from the left wall. This drop is quite rocky, so we eddy hopped down through and finished center left.

The next major drop is the one that brought my swim mentioned above. At this level the only real line is a chute on the right with the current pushing hard into an undercut on the right wall. The key to making it through is getting a good boof over the hole at the top, with some good left angle (about 10 o'clock). Chris went first and styled the drop, and almost everyone else got thrown into the right wall (including myself) before making it through. Luckily, no major issues occurred, and only paddle and body checks were required.

Now we were sitting in a small pool above the last couple of drops, which were essentially stacked on top of one another. The first was a short boulder drop that everyone ran from left to right over a small boof in the middle, and then hooking back toward the left over the second part of the drop. Only about 30ft of slow-moving water separates this drop from the last ledge, which starts with a boof at the top and either a sliding ramp down the center-right, or threading between two rocks on the left after the boof. Everyone in the group except Chris decided to run the left line. Everyone had clean lines through this one.

Scouting the last couple of drops in the Siskiyou Gorge
(photo by Eric Emerson)

Between the last drop and the take-out at Patrick creek is about 1/8 of a mile of class 2 water and a nice cooldown. This is a really fun gorge, but it's over pretty fast, and leaves you wanting more.

Loadin' up at the takeout of the Siskiyou Gorge

After quickly loading up, we were off to our second destination, The MF Gorge. Since this gorge is only about a mile and a half, the shuttle was quickly set and we were on our way though the warm-up stretch before the true gorge. The first thing that everyone noted was what a contrast there was between this one and the Siskiyou gorge. We were now faced with about 4 times the flow, running at about 2200cfs, and everything about it just felt much bigger. We were now at the lead-in rapid, and everyone dropped through without problems and eddied out on the left to scout the first major drop of this crux section. I have heard of this drop referred to as "Fire Hose", but the watershed map that I received from Barefoot Brad calls it "Nozzle", so I'm gonna go with that. Basically the line is to start river center, and drive right to avoid a large hole on the left. From there you line it up straight down the middle though a large wave train and a couple of flushy holes. I had stayed back to take pictures while the rest of the group went through. After everyone had gone, I packed up my camera, put on my helmet and walked back up to my boat. Being in a gorge like this without sight of your buddies is a lonely feeling. Fortunately I also had a clean line and joined Bob and Aaron in the pool above the next major drop.

Aaron entering "Nozzle"

Eric busts through the entrance of "Nozzle"

Eric makes the move to the right of the hole in "Nozzle"

Bob makes the move to the right of the hole in "Nozzle"

Bob in the run-out of "Nozzle"

Jonathan in the run-out of "Nozzle"

This next drop is called "Hole in the Wall" and is essentially a large S-Turn rapid through pushy (and squirrelly) water. Supposedly there is a ~12" siphon (or suck hole) located on the right side that could be dangerous for a swimmer, although I've never seen it myself. I would assume this is also how the drop gets its name. After a quick look from the rocks above, I entered the drop from center right and followed the current through without issue. However, there is a small drop directly below this one that flipped me and forced me to roll after a couple of missed attempts.

Sebastian runs "Hole in the Wall"
(taken on a previous trip; similar level)

From here is a section of slack water, which leads to the last major drop of the run, "Oregon Hole". The first part is a ~5' ledge on the left, where you must make a strong ferry move back to the right to stay out of the hole, which gives the rapid its name. One by one, the group dropped through the slot and made the move right, with one exception. Aaron was not informed of the hole and ultimately floated into it which resulted in an extended side surf. Since I had been following close behind, I was able to catch a glimpse of the hole ride, and on top of that, I had not come through the slot cleanly and was stuck in hard right brace while moving toward the hole. Luckily I was able to regain control and make a couple of crucial stokes to make the move to the right, at about the same time Aaron had worked himself out.

After Oregon Hole the river is pretty much class II/III to the takeout. Although at this level, there was also a really nice hole for playing and attempting loops in a creekboat. According to Eric this is the best hole he has ever seen for doing this. Quite a bold statement, but I'll take his word for it.

Now it was time to the final run of the day, the lower SF Gorge. What's nice about combining this run with the MF gorge is they both share the same takeout. This allowed us to load everyone into Eric's truck and head up without setting another shuttle. From the takeout it's about a mile and a half up the south fork to Craig's Beach, the put-in.

At ~2000cfs the level is considered to be on the high side of the recommended flow. The river certainly felt full, but I'm not sure I would call it the top end. After playing around a little in the eddylines at the put-in waiting for everyone to get in the water, we made our way down the class III/IV boogie water (a.k.a "Slalom Course") to the the top of the gorge. Once the walls gorge-up, there are a couple of short ledge-drops before you're sitting at the top of the first major rapid in the gorge. Chris had mentioned that this drop was called "Surprise", however the watershed map that I have refers to it as "Good Luck! ". Whatever it's called, there is a huge hole on river right that should be avoided unless you want to have a really bad day. That said, there is also a hole on river left, and although it is not nearly as sticky, it does have the potential for feeding you into the backwash of the hole on the right. Knowing this, probably the best move is to make an S-turn which threads between the two holes. This move can be pretty intimidating as you are essentially riding the seam/shoulder of the nasty hole to the right. Aaron, Bob, and I got out on river left to scout, while the others dropped through using the line described above. Although none had problems, they did not make the line look easy, which added to the fear of a potential beat-down. After evaluating the options, both Aaron and Bob got in their boats to run the drop. Aaron went first, and followed the same line as the others without issue. Both Bob and I had discussed the option of driving hard left, down the tongue though some backwash of another upstream hole to a small line against the left wall. Bob dropped in, and was unable to make the move due to the strong current. Luckily he was able to straighten it back out and bust through the left hole barely getting his head wet. At this point I was feeling lonely once again. After taking a deep breath I got in my boat, and planned to attempt the line that Bob had missed. From the eddy above the drop, I ferried into the main current, and lined up right to left down the tongue. Paddling hard, I threw in a strong boof stroke over the seam and toward the left line. However, like Bob I was overtaken by the current and pushed into the hole on the left. Unfortunately, I was unable to straighten out in time like he had, and I got thrown into the hole sideways. After a quick side surf, it spit me out downstream to the left. Relieved, I paddled down and joined the rest of the group above the next rapid.

Bob entering "Good Luck!"
(photo by Eric Emerson)

Me trying to get left at "Good Luck!"
(photo by Eric Emerson)

This drop was essentially a pinch between tight vertical walls, down a tongue, through some exploding water, before letting up a bit and dropping into a hole with clear passage on the right. By this point, pretty much everyone had gone through except Eric, who was taking pictures. He had given me verbal beta, but not feeling on top of my game, I decided to take a quick look for myself to ensure I was lined up properly for the bottom hole. After a brief scout, I got in my boat and charged the drop. I was able to break through the exploding water perfectly, but as I tried to sneak past the hole to the right, it grabbed my stern and flipped me. Fortunately, I was in the backwash, and rolled up downstream of the hole. As I pulled into the eddy below, Chris told me stories of a few people getting throttled in the hole.

Chris rides the tongue through the top part of the drop
(photo by Eric Emerson)

The tongue ending in some exploding water
(photo by Eric Emerson)

The run-out. The hole that flipped me is on the left side
of the pinch, above where Jonathan is eddied out.

(photo by Eric Emerson)

After Eric made it through, we all headed down to the last series of drops, called on the map "Loy". The first part is a boof on the right around a giant bolder midstream. Once below this, we were faced with sizable hole with no way around, and must be hit head-on. After receiving beta on what part of the hole the others busted through, I lined up about 10ft off of the right wall and hit the beast head on. All I remember heading down the drop was "Jesus, that is a big hole!". Fortunately, it was softer than it looked, and we all made it through no problem and rejoined in the slack water below.

After a 1/4 mile or so of flat water, we were back at the takeout. After changing into our dry gear and drinking a beer or two, we parted ways with Jonathan and Chris, who went up to do another lap. Since we would be camping out and did not want to set up in the dark, lap 2 was not in the cards for the Oregon crew.

To be continued...

Part 2: NF Smith

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