Northern Exposure

South Fork Gorge – South Fork Smith River (IV/IV+)

Three Bears – South Fork Trinity River (IV)

Low Divide to Gasquet – North Fork Smith River (IV)

For the MLK long weekend a small group headed to the Northwest corner of California to run the Smith River. I hadn’t heard much talk of the Smith until Miles ventured north over Thanksgiving and came back raving about the quality of the runs. After going there myself, I’m at a complete loss as to why the Smith is not a destination kayaking location (perhaps it is and I’m unaware of it). The scenery, water clarity, and whitewater quality are on par with anything I saw in Chile. The water is pure and clear with a deep green/torquoise hue. The gorges are filled with powerful, yet mostly clean, rapids. They have more of a big water nature than is common for California. The runs are mostly roadside – making for very fast shuttles and the ability to lap runs (except for the North Fork),  yet they still maintain an incredibly remote feeling due to the lack of traffic and steep gorge walls.


We drove up Friday night with the intention to paddle Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Due to a late start to avoid Bay Area traffic, Miles and I stopped in a rest stop just outside of Eureka to catch a few hours of sleep. Meeting up with Alex on Saturday morning in Gasquet, we planned to run the South Fork and the Main Smith  on Saturday; leaving Sunday for the North Fork and Monday for Box Canyon on the Sacramento outside of Redding. Rain was coming down and flows were on the rise – which would prove to be a hurdle for our weekend plans – but we made quick work to put on the South Fork. Based on Dreamflows’s hydrograph for the South Smith, we estimated we were running between 2,500 and 3,000 cfs – although it should be noted that this gauge is rough estimate based on data taken downstream.


Hydrograph for South Fork of the Smith


Put in and take out for the South Fork Gorge

As a warm up we ran the last six miles of the above run. It was a fun, splashy class III with one more difficult rapid as you neared the gorge. As the gorge closes in, the rapids began to stack up with relatively little flat between them. The section is short but full of excitement.


Alex leads the way into the first scouted rapid. It went quite easily on the right.


Miles follows on Alex’s line.

The high flows made for a “big water” experience with large waves, pushy hydraulics, and boiling eddies. Tucked down in the mossy gorge gave it the PNW characteristic that I imagine for Oregon and Washington.


Miles preps to drop into one of the more challenging rapids on the South Fork Gorge.


Miles spots his line while Alex sets safety. At these flows, a river wide hole forms that must be punched. It wasn’t too sticky by laterals above the hole want to push you toward the meat. The narrow gorge walls immediately downstream look unfriendly to a swimmer.


After finishing the short but exciting gorge on the South Fork we grabbed food and headed to put on Oregon Hole Gorge on the Main Smith. Rain had continued throughout the day and flows were still on a sharp rise. Road scouting while on our way to put-in revealed that the rain had transformed the gorge into a single rapid that stretched for ~1/2 mile. There didn’t seem to be any discernible separation of rapids. We were skeptical, but wanting to make the most of the day, decided to continue to put-in, run the top few miles and reassess when we reached the top of the gorge.

The top section that lies before the gorge was completely straightforward but still packed quite a bit of excitement; an indication or how high the water was getting. We were cresting over green waves that seemed to be more than triple overhead from the trough; not a common experience for California boating.

When we got to the mouth of gorge, we hopped out to reassess from river level. The entrance move was clear – drive hard left to avoid a very angry, nearly river-wide hole – but the gorge further down raised questions. From what we could see, there was still a line, however large waves, crashing holes, and shear distance obscured the end of the rapid. Did it all drop into a river wide hole? Is there a line around that large curler? What’s tossing up the large spray near the end? Due to these uncertainties, rising waters, failing light, knowledge that we had two more days of paddling, and perhaps a touch of plain ol’ fear, we opted to hike our boats to the road.

We called it an early night and set up camp with the rains still coming down.


The next morning we awoke to a swollen, flood-stage river with an estimated 15,000+ cfs pumping down the South Fork. Compare that to the 1,000-2,000 cfs that is considered an optimum flow for that section.


The South Fork of the Smith filled to its banks. The previous day at this location there were rocks that stuck 3-4 feet out of the river. Now they were so deep they hardly made a ripple.

With the entire Smith drainage at flood, we cancelled our plans for running the North Fork and decided to head south. Balancing difficulty of runs, water levels, quality of runs, and distance from our current location, the Three Bears run on the South Fork of the Trinity was elected.

Two hours later we are at a gas station in Willow Creek and run into two other groups of boaters who also happen to be heading to Three Bears. We make quick ‘hellos’ and the standard boater chat of ‘didn’t I run X river with you, Y years ago?’ before deciding to team up for the S. Trinity.


Rain from the night before made for an exciting shuttle drive.


Miles looks on as Alex fords the pool

Making our way down back roads to put-in(see link for directions), our expanded group was on the water within 45 minutes. We didn’t stop for pictures, which is unfortunate because the namesake rapids – Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear – offer plenty of excitement and could have made for some great shots. All-in-all a worth while run if you are in the area but there is enough flat on either side of the ‘Bears’ to discourage a long drive just for this section.

At the end of the run, as the sun dropped behind the mountains, we enjoyed a few beers and discussed future plans. Our group – Alex, Miles and myself – were planning on heading to Redding to hit the Box Canyon of the Sacremento on Monday. The second group – Connor, Fritz, Peter, and Ucilia – were set to head back the way our group had just come. They intended to use the holiday to run the North Fork of the Smith. The third group, Jason and Bri, were undecided but keen to boat. Even though our group was disappointed that we had missed out on the North Smith run due to high water, we were hesitant to follow the others back North. The idea of driving 8 hours back to San Fran on Monday night after spending 14 miles on the river was unappealing. After persuasion from the second group, though – in addition to the fact that flows looked like  they would drop back to optimal for Monday – we hopped in our cars to head back north.


After camping by the side of the road between Eureka and Crescent City we met everyone bright and early in Gasquet. Our goal was be on the river as early as possible to allow for the long drive home. We hired Barefoot Brad to set our shuttle; which I recommend for anyone else taking a group to do the North Fork.

The North Fork Smith is just incredible. It’s 14 miles of nearly continuous III-IV that ventures through red gorges and high-desert river valleys. I want to note that when I say ‘continuous III-IV’, I don’t mean it’s on the border between class III and class IV; I mean there are continuous stretches of class III and there are continuous stretches of class IV. This run is probably not a good idea for a class III boater looking to step up since it is long, remote, and has many class IVs.

The rapids are exciting and offer plenty of options to challenge yourself while remaining relatively low in consequence (at least when compared to other class IVs such as Lobin). The relatively stark landscape is quite the contrast from the lush green, fern-covered banks of the South and Main Smith which lie just over the ridge. I kept saying the area reminded me of my home mountains in Colorado while Miles insisted it was reminiscent of his home in Alaska.


View from the ridge on the way to put-in


Looking upstream from our lunch spot at an unknown (to me) creek confluence. This gorge offered some of the most challenging and rewarding rapids.


Fritz at our lunch spot


Alex and Miles discuss the North Fork


Jason and Bri enjoy the warm sun while grabbing lunch


Ucilia and Peter


Alex exits one of larger rapids within a few miles of take-out


Fritz working back to center after taking a far left line on one of the rapids large enought to merit a scout

Eight hours after getting off the river we pulled into Palo Alto with exhausted smiles still lingering on our faces.