Upper SF Gorge of the Smith River

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We were now well into the drought of 2001. Rain levels for the year were at record lows, and we had pretty much given up hope of ever paddling any rain fed rivers in Oregon again.

Totally frustrated with the incredibly low flows, I fired an email off to the gang- 'Let's get the heck out of this desert and head to the Smiths!'

It was our second trip to the Smith Drainage this year, and this one quickly turned into an exodus. Soon our little foray into Northern California turned into a landslide of frantic boaters desperate to paddle something, anything but the local dam-controlled milk runs. "Holy Dessication, Batman," I muttered to myself when I saw the avalanche of emails shooting up and down the valley. It looked like fourteen boaters were headed south, and it was already shaping up to be a pretty good debacle...

The number shrank to eleven by Friday morning when John Whaley, Pete Giordano and I met at the Corvallis Park and Ride. Gabe and Doe were already on the road from Eugene, and everyone else would be headed south that evening. The only question was what we would paddle on the way down.

"The Upper Klamath." I suggested as a side trip. "They're releasing out of the dam, so this #@$# drought won't keep us off that one.." Our rather foggy plan was to detour over to the Klamath and hike in a few miles and only run the steepest upper section, but that quickly unraveled when we reached Grants Pass after four hours of driving. "Another 150 miles to the Klamath?!?" Pete exclaimed in dismay. "and it's east, while the Smiths are west? Geez, that's like 300 miles of extra driving!! NO WAY!!"

Pete had only slept two hours the night before, so it was a miracle he hadn't augered into a guardrail on the way down as it was... It was already one pm, and we only had about four hours of daylight left, so his point was pretty valid. Nevertheless, I was hell-bent on a Klamath debacle but I couldn't trick John and Pete into joining me so we headed to the Smiths. Our new objective: A 'quick' run down the Upper South Fork Gorge.

We quickly ran shuttle and started hiking down the mile long trail to the river. John sprinted off down the trail while Pete rigged up his all new, super high tech and semi-dangerous looking harness system for hauling his boat.

Pete and his high-tech homemade harness system.

Soon we reached the river and found adequate flows. It had rained a couple of inches two days prior so we felt we had lucked out on this one. We put on and I immediately noticed a strong resemblance between this run and Lower Goose Creek, which isn't surprising as Goose is literally only one ridge over and two miles away. The water was crystalline, and the river was dotted with large, white boulders. We knew that after about a mile we would enter the one mile class V section, so we were well prepared when the action picked up.

The steep stuff on this run starts out innocently enough with a small boulder garden that leads into a series of ever steeper drops with ever more massive boulders. We started scouting and soon got into a good rhythm. At this flow (an estimated 500 cfs) the river formed many highly technical boulder gardens, and some of the hydraulics were burly due to the narrowness of the drops.

Pete looks on as the going gets rough.

Pete running a drop just downstream.

The Upper South Fork Gorge isn't nearly as 'gorged out' as the Lower SF Gorge or Oregon Hole Gorge, but we found it's rapids to be tougher and the general feel of the river to be more demanding than the aforementioned runs. We encounted a couple of logs as well, one of which necessitated a quick portage.

Pete nails the required midair turn on a typical South Fork rapid.

Pete in a tight spot...

Soon the whitewater mellowed out and the torture began as we started the long paddle out. We were already tired from the long drive down, (especially Pete) and none of us savored the three miles of class II to the take out bridge. Soon it began to get dark and we started to get a little spread out as fatigue set in. I could hear Pete behind me loudly voicing his dismay everytime we rounded another corner and saw another long stretch of flat water through the growing darkness... It was dark by the time we reached the bridge and we were relieved to be finally be done!

Pete says: "Taking out in the dark is number one!!"

Over that night we camped near the put in for the lower South Fork Gorge, and by morning all of our friends had arrived, bringing the total number in our group up to eleven. Saturday we paddled The North Fork of the Smith, and Sunday we ran Oregon Hole Gorge and the Lower South Fork of the Smith. There was some pretty good carnage on Sunday, but that's another story...