By Paul Gamache

Copyright © 2005, Oregon Kayaking. No part of this page may be reproduced, linked, or copied without the express written permission of Paul Gamache and the Oregon Kayaking webmaster.

The Smith River is one of the last free flowing rivers in California and hands-down the largest. Located on the Oregon-California border, the Smith rises and falls very quickly with heavy rainfall. The Smith River drainage contains many excellent runs including the North Fork, South Fork Gorges, countless runnable creeks (watch for wood), and lastly the Oregon Hole Gorge on the middle fork of the Smith below the little town of Gasquet.

At regular flows, 250-2,000 CFS, the Oregon Hole gorge is a great class IV run with a couple good-sized holes.

At high water it is something else entirely..

December 9th, 2004

Making our way along Highway 101 North towards the Smith River, we approached the Klamath crossing with great anticipation. The rain had been coming down for several days and most rivers on the North Coast were swollen.

"WHOA!!" the car erupted as we got our first glance at the Klamath.. it was huge!

Based upon the amount of water in this drainage, we knew the Smith was going to be sweet!

As we continued north with adrenaline-induced excitement, we soon arrived at the Smith. Finally, we got our first glance and were blown away by how much water was pumping between the flooded banks. On December 6th ( just three days earlier ) the Smith was a comparative trickle ( 450 cfs ) compared to the monstrous 80,000 cfs tearing downstream below us..

We pulled over along the highway and checked out Oregon Hole Gorge, which is ordinarily class IV.

After pondering the gorge for awhile, we decided to do a double run on the mellower Patrick's Creek confluence to Panther Flat section. This is an awesome playboat run at this level and there are some great waves to enjoy. Once we got back to the cars we decided to take another look at Oregon Hole. As we pulled over to check out the gorge, a family looking at the river immediately noticed our kayaks and began asking us if we were going in the water.

"Don't think so!" was our reply as we pondered the huge the features below us..

However, the more I looked at the flooded gorge the more I saw a line between the monstrous holes and death eddies..

"DANGER: it is Hell without Jesus" preached a sign on a tree along the roadside scout. After getting a good laugh at the correlation between the sign and what it would be like to be eaten alive in several of the holes I started trying to talk Aisha and Billie into giving it a go.

"Alright, give us a couple minutes to drive back down the road to set up video.." Aisha said as I unloaded my gear from the car. It was impossible to set any kind of meaningful safety at this flow, so we didn't even try.

I was on my own.

Aisha and Billie made their way down river to shoot video and to make sure I made through the mile long exploding gorge; they would be able to see everything because the entire gorge is visible from the highway. After getting on my gear and waiting for about ten minutes I pushed off the bank and was pulled out into the massive, muddy mass of water..

It was a little intimidating, given the incredible speed of the water, the lack of any sort of riverbank, and the fact that there were logs floating beside me. As I climbed the crest of a wave I tried throwing a kickflip over the top, landing on the downside slightly twisted I had to roll over to get back up. I was now entering the marginally runnable exploding gorge: Let the rolling commence!

I couldn't see anything downstream, and I was going so fast it was hard to keep track of where I was.

"Right of the first hole, left of the second.." I kept repeating in my head, referring to the two holes of much larger magnitude than the other extremely intimidating holes of watery goodness. I quickly glanced up the cliff wall toward the highway trying to gain some reassurance to offset my rapidly increasing feeling of absolute isolation. All I remember next is crashing through a hole with immense speed and once collected I found myself stern squirting downriver.. I forgot about the logs, the holes, everything; I was in the fight of my life..

The author braces as he flushes down into the meat of the gorge.. along with some logs..

I quickly got my end down and was soon thrown back upside down. Again I rolled up, this time I found myself in the worst eddy I have ever had the experience of being in. The current was so strong that I was caught on the eddyline being forced to repeat roll after roll. At one point I glanced up the cliff once again and saw Aisha. "Whatever you do, do not swim." I repeated Aisha's advice over and over in my head.

Stuck in a very bad spot.. the author battles the huge, chaotic whirlpool/eddyline lurking right above the massive wave-hole located in the middle of the gorge (the edge of the hole is visible in the top-right side of this photo..)

"It's just like the pool Paul, just keep rolling back up." I told myself, trying to keep my mind focused on survival rather than pulling my skirt and committing myself to a nearly inevitable drowning.

Eventually, after about ten or fifteen rolls, enough time had passed where I was starting to get a little worried that I was still trapped on the eddy line and there seemed to be no way out.. With no other option I paddled as hard as I could towards the top of the eddy-line into the strongest part of the division. As I paddled upriver I flipped over once again, rolling up I noticed I was released from my death sentence.

At this point my arms felt like jelly. As I came out of the eddy I crossed back into the main current and was immediately spinning away downriver as a huge crease caught my boat and caused me to spin like a top. Flipping over once again I rolled up just as a lateral pushed me to the left of the massive cabin-sized hole, pictured below..

Out of the whirlpool.. and into the fire.
The author gets pulled down into the left side of the enormous exploding hole in the middle of the gorge..

The author flushes past the biggest hole in the gorge.. this was too close for comfort..

At this point I had almost no energy left whatsoever and once I realized I was far enough left I just stared in amazement at the hole that would have eaten me alive. Rolling once more I came up with the realization that I had survived the gorge.

The remainder of the run was comparatively mellow, a couple of holes here and there but nothing unavoidable. As I paddled towards the regular Oregon Hole takeout I looked up at the bridge and saw Aisha and Billie.

Billie had her kayak gear on just in case and Aisha filmed my pathetic attempts to paddle to the bank..