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North Fork Smith - with a Vengeance

A story by Aida Parkinson


Somebody just sent me an e-mail, asking about the chance of a run on the Smith.   Here's what I heard about the weekend's festivities and my advice to the class 3-4 boaters out there.

Unless you are comfortable with high water and think that you can deal with high water after not boating on any for six-nine months, wait until the Jed Smith gage gets below 12 feet.   Otherwise, stick to the class 2-3 runs.   Big water means class 2 is now class 4 because if you don't roll, you're in trouble.   Not rolling in otherwise class 4 means serious class 5 consequences.

Two people spent the night in the NF on Saturday, when 4 of them with no business on the river put in at 16 feet, with it rising to 18.   Bad idea #1.   They had to walk half a mile to the river to get past the tree across the road, but no one brought a saw, even with the high winds and knowing about the dead trees from last summer's fire.   Bad idea #2.   Someone swam at the first really hard place (Scout Rapid) about 4 miles in, and the others couldn't get to him for about two miles.   It probably took them only about 20-30 minutes to get to that first hard rapid.   When they got to him, he had lost his paddle and these guys neglected to bring a breakdown.   Really bad idea #3.

They decided that two of them would go down the river to Gasquet, with the idea that they would get a breakdown paddle and then run back down to where the other two were.   This idea was more ridiculous than bad.   It gets dark at about 4:30, and even with the river at 18 feet and no trees across the road, it's almost impossible to make two runs on the NF in one day because the drive takes 1.5 hours.   So these guys started Del Norte County SAR into action, but it was too dark to do anything by then.   Meanwhile, back up the river, the other two guys are sitting around when the lost paddle pops to the surface.   They get the paddle and get back in the river, where the one guys swims again almost immediately (this is the easy part of the river).   The guy who swam was wearing a wet suit (bad idea #4; a dry suit would have helped).   The other guy goes after boat and paddle.   The boat was recovered at the Middle Fork by some Ashland boaters who just happened to be at the confluence when it came down the North Fork.   The paddle hasn't been seen since.   The other boat is still in the canyon - it didn't get a ride out on the helicopter with its owner.   The two guys spend a nasty cold night, apart, with no food, in thunder, lightning, hail, etc, and get rescued by Coast Guard in 35-45 mph winds at first light next morning.   Luckily there was a break in the storm.   If the helicopter couldn't get to the guys, a couple friends of ours were part of the kayak and raft rescue teams that were plans B (kayakers bring breakdown paddle and warm gear and food) and C (raft was last chance and had to wait until the river dropped below 16 feet).

Just because you have run a class 5 rapid does not make you a class 5 boater.   Go back and re-read the chapter on the "Joy of Flood" in William Neely's book Kayak.   Anybody who has learned to boat in the past few relatively dry years may not have the experience needed to run big water safely.


This story is copyright 2002 by Aida Parkinson.