Trip Report: BoatSmith Whitewater Festival - Feb 2019 - 17,000 cfs
BoatSmith Whitewater Festival - Feb 15th through Feb 18th, 2019
Smith River near Gasquet, California
Submitted by Written by Asher Bohatkiewicz/Champeau
The first annual BoatSmith Whitewater Festival was, by and large, a raging success. Taking place over the course of four days, the event exemplified everything that makes our community of river folks so special. Despite the biting cold, unforeseen obstacles, and seemingly endless downpour, our boating community came together to create a tradition that will last for years to come.
My fiancée, Christine, and I arrived at the Patrick Creek Campground late in the evening on Friday, February 15th. We'd just had an embarrassing run-in with a police officer after parking on the shoulder of the highway to scout the aptly named Highway Rapid. We'd been in a rush to scout the somewhat notorious rapid before dark, and had parked a fair distance into the shoulder and walked to the other side of the highway. When we returned from our scout, we arrived to flashing lights and an irritated looking police officer. Though we were let go with a light warning, it was quite clear to the both of us that the officer in question considered us to be, for lack of a better word, complete idiots.
Setting up our camp in the darkness, half-drenched from the rain, tired from a long day of driving, and nursing our wounded pride was... not the most pleasant experience in the world. As any boater who has been on a mid-winter multi-day trip can tell you, being wet and cold while you set up camp tends to sap the spirits and bring out bad tempers. After some cursing and grumbling, though, we got through it. Once we'd set up our tarp and had some reprieve from the driving rain, we cooked up a simple dinner of sauteed portobello mushrooms with pesto and a side of black rice.
With full bellies and slightly improved spirits, we made the brief journey across the road to the Patrick Creek Lodge and Historical Inn. When we arrived, we immediately ran into our incredible cadre of friends, and things took a turn for the better. We spent the evening rotating between the amply sized porch and the comfortable heat of the fireplace in the lounge, chatting and drinking and catching up with one another. The Lodge was full of good company and friends both new and old, and the chance to dry off and get warm was welcome. As an added bonus, we discovered that there was an open room in the Lodge, which meant we could be sleeping in a warm, dry bed, and not a tent in the cold; after a microsecond of debate, we had rented the room. As time went on, the crowd dwindled and people drifted off to their various sleeping quarters. Christine and I stayed up far too late before retiring to our cozy bed in our comfy Lodge room, however; our night owl schedules tend to be a curse in the early-to-rise world of boaters.
Waking up at 7 AM on Saturday morning was akin to some degree of psychosis, or maybe some outer level of hell. Between the previous night's alcohol and our tragic lack of sleep, in addition to a lingering cold that we hadn't fully kicked, Christine and I must have looked like the image of Death itself as we wandered, bleary-eyed, out of our room in search of our friends. We found our group of early-riser friends, bright-eyed and fresh-faced, in the parking lot. They had decided to run the Middle Fork of the Smith from the put in at Patrick Creek to the take out just above the infamous Oregon Hole Gorge. This run included Highway Rapid, which, from our previous scout, and due to my own relative inexperience, we had decided against running at such a high flow level. Because of the constant rain, the Smith was running at near 17,000 CFS, 11,000 CFS above the American Whitewater Association's high flow recommendation. Very high and very fast, in other words, and quite dangerous for a newbie rafter like myself.
Weighing our options, we decided to head back to our room, grab a nap, and go out with a later group on an easier run. Setting our alarms for 8:30 AM, we drifted off to catch a bit more precious sleep...
...And woke up at around 2:00 PM, feeling quite refreshed and, upon seeing the time, a bit ashamed. On the first real day of the first annual BoatSmith festival, we had managed to accidentally sleep through enough of the day to make any sort of run impractical. After some hemming and hawing, we made the decision to put off boating until Sunday and spend the remainder of the day sightseeing and hanging out with friends. It wasn't rafting, but it was enjoyable in its own right. After a breakfast (lunch?) of steamed tamales, we visited the Jedediah Smith Redwoods, which are truly a sight to behold. We scouted the Oregon Hole Gorge, which is both beautiful and intensely intimidating. Even from the road, the rapids and the gradient in the Gorge were humbling. The awesome power of the river is truly visible on this stretch. I strive to be confident and competent enough to make such a run in the future.
When we arrived back at the Lodge, it was completely packed full of people. Boaters and locals had converged, and the crowd was thick. Hungry after a day of wandering, we decided to give the Lodge's restaurant a shot. Unfortunately, the staff of the Lodge had apparently not anticipated such a busy night, and the service we received was lacking. We waited nearly twenty minutes to have our order taken, and another thirty or so before our food arrived. The food was good, though the selection was strange and the servings were miniscule (our best guess was that they had run out of many staples on Friday night and were desperately cobbling together whatever they could). This was a common theme on Saturday night; with only four people on staff, the Lodge was completely overwhelmed. A single drink from the bar often took upwards of thirty minutes of waiting to receive. This is not to denigrate the staff, who were working diligently. Speaking to them afterward, it was obvious that they had almost never had such a large gathering of people at one time, and that they would be making additional preparations for next year.
Aside from that, Saturday night was excellent. The fireplace remained raging, the crowd was full of exuberant boaters, and the band (The Joint Chiefs) was fantastic. A raffle of various boating gear was held over the course of the night (Personal shoutout to Greg Babikoff of BB Fabrication and Designs; his frames and sand stakes are well designed and durable, and he's just generally a good guy). A slideshow of the day's events played in the main common room, eliciting cheers and groans from the audience. Several people had apparently run the Oregon Hole Gorge in inner tubes and done surprisingly well, washing straight through. The Creature Crafters had been out in force, enjoying the freedom that their chosen boats gave them to run the Gorge section of the river at such a rowdy flow (I have to admit, I was a bit jealous). Our group of friends who had run the Middle Fork reported back to us; Highway Rapid had been intense and technical, but doable. A solid class IV for sure.
After the revelries were over, all of the prizes raffled off and the slideshow finished, the Lodge began to clear out. Christine and I headed over to the campsite across the road, finding ourselves at a campfire belonging to a group of strangers who quickly became friends. I've found this to be true time and time again in the boating community: if you wander up to a random fire, at a random campsite full of random boaters, in minutes you will have made a new friend. We are so willing to welcome one another with open arms over a shared love of the river and a unique outlook on life. In a world full of suspicion, our shared passion gives us a basis of trust. It is an incredible thing.
We said our goodbyes to our fire-mates and made our way back to our room in the Lodge at a more reasonable hour than the previous night, resolving ourselves to waking up and boating with our friends on Sunday morning. They were planning a somewhat more mellow, though still exciting, run on the South Fork of the Smith, and we were confident that we could R2 this run. Shawn Raquel of Goodwater Boat Works had graciously brought along a 14' Maravia raft (dubbed "The Purple People Eater") for us to demo.
Waking up at 6:45 AM on Sunday, surprisingly alert, we made our way down to the vendor site at Patrick Creek to grab our boat. The driving snow and rain had let up sometime in the night, and it looked to be a clear day. After the minor struggle of inflating the raft and getting it secured to the top of our car, we met up with our friends in the parking lot of the Lodge and made our way to the take out for the South Fork Smith (Steven Memorial Bridge to Craig's Beach) run. At the take out, we ran into Alan Svitak, who was looking for a paddle crew for his stern-frame raft. We decided to join him on his raft rather than taking our own, and he joined up with our group on the shuttle to the put in. Our group also made the decision to put up markers at the take out; it's easy to miss, and there is an intimidating class V gorge section directly downstream.
The put in was a long ramp on a gradual slope, covered in wood chips. It made for an easy carry; we could slide our boats down most of the way with minimal effort. After some much appreciated documentation by our group's photographer, Shannon, our group (Alan, Christine, Nate, Patrick, Shannon, Shane, Bob, and myself; the others on cat boats and Alan, Christine, and me on Alan's raft) set off on the run.
I cannot emphasize enough how absolutely beautiful the Smith river is. It is hard to put into words. The water is an incredible aquamarine hue, and clear as day, even at such a high flow. Waterfalls are everywhere along the banks of the river, flowing over the striking geometry of the rocks. Madrone trees jut out of the woods at odd angles. Wildlife dances along the shore. The Smith is one of the most scenic rivers I and my companions have ever had the good fortune of experiencing. To be on this river is to receive one of the most incredible gifts one can ever hope to get from this planet.
We made our way down the river at a solid pace, working our way through a fair few class II-III rapids. Alan and Christine took turns switching between the oars and the paddle crew. Boulder Creek Rapid was particularly exciting. Coming up on Boulder Creek, the river seems to simply explode in the middle, without any apparent explanation. The water rushes upwards in a great gout, spraying into the sky and seemingly impassable. With Alan's guidance, we made our way through a thin sneak line on the left which is, apparently, only runnable at higher flows. I learned that the only real line at lower flows is on the right, and is much more technical. Looking back on the rapid from below, you can see a massive boulder in the middle of the river, completely invisible from above. There does appear to be a line on the right, but some very careful maneuvering would be required to make one's way through.
After Boulder Creek, the river winds its way through some more class II-III rapids and gorgeous scenery. We stopped for lunch at a small beach somewhere around mile six of our run; the usual lunch beach, according to Alan, was completely flooded out. We spent some time enjoying one another's company, caught up in the joy of being with good company on the river. Shane searched for interesting rocks to bring home to his wife. Patrick shared his bounty of Payday bars with the group. Shannon took some incredible photos. Bob and Nate admired Alan's raft. Christine and I sat on the beach and took in the river.
After lunch and a few more rapids, we made our way to Surprise Rapid. On Alan's advice, we caught a large eddy on river right directly above the rapid. The line through is straightforward upon scouting, but the consequences of missing it could be painful. A large hole at the bottom of a ledge could very easily catch and flip any boat unfortunate enough to wind up inside of it. Our group made it through mostly without incident, however; though several members of our group had a difficult time making the ferry out of the eddy to river left, which is where you need to be to catch the line through. It was wise to eddy out to scout the rapid, but if I were to approach this rapid again at similar flows, knowing what I know now, I wouldn't have stopped. The ferry across is tough, the current strong, and missing the ferry will push you directly into the sizable hole at the bottom of the rapid.
After Surprise Rapid, the take out came up quickly. We lugged our gear up the steep, narrow, single-track trail to the parking area. After some brief debate, our group made the decision to tow our boats up the hill, rather than attempt to make the treacherous carry. In a moment, we had a system: Two people would push and guide each boat up the hill from the staging area, the others would carry the boats from the beach to the staging area at the bottom of the hill, Nate would monitor progress and call out instructions from the top, and Bob and Shannon would drag the boats up the hill. The plan worked nearly flawlessly, and, within an hour of hitting the beach, we were loaded up and ready to head back to camp.
Back at camp, spirits were high. After sharing a fire and conversation with some new occupants who had set up their own tents at our disused campsite, we ate a quick stir-fry dinner and headed back to the Lodge. The Lodge was significantly emptier than Saturday night, with a more subdued, but still jovial, atmosphere. After a quick stop at the bar to meet back up with our group, we headed out to find a campfire.
Once again, we found ourselves around a random campfire, meeting yet another group of intrepid river folks. We smiled, chatted, and laughed the night away; the beer flowing freely and the fire burning hot. As the night went on, our group began to disband, heading back to catch some sleep and prepare for the long drive home on Monday morning. Before we wandered off to our own campsite, however, one of our new friends had something amazing to show us: Bacon Bombs. (I will apply this disclaimer: Do this at your own risk. Playing with fire is dangerous. Playing with grease and fire is even more dangerous. I take no responsibility for burns, loss of hair, or any other form of injury resulting from the use of this advice. It is pretty fun, though...)
To make a Bacon Bomb, you need [INSTRUCTIONS REDACTED, IN SPITE OF HEAVY PROTEST, DUE TO EDITOR'S "SAFETY" CONCERNS] It will shoot a large fireball straight into the air. It is fantastic, and it was a great way to end the day.
On Monday morning, we lazily puttered around, making breakfast and slowly packing up camp. A group of local middle- and high-schoolers worked their way through the campground and picked up any leftover garbage. We were exhausted after the events of the weekend, a bit sad that the first annual BoatSmith had come to an end; but, mostly, we were happy. Happy to have been a part of a grand new tradition. Happy to have met so many new friends, and to have spent time with old ones. Happy to have been on such a beautiful stretch of river, in such a magical place. After packing up, we made our way home, still basking in the warm glow of a wonderful weekend.
Special thanks to:
- The sponsors - Creature Craft, Goodwater Boat Works, BB Fabrication and Designs, Redwood Rides, SOTAR, Maravia, Recretec, Oregon Paddle Sports, Cronin Inflatables, and Immersion Research.
- All of the dedicated organizers, volunteers, and boaters who made this event possible.
- Kyle Dorfi and Shannon Scroggins, for allowing us the use of their keen-eyed photography for this write up.
- The entire staff of Patrick Creek Lodge and Historical Inn, who worked tirelessly to help make this a weekend worth remembering.
Photo credit: Kyle Dorfi and Shannon Scroggins