As the largest completely undammed river system in California, the Smith is revered by whitewater enthusiasts far and wide who are familiar with its emerald-tinted water clarity and steep rapids through rocky gorges.
But some of the same characteristics that set the Smith River apart also make it a difficult basin for offering commercial raft trips to the public: an undammed river without snowpack is dependent on unpredictable rainstorms for rafting flows, and the rocky drainage that produces the crystal-clear water also causes the river to rise and drop rapidly in and out of ideal rafting flows - both factors making it difficult to schedule trips.
Not to mention that even in Del Norte's mild coastal climate, winter and spring trips can be a hard sell.
Indigo Creek Outfitters is not deterred, however, and the Ashland-based company will start offering multi-day rafting trips on the Smith this winter, tackling all three forks in three days, with two nights at the historic Patrick Creek Lodge included.
"The character of the Smith is different from any other river I've ever been on," said Will Volpert, founder and owner of Indigo Creek Outfitters, a man born of river outfitters who took his first multi-day river trip at 6 months old. "It really depends on the fork because each fork has its own character."
Running all three forks will allow the trips to be more adaptable to the Smith's fast-fluctuating flows, Volpert said. And offering lodging will help to keep rafters comfortable.
Middle Fork first
If flows allow, guests will first be introduced to the Middle Fork Smith, with the put-in located just 100 yards from Patrick Creek Lodge. The run starts with 14 miles of Class III rapids (one Class IV) through big waves, travelling past the confluence with the North Fork Smith and through the town of Gasquet.
During the last three miles of Class III below the Mary Adams Peacock Bridge, steep canyon walls replace the forested banks and Gasquet houses, giving rafters a preview of what's to come:
The Class IV+ Middle Fork Gorge (also referred to as the Oregon Hole Gorge) is only one mile in length, but with four back-to-back big drops through a bedrock corridor, this stretch is considered a North Coast classic.
North Fork 'highlight'
"You would be hard-pressed to find a more remote one-day trip than the North Fork of the Smith," said Volpert, who considers this stretch "the highlight" of the trip.
"Everything about it is an adventure; the drive in is an adventure. You're never going to be in a shuttle where you see the drainage to one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other side," said Volpert, referring to the scenic 1.5-hour shuttle ride to the put-in for the North Fork. "Then you start floating the river and wave goodbye to the shuttle driver and it no longer just feels remote - it is remote."
Volpert's not alone.
In the well-known guide book "California Whitewater," Jim Cassady and Fryar Calhoun describe the remote North Fork as "one of the loveliest wilderness whitewater runs in the country."
The website California Whitewater Rafting (c-w-r.com) calls the continuous Class IV North Fork run "one of the best overall river trips in the world."
On top of the adrenaline pumping rapids, the 14-mile North Fork stretch features carnivorous plants like the Darlingtonia (or California pitcher plant), reddish-orange canyon walls, and numerous waterfalls, including the grotto where rafters can paddle behind a waterfall.
"The colors are so vibrant that it's like no other river I've ever been on," Volpert said, adding that "the reason to go there is that it is a wild place."
'Jaw-dropping' South Fork
The soaring, forested peaks of the South Fork, the largest and longest fork of the Smith basin, provide great scenery during the11.5 miles of Class III rapids that start the run.
The comparatively mellow rapids build slowly, leading to the largest rapids of the trip in the South Fork Gorge, "a remarkable bedrock canyon with Class V drops and jaw-dropping horizon lines," as described on Indigo Creek's website.
The Smith River basin is often called the "crown jewel" of the National Wild and Scenic River system with more forks and tributaries (338 miles total) designated than any other river in the country.
"It's this untamed river;free-flowing and wild and the surround area is pretty wild as well," said Volpert, who is especially excited about guiding on California's only major undammed river.
Indigo Creek is booking three trips for its inaugural season: April 11-13, 18-21, and 25-27, but Volpert said that additional trips, including day trips, may be scheduled with at least six guests.
The three forks in three days trip costs $795 for adults and $750 for youth, with two nights at Patrick Creek Lodge and organic riverside lunches every day included. For more information visit indigocreekoutfitter.com or call 541-282-4535.
Reach Adam Spencer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHOTOS WITH 'DT' AT BEGINNING SHOULD BE CREDITED "Courtesy of Dan Thurber" OTHER PHOTOS SHOULD BE CREDITED: "Courtesy of Indigo Creek Outfitters"