Every morning at 7 a.m. during the rainy winter season, "Bearfoot" Brad Camden goes down to the Gasquet forks swimming hole to check the height of the North Fork Smith River using lines he personally painted on the pipe that draws Gasquet's water supply.
He then posts the readings on a popular whitewater boating website, letting people know if the North Fork is ready to raft or kayak. All part of the job.
It's an odd occupation to be a whitewater shuttle driver on a remote river for almost 30 years - hard to convey to your family why you've chosen such a profession, Camden said.
But he was recently able to get the message across by arranging a trip down the North Fork for his sister, daughter, mom, and step-dad. The latter two - at 80 and 87 - are thought to be the oldest people to ever tackle the remote world-class run.
On the days leading up to the trip, an excited Camden wrote, "I have been to their church! And now they all get to see mine!"
Two years in the making
"I've known Brad for a long time now and a few years ago he said one of his dreams was to take his family down the North Fork. He was disappointed that they had never seen where he had worked," said Will Volpert, owner of the commercial rafting company Indigo Creek Outfitters who offered to give Camden's family a trip.
Camden's wife, Jamie, has been helping Brad run shuttles for decades but it wasn't until a few years ago that she floated the North Fork herself, coming back to say, "now I understand what it is that we do," as Camden remembers it.
"That's what inspired me to send my family down," Camden said.
With Volpert's approval, the Camdens gave Brad's family a pseudo gift certificate to do a raft trip on the North Fork two years ago, but the flashy flows (quick rise and fall) of the Smith's rocky drainage makes for a narrow window of ideal rafting.
"It took two years to make it happen," Volpert said.
Conditions were perfect during the last weekend in February, however, with a flow high enough to raft, but low enough to not toss anyone in the frigid water, and sunny conditions for enjoying the scenery.
"Being on that stretch of that river is just unbelievable," said Cecile "Cec" Garrett, Camden's 80-year-old mother who pronounces her name "cease." "I felt like it was such a privilege to do it."
Cec's 87-year-old husband Wayne Garrett, a retired Air Force brigadier general, was impressed that "there are so many waterfalls," he said.
"These huge springs that come right out of the cliffs," Garrett said. "At one point I counted 15 waterfalls that I could see at one time."
'All by accident'
Whitewater boaters used to knock on the doors of unemployed folks at Shady Bend RV Park to get their rigs shuttled back to Gasquet from the North Fork put-in at Major Moore's Campground.
When one of the frequent shuttle drivers got a job, he asked Camden, who was getting cabin fever with his 6-month old daughter, if he was interested.
"I was bored crazy at the house and said, 'Well if you have room for a car seat for my daughter I'd love to get out of the house,'" Camden said. "That's how it started, all by accident."
Now Bearfoot Brad is a fixture in the regional whitewater community known for his quirky poetry and phrases ("Not everyone can take off their shoes and have Bear Feet!") and his stories about living in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness for more than a year as a teenager.
A story about providing a lost party that included the Dalai Lama with food and shelter in the Kalmiopsis seems to corroborate with time the Tibetan leader spent in Ashland.
"He's got a heart as big as all outdoors and always takes care of his fellow man," Cec said of her son. "And Brad loves that river."
Although he's been doing shuttles for almost 30 years, the February trip was only the second time Camden has floated the North Fork. He's more into seeing the smiles on people that have just finished the run, he said.
'Reputation around here'
A trip down the North Fork is far from the wildest thing that the Garretts have done since they were married in 2008.
The couple met in a college class for seniors interested in writing their life story, got married, and then quickly started making those stories even more interesting.
At the Rogue Valley Manor retirement community in Medford, the Garretts are known to be active.
Cec has ridden a motorcycle on every continent except Antarctica and she's known as "Biker Babe" around the manor, as written up in a 2010 Medford Mail Tribune article about her riding.
"We have a reputation around here about doing a little different kind of trips," Cec said.
Their honeymoon was a safari in Tanzania, and they've also visited Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, Scotland, Israel, and the Panama Canal and followed the Iditarod dog sled race in a bush plane - all since 2008.
"We love to travel and we're healthy and doing it while we can do it. Someday we're going to grow up," Cec said, letting a long pause linger before finishing: "maybe."
More trips coming up
Indigo Creek Outfitters is offering day trips on the North Fork Smith River in March and April for groups of at least four people.
For more information, visit Indigocreekoutfitters.com or call 541-282-4535.
"This guide service makes it possible for the first time for those who live in this area to see the true beauty of what is in their back yard!" Camden wrote on Indigo Creek's Facebook page after the trip.
"We wouldn't be offering a trip like this if it wasn't for having been down this stretch of river so many times, and we wouldn't have been there in the past if it wasn't for your shuttle service," Volpert wrote back. "I'm glad you and your family had a great time. You're an adventurous bunch and I hope we can get on the river again soon."
For Bearfoot Brad's shuttle service, call 707-457-3365 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reach Adam Spencer at email@example.com.