Rafting on the Smith

By Adam Spencer, The Triplicate June 26, 2012 03:37 pm

River trips offer peaceful floats and some thrills

 J.R. Weir, formerly of Crescent City and now a Northwest Rafting Company guide, catches some air on a drop in the South Fork Gorge of the Smith River. Courtesy Northwest Rafting Company
J.R. Weir, formerly of Crescent City and now a Northwest Rafting Company guide, catches some air on a drop in the South Fork Gorge of the Smith River. Courtesy Northwest Rafting Company
Any float down the crystal-clear waters of the Smith River is prized by paddlers worldwide.

The prime time of the Smith’s whitewater season has passed, but mellow floats past old-growth redwoods on the main stem are a summer treat that can’t be beat.

“You can’t call it summer without a float down the river,” said Fort Dick boater Connor Caldwell, while drifting downstream on the second day of summer.

Still, the Smith does have a wild side.

In the last week of May, river guides from Northwest Rafting Company had a break from taking clients down the Rogue River and took advantage of sufficient flows on the Smith to run Oregon Hole Gorge and South Fork Gorge — two of the most advanced runs in the Smith River watershed.

A few good rains could still possibly push the river up high enough for rafting and kayaking the South Fork and Middle Fork of the Smith (especially when using inflatable kayaks), but during dry summers the river sees more traffic below the forks in Hiouchi.

Starting a river ride at the Hiouchi forks or the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park Campground provides the added bonus of passing through towering redwoods. The mouth of Mill Creek marks Stout Grove, which makes a great spot for a lunch break.

Boaters still encounter a few  small, class I rapids even on the easy-going main stem, but they are easily navigated.

For more information on main stem boating, call Redwood National and State Parks at 707-465-7306.

If it’s whitewater you’re after,  the South Fork and stretches of the Middle Fork are often high enough to run with inflatable kayaks in the summer time.

 ABOVE: Mike Hughes, a guide with Northwest Rafting Company, positions his cataraft to hit the first rapids of the South Fork Gorge of the Smith River. Courtesy Northwest Rafting Company
ABOVE: Mike Hughes, a guide with Northwest Rafting Company, positions his cataraft to hit the first rapids of the South Fork Gorge of the Smith River. Courtesy Northwest Rafting Company
“Bottom scratcher” is a popular summer run for hardshells or inflatables going from Gasquet to the takeout above the Oregon Hole Gorge on the Middle Fork of the Smith. California Creeks recommends a minimum flow of 200 cubic feet per second. The Middle Fork’s flow is roughly 53 percent of the flow at the Jed Smith Gauge, which can be found online by googling “Jed Smith River gauge” and clicking on the top link.

The takeout is a sandy trail on the rafter’s right.  It’s a good idea to go with experienced paddlers and scope out the take-out first so you know what to look for. Maybe leave some sort of flagging, because if you miss the take-out, you will go down the Oregon Hole Gorge, which can be deadly  during low flows.

“It's not summer unless someone gets rescued by the Coast Guard from the Oregon Hole Gorge,” said longtime Gasquet boater Rachel McCain.

For the South Fork, California Creeks (cacreeks.com) recommends a minimum flow of 250 cfs for inflatable kayaks. The South Fork’s flow is roughly 47 percent of the flow at the Jed Smith River gauge.

McCain said the South Fork is less suitable for summer rides than the Middle Fork, due to low flows and big rapids like “Pillow” and “Surprise Falls.” Call ahead for advice and when in doubt, scout. Portaging boats around big rapids is often the safest bet.

Regardless of what stretch you plan to paddle, be sure to wear a lifejacket, helmet, and carry a throw-rope in case of emergencies.

For more information on boating in the Smith River National Recreation Area, call Six Rivers National Forest Gasquet Ranger District at 707-457-3131.

Some of the best summer whitewater opportunities in the Pacific Northwest can be found close by on stretches of the Rogue River in Southern Oregon.

Permits are required for the sections designated as “wild” that offer class III and class IV rapids, and although many permits are reserved far in advance, there is close to a 50 percent cancellation rate, according the Bureau of Land Management.

Google “BLM Rogue River” and click the top link for a very informative site on boating opportunities. Check the “float space openings” for openings, and check back frequently for new openings.

The sections designated as “recreation” spots offer class I and II rapids without the need for permits.

For advice and information, call the BLM’s “River Permits and Information” hotline at 541-479-3735.

Several commercial rafting companies offer half-day, full-day and multi-day trips on the Rogue.  Rental and shuttle services are also easily found online.

Dreamflows.com offers up-to-date information on flows and links to rafting information sites.

Running rivers requires extensive research and preparation.  Do your homework to guarantee safe boating.

Reach Adam Spencer at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it


Rafting information sites:

• nwrafting.com/smithriver

• cacreeks.com


River flows site:

• dreamflows.com

•â€ˆGoogle Jed Smith River gauge and click the top link with a .gov domain name.