Adam Spencer

T o an outsider, the idea of hundreds of paddlers flocking from across North America to paddle rivers together in the middle of February with snow visible on the ridgelines may sound like lunacy. To the boating community, it’s family.

The first-time BoatSmith Whitewater Festival was held last weekend on the Smith River National Recreation Area with a group river trip on the Middle Fork Smith, river film screenings and live music at Patrick Creek Lodge, raffle prizes, whitewater gear representatives demonstrating boats and an all-around good time with like-minded paddlers.

Rafters, kayakers, stand-up paddle boarders, spectators and Creature Crafters (we’ll explain later) drove and flew from as far as Canada, the East Coast, Colorado, Idaho and Utah — with many more from Oregon, California and Washington — to be a part of BoatSmith.

“It was very cool to see all the different boats out there,” said Tanya Scoggin, of Eugene-based Oregon Paddle Sports, whose vendor tent at base camp offered boaters on-site drysuit repairs and different types of boats to demo. “It’s great to have so many people come talk to us and find out where our shop is and what we do. We’re a small brick and mortar business so it’s great to get that kind of exposure with a crowd that really matters to our business. We can go to a bunch of trade shows but it’s nice to interact directly with people.”

Scoggin also said it was great to come to a small community like Gasquet and patronize small businesses in the area.

“We were slammed like it was summer time,” said Rosco Moreno, cook at Hiouchi Cafe who fed many-a-boater this weekend.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, the outdoor recreation economy creates $887 billion in annual consumer spending directly supporting 7.6 million American jobs.

“These type of events highlighting our world-class outdoor recreation opportunities are key to economic development of our area,” said Sarah Caron, director of the Crescent City/Del Norte Chamber of Commerce. “We were really happy to see BoatSmith happen and hope it can come back in the future.”

Caron also welcomed the paddlers attending the event to a taco night at the adventure lodge she is developing in Gasquet.

While some whitewater events can seem to be more targeted for rafters or kayakers, the BoatSmith organizers hoped to have a very inclusive event with all types of paddlers of many different skill sets, by offering group trips on easier class II-III water. A class IV-V group trip on the Middle Fork Gorge was also planned but cancelled due to high flows. Although that didn’t stop many private boaters from attempting the gorge, especially Creature Crafts, which are specifically built for higher water.

Certainly one of the oddest-looking boats that graced the Smith this past weekend, the Creature Craft can be flipped upright after being tossed on its side or upside down without ejecting passengers like a traditional raft.

All net proceeds from the event, more than $700, will go to Gasquet Mountain School’s Parent Teacher organization for outdoor field trips.

A group from Placerville dubbed the South Fork Pirates bought $400 in raffle tickets to show support for the event, especially since it helps get local kids outside.

The pirates spend so much time privately rafting the South Fork American River and other rivers, more than 500 river miles last year, that the local sheriff thought they were a pirate commercial rafting company, hence the name.

“I enjoy the outdoors and I want other people to enjoy it too. It’s a great cause to get some kids out,” said Steven Kingsbury, part of the South Fork Pirates rafting squad, who made custom sweatshirts for the event, sponsored by Reliable River Repair based in Lotus.

BoatSmith Origin

In recent years, Aaron Babcock’s day-job as field director for Siskiyou Mountain Club has brought him to Smith River area to clear trails in the Siskiyou Wilderness. But for the last eight years, Babcock has been coming down from his home near Williams, Oregon, to raft, Creature Craft and more recently kayak, each and every stretch of the Smith he can.

Having been to whitewater festivals across the region including the Feather Fest, Cal-Salmon Race, and Upper Wind Whitewater Festival, Babcock thought the Smith deserved a whitewater celebration of its own.

“The boating community was really for it. With the Smith not having a festival like these other places, boaters were really stoked about getting out on the Smith,” Babcock said about the response he received when brainstorming the festival.

As co-owner of the local river outfitter Redwood Rides, Babcock invited me, Adam Spencer, to help plan, organize and execute the event. I had a moment of hesitancy knowing first-hand all the planning involved with these types of events from holding Redwood Cycle Fest in 2016, but our love for the Smith and the supportive boating community across the region prevailed.

“We are so grateful to the community for being supportive and letting us give back to a community that has always been so welcome and friendly to boaters over the years,” said Christopher Sohl of Ashland, who has also been boating the Smith for years and helped organize BoatSmith.

We were really happy to see all the local and regional support the event received, especially from Julia Everta, Doug Wynn and Gasquet District Ranger Jeff Marszal, of Six Rivers National Forest for working with us organizers to get the event together.

We are also really thankful to Patrick Creek Lodge for letting us host some of the event activities there. It was fantastic to pair Patrick Creek Campground as base camp and the lodge right across the highway. BoatSmith definitely brought more love to the Smith.

“I think the event introduced a lot of new people to the Smith the were hesitant to go by themselves because they don’t know much about the rivers here,” Babcock said.

BoatSmith was held under a special use permit from Six Rivers National Forest.