Upper North Fork of the Smith River, Attempted Headwaters Run Part 3 by Nicole Smedegaard

Upper North Fork of the Smith River, Attempted Headwaters Run Part 3 by Nicole Smedegaard

Incident # 2 Escaped Raft

This is where the final deciding accident of our trip occurred. Getting to shore felt like a must-make move since we could not see how much of the tree was in play in the class IV rapid below us. The raft instead of coming in to land where I was ready to grab them came in below me and both R2 partners reached for the branches on shore instead of continuing to paddle until they were against the land. Grabbing those branches caused the front of their raft to dip down and water to spill in, skyrocketing the raft out from under them, they decided in that split second to cling to the shore and save them themselves instead of trying to hang on to the raft or get in it as it went. The empty raft had an excellent clean line through the rapid, I dare say it styled it. It went left of the big skewer log and peaked through a V wave that was crashing, then it went right of two big pour-over boulders, then it disappeared out of view very swiftly. While this was happening, I was grabbing Kelcy and her hard shell kayak as she landed. I handed my kayak to Chris to hold on to while I helped Kelcy. Josh had been able to eddy out higher up and was managing his boat well. I gave Chris and Jeremiah the go-ahead to start working downstream and looking for their lost boat. We did not have time to make a full plan about what would happen next if they found their boat or if it was gone forever. Chris was in such a rush that he threw my paddle into my IK and it bounced out into the river and also went downstream, never to be recovered. Sad. I had brought a breakdown backup though. Which would leave us with no spare double blades at this point. Chris and Jeremiah still had their T grips.

The Decision to Hike Out

At that moment I called after Chris and Jeremiah to stay together as they left us. We brought all of our kayaks onto shore at the bottom of the slope and we had a meeting about what our next move would be as a group. As Kelcy had pulled to shore and I grabbed her, she had said definitively, "We have to hike out." And I said, “I know.” We were talking about the character of the run, which had just changed from manageable to dangerous in my opinion. With flows doubling at Chrome Creek, any class IV rapids at this flow were going to carry class V consequences like flush drowning or swimming into wood. We knew from Zach Collier’s write-up that there was a big rapid awaiting us near the bottom of the run. We aren’t willing to risk it. Now that the raft was missing, it was a bit of a relief to know we would be hiking out anyway. Even if the raft was recovered, we called it then and there. I got on the In Reach and started sending out texts to let people know we would be spending the night at Chrome Creek and that we needed the truck brought back to put in the next day.

Kayak in the woods

The accident that caused us to lose the raft happened right after we had begun looking for camping. The point at which we had accepted that we would be camping out here was at the first log jam portage after we saw how long it took. It was lucky that Chrome Creek coming in on river left turned around Jeremiah and Chris from continuing downstream to look for their lost raft. At that point, we had an hour of daylight left to us after the raft incident. They spent half an hour hiking down and back to us. When Jeremiah and Chris got back, we had already decided that we would camp right there to prevent the group from becoming separated while they looked for the raft. We were working on carrying the three remaining boats and the camping gear up the hill. Josh and Kelcy were using pulleys to drive the boats up the cliff while I began to unpack my tent fly and arrange it as an overhead tarp for the group. Jeremiah and Chris began gathering firewood while we still had a little bit of ambient light.

Boaters preparing their boats

Camping in the Rain in December

We got out Kelcy’s Duralog and my lighter and started a very small fire, I started collecting rainwater from the tarp so we could stay hydrated. Nobody was going to hike back down to the river tonight, the cliff was too dangerous and right above the rapid that we had decided was too sketchy to run anyway. We dragged my inflatable kayak under the tarp and used it as a couch, I made chili for everybody from a freeze-dried meal that Aaron Mink had prepared for me and given as a gift. We made hot tea, hung out, and tried to decide what would be the best technique for staying the warmest all night with three people's worth of camping gear (minimalist camping gear at that) for five people total. We decided that Kelcy and Josh would use Kelcy's tent fly and they each had a sleeping mat. Chris and I would share my inflatable kayak inside my sleeping bag for the night, and Jeremiah would lay on everybody's PFDs, using my extra bivy sack as a ground tarp. We were able to get the fire going just good enough to drop our dry suits down and dry our underlayers out. Nobody had a change of clothes, but Josh and Kelcy had puffy dry coats. Kelcy had Crocs lol. I had intentionally picked the warmest day of the week to do this mission, knowing full well that we might spend the night in a temperate rainforest. I did not want hypothermia to be one of our potential hazards. Everyone was warm enough and Jeremiah stayed up all night attending the fire. In the morning, we got an early start and we lowered the boats through the brush to the confluence with Chrome Creek, where the Upper North Fork had a chill enough section that we could either swim or boat across it.

Rafter packing a throw rope

Crossing the River

To cross the Upper North Fork, we decided the best technique would be to take turns paddling the inflatable kayak across, and then throw a throw rope back to the other side so that the others could pull the empty kayak back to them. Chris came through with the torpedo-style throws three out of three tries to get the bag across! At the last minute, the hard shellers decided it would be best for the group to hike out if we were to leave the hard shells behind. We left them at the confluence of the Upper North Fork and Chrome Creek, which is a very distinctive landmark and even appears to have some trails. We thought it would be better to leave them here for a return mission than to conclude that we would have to abandon them halfway up the cliff on our hike out. Making them difficult to find for later use.

Luckily there is an opening in the cliff face at the confluence of Chrome Creek. After shuttling everybody over to river-right, we put on our backpacks redistributed the remaining group gear, and started climbing. The climbing was steep but open from brush and quite beautiful and pleasant. We chose to air on the side of going towards the downstream or left-hand side of us to avoid brush. The logging road 276 we were trying to connect into was a little bit to our right and maybe a thousand vertical feet if I had to guess.

Rafters carrying their boats in a field

Coordinating Extraction

I used my Garmin In Reach Mini to contact Dave and let him know to please send Tom, our shuttle driver back to the spot he had last seen us. We planned to hike up to Road 276 and then take the road back to the junction, our original point of departure. I knew 276 to be impassable by truck, the satellite images showed trees growing in the center strip. Hiking out, we decided that the known last location of contact was the least likely spot for miscommunications or people getting lost. Even though perhaps it meant a little more walking for us. Everyone was in good spirits and no injuries, so a 2-mile hike on a road didn't seem like it would be a problem. 

Rafters hiking out.

David recommended we hike down to Sourdough camp, he also tried to initiate a four-wheeler and a motorcycle to come get us. I told him NO and that we only wanted Tom with our original shuttle vehicle at our original drop-off location. We were confident we could get ourselves there. We also messaged Tom at his phone number, not realizing that he only has a flip phone and could not receive those messages. So having David as our go-between was huge. I had also contacted Babcock to let him know that we would not be making it into Major Moore's Monday night and that he need not wait for us. I let him know as well when we began our hike out and what the plan was. Everybody who was involved in helping coordinate the shuttle knew where we were and what we were doing. We tried to only keep people in the loop who needed to know, so as to not cause undue worry. Although we were on plan B, it was going well.

packing up the boats in a truck

I've never been so happy to hear the sound of a diesel truck! Tom had left early even though we told him it would probably take us all day to hike out and to meet us near dark. We made it to the logging road and were well within a mile of our meeting location by 1:00 p.m. when we heard Tom. He had begun driving down the road using a chainsaw and a pole saw to cut brush out of the way to allow for the passage of the large diesel truck. Tom was such a sweetheart, he had brought us dry socks and dry sweaters, Vitamin Water, and beef jerky. We all changed into dry clothes and Josh started backing us out until we found a turnaround spot. Then we began the drive back. We thought we would just drive back and get our cars from Gasquet and go home. We had no idea that the next leg of our journey would involve looking for the raft again.

rafters taking a break

A Wild Boat Chase

When we came out of the Winchuck and into cell service, Chris started using the find my phone function to try to locate where the raft might be. A ping showed up on the coast near the mouth of the Smith River. Could it be possible that the raft had run the entire North Fork overnight and had made it to the coast unmanned!? We followed the location of the ping and we found a neighborhood near the beach. We walked up and down the beach in the estuary and checked it, we walked around the neighborhood and checked, but did not see anything. We made contact with the Tolowa Dee-Ni’ Nation patrol who noticed us driving around their neighborhood and helped us look a little bit. Finally, we decided that we would have to head back and give up for the day. We spent an entire additional day thinking that the raft might still have made it all the way out because back at Babcock's house, we heard reports from the sheriff and the California highway patrol that an unmanned boat had been spotted near the covered bridge in Hiuchi. We saw another report of an overturned kayak in the river. I made a Facebook post for the lost boat, but by later that evening I had finally been able to gather additional information, including a screenshot of the actual sheriff's report. Which unfortunately showed the time stamp of the report as being one full day before we had lost our boat. So the report could not have been ours. Around that same time in the evening, Chris was able to get a hold of a time stamp on his find my phone ping and discovered that it could have been from before we left for our trip. So given that new information, our surety that the raft had made it below our run completely evaporated. We gave up hope of finding it downstream. We think it is probably still in the Upper North Fork since two parties of kayakers ran from Major Moore's down to Margie's on Tuesday and Wednesday and no reports of a random unmanned raft were made. We plan to go back in and retrieve the two hard shells and finish out the mission as soon as the water levels look good. Now that we've gone and seen it for ourselves, we are looking for literally half as much water as we had. What we had seems to be somewhere in the 16 ft on the pipe gauge range for Monday, dropping down to 12 ft on the pipe gauge Tuesday. Our impression of the river at the confluence of Chrome Creek was that yes, it dropped significantly overnight, and at that point, we still thought it looked like too much water to risk boating downstream. Not to mention we were not willing to split our group for the hike out/ potential boat out option.


The trip report will conclude next week in part 4.

Reading next

Upper North Fork of the Smith River, Attempted Headwaters Run Part 2 by Nicole Smedegaard
Upper North Fork of the Smith River, Attempted Headwaters Run Part 4 by Nicole Smedegaard

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