The classic Smith River
Zach Urness/Daily Courier
The North Fork of the Smith River.

The North Fork of the Smith River is a wilderness run that's among the most beautiful, remote and strange stretches of water on the West Coast. To see video of kayaking the river, click here. To see a photo gallery, click here.

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By Zach Urness of the Daily Courier

It wasn't until I kayaked down the first staircase of tumbling rapids, and the river had settled into an easy stroll between canyon walls, that I began to understand why people revere the North Fork of the Smith River with such deep affection.

My kayak was carried along by water as clear as aqua blue glass, which sliced through burnt orange cliffs of serpentine rock and rolled below mountains so steep that you understood intuitively how difficult it would be to escape on foot.

On the rarest of bluebird days on the Northern California coast during spring, I embarked on a trip that began in the mountains and ended in the redwoods. Along the way, I paddled through a landscape of silver waterfalls and carnivorous plants, met a shuttle driver who recites poetry about his raccoon-skin motorcycle helmet, and in-between booming rapids, found a sapphire grotto encased by sunlight and dripping water.

The run is not without danger. It's rated Class IV and requires skill, fellow boaters and a healthy knowledge of how the river changes at different water levels. The Smith provides other options for kayaking — including the south and middle forks — which are followed by roads and beautiful in their own regard.

But the greatest adventure on California's only undammed river system is the North Fork, a wilderness stretch of crystal water affectionately described as "the classic."

"People come from around the world to paddle the North Fork," said Grant Werschkull, executive director of the Smith River Alliance. "And it's no wonder. The water quality, plant life and feeling of remoteness is nothing short of amazing."

LEGEND OF BEARFOOT BRAD

The trip into this beloved section of river began in the early morning hours south of Grants Pass, where I met expert rafters Will Volpert and James Dills.

As we drove south along Highway 199 into Northern California, the sun burned off a morning fog that clung in white patches around the edges of the mountains. The prospect of blue skies was a welcome development considering the season for kayaking the Smith — typically November through May — often features cold and rainy weather.

After reaching Gasquet, Calif., we stopped in the driveway of a character who's as important to a trip on the North Fork as the water itself.

"Bearfoot" Brad Camden has been running a shuttle service for the past 26 years, and from the moment he jumped into the truck, the entertainment began.

A natural philosopher and storyteller, there's no better way to pass the two-hour drive across rugged mountain roads to the put-in than listening to Bearfoot Brad hold forth.

He spoke about the origin of his nickname ("I never, ever used to wear shoes, even in the snow") and about people he'd stopped from running the river ("A guy showed up with no life jackets, dry suits or experience rafting who wanted to take his wife and mother-in-law down the North Fork! I said, 'if you're lucky enough to survive, you'll be living in an awfully cold house for a long time.' ")

There was the story of his unique summer job, which occasionally involves hunting down delinquent teenagers that escape from a wilderness therapy program. And of course there's his motorcycle helmet, which has a dead raccoon attached to it. The dead raccoon is named RK (Road Kill) and has become something of a good-luck charm for Brad, as evidenced by the poem he recited:

RK zagged wrong, and now he's dead

and he's a constant reminder

as he sits on my head.

I can ride from morning til night.

And if I don't zag wrong,

I'll be all right.

MURDEROUS PLANTS

I could have listened to Brad for hours, or maybe weeks, but eventually we arrived at Major Moores, the put-in spot, and stepped out of the truck into a warm, sunny day.

Will and James inflated a 10-foot raft while I pumped air into an 11-foot SOTAR kayak. After stepping into our drysuits — a crucial piece of equipment considering the water is utterly frigid — we bid farewell to Bearfoot Brad and slid onto the sparkling blade of water that cut directly into the surrounding mountains.

Before long, the river tumbled onto the rolling waves of the first Class III rapids, a gateway to where the canyons rose and the wilderness seemed officially to begin.

I'm always edgy about a new section of water, particularly a wilderness run, until I get slapped in the face by the first rapids. The spray of water and thump of the waves introduce the river's disposition, and once you've become comfortable with each other, the details of the landscape can be properly enjoyed.

The first thing I noticed was the difficulty in properly describing the color of the river. The water seems to shift between aqua blues and turquoise greens, as though you're looking through a stained glass window at the boulders that shimmer below the surface.

"It does seem kind of strange, but the only reason the Smith has that very blue, greenish color is the clarity of the water," U.S. Forest Service hydrologist Mike Furniss said. “The Smith also clears itself quickly, espiecally the North Fork, because it’s such fast-moving water.”

Geology helps maintain the crystal water. The heavy, metal-rich serpentine is cemented together so tightly there isn't much erosion or sediment that gets into the water. In fact, the high concentration of iron means that after particularly strong rainstorms, the river occasionally will turn red.

If the idea of crimson water isn't enough to blow your mind, consider the plants. Serpentine soils house only those plant species that can tolerate extreme conditions and which have sometimes evolved strange adaptions to survive.

As we floated below Diamond Creek, we saw the first cluster of hooded, greenish-purple Cobra Lilies — or California Pitcher Plants — growing on the shoreline.

These murderous plants trap unsuspecting flies and spiders with nectar, then force them downward with a combination of slippery wax and pointed hairs. Eventually, the insects are entombed and digested.

The efficiency of these trapping machines is attested by leaves and pitchers, which are often full of insects and their dead remains.

TROUBLE

The problem, of course, is there's only so much time to consider the Cobra Lilies when thundering whitewater holes treat your kayak with the same grace as the aforementioned insects.

At the Class IV Scout rapid, I launched off a small ledge and felt my kayak lurch backward and up into a nasty hole, before two strong paddle strokes ripped me upright and forward through the bucking, bubbling water.

Golf Course Rapid (IV) also provided a challenge. After a perfect zig-zag through rocks, I swept my kayak's nose through a narrow chute and dropped off another ledge with just enough time to balance a landing.

"You have an interesting style," said Will at the bottom of the Golf Course Rapid. "You look like you're about to be in trouble and at the last minute do something to avoid it."

(An almost perfect description of my life in general.)

The danger on the North Fork increases quickly as the river level rises to 15 or 16 feet. Rapids such as Serpentine Slide become mile-long stretches of massive, punishing waves that create holes large enough to swallow a small car.

Even experienced boaters can easily get knocked out during high flows, and the consequences can be serious.

About two years ago, Grants Pass' Kipper McNeal and Shane Fahey were kayaking the North Fork when Fahey's boat flipped and escaped downstream.

While their companions continued to Gasquet, the duo hiked out of the gorge in drysuits and kayak booties ill-equipped for the 13 miles of steep rocky climbing, heavy rain and slush they encountered.

They spent a February night huddled under an emergency blanket and survived on a diet of sausage, granola bars and crackers.

"There were times we had some traumatic shivering," McNeal told the Daily Courier. "Our bodies were starting to break down, our feet starting to get bruised."

Both were found safe and sound the next morning, but there's no shortage of carnage when it comes to the North Fork at high water. Stories of kayakers getting knocked out and swimming five miles downstream before they could reach shore are not uncommon.

Yet they keep coming back, and by the time we reached the Grotto — toward the end of the run — I understood why.

The Grotto is a big, half-moon pool of sapphire water where a waterfall drips across the entrance of a small cave. I paddled through the waterfall's liquid sheet and examined the dark, dripping cave that sparkled with a few rays of late-afternoon sunshine.

Soon enough we continued on, dropping down the remaining staircases of rapids and following the aqua blue water as it strolled into canyons and eventually, after a long wilderness journey, twisted out of existence during its confluence with the middle fork.

I was sad to see it go. Between silver waterfalls and carnivorous plants, a poetic shuttle driver and a sapphire grotto, the North Fork of the Smith River is a strange and wonderful stretch of wilderness water.

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North Fork Smith River

Wilderness Run

• Adventure: kayaking/rafting

• Difficulty: Class IV

• Distance: 12-14 miles

• Time required: full day

• Water level: 9 to 15 feet on North Fork Gage

• Craziness factor (out of 5): 4.5

• Extra info: To schedule a shuttle, call Brad Camden at 1-707-457-3365, or email him at bradcamden@earthlink.net

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